HL Deb 18 May 1989 vol 507 cc1288-346

3.23 p.m.

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lord Caithness I beg to move that the House do now again resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now again resolve itself into Committee.—(The Earl of Arran.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.


Clause 49 [Powers to disconnect service pipes and cut off supplies]:

Lord Wise moved Amendment No. 318A: Page 55, line 37, at beginning insert—

The noble Lord said: It may be for the convenience of the Committee if, in moving this amendment, I speak also to Amendments Nos. 318C and 320C. These amendments have been grouped with the two amendments standing in the name of the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey; namely, Amendments Nos. 318B and 320ZA. I imagine the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, will speak to those amendments at the same time.

My amendments seek to ensure that whenever a consumer is in arrears with payments, no disconnection of the water supply will be made without the undertaker having first obtained a court order. The code of practice on disconnections is to be included in the licence to supply. That is certainly welcomed. Indeed, the code of practice recognises the function of the county court in dealing with customers in default. However, there are two exemptions which I find disturbing. I shall read the relevant paragraph contained in the procedure that the water companies must follow before cutting off supply. The third paragraph of that procedure states: However, we may not issue a County Court summons where (i) you have previously been the subject of Court proceedings for the recovery of unpaid water charges, or (ii) you have broken an agreement with us to avoid or settle legal proceedings for the recovery of water charges".

I believe these exemptions specifically exclude the very people who may be in the greatest financial difficulty and most in need of the court's protection. It is surely unfair to exclude consumers who in the past have had an order made in the county court for water charge arrears with which they have perhaps complied. It is probable that these are people with low incomes. They may be single parents with families, elderly people living alone, or disabled people. One could go on and on for ever. Circumstances could well determine that these people, in striving to make ends meet, could find themselves again with water charge arrears. It is unthinkable that their water supply could be cut off without the court again examining the whole of their total indebtedness in deciding how best their commitments can be met. I think it is important to consider their total indebtedness.

The second exemption excludes a person who has never had the opportunity to have the county court consider his circumstances. It is obviously preferable for cases of arrears to be dealt with before they come to the county court, if possible, and for a consumer to try to negotiate and agree on repayment rates with the water undertaker, so avoiding court costs. It is understandable that consumers may wish to do that. However, they sometimes enter unwise agreements. They may attempt to repay Peter by robbing Paul, and eventually find that that cannot be done. Again they are forced to break the agreement they have made with the water undertaker. Surely in this case it is right that these agreements should be examined by the court and the total indebtedness of the individual considered before any disconnection of the supply occurs.

The citizens advice bureaux, the National Consumer Council and many other organisations are deeply concerned about these exemptions and the codes of practice. There is evidence to show that the number of disconnections has been rising steadily over the past three years. The citizens advice bureaux can give many instances of the considerable hardship and misery caused by some of these disconnections. These amendments may help reverse that rising trend.

Water is a vital commodity. It is vital for health and for life itself. No one should be deprived of a supply on account of his inability to pay for it at the time of receiving it. I feel very strongly about this. I hope my noble friend the Minister will be able to give some favourable response. I beg to move.

3.30 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

I rise to support the amendments of the noble Lord, Lord Wise, in general terms, and also to speak to my Amendments Nos. 318B and 320ZA. Those amendments approach the same problem from a slightly different standpoint but one which I hope will gain the approval of the Government and/or the Committee.

In moving his amendment the noble Lord, Lord Wise, said rightly that the number of disconnections of water has already increased. That is certainly the case, but it has not increased to anything like the same extent as disconnections of gas in the year to March 1988, which was the first year after privatisation of British Gas. In that year disconnections of gas rose by 25 per cent. over the previous year and by 60 per cent. over the preceding year. It is clear that, because of the change in priorities forced on the undertakers concerned, privatisation brings with it increased pressure for disconnection. Any increase that has already occurred in water disconnections must be expected to become very much worse as privatisation approaches and as the date of privatisation passes.

As the noble Lord, Lord Wise, rightly said, disconnection of water is a very much more serious matter than disconnection of gas or electricity or of any other form of energy, serious though that is. For almost any form of energy there is a substitute. For gas there would be electricity; for electricity presumably there would be candles or paraffin. For water there is no substitute. As soon as water ceases to be available to a household, that household is in a worse position than it would have been in the Middle Ages, worse than in a period when people were able to draw their water from wells or from rivers because the wells no longer exist and the rivers are polluted. We are reverting to a position with a degree of primitiveness which is difficult to imagine.

Incidentally, if anyone thinks that neighbours will be allowed to help out in those circumstances, the Bill contains specific provisions to prevent neighbours from helping out those whose water has been disconnected.

The situation is serious and will become significantly worse, not only because water is essential to life and health but because the pressure on families most in need is increasing for other reasons. The pressure is increasing because the conditions of social security provision in this country have increased that pressure over the past few years. I am not an expert on the subject and I do not intend to go into a great deal of detail, but it is clear that changes in social security payments, particularly since April 1988, have made a significant difference to the ability of the poorest families in our country to deal with their bills for essential items such as water.

Before April 1988 there was a system which amounted in most cases to direct payment of water charges by the benefit authorities on behalf of most supplementary benefit claimants. The Committee will recall that half a million income support claimants, as they are now called, received no increase at all in April 1988. Another half a million received increases of less than their full cost of living increases because their benefits were frozen or restricted under what were called the transitional protection provisions. At the same time, in 1988 there were swingeing reductions in housing benefit which affected the ability of those poorest families to pay their bills for essential services. That meant that water, like other essentials, had to be paid for by forgoing food and clothing and other items which one might regard as essential but which would have to be sacrificed if water was to be available.

From April 1988 not only was the specific allowance for water rates within supplementary benefit abolished but a number of housing authorities and housing associations stopped acting as agents for the collection of water charges for the water authority and left their tenants in the position of having to face the water supplier directly. The Government claim that compensation has been made in income support to equal average water rates. Of course nobody pays average water rates; they pay their own water rates, which is a rather different matter.

However, even if one accepted the concept of average water rates, the Government are now in effect backing away from the claim that compensation has been adequately calculated to deal with the cost of water rates. In January 1988 the Government were prepared to say in reply to a Parliamentary Question that there was a figure for compensation which matched the average. In January 1989, in answer to a Parliamentary Question from Mr. Dennis Turner MP, the ministerial line was that there was no specific figure.

Those changes in the social security system intensify the problem described by the noble Lord, Lord Wise. They intensify the difficulties which the poorest families, as he rightly described them, will have in paying their water charges, whatever form those charges take.

Perhaps I may comment on the noble Lord's specific remedy that no disconnection should take place until the matter has been to a county court. There are many good arguments in favour of that proposal which have good precedents. Before a matter can go to the county court there will have to be some form of debt counselling, because these people are not only failing to pay their water rates; they are failing to pay a number of bills of which water rates are only one. The county court will have to take into account all of a family's debts. It will have to take responsibility for negotiating affordable repayment rates for all of the debts, not simply the water rate debts. Water authorities and water companies cannot be expected to involve themselves in debts other than those for water. County courts can and should do so. That is why it is better that the matter should go through the county court.

At the same time there is a strong argument that the water undertakings should be obliged to take the initiative in providing easier methods of payment of water charges: for example, payment by instalments, by stamps, paying-in books, or prepayment meters. The code of practice on disconnection does not provide for that. It puts the onus for finding a method to pay on the customer and not on the water undertaking.

We welcome the undertaking given by the Minister in Committee two weeks ago that the code of practice on disconnections would become enforceable. We understand that it is proposed that that should happen by means of a condition in the water undertaking's licence However, even if the code of practice is to become enforceable—and I am not satisfied at the moment that the government proposals for enforceability are good enough—the code of practice itself is not good enough because it does not include the provisions to which I have already referred. It does not deal with what ought to be the responsibility of the water undertakings to make it easier for their customers to pay charges in a way which they can afford on a more regular, instalment basis.

What happens when there is no reference to the county court and the county court cannot take responsibility? Enforcement and disconnection tend to take place when the companies disconnect someone who has already received a court order for non-payment of water rates or who has broken an agreement. Those people who already have court orders against them or who break agreements are precisely those who have been so intimidated by the threat of disconnection that they make unrealistic proposals to their creditors for repayment. Then, inevitably, as soon as someone else comes along and says, "You owe us money", they break those agreements.

All those factors lead us to think that the reference to the county court proposed in the noble Lord's amendment should at the very least find the support of the Government and the Committee. But, as will become clear, our amendments go further than that. We say that there should be no power to disconnect and that subsection (8) of Clause 49 should be deleted. That may seem to be an extreme position, but, if one puts it in the context of public health legislation, it is not an extreme position at all. There is still adequate provision for the water undertakings to secure that they get their money without that final sanction of disconnection. They could still install, for example, coinless pre-payment meters if they were inclined to do so. They could still make arrangements—with or without the benefit of debt counsellors, the National Association of Citizens' Advice Bureaux or any of the other people who are concerned with the serious problem of family poverty—in order to secure that they get their money.

However, we argue that in a piece of public health legislation—that is what we are concerned with here for that is, in a sense, what the Bill is—the threat of disconnection is entirely inappropriate and should be taken off the face of the Bill. If the noble Lord, Lord Wise, decides to pursue his amendment to the vote, we shall certainly support it. If, on the other hand, he decides not to do so, I should give notice that we may feel it necessary to pursue our own amendments to the vote.

Lord Blyth

I rise to support the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Wise, to stop water being disconnected without a court order. Perhaps I may present to the Committee a scenario in which a computer has spat out a disconnection order. It may concern a mother, perhaps in a high-rise flat, with children and babies but no water to wash them and a blocked lavatory because there is no water to flush it. Do we not have, both as a Chamber and as a nation, enough decency and humanity to ensure that that situation cannot arise without a court order? I implore the Government to accept the amendment or something similar and the Committee, should it find it necessary, to vote for it.

3.45 p.m.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

Perhaps I may ask the noble Lord to take on board a further aspect of this matter. Clause 49 provides that: a water undertaker may disconnect a service pipe which for the purposes of providing a supply of water to any premises is connected with any water main of that undertaker, or may otherwise cut off a supply of water to any premises". It then gives the circumstances in which that may occur and states that: the occupier of the premises—

  • (i) is liable…to pay charges due to the undertaker in respect of the supply of water to those premises".
The point that I want the noble Lord to take on board is that this matter concerns a retailer who will be given, by law, a power to cut off the supply of his commodity, i.e. water. There are very few other suppliers or retailers who have that power. We are talking here about people in desperate straits and for whom, as the noble Lord, Lord Wise, rightly said, the non-payment of a water bill is probably one of a number of non-payments. If one takes the whole of the retail trade, there are a great many other credit givers.

We are concerned about the way in which the Bill as drafted, if the amendments moved by the noble Lord, Lord Wise, and my noble friend are not incorporated, will give a retailer—that is all a water undertaker will be, although he will be a retailer of a precious commodity—the power, under law, to cut off a supply. That case has been very well made by the noble Lord and by my noble friend Lord McIntosh of Haringey. That is a special privilege for water companies. I believe that the noble Lord has a case to make. I very much hope that he will say sufficient for the noble Lord and my noble friend to consider whether they will press their amendments. But the case must be made why retailers of water should be placed in a special position with regard to the punitive and draconian measures that they can take in comparison with other retailers.

Lord Addington

We on these Benches wholeheartedly support the sentiments encapsulated within this group of amendments. It seems absolutely ridiculous to be enabled to cut off such a basic, natural resource as water, which is essential to all forms of life. As has already been stated, it is virtually impossible to live in anything like a vaguely civilised manner without water. I can only say that we shall give our full support to the amendments if they are put to a vote.

Lord Alport

I should like to support the amendment of my noble friend Lord Wise. I happen to live very near one of the main installations of one of the statutory water companies and I therefore know a little about it. It was recently taken over by a very good and admirable French company. For over 150 years the company had been most efficient and efficiently run, providing water for east London—the poorest part of London—and west Essex where there has been a good deal of unemployment and deprivation in the past.

With the new shareholders coming into the picture, new criteria have no doubt been used by the board of directors. It may therefore be a coincidence that within a relatively short time—a few weeks, or two or three months—of the new shareholders taking over control of the company, 18,000 final notices, with a threat to withdraw the water supply immediately from those who had not paid their bill, were issued. Of course one should pay one's water bill. It is not always the most popular bill, and it must be paid once or twice a year, but it should be paid.

Thinking of the circumstances of the part of the county which that admirable company supplies and knowing many of the social problems that exist there, I should have thought we would be far better advised to ensure that there should be, so to speak, the judical or legal sieve of the county courts. We could therefore ensure protection in circumstances in which a person will be deprived—perhaps quite legitimately by the water company for not paying his water dues—of one of the essentials of life. As the noble Lord, Lord Wise, said, there is no alternative supplier of water than the water companies. It would therefore be a wise thing to do.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

A wise thing!

Lord Alport

That is a compliment to my noble friend. It would be a wise thing to do in both senses of the word. I hope that the amendment will be accepted. I can assure the Government and my noble friend the Minister that this is one of the most sensitive issues that have come before the Chamber with regard to the future reputation of the Government. If the proposal goes wrong—in the sense that a great many people are deprived of that essential part of the normal life of a family in this country as a result of financial conditions in circumstances which may perhaps in a year or two's time be rather different from those that we have at the moment—the Government's reputation will be greatly damaged. I therefore hope that they will accept this amendment or introduce their own amendment along the lines of my noble friend's amendment.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

I hope that the Government will listen very carefully to the words of the noble Lord, Lord Alport. I believe that the proposition to cut off a person's supply of water in the event of non-payment is one of the most uncivilised proposals that I have ever heard. When I served in the other place I often came across people who had not paid their electricity or gas bills. I used to go to see them, and their condition, deprived of the means of light, heat and cooking, was dire. But what on earth will be their condition if they have no water either? Frankly it is difficult for me to find words to describe the disgusting squalor in which such a family would have to live.

I came a little late to the debate and perhaps this point has already been made, but let us not forget that it is not only a matter of supplying water for drinking and washing but of supplying water for sewerage purposes as well. One can imagine the conditions prevailing in a house in which there is no running water and therefore no means to flush away the sewage. What on earth is the kind of civilisation that would contemplate such a situation?

I was a member of the Reading County Borough Council Water Committee and later a member of the Thames Valley Water Board. We never cut off anyone's water supply. There were other means of redressing the fault and getting debts paid. One of them included going to court and obtaining an order for distraint. That is quite different from cutting off people's water.

If the Minister will not listen to the pleas that have been made this afternoon, I hope that this Committee will indeed agree to one or other of the amendments before it, because it would be a national disgrace should this Chamber, cognisant as it is of the feelings and needs of ordinary people, not do something to rectify the matter.

Baroness Phillips

I should like to follow through from the remarks of my noble friend but take a slightly different line. If the Government are not prepared to accept the inhumanity involved in this measure, surely they must recognise that there are laws to deal with matters of public health when there is no water supply available even for sewerage.

I can recollect the case of a man who lived in a very expensive house in the town of Surbiton in Surrey, a Tory part of the country. He must have had a brain storm or something, but the only way that entry could be gained to his house in order to deal with the difficulty was by exercising powers under the public health Acts, which, generally speaking, state that when there is no water available, particularly to deal with the sewerage, it constitutes an action in contravention of the public health Acts. Surely that situation still prevails.

