HL Deb 02 February 1989 vol 503 cc1207-9

2.38 p.m.

Baroness Strange asked Her Majesty's Government:

What protection there will be for consumers who receive poor service from water companies after privatisation.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment (Lord Hesketh)

My Lords, the Water Bill provides important new safeguards to protect customers from poor service. We are maintaining and introducing new statutory rights for customers. The new Director General of Water Services has a responsibility to ensure that the quality of service is maintained and where appropriate improved.

Baroness Strange

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his very helpful reply. Will compensation be paid to water consumers who make an appointment for somebody from the water board to call to look at the meter who in fact does not come when the consumer has waited all day for him? Will that be covered?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, the number of hoped for improvements are quite substantial. That is why I confined my original Answer. However, I assure my noble friend Lady Strange that there will be something called the guaranteed standards scheme which will provide the sort of protection for which she asks. It will particularly involve such matters as appointments being kept on a day notified, and if they are not kept on the day notified, there will be a fine.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, in regard to the provision of water after privatisation and the rights of people to make complaints, can the noble Lord confirm whether people will also have the right to protest at the use of the land involved—much of it some of the most beautiful parts of the nation—or if it is sold, possibly to foreign organisations as well as representatives of foreign governments? That is irking many people. Will our right to complain on all those scores remain?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, I feel that that question is rather wide of the Question on the Order Paper.

Lord Strabolgi

My Lords, is it true that water charges are likely to rise by 13 per cent., as reported in the press this morning?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, again, I feel that that question is wide of the Question on the Order Paper which specifically refers to services and the rights of consumers after privatisation.

Lord Hatch of Lusby

My Lords, does the Minister accept that, referring to the Question, poor service from water companies also includes the quality of the water? In yesterday's debate I gave two examples from Luton and Dunstable of polluted water. Can the Minister tell the House who will be responsible, after privatisation, for cleaning up the water that is drunk by the citizens of this country and what provision will be made to ensure that the instances I gave yesterday are dealt with promptly and efficiently?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Hatch, will be aware that, sadly, I was unable to be here to listen to his speech yesterday but I hope that I can provide a satisfactory answer. The Bill will provide a new and strengthened legal basis for drinking water quality standards. Under the Bill regulations will reflect the requirements of the European Community drinking water directive, and a general duty on all water undertakers to supply only water which is wholesome will be enforced by the Secretary of State. Moreover, it will become a criminal offence to supply water that is unfit for human consumption.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that there is increasing concern among consumers about their position under the privatised system, bearing in mind that the privatised companies will still be monopolies? A great deal of reassurance will be required, if the legislation is to go through, to show that consumers will not be worse off.

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, I give an example to the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, of where I hope the consumer will be better off. The existing consumer consultative committees are appointed by the water authorities. The chairman and vice-chairman are normally members of the authority. The new customer services committees will be independent of the new companies and will be appointed by the director-general.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that Question Time in this House is too valuable to be used for Second Reading debates on legislation which has not yet come before us?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, in congratulating the noble Lord on his appointment to the Department of the Environment, may I ask him to reconsider his answer to my noble friend Lord Strabolgi? Surely price is part of the service and if the price becomes excessive the consumer is getting a poorer service. Secondly, will the Minister confirm that the controls to be exercised by the director-general of water supplies apply only to water supply and sewerage and not to the other activities of the new water companies?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, for his kind words. In answer to the first part of his question, I will be more than happy to reply to his noble friend Lord Strabolgi if he puts down a Question concerning price. The Question on the Order Paper clearly refers to the services received and the protection thereafter.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, is the noble Lord prepared to consider that Britain's rambling associations and horse riding clubs are also, to a degree, consumers of land which will ultimately be privatised?

Noble Lords


Lord Molloy

My Lords, will their views be taken into account?