Leaving aside the inhumanity involved, which one can hardly think of without feeling a sense of revulsion, how does it affect the relationship of the one house to the others immediately adjacent to it? Particularly in built up areas, one house is very much connected to the neighbouring houses as regards the water supply. Surely the Government have thought about that. It seems quite extraordinary that they should introduce such a measure. I should like to underline what the noble Lord opposite said. If the Government want to lose votes, this is the most certain way for them to do it. It is even more certain than acting upon the doctors and the health service. I do not know why we bother to warn them or advise them; it is not to our advantage. But we speak for the people.

This is a very serious matter. I plead with the Government that if they do not have regard to the inhumanity of this measure, let them take note that the public health Acts are very specific in this area.

The Earl of Balfour

I should like to make one comment on this point. We are referring back to Clause 46, which concerns the supply of water for non-domestic purposes. I must point out in bringing in Clause 46 that the people who have been mentioned so far are those who will be involved in water supply for domestic purposes. I think that that point is worth making.

Lord Murray of Epping Forest

I find it very odd that anyone should believe that cutting off the water supply from an individual or a family is the best or even a good way of encouraging them to pay the bill. I was astonished to hear the suggestion made this afternoon that a neighbour who helps to supply water to a person in that situation would himself be committing an offence. I put to the Committee that neighbours will in fact rally round, take hosepipes along and buckets of water and fill kettles. The result will be a major local row but it will not have the effect of ensuring payment of bills.

I should have thought that going to court or using the method of attachment of wages which has been so widely and effectively used would be a much more sensible way of extracting money, albeit over a long period, and perhaps in relation to other debts accumulated by that person. It cannot be in the interests of the water undertakers to use such draconian means which will bring upon them the ire of the whole of the local population.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

Perhaps I may say a word in explanation to the noble Earl, Lord Balfour. The substantial amendments refer to Clause 45, which deals with domestic water supply. The first two amendments, Amendments Nos. 318A and 318B, exclude non-domestic suppliers under Clause 46 from the prohibition on disconnection. If the noble Earl will look again at that, I think he will find that, although there may be technical defects, this is not one of them.

Lord Wolfson

This is a very sensitive and human issue which concerns an indispensable commodity. I think that the case has been very well put by the noble Lord, Lord Wise, and other Members of the Committee. I wish to support this amendment. I hope that the Government will give very careful consideration to what has been said in all parts of the Chamber and, as has been stated, will either bring forward their own amendment or accept this one.

Baroness Blatch

There is considerable sympathy for the case being put. However, I should like to interject a note of balance into the discussion because so far it has been very one-sided. It is important to realise that this is an absolute situation. There shall be no disconnections of water for domestic purposes. I know that the exemption has been made for non-domestic purposes.

I am concerned that at the end of the day, in addition to having a very real concern for the people who have been described in this debate—and I have every concern for them—I should wish to see the most stringent code of practice possible applied and every possible measure taken to see that people are not left without a water supply and that bills are paid with assistance of one kind or another. However, this measure denies the water companies the option of a last resort in the case of anybody, even habitual non-payers who have not paid not because of reasons given so far in the debate but because they simply will not pay. If there is no last resort sanction, in my view we shall see an increase in the number of people who do not meet their bills not because of the circumstances in which they find themselves but because they know that whatever they do disconnection will not be a course of action that is open to the water companies.

I believe that that point should at least be made considering the amount of sympathy there has been in the debate, which I support, so far.

Baroness Fisher of Rednal

One speaks about the last resort, but that is not a simple matter for the person involved. It is easy to say but when someone comes and turns off the water, it must seem almost like the end of the world. I speak as a magistrate. We find so often that quite considerable fines are imposed in the magistrates' courts and the person is brought before the court time and again to try to obtain the money from him. It is cheaper to bring him back and forth to the court to try to obtain the money than to send him to prison.

When we speak of non-payment, we have to realise that many people do not have enough money to go round each week. It is as simple as that. One only has to miss one's housing benefit for two weeks, for some reason or another, for large debts to arise. It might not be one's fault, but simply that the money has not come through the normal channels. One finds this where a man may have taken up a job for two, three or four months. All his benefits are cut off because he has obtained a low-paid job. When that finishes after three, four or six months, he does not go straight back on to the benefits that he previously received. He has to start all over again going through all the benefits procedure. It is about a fortnight or three weeks before he receives state benefit again.

That is the problem. A person may get into considerable debt, and it is not his fault. We are often told that ours is a caring community. I should have thought that the last thing any government or official would do would be to turn the water off.

Let us take an example. The electricity and gas boards have been in a great deal of trouble because they have turned off the electricity or gas of elderly people. It has been found that they were in very serious or dire circumstances. The electricity and gas boards were rapped over the knuckles for turning gas and electricity off from the mains outside. These utilities also have had to solve the problem of people who cannot pay their bills. Electricity and gas are cut off in very few cases because these services have made other arrangements for the collection of the money. It might be over a longer period. Perhaps the Government can consider how the gas and electricity industries have been able to tackle this problem, and perhaps some solution can be found along the lines that those two utilities have used.

4 p.m.

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

Clause 49 sets out the limited circumstances in which a water undertaker is able to cut off supplies of water for domestic and non-domestic purposes. The undertaker has powers to do so to carry out necessary work, for non-payment of charges and at the request of the consumer.

The effect of Amendment No. 318B would be to preclude disconnection of domestic customers for non-payment. Amendment No. 318C, however, would enable an undertaker to disconnect a domestic customer for non-payment of water charges only where the customer had failed to comply with a court order requiring the amounts due. He or she must have been served with at least 14 days' notice of disconnection but despite that have still not paid.

Amendment No. 318A is consequential to that. Amendment No. 320ZA would have the effect of removing the requirement on the undertaker to notify the local authority within 48 hours of cutting off a supply to an inhabited house. This is a consequential amendment to Amendment No. 318B, which seeks to disallow any disconnections of domestic water supplies except for the purposes of necessary works or at the request of the customer.

Amendment No. 320C would, as an alternative to Amendment No. 318C, provide that before disconnection takes place for non-payment of water charges it should be the county court that has the sole jurisdiction of the charges due. In other words, the county court and not the undertaker would decide how these charges should be paid before the undertaker could proceed to disconnection. It is our policy that disconnection of supply for domestic customers should be very much a matter of last resort for companies dealing with that small minority of customers who can pay their charges but refuse to do so.

My honourable friend the Minister for water welcomed in another place the water industry's revisions to its disconnection code of practice when they were announced in February last as the code provided important new customer safeguards. These were: first, making clear that direct payments may be made by the DSS from income support benefits; secondly, providing for a seven-day final notice of arrears of debt; thirdly, making disconnection normally contingent upon county court judgment for debt; and finally, extending the minimum period of notice of disconnection from seven to 14 days.

These safeguards supplemented those already contained in the existing code of practice which provides for special attention to be given to the needs of the aged and vulnerable, explains where help and advice can be obtained and refers to the instalment arrangements which can be agreed to pay off arrears of debt. This revised code was much stronger than anything previously enjoyed by the water consumer and is unsurpassed by any other utility. As I shall say in a moment, however, we now feel able to go even further.

Clause 49 provides that an undertaker is not able to cut off a customer for non-payment of charges where the customer disputes his liability to pay except where, first, the undertaker has obtained a judgment against the customer under subsection (4)(a); or, secondly, where the customer has broken an agreement with the undertaker to avoid or settle legal proceedings for the recovery of those charges entered into since he disputed his liability to pay. This is under subsection (4)(b). The disconnection code of practice covers all disconnections for non-payment and therefore supplements these Bill provisions. Each appointed company is to be required under condition G of the model instrument of appointment to prepare such a code and to submit it to the director general. The condition also requires the appointed company with every demand for payment of charges to draw the attention of domestic customers to the existence of the code in its revised form and how they may inspect or obtain a copy.

I am happy to say that we have today announced a further strengthening of the disconnections code of practice. The privatised water companies will in almost all cases now be required to seek recovery of debt in the county court before taking action to disconnect a customer. Under our revised proposals the only exception, apart from the special circumstances provided for in subsection (4)(b) which I described earlier, will be where a customer has been subject to previous court proceedings, and the court has found in the company's favour, and the charges still remain unpaid. This change follows those already announced by my noble friend Lord Caithness to your Lordships on 4th May whereby the principles of the disconnection procedure will be written into the terms of appointment of each company, with each company's own code being approved by the director general.

These two announcements, taken together, represent a major improvement for the domestic customers which is without precedent in any other utility. Unlike under the industry's revised code, therefore, customers will be entitled to county court consideration of their circumstances even where they have broken a repayment agreement, except for the special circumstances in subsection (4)(b), and even though they have been subject to previous court proceedings provided that they have complied with the terms of the judgment. This meets the points raised in another place by the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux and others that even the industry's revised code would discriminate against those in multiple debt.

We have therefore arrived at a procedure which is to all intents and purposes consistent with what my noble friend Lord Wise seeks to achieve by his Amendments Nos. 318A, 318C and 320C. Let me repeat that in almost all circumstances, before proceeding to disconnection, the undertaker will have obtained a court judgment for arrears of debt and those arrears remain yet unpaid.

The only real distance between my noble friend and myself is that his procedure under Amendment No. 318C is made enforceable through the Bill, while under our proposals the principles of the disconnection procedure which we have announced are enforceable through the licence. The licence is enforceable through the Bill. We believe that our version has the merit of being capable of modification and development by the director general, so that even greater customer protection could be achieved if necessary.

However, we believe that the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, in removing under Amendment No. 318B the right of a company as a matter of last resort to disconnect a domestic customer for non-payment, is advocating what amounts to a free water policy. In the experience of the water industry, a small minority of customers choose not to pay their water charges even after a county court order has been obtained. As my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment explained in another place, for this minority the water undertakers must retain their right as a last resort to disconnect supply. If not, the consequence would be an increase in the number of customers who do not pay and an increase in the charges for those who do.

I find that the dropping of the requirement under Amendment No. 320ZA to notify the local authority of disconnections is curious since it is the fact rather than the cause of the disconnection which is relevant. Even if disconnection of domestic customers was not allowed, it would still be relevant for the local authority to be notified of disconnections for other reasons in order to protect public health.

In conclusion, it may be helpful if I compare the disconnection procedure that we are proposing in the Bill and under the licence with present practice. First, and most importantly, instead of the undertaker being able to disconnect a domestic water supply because of non-payment without going through the courts, it will now in virtually every case have to take such action. Secondly, it is the county court rather than the magistrates' court which is to consider these cases. Thirdly, where county court action is taken, the company cannot then proceed to disconnection unless the charges remain unpaid. Fourthly, even then the undertaker should make reasonable attempts to contact the customer with a view to agreeing a payment arrangement, failing which the undertaker would give due notice of disconnection. Fifthly, these principles are to be written, together with other customer safeguards, into the licence itself and will be enforceable by the director general.

Finally, one small point, which is that the noble Lords, Lord McIntosh and Lord Murray, both referred to a neighbour not being able to help another neighbour. We are slightly sad that they did not put their names down to the government amendment which follows, Amendment No. 321A, which removes that suggestion from the Bill.

I hope that my noble friend Lord Wise will be able to see fit to withdraw his amendment.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

The noble Lord, Lord Wise, will speak last because his amendment comes first. But I thought that it might be helpful if I said a few words because I had threatened—I believe that is the right word—that I would continue to move Amendment No. 318B, even if the noble Lord, Lord Wise, withdrew Amendment No.318A.

I have listened very carefully to what the Minister has said. I shall not ask him for a transcript of his speech on this occasion because he said the most important things three times for emphasis. As I understand it, he is going 99 per cent. of the way towards meeting the noble Lord's objections and a considerable part of the way to removing the necessity for our more radical proposals in Amendment No. 318B. I consider the effect of this debate and the Government's decisions today to be a victory for consumers of water. I congratulate the Government on having made that victory possible without forcing me to divide the Committee on the matter.

4.15 p.m.

Lord Morris

Before we leave this subject, I should like to ask my noble friend two questions. We all appreciate clearly the fact that codes of practice do not have the force of law, which might worry some people. We also noted very carefully the fact that the director general will have the power to ensure that licence conditions are adhered to. That is also very satisfactory. Does the Bill in any way bar action in the courts by customers in the case of a breach of a licence condition or non-performance of a licence condition? To put it another way, can a customer who has been wronged as a result of the water undertaking not complying with its code of practice go to law to have this answered?

Lord Hesketh

As we have proceeded through the Bill over the last five days, the answer is that on certain occasions and in certain circumstances they can. The Bill has provided enhancement of customer's rights with regard to the undertaker.

Lord Wise

I should first like to thank all noble Lords from all sides of the Committee who have supported the amendments. Indeed we are grateful. I am deeply appreciative of the remarks of my noble friend the Minister. I am certain that his remarks will also be appreciated by the general public. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 318B to 318D not moved.]

Lord Hesketh moved Amendment No. 319: Page 56, line 12, after ("secure") insert—

The noble Lord said: Clause 49 sets out the circumstances in which a water undertaker will be able to cut off supplies of water. The undertaker will have powers to do this to carry out necessary works, for non-payment of charges and at the request of the consumer. In cases where the undertaker cuts off a supply to carry out necessary works, he will be under a duty to ensure that the works are carried out with reasonable dispatch. He will not, however, as the clause stands, be required to provide an alternative supply of water.

In cases where the disconnection will last longer than 24 hours and therefore may begin to cause considerable inconvenience to the customer, we think it only reasonable that the undertaker should be required to provide an alternative supply. Amendments Nos. 319 and 320 provide for this. The alternative supply would normally be by means of a standpipe or a water tanker. For disconnections lasting less than 24 hours, a customer should, with a little economy in his use of water, be able to withstand the effects of the disconnection without too much inconvenience through using the supply of water retained within the system. I beg to move.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

These appear to be reasonable and helpful amendments. I am pretty sure that we welcome them. The only question is whether the Minister is proposing a closer definition of what is meant by "a reasonable distance"? This matter has caused considerable concern in all the privatisation measures. If he were able to define it more closely or to indicate where it is defined, I should find that helpful.

Lord Hesketh

We believe that that is a matter for the courts.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Lord Hesketh moved Amendment No. 320: Page 56, line 13, after ("and") insert—

On Question, amendment agreed to.

[Amendment No. 320ZA not moved.]

Baroness Blatch moved Amendment No. 320ZB: Page 56, line 46, after ("Where") insert ("by virtue of paragraph (b) of subsection (1) above").

The noble Baroness said: The amendment is not about the merits or demerits of disconnection for domestic purposes. We have had that debate. Nor does it argue against the need to inform local authorities of disconnections because of non-payment of water charges. It is about lessening bureaucracy.

Clause 49(8) requires a water undertaker to notify a local authority within 48 hours of cutting off the water supply or disconnecting a supply of water to any domestic house. The power is given under three categories: first, when carrying out operational work; secondly, for non-payment of bills; and thirdly, when the consumer by agreement no longer wishes to have a supply of water. In the Bill as drafted there is no distinction between those three categories. I am concerned that there should be no unnecessary notices served on local authorities.

I was slightly puzzled by the proposal of the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, to remove this subsection. I did not glean from the previous debate the reason for that proposal but it is possible that I may secure his support for my amendment. My own region—the Anglian region—is typical of the 10 authorities. During the course of a year there are 1,900 disconnections for non-payment of bills and 250,000 disconnections for operational purposes. Many of those operational disconnections are for as little as a couple of hours; certainly not as long as 48 hours. No operational cut-off in the Anglian region has taken more than 48 hours.

When a large operational job is carried out—for example, the scraping and re-lining of a pipe which is a typical large-scale job—only 30 hours work is involved. The Bill as drafted requires notification within 48 hours. It is possible that the water has been disconnected, restored and everyone has gone home before someone has to go through the bureacratic nonsense of letting a local authority know that the water has been disconnected. Apart from the cut-offs for non-domestic non-payment of charges, the water supply will be restored.

A requirement in the Bill for a water undertaker to serve 250,000 notices each year on local authorities, which would be rendered unnecessary if the water is restored within a short time, is unnecessary bureaucracy. Anglia is one of the 10 authorities. Let us assume that they all have a similar workload. One can therefore envisage approximately 2.5 million notices to local authorities simply stating that water has been cut off, possibly after the event. If we are in the business of simplifying and reducing bureaucracy and costs the amendment has some attraction.

I am concerned that notifying a local authority is not simply a matter of picking up a telephone and telling the authority that 4 Acacia Avenue is to be disconnected. If it is a requirement of the Bill that the call must be registered, the water companies must have some kind of bureaucracy to prove that the call has been made and the local authorities must register it and do something about it. I believe that the bureaucracy is quite unnecessary; I hope that the amendment will receive the support of my noble friend and the Committee. I beg to move.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

I do not respond in any way to the noble Baroness's challenge to debate amendments which have already been withdrawn or not moved. However, I believe that her amendment is sensible. She is speaking of the burden on water undertakers to issue notices to local authorities. I am thinking about the burden on local authorities which must receive them. On the face of it, any restriction from unnecessary pieces of paper passing to and fro is desirable.

Lord Renton

I should like to support my noble friend Lady Blatch. Anything which reduces bureaucracy—more politely called "administration"—is worth doing. Goodness knows, there will be plenty of it when the Bill comes into operation! Any mitigation that we can introduce will be an advantage.

Lord Hesketh

Clause 49 sets out the circumstances in which a water undertaker is able to cut off supplies of water. Subsection (8) requires an undertaker to serve notice on the relevant local authority within 48 hours of cutting off a supply to an inhabited house.

Amendment No. 320ZB seeks to restrict the requirement to notify the local authority to the case of disconnections for non-payment of charges. The effect of this would be to exclude from the requirement disconnections, for example, in order to carry out essential works that could last for a considerable period. As the requirement to inform the local authority is for public health reasons it is the fact of disconnection that is of immediate relevance and not the cause.

My noble friend Lady Blatch may be worried that the clause as drafted may require the briefest of disconnections for essential works to be notified even though the supply is expected to be restored within the 48-hour period. I think she will find that in practice her fears are unfounded. I can tell her that the provision is based on the present requirement in the 1945 Water Act which has operated to the best of my knowledge without creating any such difficulties. I hope that my noble friend will be reassured by this and, particularly in view of the public health implications, she will agree to withdraw the amendment.

Baroness Blatch

I thank my noble friend for that reply. However, I remain a little worried. If the clause remains in the Bill as drafted I accept his suggestion that there are reasonable grounds. I am however concerned that not only is there a legal requirement to notify the local authority but also that there will also be a legal requirement on the water companies to prove a reasonable exemption from having disconnected unnecessarily.

I believe that we would have an unnecessary series of resorts to the courts and to questions of why the water company did not inform. I believe that the simplest course of action would be to accept the amendment. I do not intend to press it at this stage but I ask the Minister to give the matter some thought between now and Report stage.

Lord Hesketh

I shall read with great interest what my noble friend has said and also the words of the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

I hope that the Minister will not because I was convinced by his argument.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Ezra moved Amendment No. 320A: Page 56, line 50, at end insert (", and shall also serve notice on the customer service committee for the area concerned.").

The noble Lord said: I should like to speak also to Amendment No. 320B. The amendments raise the question of the extent to which the consumer service committees should be kept informed of disconnections in their areas. I agree with the purport of the preceding amendment as debated—that we should try to cut down the amount of paper work. Nonetheless, it is an important part of the work of a customer service committee that it should be aware of what is going on as regards disconnections and of their frequency and importance in the area.

The amendments are of a probing nature and are intended to discover how the committees can be kept informed of what in our opinion should be an important part of their work. I beg to move.

Lord Hesketh

Amendment No. 320A provides for each water undertaker to notify the customer service committee to which it is allocated of all disconnections of water supply. Amendment No. 320B would require customer service committees to publish annual reports listing all disconnections notified to them under the previous amendment.

Customers can naturally take up with their relevant customer service committee any complaints they may have about the exercise by a company of its powers to disconnect water supply and the committees are likely to wish to pursue this matter on behalf of customers more generally in any event. If a company was unwilling to provide information about disconnections which a committee considered relevant to its functions as set out in the Bill, then the committee could take the matter up with the director general. The director has powers under condition L of the licence to require information for the purpose of carrying out any of his functions under the Bill.

Where a committee considered it necessary to report on the issues raised by disconnections, it could do so under Clause 36 (1)(b). The director would have no reason to withhold the publication of such a report, particularly given the importance of the public being properly informed about disconnection practice, although he would have to have regard to his duty under Clause 34 to consider commercial and personal confidentiality. The director and the CSCs will no doubt wish to keep a close eye on disconnections for non-payment if for no other reason than monitoring the operation of the disconnection code.

For planned interruptions of supply the CSCs will have access to the information required to be published each year under licence condition I by undertakers in their levels of service information and service target reports. Interruptions to supplies is one of the service indicators for which targets are to be set in order to improve the quality of service and encourage increased efficiency.

However, having listened to the arguments put forward and given the importance which we attach to disconnection for non-payment being very much a matter of last resort, I am prepared to consider whether an appropriate amendment might be made, either to the Bill or to condition G of the licence, to require water undertakers to provide customer service committees with numbers of disconnections for non-payment of charges by each local authority area. For the reasons I have just indicated I do not consider it necessary that this should be extended to cover all disconnections. Nor do I consider it desirable that companies should be required to identify each household concerned given the often confidential and sensitive nature of the circumstances surrounding individual disconnections. In the light of this undertaking I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, will feel able to withdraw Amendment No. 320A.

4.30 p.m.

Lord Ezra

I should like to thank the noble Lord for the detailed answer which he gave in response to my amendments. It is very gratifying that the Government, both in response to this amendment and previous amendments, have emphasised the importance which they attach to the whole question of disconnections. They fully recognise the public concern on this matter. I am delighted to learn also that as regards the customer service committees, the Government will now take this away and think about ways in which they can be kept regularly informed about disconnections occurring in each local authority area on grounds of non-payment. On that basis, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 320B and 320C not moved.]

Clause 49, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 50 agreed to.

Clause 51 [Duty as respects constant supply and pressure.]:

[Amendment No. 321 had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.]

Baroness Blatch moved Amendment No. 321 AZA: Page 60, line 13, at end insert ("or to show that it was prevented from complying with its obligations under this section by frost, drought, unavoidable accident or other unavoidable cause.").

The noble Baroness said: Again, this is an amendment about making the Bill when it becomes an Act work better. Clause 51 places a water undertaker under a duty to provide a constant supply of water at an adequate pressure. That is a similar duty to that contained in the present legislation—Section 39 and the third Schedule of the Water Act 1945. Any failure to comply with that duty is a criminal offence.

However, there is one crucial difference between the provisions in the Bill and the current legislation, and that is the wording of the defence which does not include frost and drought. Under the current legislation it is a sufficient defence against prosecution for the undertakers to show that they failed to comply with the constant supply and pressure duty by reason of frost and drought, unavoidable accident or other unavoidable cause or during the execution of any necessary work.

The defence of this duty in Clause 51(9) states: it shall be a defence for that undertaker to show that it took all reasonable steps and exercised all due diligence to avoid the commission of the offence. There is no reference to frost or drought in that wording and that could cause the water undertaker serious problems.

The defence under the Bill as drafted is less clear than the present legislation; for example, could the words "due diligence" and "reasonable steps" mean that a water undertaker would now be required to take remedial action against possible drought or frost damage by either relaying all pipework which was laid in the days when pipe-laying techniques were less advanced and which may have left them vulnerable to frost and drought or even to build greater capacity into the distribution system to compensate in the event of drought or frost? In any case, both examples would require substantial capital expenditure.

It has been reported in the press that sewage discharge consents have been amended so that the consent conditions give effect to the quality of the sewage discharged. That is being done because water authority directors will be unable to sign flotation prospectuses if they are committing criminal offences; in that case they would be in breach of discharge consent conditions. Surely the same argument applies here. If the defence to the criminal offences under both Clauses 51 and 47 is not made clear, there must be similar prospectus implications.

If the new requirement of Clause 51 (9) is to remain as drafted, then a phased introduction should be considered; otherwise, undertakers could find themselves in the following situation. Works which were perfectly adequate to satisfy the defence contained in Section 39 of the Water Act 1945 might not be sufficient to satisfy the defence contained in Clause 51(9). That does not seem reasonable. However, if the Bill as drafted means that the frost and drought exemption is no longer appropriate and should be replaced by the reasonable steps and due diligence defence, surely that defence should be introduced in stages and a form of wording should be devised so as to apply the defence to new works which water undertakers build with the new narrower defence in mind. It is not reasonable to apply a narrower defence to a vast network of existing assets without taking into account the impact of that on capital expenditure.

Water undertakers need a realistic and fair defence against events not within their control. My amendment provides for that and I beg to move.

The Earl of Arran

Clause 51 sets out the requirements on water undertakers in respect of constancy and pressure of supplies. The Secretary of State is able to modify by order the requirements on an undertaker. The obligations are enforceable under Clause 20 by the Secretary of State. An undertaker which breaches its obligations is also to be guilty of an offence and liable to a fine. Subsection (9) provides a defence for an undertaker to show in any proceeding for an offence that it took all reasonable steps and exercised all due diligence to avoid breaching its obligations. The purpose of Amendment No. 321 AZA in the name of my noble friend Lady Blatch is to broaden an undertaker's defence for a breach of its obligations under this clause. It proposes an additional defence for an undertaker to show that it was prevented from complying with its obligations by frost, drought, unavoidable accident or other unavoidable cause.

The effect of this amendment would be to provide an absolute defence for an undertaker in these circumstances. Thus there would be no recourse for those adversely affected should an undertaker, for example, in the future fail to lay pipes deep enough to be protected even in normal degrees of frost.

I recognise that the amendment seeks merely to preserve the current legislative position. However, we believe the provisions in Clause 51 strike the right balance between an undertaker's entitlement to a proper degree of protection against events outside its control and its obligations to consumers. An undertaker will have the defence that it took all reasonable steps and exercised all due diligence to avoid the commission of an offence.

We cannot accept that there is any justification for an undertaker being able to get away with neglecting to take even the most basic minimal steps to ensure that it can continue to fulfil its duties to its customers. It will properly be for the courts to make any judgment about the reasonableness of steps taken to avoid a breach of the duty in the light of the particular circumstances. We believe that the changes we are proposing to current law are entirely reasonable and I therefore trust that my noble friend will also see the sweet reason contained therein.

Baroness Blatch

I thank my noble friend the Minister. I am trying to be sweet and reasonable. There is a concern. It is not my view that the water companies are looking for an absolute defence against doing nothing to prevent damage from drought or frost. Where they need considerable understanding is that it is possible to have damage to pipework for no better reason that that it was laid at too shallow a level. It could be that the water companies know that in advance. What I am trying to rule out is a requirement on the water companies to put every inadequacy of the 19th century right immediately, because that would be taking all reasonable precautions in advance of any damage, or, should there be any damage, that it can be taken—if I read my noble friend's comments aright—that as long as all other reasonable steps are taken the companies would be exempt from any kind of breach or offence.

I need to read my noble friend's comments more closely but I wonder what would be the defence of a water company if damage was caused to a pipe and the only reason was that the technology available at the time it was laid was such that it left it vulnerable to drought or frost.

The Earl of Arran

With the leave of the Committee, perhaps I can assist my noble friend a little further on this point. Pipes laid under the old provisions will continue to be subject to the old conditions. The Bill's requirements will only apply to pipes laid under the provisions of the Bill.

Baroness Blatch

I thank my noble friend very much for that clarification. I am not absolutely certain that the words of the Bill convey precisely that meaning but I shall read what has been said and if the wording is not correct perhaps my noble friend will bring forward a different form of words on Report. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 51 agreed to.

Clause 52 [Duties of water undertakers with respect to water quality]:

Lord Ezra moved Amendment No. 321ZA: Page 60, line 29, leave out ("in general").

The noble Lord said: The purpose of this amendment is to leave out the word "general" in Clause 52(l)(b) on the ground that the subsection already starts with the words "so far as reasonably practicable". This is a vital matter. The clause deals with the duties of water undertakers to supply water of the right quality and to maintain that quality and we feel that these two qualifications go too far. If the subsection starts by saying "so far as reasonably practicable" the companies should ensure that there is no deterioration in the quality of the water and then adds the words "in general", it seems to us that it is a fairly weak provision.

Therefore, our reason for tabling this simple amendment is that we feel the subsection should be strengthened. We were minded to leave out both qualifications, but in the interests of seeking to be fair to the water undertakers we leave in one qualification and ask the Committee to agree that the other qualification should be removed. I beg to move.

Lord Hesketh

This amendment would mean that water undertakers would be under a duty, so far as was reasonably practicable, to provide water which did not vary in quality at any time, anywhere that it was supplied. I hope that what I have to say will assure noble Lords that the phrase "in general" is included purely on scientific and practical grounds and does not lessen the requirement to maintain the high quality of our drinking water.

This provision places water undertakers under an entirely new obligation. For the first time they will be required to ensure that there is no deterioration in the quality of their supplies. Where water is already of a high quality the undertaker may be tempted, for reasons of cost, for example, to let this slip to just above the legally enforceable minimum standards. Obviously this would be wrong. This provision prevents that from happening. Standards must not be allowed to decline to the lowest acceptable levels. I am sure the Committee will agree with me on that point.

However, it is a scientific impossibility to ensure that the quality of water does not change. The very nature of water means that it is subject to seasonal variations such as heavy rainfall or drought beyond the control of the undertaker. Unless those changes showed an overall deterioration in quality over several years, or an exceptional change in a particular year, they would not be a cause for concern. It is these types of variation that the qualifying phrase "in general" is designed to cover. Water quality changes may also be brought about by operational processes such as blending, substitution of a ground water supply with a surface water derived supply, or the provision of a standby supply.

In the light of what I have said, I hope that the noble Lord may see fit to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Ezra

Far be it from me to wish to engage in a scientific discussion with the noble Lord, but I should have thought that the words "so far as reasonably practicable" cover all the points he made. However, I do not wish to press the matter further. We have been given an assurance that the maintenance of quality will be a prime consideration, as it should be, and that only matters effectively outside the control of the water companies will be excepted under the terms of this clause. On that basis, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

4.45 p.m.

Lord Gallacher moved Amendment No. 321ZAB: Page 60, line 35, leave out ("only").

The noble Lord said: I move this amendment on behalf of my noble friend Lord McIntosh of Haringey, and in doing so I speak also to Amendment No. 321ZAC. The effect of these two amendments is to impose a new duty on plcs to prevent water from becoming unwholesome in the course of supply.

Clause 52 imposes a duty upon a water undertaker at the time of supply to supply only water which is wholesome. Subsection (2) of the clause relieves the undertaker of any responsibility for the quality of water once it has left the undertaker's pipes; that is, in most cases the stopcock at the curtilage of the premises. While the undertaker's water mains may be constructed from such materials as cast iron, asbestos or plastic, the pipes belonging to the consumer are more likely to be manufactured from copper or, in the case of older properties, lead.

Many waters are unstable with respect to the materials through which they pass. With lead pipes, certain waters are potentially plumbo-solvent in that they will attack lead piping and cause the lead to be dissolved into the water supply. This most commonly occurs in older houses and in particular where water may stand overnight in long lengths of lead piping. Iron and steel water storage tanks and fittings may be subject to accelerated rates of corrosion by certain waters. As well as destroying the pipes in time, corrosion can be very troublesome in causing stains, colour and turbidity due to dissolved iron.

By carefully regulating parameters of water quality, the undertakers are in a position to control to a large degree the deterioration of the water that has left their own mains but which is passing through or being stored in the consumer's plumbing system. In particular, pH corrosion is frequently associated with acid waters of low pH. Where bicarbonate alkalinity is high, corrosion and plumbo-solvency are unlikely. High total solids may contribute to corrosion: as electrolytes they may promote galvanic corrosion. Organic matter may encourage plumbo-solvency. Under anaerobic conditions, sulphate may be reduced to hydrogen sulphide and so aggravate corrosion.

Free chlorine can in certain circumstances aggravate corrosion. Iron bacteria and sulphur bacteria can promote corrosion. We consider it desirable that the water undertakers be given the responsibility to provide water which will not, under normal circumstances, deteriorate within the consumer's pipes. The undertakers can control this by careful regulation of, among other things, pH, carbonate balance, inhibitors and de-aeration. The proposed amendment will extend the undertaker's duty of care to water within the consumer's pipes. I beg to move.

Lord Hesketh

Before replying to the amendment, perhaps I may, on behalf of all Members of the Committee, welcome the very happy return of the noble Lord, Lord Gallacher. We hope that he is fully recovered from his recent accident and we are very pleased to see him.

Clause 52 clearly provides that undertakers are under a duty when supplying water to any premises to supply only water which is wholesome at the time of supply. Subsections (2) and (3) deal with the case where water becomes unwholesome after it has left the undertaker's system. Amendment No. 321ZAC would extend the duty of water undertakers to supply wholesome water to situations where the water became unwholesome after it left the undertaker's pipes because of a defect in the performance of the undertaker or his agent. Amendment No. 321ZAB would only cause doubt as to the meaning of Clause 52(2).

I fully appreciate the point behind the noble Lord's Amendment No. 321ZAC. We do not wish water to be supplied of such a quality that it will react with pipework which is normally used in properties and produce unpleasant or harmful water at the consumer's tap. At present undertakers only have a statutory duty to supply wholesome water while it is in their pipes. In addition undertakers have always owed a common law duty of care to their customers in these circumstances, but the precise extent of that duty is not at all clear when applied to the interaction of water with lead pipes, for example.

We are therefore taking the opportunity to clarify this in the Bill and particularly by subsection (3) of this clause. This subsection enables the Secretary of State to make regulations specifying what obligations a water undertaker has where the water could become unwholesome after it leaves his pipes. These regulations will have to be very carefully drafted. They need to draw a fair distinction between those situations where it is reasonable to require the undertaker to adjust the treatment of water supplied to the area, and those where it is really a matter for the property owner to deal with—by, for example, replacing his own pipes.

I fear that the amendment proposed by the noble Lord is both too general and too limited to achieve the end which we are looking for. On the one hand "any defect in the performance" is a very vague expression which would clearly need to be defined at some length in an explanatory document. On the other hand, some of the issues which we wish to cover under subsection (3) could hardly be called "defects in the performance", such as the supply of water which is perfectly satisfactory unless it is in prolonged contact with a particular type of plumbing. It is for these reasons that we hope that the noble Lord will withdraw his amendments.

Lord Gallacher

I thank the noble Lord for the remarks that he made to me personally. I am also grateful to him for the explanation that he gave as regards the present position under subsection (3) of this part of the Bill. I accept entirely the proposition that an attempt is to be made in the regulations to draw a fair distinction concerning responsibilities in this area between undertakers and consumers. However, I believe that the purpose of the amendment is quite frankly to place responsibility on the person best able to deal with it. And as I have said, that is the undertaker. I believe that this is a problem that is likely to grow in incidence because of the extensive use virtually acknowledged by the Minister of lead piping in old properties for taking water from the company's main into housing. If it is to be replaced by reason of maintaining or improving water quality, that will represent a fairly sizeable burden on the consumers as those of us who have had to take this action in recent months are well aware.

I believe that the point of the amendment has been reasonably argued. Even within the present context, the plcs, if they so desire, will be able to do something to help consumers by the manner in which they treat water which they know is to be stored overnight. It is therefore likely to suffer something of a change as between its condition when it arrives at the undertaker's point of delivery and its receipt in the consumer's household. Nevertheless, I believe that the assurances which the Minister has given me are sufficient for the present. I accept his argument that it will be a difficult task, in drafting regulations on this point, to hold a fair balance between the parties. I hope that the moving of this amendment will in some respects, firstly, publicise the nature of the problem and perhaps also, in striking that balance, persuade the Secretary of State to lean a little in favour of the consumer. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 321ZAC not moved.]

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Aylestone)

If Amendment No. 321ZB is agreed to I cannot call Amendment No. 321ZBA.

Lord Ezra moved Amendment No. 321ZB: Page 61, line 7, leave out subsection (5) and insert— ("(5) Where a water undertaker supplies water by means of pipes to any premises and that water is unwholesome at the time of supply the undertaker shall be guilty of an offence and liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding the statutory maximum or on conviction on indictment to a fine.").

The noble Lord said: The purpose of this amendment is to strengthen the position as regards the obligations of the water undertaker to provide wholesome water and not to provide unwholesome water. We feel that subsection (5) as drafted is a little weak. The alternative drafting, which makes it an offence to supply unwholesome water rather than to have as an obligation the supply of wholesome water—which is the significance of the existing subsection (5)—is much stronger and is in line with our general views and our concerns about the need to ensure that standards of water supply should be maintained at the highest desirable level. On those grounds, I beg to move.

Lord Hesketh

This amendment substitutes for the enforcement procedure under Clause 20 an offence provision with penalties where an undertaker supplies water which is unwholesome. Water will be unwholesome whenever it fails to comply with any of the standards to be laid down in regulations made under Clause 65. The meaning of wholesomeness will therefore be significantly changed by the Bill. These standards will include all the drinking water directive standards and a number of others. They are very tight standards and many of them are concerned not with health risks but with the appearance and taste of the water. No country in Europe complies with all of these standards and all are having to take steps to improve their supplies.

Members of the Committee will already be aware that substantial programmes of improvement are under way in this country to comply fully with these standards. The programmes will have to be agreed with the Secretary of State under Clause 20 and made public. A failure to fulfil the programmes, unless for a very good reason, will lead to an enforcement order being made. This seems an eminently sensible and practical way to proceed. We believe that it would be quite unjustifiable to subject the water undertaker to criminal penalties every time one of the quality standards was breached. Some of the standards relate solely to the appearance or taste of the water and an occasional failure to comply with the colour or taste standard is not something to warrant criminal penalties. This is even less justifiable when the undertaker has programmes of improvement under way which are proceeding as fast as practicable. In some instances such as where water has to be de-nitrified, treatment processes are still at the development stage, and it would be very unfortunate if an undertaker were penalised for quite properly proceeding in a cautious manner to gain experience with the treatment process before using it on a wide scale.

The proper occasion for a criminal penalty is when water unfit for human consumption is supplied, and Clause 54 already provides just that. Removing the enforcement of this clause under the provisions of Clause 20 would have been the loss of the very significant enforcement provisions contained in the Bill. Instead of the Secretary of State being able to require the undertaker to take appropriate remedial action, which if not carried out could lead ultimately to the loss of the undertaker's appointment, he could only institute criminal proceedings leading to the imposition of a fine. This would mean a significant weakening in the enforcement regime. For these reasons I ask Members of the Committee to reject this amendment.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

Before the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, responds to that, I must say how very interested I was in the Minister's reply, especially when he talked about compliance with directives. Did he perhaps include European Commission directives in that? If so, would he like to tell the Committee what progress is being made in negotiations with the European Commission under Clause 38, as amended?

Lord Hesketh

I was certainly referring to European directives, which I am sure comes as no surprise to the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh. As regards the latest state of play, I believe that my noble friend Lord Caithness has this very week received a letter from the Commissioner confirming the arrangements which were agreed with the Government.

Lord Ezra

I am grateful to the noble Lord for the careful consideration that he gave to the amendment, which once again emphasises the importance attached to the supply of wholesome water, to penalties for the supply of unwholesome water and certainly to strong enforcement. However, in the light of the explanation which he has given, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

5 p.m.

Lord Gallacher moved Amendment No. 321ZBA: Page 61, line 8, leave out ("enforceable") and insert ("enforced").

The noble Lord said: On behalf of my noble friend I move Amendment No. 321ZBA.The amendment replaces the word "enforceable" with the word "enforced" in subsection (5) of Clause 52. This would require the duties of a water undertaker in relation to the quality and sufficiency of water supplies under Clause 20 to be enforceable by the Secretary of State. As subsection (5) is currently drafted, the Secretary of State has given himself the power to enforce, but no duty to do so. The Minister will doubtless argue that the Secretary of State needs to make judgments in individual situations, and that fact is not denied.

However, the amendment draws attention to the fact that without some requirement on the Secretary of State to take enforcement action, that series of duties—as with many others in the Bill—will effectively have no sanctions. The interests of consumers and of the industry rest on decisions as to enforcement made by the Secretary of State.

Amendments have already been moved, and lost, to include local authorities as enforcement agents. This amendment again shows that it still behoves the Secretary of State to explain why so much should rely on his individual decisions. Can the Minister assure the Committee that the Secretary of State will always enforce duties where they have been breached, other than in trivial cases? Can he say whether such enforcement will take place quickly? Further, will consumers have a right of redress if the Secretary of State does not take action in a situation where they believe it should have been taken? Those are just some of the questions underlying the amendment. I beg to move.

Lord Hesketh

Under this amendment the duties of a water undertaker concerning the quality of water it supplies would be "enforced" instead of "enforceable" by the Secretary of State under Clause 20. We believe that the amendment would have no substantive effect, as in either case the Secretary of State will be bound to operate in accordance with Clause 20. The change of word here does not affect how he operates under Clause 20 as that is laid down by the clause itself. As I explained to the Committee on Monday, the amendments to Clause 20 will impose a duty on the Secretary of State to enforce Clause 52 subject to the provisions of Clause 20(2) and (5).

Lord Gallacher

I am grateful to the Minister for that reply and for his assurance that Clause 20 as it now stands imposes a duty to enforce regulations. Accordingly, in view of that assurance, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 52 agreed to.

Lord Graham of Edmonton moved Amendment No. 321ZBB: After Clause 52, insert the following new clause: ("Publication of standards of wholesomeness and performance criteria. . The Secretary of State shall, within six months of the passing of this Act and from time to time thereafter, publish details of—

  1. (a) any standard of wholesomeness currently applicable for the purposes of section 52 above;
  2. (b) a statement of, and the reasons for, any requirements established in regulations under section 53 below for the purposes of preserving drinking water quality; and
  3. (c) the proposed timeable within which each water undertaker is expected to achieve compliance with any prescribed standard of wholesomeness, or (to the extent that it is a different standard) any level of quality established in a current EC Directive.").

The noble Lord said: In order to orientate the new clause in its correct context I need to make reference to Clause 52 because, as Members of the Committee will be aware, that clause relates to water quality. Clause 52(1)(a) reads: when supplying water to any premises for domestic purposes to supply only water which is wholesome at the time of supply".

Clause 52(1)(b) talks in terms of there being: no deterioration in the quality of the water which is supplied from time to time from that source or combination of sources.

Further on in Clause 52 we are talking in terms of when water can be held to be unwholesome. In subsection (3)(a) it says: It has ceased to be wholesome after leaving the undertaker's pipes but while in a pipe which is subject to water pressure from a water main or which would be so subject but for the closing of some valve".

Clause 52(3)(b) it reads: it has so ceased in consequence of the failure of the undertaker, before supplying the water, to take such steps as may be prescribed for the purpose of securing the elimination or reduction to a minimum of any prescribed risk that the water would cease to be wholesome after leaving the undertaker's pipes.

I am told that an investigation into the track record of enforcement of drinking water standards in this country would show a history of relaxed interpretations, derogations from and disregard to standards, in particular to the document, 80/778/EEC. I should remind the Committee and the Minister who seems a little puzzled at the easy way in which I quoted that reference, that in December 1987, after taking legal advice, the Government, faced with action by the European Commission, were forced to accept a more stringent interpretation of the EC directive for admissible concentrations of substances in drinking water. In 1986 the Department of the Environment told water authorities to ignore EC standards for pesticides in drinking water arguing that the limits should be based upon toxicological evidence and not on limits of detection.

In another place the above view was still maintained. The Minister for Water and Planning stated that it was the intention to get some parameters changed. He said that standards for other substances were too stringent and that they were not based on a proper toxicological analysis. He suggested that the standards set should be more sensible; in other words, less stringent. I submit that there is cause for concern at the Government's acceptability of contamination of drinking water supplies, and at the attitude of taking action only in circumstances where a risk to health has been conclusively proved.

The purpose of the amendment is to ensure that a standard of wholesomeness is published, together with details of the measures which are being adopted by each water undertaker to secure compliance. If one looks at the amendment, it will be seen that that is precisely what we are asking the Committee to approve: that there be written on the face of the Bill that, any standard of wholesomeness, currently applicable for the purpose of Clause 52, shall be published; and that there shall be a statement of, together with the reasons for, any requirements established in regulations under Clause 53 for the purposes of preserving drinking water quality.

More important, in the context of previous happenings in this Chamber, it is proposed in the amendment that there should be a timetable within which each water undertaker is expected to achieve compliance with any prescribed standard of wholesomeness; or, to the extent that it is a different standard, that it should achieve compliance with any level of quality established in a current EC directive.

I hope that the Minister will understand the importance that we on these Benches attach not only to the quality of drinking water but also to the publication to the public of what are held to be satisfactory standards and as to what in actual fact has happened to those standards over a period. The public is entitled to know the quality of the water that it drinks. I beg to move.

Lord Hesketh

The effect of this new clause would be that the Secretary of State would have to publish standards of wholesomeness, explanation of the regulations made under Clause 53 and the time by which each undertaker will have to achieve compliance with the standards.

The concept of wholesomeness is not defined in current legislation. This is remedied in the Bill. Water will be defined as wholesome if it meets the requirements of regulations made under Clause 65. These regulations will fully incorporate the quality standards laid down in the EC drinking water directive and will set 12 further national standards where none or less stringent ones are set in the directive itself. Water will be unwholesome whenever a sample infringes a standard set in the regulations.

A consultation paper on the proposed contents of the regulations was published in February. The regulations are now being drafted and will be laid before Parliament as soon as the Bill gains Royal Assent. The water industry and local authority associations have been closely consulted throughout their preparation and a copy of the proposals has also been sent to the EC Commission. Once the regulations have been made, copies will be available from Her Majesty's Stationery Office. We also intend to publish a guidance document explaining the regulations. Any amendments to the regulations that may be required, because of, for example, changes to the standards set in the EC directive will be made by means of the negative resolution procedure in Parliament.

Where water undertakers are unable to meet any of the standards set in the regulations, they will have to agree programmes of improvement with the department. They will also have to publish in their annual report on drinking water quality progress towards achieving compliance and to make publicly available on a zone by zone basis details of the programmes agreed with the department. Copies of the undertakings given in relation to these programmes under Clause 20(5)(b), as now amended, must be included in the public register to be established by the director general.

I am therefore happy to state that the proposals put forward in the noble Lord's new clause are already catered for in the Bill, or in steps which we propose to take once the Bill has been enacted.

The noble Lord, Lord Graham, also said that the Minister will understand the importance that noble Lords on the Benches opposite attach to this matter. I think I can go no further than saying that I suspect the Committee will be interested to know that Commissioner Ripa has written to my noble friend Lord Caithness confirming that discussions on the Bill have come to a satisfactory conclusion. In his letter, he said that the government amendments made to Clause 20, and the statement I made in introducing the amendments, satisfied him that the United Kingdom Government intend to rectify any deficiency in water supplies as quickly as possible, taking certain practicalities into account. With that, I ask the noble Lord, Lord Graham, to withdraw the amendment.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

Before my noble friend responds, we listened with great attention to the noble Lord reading the letter from the European Environment Commissioner. No doubt the letter will be, or has been, placed in the Library. I think it will have to be, because a letter of this kind which is read out in Committee, and is a communication from the European Commission, ought to be made available to noble Lords who are concerned with the progress of this Bill. I assume that it ought to be placed in the House of Commons Library as well.

Just so that I understand clearly what it is that the noble Lord has told us, we understand that the amendments to Clause 20 which deal with enforcement have gained the approval of the European Commission. But the amendments which were made to Clause 38 on Monday, in particular Amendment No. 288B, went further than that. That amendment referred to agreement on a timetable for a date or dates, not in regard to progress towards compliance with the European standard but the date by which the compliance should be completed. Is the Minister telling us that the Commission has now agreed, in terms which are compatible with Amendment No. 288B, with proposals that have been made by Her Majesty's Government for completion of compliance with European standards?

5.15 p.m.

Lord Hesketh

I am not sure whether it is entirely appropriate that we should return to Clause 38, but I shall try to answer the point which the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, has raised. The subject of Monday's debate is very pertinent to the amendments which we are debating now, and I think it will be helpful if I try to answer the questions of the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh.

First, I should like to remove the confusion produced by some of the statements the noble Lord made at the time. He proposed that Parliament should lay down a timetable for compliance with the EC drinking water directive standards. But to lay down such a timetable in legislation would be contrary to the directive, which sets a much earlier date, and the legal requirement must be to comply now. That is what the Bill does through Clause 52—to supply water meeting those standards.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

The Minister went backwards by referring to Clause 20, and to go back only as far as Clause 38 is surely a much lesser offence in procedural terms. It is true that the reasoned opinion issued in April gave as a deadline for compliance two months from the date of issue of the reasoned opinion. The Government made it clear at that time, and ought to repeat it, that there was no possibility whatsoever of meeting the compliance requirements of the reasoned opinion within two months of the issue of the reasoned opinion.

I am surprised that the Minister should repeat the bland statement that that is the legal position, when the Secretary of State has already made it clear that the Government did not accept the deadline which had already been set. The fact that a deadline had been set, which the Government have already repudiated, does not mean therefore that it is improper to seek to impose a reasonable deadline, and the Bill as amended now provides for a more reasonable deadline. The Minister would be well advised not to fall into the trap which the Friends of the Earth have fallen into, of thinking that any reasonable deadline is improper or illegal.

Lord Hesketh

I am sure the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, would be very surprised to find me falling into the same trap as the Friends of the Earth. Perhaps I may rectify what I did not answer the previous time I rose to the Dispatch Box and say that a copy of the letter will be placed in the Library.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

The Minister has been more than fair to the Committee and has in fact been generous. I am trying to find a word which will make the Minister smile instead of grimace. He has given the Committee as much information as he can, all of which goes a long way along the lines of the amendment that we have moved. It is quite clear that the Minister and his colleagues have become more sensitive in these matters than we had hitherto thought they were; hence the purpose of the amendments.

I should like to remind the Minister of what the Minister for Water and Planning said in another place on this very issue. He said that standards for other substances were too stringent and were not based upon a proper toxocological analysis. He also said the Government suggest that should be more sensible—in other words, less stringent. Those are the Minister's words and we have been given no detail.

I appreciate, as the Minister said, that there have been consultations with local authorities and other bodies and that the Commission has been involved in discussions. That is what we hoped was happening. But until we rise at the Box on these amendments and ask pointed questions, we are not privy to what the Minister said. That is why my noble friend, with his experience in this Committee and on this Bill, is somewhat sensitive about accepting, not at face value but at first hearing, what the Minister tells us is the position.

However, the Minister has given us an assurance that the correspondence, on which he rested so heavily as a reason for not accepting this amendment, will be placed in the Library of your Lordships' House. We shall study the correspondence with care and it may be that we shall want to come back at a later date. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

The Deputy Chairman of Committees

In the next group of four amendments the first two have been marshalled in the wrong order, and so I must call Amendment No. 321ZBD first.

Clause 53 [Regulations for preserving water quality]:

Lord McIntosh of Haringey moved Amendment No. 321ZBD: Page 61, line 9, leave out ("may") and insert ("shall").

The noble Lord said: The amendment returns to a familiar issue which has arisen on a number of occasions in the Bill; that is, whether the Secretary of State "may" by regulations take some action or whether he "shall". In this case Clause 53 refers to the enforcement of the steps that have been prescribed for securing compliance with Clause 52 relating to duties on water undertakers with respect to water quality.

Clause 53(1) spells out a number of steps which may be prescribed to ensure that the water is wholesome. It was not until Monday when amendments were moved in Committee that we had an adequate definition of the word "wholesome". Unless the Secretary of State makes those regulations to secure compliance with Clause 52, we should not have monitoring or recording of water quality, the establishment of proper quality standards for water sources, records being kept of the localities supplied or the compliance with prescribed requirements on analysis of water. None of those would be brought into effect unless the Secretary of State made regulations.

As I understand it, the Secretary of State proposes to make those regulations. Under those circumstances, is there any conceivable reason why the Bill should not say that he "shall" rather than he "may" make the regulations? I beg to move.

Lord Hesketh

The effect of this amendment would be to turn the power to make regulations for preserving water quality into a duty. For all practical purposes there is no difference between "may" and "shall" as it is hardly conceivable that the Secretary of State would not make such regulations. For instance, they are required in order to implement certain parts of the EC drinking water directive.

However, as the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, knows, it is the standard practice on this Bill, and in legislation generally, for the ability of the Secretary of State to make regultions to be in the terms of a power. There is no reason for departing from that in this case.

I am well aware that the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, will draw my attention to the changes in Clause 20. The amendments to Clause 20 concerning "may" and "shall", which we debated on Monday, are concerned with the making of enforcement orders, which is a different matter from making regulations. That is why I urge the Committee to reject the amendments.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

This sounds like the last-ditch stand of the "may" brigade; the power as opposed to duty brigade. The distinction between enforcement orders and regulations is a distinction without a difference. There is no better reason for having "may" when, as the Minister says, it is hardly conceivable that the Secretary of State will not make the regulations. It is clear that the European Commission directive requires him to make the regulations. On this occasion the Minister might go back and say to his advisers, and to the department, that where regulations are required by the European Commission, a duty rather than a power is appropriate. This a long-running skirmish. I suppose that we shall not gain anything by dividing the Committee on the matter. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey moved Amendment No. 321ZBC: Page 61, line 9, leave out from ("State") to end of line 13 and insert ("shall by regulations require the Director to establish and maintain a comprehensive water quality monitoring service, and such regulations shall enable the Director—").

The noble Lord said: The amendment is of considerable significance when we look at the ability of Clause 53 to secure compliance with the water quality requirements under Clause 52. The clause as drafted provides that the Secretary of State makes the regulations and that the obligations on the water authority are under the Secretary of State's regulations, and therefore he is responsible for enforcement. That is a profound misunderstanding of what should be the relationship between the Secretary of State and the Director General of Water Services.

As it stands, the Secretary of State makes regulations for water quality. He is also responsible for the appointment of technical assessors, and he has the sole responsibility for taking enforcement action against undertakers. That is not a matter for Whitehall or even for Marsham Street. Compliance is required to be carried out locally and operated on the ground because water is supplied all over the country and breaches of wholesomeness standards will happen all over the country. Those powers should be the responsibility of the Director General of Water Services who has a staff, or ought to have a staff, available throughout the country to secure compliance, rather than be the responsibility of central government.

There should be a water quality monitoring service controlled by the Director General of Water Services rather than it be restricted to the Secretary of State. There is no difficulty about retaining the Secretary of State's ultimate responsibility. Under Clause 20 he still has discretionary powers, but it is more appropriate to separate responsibility for enforcing the regulations between the Secretary of State and the Director General of Water Services.

To take up a theme which has been debated at length in Committee, the Secretary of State has the political responsibility in the sense that he is responsible to Parliament for his actions, but the Director General of Water Services has the regulatory responsibility in that he has to achieve a balance between the interests of the water undertakings and the customers and the requirements laid upon him by the Secretary of State. The way in which the clause is drafted is an invitation to centralised bureacracy rather than to the effective enforcement of the powers necessary to achieve compliance with water quality standards. I beg to move.

Lord Hesketh

The effect of the amendment would be to transfer responsibility for monitoring the quality of water supplied by a water undertaker from the undertaker to the Director General of Water Services.

There are two strands to the proposition in the amendment; first, that the director general should be responsible for monitoring drinking water quality. There is also a more general argument that someone independent of the water undertakers should do this monitoring.

On the first point, responsibility for checking on and enforcing the undertakers' duties concerning drinking water quality will rest with the Secretary of State, not the director general. The Secretary of State will make regulations laying down quality standards and associated matters such as frequency and location of monitoring, minimum treatment requirements and publication of information. He will be responsible under Clause 20 for deciding whether the compliance programmes put forward by undertakers are acceptable, checking that they are being carried out, and making provisional or final orders where necessary. It is right for the Secretary of State to have those responsiblities, because drinking water quality is a public health matter and because the Government are responsible for ensuring that the EC drinking water directive is properly implemented.

The director general is concerned with the charges which an undertaker may make and associated matters. To give him the responsibility proposed in the amendment would substantially affect and enlarge the nature of his work in a way which would create considerable overlap and confusion with the Secretary of State's responsibilities.

On the wider issue of independent monitoring I would draw attention to the substantial proposals for independent monitoring already set out in the Bill which will be supplemented with regulations. Under Clause 60 the Secretary of State may appoint technical assessors to carry out investigations to ensure that there is compliance with the drinking water regulations. It is the Government's intention to establish a drinking water quality inspectorate within the Department of the Environment to carry out this function. The inspectors will have access to all the water undertaker's records and will be able to assess whether their sampling and analysis is in accordance with the strict requirements of the regulations. They will be checking on all the matters covered by regulations under this clause and Clause 52, as well as compliance with the quality standards set under Clause 65 regulations and progress with compliance programmes covered by undertakings given by Clause 20(5)(b).

The inspectors will be able to take their own samples as a further check. In addition to the inspectorate, local authorities will also have a role to play in checking water quality. They will be entitled to receive information on water quality from the undertaker, to take their own samples and to raise unsatisfactory matters first with the undertaker and then with the Secretary of State.

Water undertakers may have samples taken and analysed by independent laboratories. These laboratories will have to comply with the analytical methods and practices specified in regulations and will be subject to inspection by the drinking water quality inspectorate. They will be the subject of independent analytical quality control which will provide a further safeguard. We have a different approach from that recommended by the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, but I can assure Members of the Committee that we believe that it will be extremely effective.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

It is clear that there are points of agreement and points of difference on the matter. The points of agreement are where we are all concerned that there should be a water quality control monitoring service. The Minister describes it as being the drinking water quality inspectorate within the Department of the Environment. We describe it as being a monitoring service operated by the Director General of Water Services.

I must say that I find the Minister's argument curious and out of line with much of current government thinking about the location of responsibility in the executive branch. In department after department, urged on by outside advisers, the Government, under the lead of the Prime Minister, are taking responsibilities away from mainline departments and giving them to agencies. These are being made trading units or executive agencies with their own targets and responsibilities. The claim is that they will be more efficient, more responsive to market forces, more responsive to the consumers of the services concerned and less dragged down by centralised bureaucracy.

Here we have an opportunity to set up a monitoring service, a quality inspectorate which could be operated by a newly appointed Director General of Water Services whose responsibilities are still fully to be defined in the Bill, whose staff have not yet been appointed and indeed whose identity has only become known within the last month. Here we have an opportunity for the delegation of an activity which needs to take place around the country wherever there is any threat to drinking water quality.

Yet the Government insist that matters should be kept within the department in Marsham Street. I find that extraordinary. It is an extraordinary departure from current Conservative thinking, and an extraordinary departure from what seems to us to be the rational distribution of responsibility for carrying out the role of regulation in a newly privatised industry.

The Secretary of State has responsibility for preparing the regulations. If he did not have that responsibility he would not be accountable to Parliament. So far we are in agreement. But enforcement surely ought to be the responsibility of the regulatory agency set up under the Bill.

I did not hear anything in the Minister's answer that gives me an opportunity to ask him questions in the hope that he will concede that we have a significant case. If I am wrong, I have no doubt that he will interrupt me; I do not think that I am wrong. I believe that we are in deep disagreement about the matter. What has happened here is that the traditional Civil Service mentality has overcome the interests both of Thatcherite philosophy and on this occasion also of common sense. Therefore I commend the amendment to the Committee.

5.35 p.m.

On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 321ZBC) shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 73; Not-Contents, 102.

Addington, L. Longford. E.
Airedale, L. McGregor of Durris, L.
Allenby of Megiddo, V. McIntosh of Haringey, L.
Annan, L. Milner of Leeds, L.
Ardwick, L. Molloy, L.
Aylestone, L. Monson, L.
Birk, B. Mountevans, L.
Blyth, L. Mulley, L.
Boston of Faversham, L. Murray of Epping Forest, L.
Buckmaster, V. Nicol, B.
Carmichael of Kelvingrove, L. Northfield, L.
Peston, L.
Carter, L. Phillips, B.
Cledwyn of Penrhos, L. Pitt of Hampstead, L.
Cocks of Hartcliffe, L. Ponsonby of Shulbrede, L. [Teller.]
Craigavon, V.
David, B. Rea, L.
Dean of Beswick, L. Ross of Newport, L.
Dormand of Easington, L. Rugby, L.
Elwyn-Jones, L. Russell, E.
Ennals, L. Serota, B.
Ewart-Biggs, B. Shannon, E.
Ezra, L. Stallard, L.
Fisher of Rednal. B. Stewart of Fulham, L.
Foot, L. Stoddart of Swindon, L.
Gallacher, L. Thomson of Monifieth, L.
Gladwyn. L. Thurlow, L.
Graham of Edmonton, L. Thurso, V.
Grantchester, L. Tordoff, L. [Teller.]
Hatch of Lusby. L. Turner of Camden, B.
Hooson, L. Underhill, L.
Houghton of Sowerby, L. Wallace of Coslany, L.
Hughes, L. Warnock, B.
Hylton-Foster, B. White, B.
Irving of Dartford, L. Wigoder, L.
Kilbracken, L. Williams of Elvel, L.
Kilmarnock, L. Winchilsea and Nottingham, E.
Lawrence, L.
Aberdeen and Temair, M. Colwyn, L.
Alexander of Weedon, L. Constantine of Stanmore, L.
Arran, E. Cottesloe, L.
Auckland, L. Craigmyle, L.
Balfour, E. Crickhowell, L.
Bauer, L. Croft, L.
Beaverbrook, L. Dacre of Glanton, L.
Belhaven and Stenton, L. Davidson, V. [Teller.]
Belstead, L. Denham, L. [Teller.]
Blatch, B. Dundee, E.
Boyd-Carpenter, L. Elliot of Harwood, B.
Brabazon of Tara, L. Fortescue, E.
Brougham and Vaux, L. Fraser of Carmyllie, L.
Butterworth, L. Fraser of Kilmorack, L.
Caldecote, V. Gainford, L.
Campbell of Croy, L. Gisborough, L.
Carnegy of Lour, B. Greenway, L.
Carnock, L. Hailsham of Saint Marylebone, L.
Chelmsford, V.
Hardinge of Penshurst, L. Pender, L.
Havers, L. Platt of Writtle, B.
Henley, L. Pym, L.
Hesketh, L. Radnor, E.
Hives, L. Rankeillour, L.
Hooper, B. Reay, L.
Kitchener, E. Renton, L.
Lauderdale, E. Rochdale, V.
Lindsey and Abingdon, E. Rodney, L.
Liverpool, E. Romney, E.
Long, V. Saint Albans, D.
Lyell, L. St. Davids, V.
Mackay of Clashfern, L. Sanderson of Bowden, L.
Macleod of Borve, B. Shrewsbury, E.
Malmesbury, E. Skelmersdale, L.
Mancroft, L. Southborough, L.
Margadale, L. Stanley of Alderley, L.
Marley, L. Strange, B.
Marshall of Leeds, L. Strathclyde, L.
Maude of Stratford-upon-Avon, L. Strathcona and Mount Royal, L.
Merrivale, L. Strathspey, L.
Mersey, V. Sudeley, L.
Milverton, L. Swinfen, L.
Monk Bretton, L. Thomas of Gwydir, L.
Mottistone, L. Trafford, L.
Munster, E. Trumpington, B.
Murton of Lindisfarne, L. Vaux of Harrowden, L.
Nelson, E. Windlesham, L.
Norrie, L. Wise, L.
Nugent of Guildford, L. Wyatt of Weeford, L.
Onslow, E. Wynford, L.
Orkney, E. Young, B.
Orr-Ewing, L.

Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.

5.43 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey moved Amendment No. 321ZBE: Page 61, line 34, at end insert—

The noble Lord said: Amendment No. 321ZBE is such an obvious little amendment that I am surprised the Government have not thought of it themselves. It is in line with much of the thinking which runs through the Bill. It certainly is not in any way controversial or difficult. However, it is in accordance with the best practice of private companies in a very large number of areas. One can think, for example, of the major supermarket chains which, perhaps through encouragement by legislation but partly off their own bat, have made considerable strides in the improvement of descriptive packaging at the point of sale. The labelling on products describes what the products are and their composition.

We can also look at the requirements which exist regarding the description of medicines, including ethical pharmaceuticals, at the point of sale. Customers are entitled in this case to be told what it is they are buying. Why should that not apply to water? In this amendment we propose that when the water undertakings send out demands to consumers in respect of water charges—in other words their water bill—they should set out a statement of water quality in the area concerned, including details of any failure to meet the standards set out in Clause 52.

We have used the words "in the area concerned" deliberately. To use the example of the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, we are not seeking that the demand to No. 4 Acacia Avenue should comment individually on the quality of water at No. 4 Acacia Avenue. That would be an intolerable burden. However, in our view to set out the quality of water for the area as a whole would be in line with good practice, both in the public sector and in the private sector, and would be a modest burden on the water undertakings. It would also be an example of openness between suppliers and their customers. I think that would be much appreciated by those who are at the moment very much concerned about water quality. I hope that on that basis the Government will feel able to accept this modest little amendment. I beg to move.

Lord Hesketh

Under this amendment, the Secretary of State would be empowered to make regulations requiring water undertakers to include with customers' water bills a statement on water quality in the area, including details of any failures to meet the quality standards set by regulations under Clause 65. However, there is a slight difference between the way water flows through one's tap on a universal basis, and purchasing a product which is packaged or in a bottle on an individual basis.

On Monday we debated the availability of information on drinking water quality. I explained how full details of all analytical data for an area, taken in accordance with the regulations, will be freely available to customers. This will show any results which breach the standards.

Thus any customer who wishes to have specific information about his water quality will only have to ask the water undertaker for it. He will be able to inspect all the data and take copies of it, as often as he may desire. We believe this is a very efficient and open way of providing information to those who want it. We consider it is also an appropriate and equally good way as that proposed by the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh. That is why we do not support the amendment.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

If that is the case, can the Minister suggest why it is that gas bills—that is the nearest analogy one can think of, if the Minister rejects the analogy of food and clothing—set out the quality of the product in that they specify the calorific value of the gas supplied? Is there any reason why what is done successfully for gas, so far as we know, should not also be done for water?

Lord Hesketh

There is a slight difference between water and gas. I say that as a consumer myself. It is easier to see whether one is getting what one wishes in terms of a calorific value than as regards the rather more detailed provisions for water. The provisions for water are of a different nature to something which can be assessed against the cost of a heating bill. We believe that the system of allowing information on water quality to be freely available from undertakers, and for it to be consulted as often as consumers wish, is as good as printing a once-a-year result on the bill that is to be sent out to the consumer. I forgot to mention one thing. The calorific value constitutes one item on a gas bill. However, there would be 66 items on a water bill.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

I do not understand why there should be 66 items on a water bill.

Lord Hesketh

There are 66 standards for water.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

The information could be provided by exception. It is only necessary for the water undertaker to indicate those elements which are no doubt very few, in which the water is short of the 66 standards. I do not find that argument convincing. I do not think it is good enough to require consumers to be active consumers. It is almost like saying that the Government will not put a health warning on cigarettes but will make available in Marsham Street and in local offices of the Department of the Environment, or in Elizabeth House and the local offices of the Department of Education, or in Alexander Fleming House and local offices of the Department of Health, information on the relationship between smoking and lung cancer. The time to do this is at the point of sale.

I am astonished that the Government should reject this opportunity to reassure those water customers who are receiving water of good quality in respect of which there are no exceptions to be reported by obliging water authorities to notify them when there are exceptions and water falls short of the required quality. However, I do not think that it is a matter on which I should seek the opinion of the Committee. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Addington moved Amendment No. 321ZC: Page 61, line 34, at end insert— ("(1A) Regulations under subsection (1) above shall not prescribe that any monitoring of the quality of water which a water undertaker supplies to premises for domestic purposes may be discounted for the purposes of section 52 above.").

The noble Lord said: The purpose of the amendment is to ensure that there is no differentiation between different types of sample when it comes to testing for water quality. If an offence occurs in relation to the water consent conditions and those conditions are broken, the amendment would allow any water samples to be used in a prosecution against the private water company.

The Secretary of State has indicated that only those samples which are taken in order to show compliance with standards can be used. Therefore, a sample which was taken for a different purpose, for example for routine monitoring, which showed that those consent conditions had been broken could not be used in a prosecution. I suggest that that is flying in the face of common sense. If an offence has occurred any evidence should be taken into account. I beg to move.

Lord Hesketh

The amendment would prevent any regulations made concerning a water undertaker's compliance with its duty to supply wholesome water from stating that certain monitoring may be discounted. The regulations will specify what monitoring must be carried out by a water undertaker. They will not specify that any of that monitoring may be discounted.

Operational monitoring will of course take place at the treatment works to ensure that treatment processes are operating correctly; but Section 52 concerns the quality of water as it is delivered to the customer. After water leaves a treatment works, it may be blended, or stored in a service reservoir and undergo significant changes in quality. What matters is the quality of water received by the consumer, and I can assure the Committee that if a sample is taken at a consumer's tap, for whatever reasons, and does not comply with a standard, the water in that sample will be legally unwholesome.

With that explanation, I trust that the noble Lord, Lord Addington, will withdraw his amendment.

Lord Addington

Having heard what the Minister has said, I am happy to withdraw the amendment, as he appears to have accepted the point that any breach of consents should be punished. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Addington moved Amendment No. 321ZD: Page 62, line 26, after ("(a)") insert "without prejudice to paragraph (cc) below").

The noble Lord said: Amendment No. 321ZD and the subsequent amendment, Amendment No. 321ZE, concern information. Amendment No. 321ZD is self-explanatory. It requires the publication of data obtained during monitoring carried out under Clause 53( 1 )(b). While there is a limited power under Clause 53( 3 ) to make regulations for publicity purposes, it is not clear how those regulations would operate. There is provision for an annual summary in the draft regulations and for records in a supply zone to be made publicly available. That is restricted to data about samples taken to monitor compliance with standards. The amendment would require monitoring data from all samples to be made available no matter what the reason for taking those samples. I suggest that as the amendment relates to information about sampling which has already taken place there is no reason for the information not to be made available.

Lord Hesketh

These amendments would place a duty on the Secretary of State, when making regulations concerning the publication and provision of information by a water undertaker, to require the water undertaker to publish information on water quality data obtained while monitoring domestic water supplies.

I can give an assurance that the regulations now being prepared on this subject will specify information on water quality data which must be published and further information which must be available, and provided free of charge, to customers. I described this information in my response to the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, on Monday when we debated the proposal for a local register of drinking water quality.

With that assurance, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Addington, will feel able to withdraw his amendments.

Lord Addington

Having heard what the noble Lord said, I see that the only course of action on this occasion is to beg leave to withdraw the amendment. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 321ZE not moved.]

Clause 53 agreed to.

Clause 54 [Offence of supplying water unfit for human consumption.]

Lord Ezra moved Amendment No. 321ZF: Page 63, line 9, leave out subsection (4).

The noble Lord said: This amendment is of particular importance because Clause 54(4) states that: Proceedings for an offence under this section shall not be instituted except by the Secretary of State or the Director of Public Prosecutions". This is an issue which has already excited a good deal of public concern because it means that any individual consumer is unable to bring action against a water undertaker for failure to comply with the duties set out in this clause. The purpose of the amendment is simply to eliminate subsection (4) so as to leave it open for prosecutions to be brought by anyone who has suffered as a result of water being supplied which is unfit for human consumption.

The amendment has been grouped with Amendments Nos. 321ZFA and 321ZFB in the name of the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh. I beg to move.

Lord Gallacher

On behalf of my noble friend Lord McIntosh of Haringey I wish to speak to Amendments Nos. 321ZFA and 321ZFB which are grouped with the amendment which has been moved by the noble Lord, Lord Ezra.

We share the concern which the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, has expressed about Clause 54(4) in that, while creating a new offence of supplying water which is unfit for human consumption, it places the onus of prosecution for offences entirely with either the Secretary of State or the Director of Public Prosecutions. That seems to us to be so restrictive as to nullify the real advantages which may flow from a provision of the kind which Clause 54 introduces.

We are perhaps more specific than the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, in the two amendments in that rather than leaving out the subsection in its entirety, we have suggested a number of additions which would, in our opinion, in addition to the powers which have been given to the Secretary of State and Director of Public Prosecutions, allow, for example, the local authority in the area concerned to bring a prosecution and allow the customer service committees being established under the Bill or any consumer to ask any of the persons referred to in the subsection to request that proceedings be instituted.

The phrase "unfit for human consumption" has a certain ring about it for those of us who are intimate with the food trade. We are well aware of the fairly stringent rules that apply to food retailers as regards the quality of food that they offer for sale in their shops. We also know of the excellent protection that is afforded to the public at large by the environmental health officers of local authorities in ensuring that compliance with the standards necessary for the maintenance of a safe food trade are of a high order, evenly enforced and always backed, in the case of prosecution, by substantial evidence and the resources that the local authority is able to deploy in cases of that kind.

It seems to us that water being retailed which is unfit for human consumption is in no substantial degree different from food being retailed which is unfit for human consumption. In these two amendments, we therefore seek to extend the power of prosecution to local authorities and to give the added powers that we have mentioned to members of the public and to the customer services committees that have been established under the Bill. It is for those reasons that the amendments have been put down. I beg to move.

6 p.m.

Lord Hesketh

The effect of Amendment No. 321ZF would be to allow any person or body to institute proceedings where a water undertaker supplies water unfit for human consumption. Amendment No. 321 ZFB would allow a local authority to institute proceedings as well as the Secretary of State and the DPP. Amendment No. 321ZFA would permit any consumer or customers services committee to request the Secretary of State, the DPP or a local authority to institute proceedings under Clause 54.

Clause 54 contains a new prosecution power. It has been generally welcomed as filling a gap which became apparent after the unfortunate incident at Camelford last year. No water that is unfit for human consumption should ever be delivered for drinking purposes. Hence the penalties for doing so may be substantial. The quality standards set in the drinking water regulations would probably have to be breached by a long way before water could be described as such as most of the standards are set well below any perceived health or other effects.

The clause as it stands restricts the power to prosecute to the Secretary of State and the Director of Public Prosecutions. We have not extended the prosecution power to customers because they already have perfectly adequate means of obtaining redress against a water undertaker. If they suffer damage or injury either to themselves or their property and that can be traced to the poor quality of the water supply, they can sue for damages or loss under the Consumer Protection Act 1987. There is strict liability under that Act. They do not have to prove that the water undertaker was negligent, only that it provided substandard water which injured them or damaged their property. This seems to me to be a much more effective and direct route than a prosecution under this clause.

Here I think it is important to note that we propose that the prosecution power should extend to the Director of Public Prosecutions. He represents the public interest and enables the public to complain to someone other than the Secretary of State; and of course it is open for anyone to request the prosecuting body to institute proceedings against an undertaker.

As for local authorities, they already have an important role in safeguarding the quality of drinking water in their areas. Under the Bill, they will have a duty to monitor that quality and to notify the water undertaker if the water is unwholesome. Where they are not satisfied with the response, they have a duty to notify the Secretary of State. They will receive much more information about water quality and must be involved if there is any pollution incident. However, we have not given them the power to prosecute because that power should rest with the public authority which is charged with enforcing the quality standards. For public supplies, the Secretary of State—not the local authority—is the enforcing body. That prosecution power is one of the weapons that he can use to carry out that responsibility.

The enforcement duty in Clause 20 is a very effective means of ensuring that wholesome water is supplied as quickly as possible. Provided the undertaker is fulfilling the programme and the water is not a significant health risk in the meantime, there would be little point in prosecuting under Clause 54. However, if a local authority were empowered to prosecute, it might choose to do so in such circumstances. Such action would give contradictory messages to the undertaker and might lead it to shut down the supply to avoid the risk of prosecution while the improvement work was carried out. That is something that we would not wish to encourage.

The noble Lord, Lord Gallacher, referred to what he perceived to be a parallel with food. But, with regard to the parallel that has been drawn with local authorities' power to prosecute where food is unfit for human consumption, there are important distinctions from water as there is no equivalent of the proposed drinking water quality inspectorate on the food side; nor are there the very comprehensive enforcement duties available under Clause 20. It is for those reasons that I urge noble Lords to reject these amendments.

Lord Gallacher

I found the Minister's answer somewhat disappointing. It seems to me that, having included a provision that will create an offence for supplying water that is unfit for human consumption, he then went on to say that the standards for designating water as unfit for human consumption will be set so low that little use is likely to be made of the provision in any case. If that is protection for consumers, it seems to me at least to be of a most doubtful kind.

It is a fact that the clause specifically excludes water which is just unwholesome; the water must be of a very low standard. That is a much lower level of protection than consumers of food in this country are accustomed to receive and, in my opinion, entitled to expect. The alternative route mentioned by the Minister—namely, the Consumer Protection Act 1987—seems to me merely to complicate the issue. It may be a means for the consumer to use, but in my opinion it clouds the issue, particularly when local authority environmental health officers may be asked for advice and may be in the position of having to tell consumers that their only recourse is to make an approach to the Secretary of State.

I doubt whether the Consumer Protection Act 1987 is capable of being used in the way that the Minister mentioned. If it is so capable, it will inevitably bring the local authority into the picture. So, on the one hand, on the basis of the Minister's present attitude, there is exclusion of local authorities under Clause 54, and, on the other hand, his recommendation that they should be included by means of the Consumer Protection Act 1987. For me, that is a confusing situation.

As the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, has his amendment before mine, I shall wait to see what he decides to do before deciding what I shall do with regard to the two amendments standing in the name of my noble friend Lord McIntosh of Haringey.

Lord Ross of Newport

It seems extraordinary to me that the Government are not prepared to allow local authorities to enter into proceedings where there has been pollution—possibly deliberate—of water which could have been avoided. It is a bureaucratic way of going about things to say that they must report the matter to the Secretary of State or the Director of Public Prosecutions, and that that is the only way to proceed. I see this as another way of saying to local authorities, "We don't want you any more". That seems to be the complete analysis of what is going on in all government thinking at the present time. The Government simply do not think that local authorities should play any role in the matter, but local authorities are the natural people to institute proceedings. They have the enforcement officers. They do the testing of water in most cases at the present time.

We now know that the National Rivers Authority may or may not employ the expertise of local authorities. We on this side think that that is absolutely daft and that it jolly well should do so because it is already set up. There will be enormous waste and duplication. We also wonder what is the role of the pollution inspectorate nowadays. I seems to me that that is muddied ground, but, quite frankly, why it is not possible to allow local authorities to institute proceedings is just beyond me. It seems absolutely daft.

Viscount Thurso

It seems to me that a very curious situation will arise when people come to inspect public houses and hotels because the local authority inspectors will test the whisky and someone else will test the water. It seems curious that the same inspector cannot test both articles that go into the same glass.

Lord Hesketh

He can.

Viscount Thurso

But he will not be able to prosecute—is that right?

Lord Hesketh

As I said earlier the local authorities have an important role to play in this matter. Certainly they could test the water at the same time as the whisky. If the water were unfit they would draw it to the Secretary of State's attention.

Viscount Thurso

But what guarantee is there that the Secretary of State will prosecute? None whatever.

Lord Hesketh

The object of the exercise is that they either comply or do not comply.

Lord Ezra

Earlier this afternoon the noble Lord set a very good standard of sympathy which he extended toward us in regard to a number of important amendments which had been moved. Unfortunately his ration of sympathy seems to have run out on this occasion. I think that we must take the matter a little further. I should have liked very much to have been able to withdraw this amendment but I do not think that I can do so.

The fact is that the track record of the enforcement of drinking water standards in this country so far has not been particularly good. There have been a number of relaxations introduced and we must take advantage of this fundamental legislation to tighten up the procedures. One way of tightening them up is not to restrict under this clause the possibilities of prosecution to the Secretary of State and the Director of Public Prosecutions. There seems to be absolutely no reason why local authorities which have a public health responsibility which they have discharged over the years and which have all the testing facilities should not be able to bring an action under this clause. It would come before the courts like any other action and if it were justified then fines would be imposed; if not, the case would drop.

I should also like to ask the noble Lord whether it is not right that some reference here should be made to the consumer indicating the means whereby, if not by direct action then indirectly, he could instigate or stimulate prosecution under this vital clause. Therefore in the light of the remarks that have been made on the subject and the vital nature of this clause, I ask the noble Lord whether he is prepared to take away what we have said, think about it a little more and come back at a later stage.

I understand that the noble Lord is not prepared to do that. In that case I very much regret that I must press the amendment.

6.13 p.m.

On Question, Whether the said amendment (Amendment No. 321ZF) shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 51; Not-Contents, 86.

Addington, L. Craigavon, V.
Airedale, L. David, B.
Ardwick, L. Dean of Beswick, L.
Aylestone, L. Donoughue, L.
Birk, B. Dormand of Easington, L.
Carter, L. Elwyn-Jones, L.
Cledwyn of Penrhos, L. Ennals, L.
Ewart-Biggs, B. Phillips, B.
Ezra, L. [Teller.] Pitt of Hampstead, L.
Fisher of Rednal, B. Ponsonby of Shulbrede, L. [Teller.]
Gallacher, L.
Graham of Edmonton, L. Ross of Newport, L.
Hampton, L. Russell, E.
Houghton of Sowerby, L. Russell of Liverpool, L.
Hughes, L. Serota, B.
Irving of Dartford, L. Stewart of Fulham, L.
Kilbracken, L. Stoddart of Swindon, L.
Longford, E. Thomson of Monifieth, L.
McGregor of Durris, L. Thurso, V.
McIntosh of Haringey, L. Tordoff, L.
Molloy, L. Turner of Camden, B.
Monson, L. Underhill, L.
Mountevans, L. Wallace of Coslany, L.
Murray of Epping Forest, L. Warnock, B.
Nicol, B. White, B.
Northfield, L. Williams of Elvel, L.
Allenby of Megiddo, V. Mancroft, L.
Arran, E. Margadale, L.
Auckland, L. Marley, L.
Balfour, E. Maude of Stratford-upon-Avon, L.
Bauer, L.
Beaverbrook, L. Merrivale, L.
Belstead, L. Mersey, V.
Blatch, B. Monk Bretton, L.
Boyd-Carpenter, L. Mottistone, L.
Brabazon of Tara, L. Murton of Lindisfarne, L.
Brougham and Vaux, L. Napier and Ettrick, L.
Butterworth, L. Norrie, L.
Campbell of Croy, L. Nugent of Guildford, L.
Carnegy of Lour, B. Onslow, E.
Carnock, L. Orkney, E.
Chelmsford, V. Pender, L.
Constantine of Stanmore, L. Pym, L.
Cottesloe, L. Radnor, E.
Crickhowell, L. Rankeillour, L.
Croft, L. Reay, L.
Davidson, V. [Teller.] Redesdale, L.
Denham, L. [Teller.] Rees, L.
Dundee, E. Renton, L.
Eden of Winton, L. Rochdale, V.
Elliot of Harwood, B. Rodney, L.
Fraser of Carmyllie, L. Romney, E.
Fraser of Kilmorack, L. Sanderson of Bowden, L.
Gisborough, L. Shrewsbury, E.
Grantchester, L. Skelmersdale, L.
Greenway, L. Strange, B.
Hardinge of Penshurst, L. Strathclyde, L.
Henley, L. Strathcona and Mount Royal, L.
Hesketh, L.
Hives, L. Sudeley, L.
Hooper, B. Swinfen, L.
Howe, E. Teynham, L.
Kenilworth, L. Thomas of Gwydir, L.
Lauderdale, E. Trafford, L.
Lindsey and Abingdon, E. Trefgarne, L.
Long, V. Trumpington, B.
Lyell, L. Vaux of Harrowden, L.
Mackay of Clashfern, L. Windlesham, L.
Macleod of Borve, B. Wyatt of Weeford, L.
Malmesbury, E. Young, B.

Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.

6.20 p.m.

[Amendments Nos. 321ZFA and 321ZFB not moved.]

Clause 54 agreed to.

Baroness Nicol moved Amendment No. 321ZFBA: After Clause 54, insert the following new clause: ("Compensation for consumers for water unfit for human consumption. .—( 1 ) A water undertaker shall be liable to pay compensation to any consumer who has suffered damage, injury or other loss as a consequence of the supply of water which is unfit for human consumption as referred to in section 54 above. (2) The liability under subsection (1) above shall apply in respect of any such damage, injury or loss suffered as a consequence of water supplied before the passing of this Act, where the supply was undertaken by an authority exercising functions transferred by this Act to the undertaker concerned.").

The noble Baroness said: The purpose of this amendment is to clarify the position of consumers who are entitled to compensation where they have suffered as a result of being supplied with water which is unfit for human consumption. Subsection (2) is particularly important because it requires that the new water undertakers shall inherit responsibilities for damages that may have occurred before privatisation.

Perhaps the most telling illustration of the need for this amendment is to remind Members of the Committee of the incident last year which involved Camelford and the surrounding area. On 6th July 1988 a consignment of aluminium sulphate—which is used for water treatment—was delivered to the wrong tank and so was released into the water supply. There followed immediate and serious effects on the population of the area; sickness, diarrhoea and other symptoms. The South West Water Authority eventually admitted liability and I understand that compensation has been paid in some cases.

However, the matter is by no means settled. There is anxiety about medium and long-term effects. A Department of Health team is currently working in the area. It has not yet completed its investigations. A report was due in March and has not yet appeared. Meanwhile symptoms displayed by some residents are associated with the kind of poisoning which results from this chemical: short-term memory loss, psychological disturbance and extreme muscle fatigue. GPs in the area are still monitoring their patients. It could therefore be some time before the full picture of the damage in that area is clear.

I understand that some small businesses have also suffered as a result of the illnesses of their owners. The tourist trade, which is important, is said to be affected. There were many visitors at the time; it was at the height of the holiday season. Some of those may yet prove to have been affected by the chemicals in the water which they drank at the time. If the link is established they too would have a claim.

It must therefore be right that the existing liability that has been admitted by the water authority should be carried forward in the Camelford case. It should survive the process of privatisation. I have chosen Camelford because it is known to Members of the Committee. However, there are other cases up and down the country that are awaiting a satisfactory outcome. I beg to move.

Baroness David

I should like to support my noble friend's amendment. I was in the Camelford area last August, almost immediately after this horrific happening, and know how much the population suffered—both tourists and the people who live there all the time. Camelford is an example. We wish to establish a principle. It was an inadvertent disaster, but such a catastrophe could happen again. We wish to establish that the principle of compensation for those who suffer—the need may not be immediate; it may come later—should be provided. With privatisation, we wish to be quite sure that the necessary commitment will be carried on into the future.

Lord Hesketh

The purpose of this new clause is to make water undertakers liable to pay compensation to consumers who have suffered damage or loss as a result of being supplied with water unfit for human consumption. The second part of the new clause would make successor bodies liable where the loss was caused by water supplied by their predecessors.

I trust that the occasions when anyone receives water unfit for human consumption from a public water supply will be extremely rare and preferably non-existent. However, in such an event it is clearly right that people should be able to claim compensation for loss or damage just as they can when any other product is provided.

We believe that the amendment is not necessary as customers already have perfectly adequate means of obtaining redress from a water undertaker. If they suffer any damage or injury either to themselves or their property and this can be traced to the poor quality of the water supply, they can sue for damages or loss under the Consumer Protection Act 1987. There is strict liability under that Act. They do not have to prove that the company providing the product was negligent, only that the company provided a sub-standard product which injured them or damaged their property.

In future the courts are likely to consider water to be sub-standard if it does not meet the wholesomeness standards to be set out in the drinking water quality regulations. This is far wider than the phrase "unfit for human consumption" and will therefore give people more wide-ranging scope for claiming compensation.

In addition they can always claim under common law for loss caused by negligence on the part of the undertaker. If the undertaker has admitted negligence, it is simply a question of agreeing a figure. In the case of the Camelford incident last year—to which the noble Baronesses, Lady Nicol and Lady David, drew our attention in proposing and supporting the amendment—I understand that the South West Water Authority has settled several hundred claims satisfactorily to a total value of about £75,000, without recourse to the courts.

I should like to make one further point on this part of the amendment. If the noble Baroness wishes to ensure a quick, certain means of obtaining compensation, then I do not think that the amendment will provide that as it would be necessary to obtain a court judgment on whether the water was unfit.

As the phrase "unfit for human consumption" will have to be interpreted by the courts, no claims could be made until that point was settled first, which might be quite time-consuming. And as I have already said, the strict liability provisions in the Consumer Protection Act and the common law of negligence provide, we believe, simpler and wider methods of obtaining redress.

When the noble Baroness moved the amendment she said that she felt that subsection (2) was the more important of the two sections. We believe that the provision is unnecessary because the Bill provides that on the transfer date schemes made under Schedule 2 of the Bill will come into force. Those schemes will transfer to the successor companies the property, rights, and, in this case most importantly, liabilities of their predecessor water authorities in respect of their water supply and sewerage functions. The schemes will also provide that legal proceedings commenced against the water authority may be continued against the successor company. The transfer of the water supply and sewerage functions of the water authorities to these successor companies will in no way affect the ability of people to seek redress under the law in the normal way for any damage or injury suffered as a result of the action of the water authorities.

I hope that with those two explanations the noble Baroness may feel able to withdraw her amendment.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

Before my noble friend replies—she will of course deal with the amendment as she sees fit—is the Minister telling the Committee not only that there is no need for this provision but that if it were written on the face of the Bill it would be detrimental to the interests of water consumers? Is he saying that to give effect to this new clause would cause delay and would be vexatious?

Is he also telling us that there are already adequate means for the aggrieved person to sue for loss? Does that mean that every individual who considers that he has suffered a hurt will have to take out separate procedings? If that is the case and we are concerned about a Camelford kind of error—human error, as we know, but negligence in the sense that the error was allowed to happen—are we to take it that should there be another incident (my noble friend has said that these things can happen again) the privatised company will act in the same way as the publicly owned company acted in this example? The Minister was kind enough to indicate the speed with which settlements had been reached and the size of those settlements. If he is telling us that the consumer in a Camelford kind of incident would be no worse off in future but that if the amendment was on the face of the Bill the consumer would be worse off because proceedings would be delayed, I think he should spell that out.

Lord Hesketh

Perhaps I should repeat what I said earlier. I was saying in relation to time that litigation is always lengthy. That is a fact and there is no point in the noble Lord, Lord Graham, attempting to question me further about it. He suggests that there will be some change in the approach of trying to settle out of court. My experience is that all people would prefer to settle out of court rather than engage in vast legal undertakings. I am sure that the successor company to the authority involved at Camelford would do exactly the same as the water authority in Camelford has.

Baroness Nicol

I confess that I am a little disappointed at having the Consumer Protection Act invoked in this case. However, I should like to read carefully what the noble Lord has said, especially in relation to the second part of my amendment. In the meantime I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

6.30 p.m.

Clause 55 [Provision of water where piped supplies insufficient or unwholesome]:

Lord Graham of Edmonton moved Amendment No. 321ZFC: Page 63, line 29, leave out subsection (2)

The noble Lord said: This amendment stands in the name of my noble friend Lord McIntosh of Haringey. The effect of it is to delete subsection (2). Clause 55(2) deals with the provision of water where piped supplies are insufficient or unwholesome. The subsection that we seek to delete reads: Where under subsection (1) above a local authority requires the provision by a water undertaker of a supply of water to any premises, that authority shall be liable to the undertaker for any charges payable by virtue of Chapter IV of this Part in respect of the provision of that supply; but shall have power to recover the whole or any part of any charges paid by virtue of this subsection from the owner or occupier of the premises to which the supply is provided".

Clause 55 requires undertakers, when required by local authorities, to supply water for domestic purposes other than by pipes in cases where existing supplies are insufficient or unwholesome and where piped supplies would be impracticable at reasonable cost. While the general principle of the clause appears sound, concern is directed to the problem that arises when an undertaker's supply becomes deficient and is not capable of reinstatement at any reasonable cost. In those circumstances the water undertaker may find it lucrative to pay the £5 a day penalty imposed by the Secretary of State for breach of supply conditions, while at the same time charging a local authority for providing the same consumers with an alternative supply. Such a situation could continue indefinitely. By accepting the proposed amendment the possibility of such a situation arising could be prevented. I beg to move.

Lord Renton

I do not wish to anticipate the amendment which I shall be moving next, which is on a somewhat different point, but I feel obliged to point out that paragraph (b) of subsection (2) provides that, power to recover the whole or any part of any charges paid … from the owner or occupier of the premises to which the supply is provided may be making provision for the impossible to take place.

Lord Hesketh

Clause 55 provides that, in certain cases, where it is not practicable at reasonable cost for a water undertaker to provide a sufficient supply of wholesome water for domestic purposes to particular premises through its pipes, it may be obliged to provide a supply of water by alternative means. This would normally mean providing a supply of water by means of tanker or standpipe. A local authority is required to notify the undertaker of premises in its area where the insufficiency or unwholesomeness of the existing water supply is such as to be a danger to health. The local authority would be liable to meet the undertaker's charges for providing the alternative supply but would be able to recover them from the owner or occupier provided with the supply of water.

The effect of this amendment would remove the liability of a local authority and ultimately an owner or occupier for any charges payable in cases where a water undertaker is required to provide a supply of water to premises other than by pipe.

The circumstances when an undertaker would be required to provide a supply of water other than by pipes would generally involve the failure of a private water supply. A private supply may become unwholesome or insufficient for domestic purposes and thereby constitute a danger to health. Because of the location of the properties served by the private supply, it may not be feasible for the undertaker to provide a supply of water for domestic purposes by pipe. In these situations the undertaker would be required to provide a supply of water by alternative means, usually by standpipe or tanker.

It seems to me wholly reasonable that in these circumstances the undertaker should be able to recover the charges it incurs from the local authority that required the alternative supply to be made. It is also reasonable that the local authority should be able to recover part or all of these charges from the owner or occupier provided with the supply. This would be the first occasion that the undertaker had been involved in providing a supply of water to the owner or occupier concerned. If the undertaker is not to be able to recover his charges, the costs would have to be borne by consumers in general. In the light of this explanation I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Graham will withdraw the amendment.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

It is not a matter of great moment. At this stage in the Bill we are probing what will happen in certain circumstances. Can the Minister say a little more about whether the circumstances I have outlined could occur only with private water supplies? Surely in future they will all be private water supplies. None will be municipally owned, nationalised or publicly owned. So can the Minister tell us more? The Minister pleads that the costs have been incurred because an alternative source of supply has been required. Surely we must not make too heavy weather about the desire of a local authority or any public body trying to insist that there shall be a continuous supply of water for consumption either by the domestic or the non-domestic user. If he could say something, the Minister would be helping the Committee.

Lord Hesketh

I fully accept that the term "private supply" as the noble Lord, Lord Graham, has presented it is slightly confusing. When we reach the amendment of my noble friend Lord Renton an example of the private supply to which I am referring here would be a well on a private property that may supply a number of other houses. When we refer to a private supply in future we shall have a private undertaking, a plc, which has its obligations to fulfil anything connected to it. This is a private supply which, in effect, is a private private supply, if I may put it in those terms.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

Well, well, well! That is the best the Committee will get tonight, and that is not very good. In view of the explanation that the Minister has given to the Committee I shall read what he has said, take some advice and possibly return to the subject again. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 55 agreed to.

On Question, Whether Clause 56 shall stand part of the Bill?

Baroness White

I wish to ask a question about the clause. I was surprised that no amendments had been tabled although I understand that some have been considered. I believe that the Committee is entitled to know from the Minister what the Government believe the local authorities should be undertaking as regards monitoring and reporting upon the water quality in their areas.

I understand that the clause carries forward responsibilities under Section 11 of the Water Act 1973. Under that Act it is an obligation of the appropriate local authority to monitor the quality of water supply for domestic consumption. I am advised that the reality of the situation has been that although a number of local authorities have highly qualified staff and adequate laboratory facilities, that is by no means universally true. In carrying forward the responsibility the Government do not appear to consider that anything is necessary to improve the facilities of the local authorities to enable them properly to discharge their responsibility. Some of the authorities have neither the analytical resources nor the professional expertise necessary to undertake the full range of responsibilities which may still be required.

In respect of earlier clauses the Committee has discussed the relationship between the department and the new drinking water inspectorate and technical assessors referred to in the Bill and the reluctance or refusal of the Goverment to consider that the director general may have some responsibilities. Some of my acquaintances in the water industry have responsibilities for monitoring and reporting.

In Clause 56 we are concerned with the local authorities. Later in the clause we come across the "may" and "shall" syndrome. Subsections (5) and (6) contain the vaguely permissive power of the Secretary of State because he may make regulations if he feels so disposed, or in appropriate circumstances.

I believe that we should not swallow the clause without any examination or explanation from the Government about where they believe local authorities will fit in the future. How do they regard responsibilities under this legislation as differing from those carried forward from earlier legislation? It was passed in 1973 in circumstances entirely different from those which we are now contemplating in the Bill.

The Earl of Balfour

I should like to give a specific example which may be helpful to the Committee. The environmental health department of a local authority is responsible for many aspects of health. I am grateful to my local authority in East Lothian in Scotland. It came to my assistance when I sought to have a full analysis of the water taken from my private supply to 40 houses. I did so because until recently none of us thought of aluminium as being poisonous.

I am grateful that such a service can be provided by the local authority. I know that this sample will be sent to the national physics laboratory, but, nonetheless, I have had assistance in obtaining a full analysis of the water. Therefore I can satisfy myself and my neighbours that it is drinkable, and that is a tremendous help. It is the kind of function which should remain in the hands of the local authorities because I believe that they do an excellent job.

I hope that my example will help the Committee. People with private supplies of water should have them analysed from time to time. In my case, the last analysis was 20 years ago.

6.45 p.m.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

The noble Baroness, Lady White, has rendered the Committee a service by reminding us of the special nature of Clause 56. Its opening words state: It shall be the duty of every local authority to take all such steps as they consider appropriate for keeping themselves informed about the wholesomeness and sufficiency of water supplies". I should like to know the meaning of the phrase "keeping themselves informed". What are the parameters? Is it the duty of the local authorities to monitor the activities of the National Rivers Authority and the Director General of Water Services? Are they to keep an eye on what the Government are doing through the Secretary of State? If the authorities were ever taken to court for failing in their duties to keep themselves informed would they have a defence? Can the Minister say where he sees the hierarchy of the local authorities in the pecking order of responsibilities in the supply and maintenance of good quality water?

Clause 56 is peppered with duties placed upon the local authorities. I do not remember whether the noble Baroness, Lady White, alluded to the resources required by local authorities but she has long experience of such matters. Perhaps it is the case that the words are idle, that they are just words on a piece of paper and that local authorities will have no responsibility; or, as I suspect, they could well be the fall guys available when things go wrong and someone is looking to place the blame.

The Minister has not accepted duties which Members of this side of the Committee have sought to lay upon a range of other bodies. It is clear that in the scheme of things the Government see a major role to be played by local authorities. Clause 56 covers almost a page and a half of the Bill and some important regulations must be carried out and overseen by local authorities. The Minister would do a service to the Bill and the Committee because many local authorities will be anxious to know of the additional burdens which are being placed on them in their role as overseers.

Nobody is better equipped than the local authorities to look after the interests of those who live in the locality, and they have vast experience in doing so. However, they need the resources to do it. Can the Minister say whether the rate support grant will contain such an element in the future, thereby better enabling local authorities to carry out their responsibilities? Will the Minister simply say, "We already give them adequate sums of money. They will have to decide how they use it. If they decide to be less generous in its use in this role in order to carry out another, the consumer will suffer"?

Lord Hesketh

The clause imposes duties on local authorities to keep themselves informed about the wholesomeness and sufficiency of all water supplies in their areas. It sets out the procedure to be followed if a local authority has reason to believe that any water undertaker's supply is unwholesome or insufficient. Regulations to be made under the clause will require and enable local authorities to obtain information about the quality and sufficiency of water supplies in their areas. They will also set out how they are to perform their functions under the clause. Among the matters which may be covered in the regulations are the frequency of sampling and the recovery of costs incurred by local authorities in carrying out their duties. I am sure that will be welcomed.

The regulations to be made under this clause will entitle local authorities to receive regular information from water undertakers on every water supply zone in their area. This information will cover the general quality of water, the extent of compliance with standards in the regulations and the progress of any programmes of action to achieve compliance. If there is an incident in the water supply which may create a health risk in the area, the supplier must notify the authority. Local authorities will thus be able to ask for all the information they need about the standard of drinking water in their area.

Local authorities have a long tradition of interest in water supplies. They already play an important part in monitoring the quality of drinking water in their area. This clause will help to clarify and strengthen that role, enabling them to carry out their responsibilities much more easily. Local authorities will also have a direct route to the Secretary of State if they are not satisfied that their public water supply is wholesome. I therefore commend this clause to the Committee.

Baroness White

Perhaps I may ask the Minister whether there is any difference between the responsibilities which fall to the local authorities under this legislation and the responsibilities which they have carried out under the 1973 legislation. What difference to their responsibilities will be made, if any, by the fact that there is to be this new drinking water inspectorate? That is an innovation and one supposes that it will have some effect on the responsibilities of the local authorities. Perhaps the Government do not believe that it will make any difference at all. However, I still feel concern that, as my noble friend Lord Graham of Edmonton rightly emphasised, local authorities are being asked, without having any additional resources made available to them as far as we can judge, to continue to carry very considerable responsibilities, some of which must impinge on or overlap in some way with the changes made to the organisation of water supplies under this Bill.

Lord Hesketh

The noble Baroness asked her question in two parts. As regards the first, as the noble Baroness pointed out when she intervened earlier, there were no amendments down to this clause and I have a considerable amount of information upon it but I do not have the relationship with the 1973 Act. Therefore, I hope that the noble Baroness will accept that statement and will accept a letter from me in order to clarify the question which she asked.

I fear that she did not hear what I said about cost. Even the noble Lord, Lord Graham, smiled earlier when I made it absolutely clear that among the matters which may be covered in the regulations are the frequency of sampling and the recovery of costs incurred by local authorities in carrying out their duties.

Baroness White

From where will they recover the cost of routine sampling? The first two lines on page 64 state: It shall be the duty of a local authority to notify any water undertaker of anything appearing to the authority to suggest", and there are then a number of conditions which might appear to the local authority to suggest that something is not as satisfactory as it should be. This seems to me to be a most unsatisfactory state of affairs. The Government are altering the whole structure of the water supply industry, including drinking water and including setting up a completely new section of a department. They have not apparently taken into account the duties, responsibilities and costs of the local authorities. From whom are the local authorities to recover the cost of providing analytical facilities if they do not already have them and how are they to provide adequate staff with proper qualifications in a situation where the problems of water pollution are becoming more sophisticated almost every day?

Lord Graham of Edmonton

The Minister believes that I will accept that the cost to a local authority, which this clause lays down, can be dealt with by saying that, where a local authority requests or demands samples of water in order to see whether there is compliance with standards, the costs of commissioning those samples will be recoverable. That will only be a part of the role. We know that people will be involved. If the job is to be done at all, it must be done well and must be seen to be done well.

If the Minister wishes to avoid a vote on whether the clause shall stand part, he must acknowledge that, in addition to recovering the cost of samples, other costs will be involved. There will be the costs of running a new department. These costs must either be borne in general or there must be an allowance for them in the rate support grant. It is not good enough for the Minister to tell us that this is another instance of more and more duties being piled on the local authority without adequate resources being made available.

Lord Hesketh

There is a source of charge and a source of revenue. One anticipates that the source of charge will be met in part by the charge for the testing of private supplies; the revenue support grant will need to take account of extra costs for local authorities arising from this Bill.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

Clause 56(1) states: It shall be the duty of every local authority to take all such steps as they consider appropriate for keeping themselves informed about the wholesomeness and sufficiency of water supplies provided to premises in their area, including every private supply to any such premises. The Minister believes that merely to take the water and sample it will fulfil all the requirements, but that will not be the position. There is the cost of running the department. Clause 56(4) states: It shall be the duty of a local authority to comply with any direction given by the Secretary of State". It will not be possible to pass on the costs of doing that sort of thing. The Minister is telling us that the only way that there can be a recovery of money is by giving a bill to the people who have caused it to happen. Is the Minister able to be any more helpful?

Lord Hesketh

No, and I shall not be able to be of much more help. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Graham, is labouring under a misapprehension that the charge for a test will only be in the case of a test which fails. My understanding is that there will be a charge for the test.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

I know that the Minister has gone as far as he can. I am certain that there will be local authorities outside and local authority associations which will view with dismay that the only way in which a local authority will be able to recover the cost of complying with this clause is by recovering it from such sources as the undertakers. I can envisage that before any samples are undertaken a local authority may have two or three people or £40,000 or £50,000 worth of human resources who will run the department. There is therefore that cost, as well as the physical cost of undertaking the monitoring, which will be inordinate.

My noble friend Lady White said that this is the only opportunity whereby we can deal with the generality of the clause. We have not sought to amend it. We simply want the Minister to explain what it means. What the Minister appears to have said is that in practice this is an additional burden on local authorities without the authorities being able to get back the money.

Baroness White

Perhaps I may say a few words before the Minister amplifies his reply, as I hope he will. This clause gives the Secretary of State extremely wide powers to impose duties, to regulate the performance of any duty, to prescribe the matters to be taken into account by local authorities in determining for the purposes of subsection (1) what is appropriate, and so on. There is not a word about any obligation on the Secretary of State to see that the local authorities are in any way recompensed for the duties that he unilaterally imposes on them.

Lord Hesketh

I think this is now the third time that I have said this. The Bill does not impose any new burdens on local authorities in respect of public supplies, only for private supplies; and establishment charges and overheads can be recovered when private supplies are sampled. Most of the costs of local authorities are likely to relate to these supplies.

Baroness White

Surely the private supplies are dealt with under Clause 57?

Lord Stanley of Alderley

I thank the noble Baroness for giving way. If she really wants answers to these detailed questions surely it would be much more satisfactory for the Committee, and everyone else, if she were to table amendments. The Minister would then be able to give a proper answer.

Baroness White

We are on clause stand part and it is the only way possible for any of us to raise these matters.

Lord Stanley of Alderley

I am sorry to cross swords with the noble Baroness. It is possible to table probing amendments just as everyone else does. The Minister can then give a reply.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

The noble Lord has put his own words to the test because he has tabled page after page of amendments, and that is his method of obtaining answers. It is not ours. I am not prepared to say that he is wrong; but I am prepared to say that it is another way of doing it. If the noble Lord is inviting us to table a further 100 amendments to the 300 that we have already tabled, we shall certainly consider it. There are different ways of dealing with different situations. The Minister has done his best, but his replies are certainly not acceptable to me or, I believe, to those outside the Committee. However, he has done his best and we leave it at that.

Clause 56 agreed to.

The Earl of Arran

The Committee may feel that this is an appropriate moment to break for dinner. I suggest that we return to the Committee stage for the Bill at 8.5 p.m. I beg to move that the House do now resume.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

House resumed.

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