HL Deb 14 December 1993 vol 550 cc1320-4

6.52 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office (The Earl of Arran) rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 2nd November be approved.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, the order will amend the Water and Sewerage Services (Northern Ireland) Order 1973 and the Water Act (Northern Ireland) 1972. I would like to stress that it is not related to the Government's plans for the privatisation of water and sewerage services in Northern Ireland, or the reform of charging arrangements for those services.

Its principal objectives are to introduce national drinking water quality standards into Northern Ireland law; to assist with improving the quality of waterways and with the control of water pollution. In addition the order contains a number of provisions which revise, update and give greater consistency to water and sewerage law in Northern Ireland.

Article 4 will introduce national drinking water quality standards which incorporate those of the European Communities Drinking Water Directive into Northern Ireland law through regulations and will bring Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the United Kingdom. The Department of the Environment, which is the sole public water supplier in Northern Ireland, has been applying the current standards by administrative means in advance of the legislation. The directive is currently being reviewed by the European Commission and when the outcome of that is known the order will enable implementation of revised standards.

Drinking water quality in Northern Ireland is high and compares favourably with the rest of the United Kingdom. Results for 1992 showed that 99 per cent. of water quality tests in Northern Ireland complied with national standards. However, the order will provide greater protection to consumers in Northern Ireland by providing the necessary legislative framework for both public and private supplies. It will also apply the relevant standards to water supplied for domestic and food production purposes.

The department's environment service will monitor and publish information about the quality of both public and private water supplies. Consistent with the principles of the Citizen's Charter for Northern Ireland, a register containing detailed information about the quality of public water supplies throughout Northern Ireland has been established since July 1992 by the department and is available for inspection by the public free of charge.

For private supplies, the department will now have power under Article 4 to take remedial action where such a supply is either unwholesome or insufficient. It will be required to maintain a register of such supplies and prepare an action plan where a risk to public health has been identified.

Article 16 of the order will facilitate the introduction of a number of EC directives affecting the quality of waterways by conferring powers on the Department of the Environment to prescribe standards and set objectives for them. The directives involved relate to quality of surface water intended for drinking water supplies and quality of waters to support freshwater fish and shellfish.

I draw your Lordships' attention specifically to Article 17 which will increase the maximum fine on summary conviction for a water pollution offence from £2,000 to £20,000. That substantial increase in the fines for water pollution offences will assist the department in the control of water pollution and will fulfil a commitment to the House of Commons Select Committee on the Environment to bring in such a provision at an early opportunity. That will bring Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the United Kingdom. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 2nd November be approved.—(The Earl of Arran.)

Lord Prys-Davies

My Lords, the order is welcomed on this side of the House and I thank the noble Earl for explaining its provisions. In particular, it will enhance the quality of water supply which is used in food and drink manufacture or intended for human consumption.

The Minister said that the order applies to possible European Community directives. Perhaps I can ask the Minister about that. In one of last Sunday's newspapers I read that the relevant directives had been either torn up or substantially amended after last Saturday's meetings in Brussels. I understand that that was because they were felt to be over-prescriptive and scientifically out of date.

The noble Earl did not refer specifically to that development. If those press reports are correct, perhaps he could inform the House precisely what happened in Brussels last Saturday in respect of the directives. If it is the case that the directives are being reviewed, as suggested by another report from Brussels, is it intended that they will be weakened as a result of that review?

The question therefore arises of where do we go from here. Can the Minister confirm that, irrespective of what emanates from Brussels, there will be a programme to upgrade the water treatment plants in Northern Ireland by 1995? Or is it to be at a later date? Will there be a programme to update the circulation system? If so, when will that be completed? Who will pay the costs? Will there be a contribution by the Northern Ireland Office or will the costs be born in their entirety by the water undertakers and consumers? I ask that question because of the rumblings about the cost of applying the EC directives.

It is unclear from the terms of the order what are the rights of appeal against a charge levied by the department in respect of the costs to be incurred by it in implementing the order. I would be grateful if the Minister could shed some light on that.

As the Minister confirmed, the order places a duty on the department to monitor the quality of private water supplies. Clearly that is right. I understand from the order that the procedures must be set out in regulations. Can the Minister tell us when the monitoring regulations will be ready for publication?

I note that the order specifically excludes the right of an individual who believes that he has suffered as a result of the application of the order to sue the department or a water undertaker for damages for breach of the statutory duty imposed on it. I am a little worried about that. It is a useful remedy which was developed over the past 50 years or so. What is the department's view on that?

Finally, I want to raise a general point regarding the application of the EC directives in Northern Ireland. It so happens that by virtue of my membership of the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments I have noticed that it is usually the case that an EC directive is applied in Northern Ireland some time after—sometimes months after—it has been applied in the rest of the United Kingdom. Surely that is wrong in principle. It seems to me that no part of the United Kingdom should be denied the benefit of an EC directive which is made available to citizens of the rest of the United Kingdom. Such a denial goes against the spirit of the legislation. The question must therefore be asked: why cannot a directive be applied in Northern Ireland at the same time as it is applied in the rest of the United Kingdom? When we eventually see the Northern Ireland order it is almost verbatim with the GB legislation. If there is anything in my point, can the Minister offer, today or in writing, a satisfactory explanation of this state of affairs.

Apart from those few questions I have nothing further to say about the order except to repeat that we on these Benches approve it and welcome it.

7 p.m.

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, asked three or four questions, all of which I hope to be able to answer. First, he asked about the drinking water directive revision. As I think I implied, the order is necessary to provide a legislative base for the introduction of national drinking water quality standards, including those of the EC, into Northern Ireland law. Those are already applied administratively by the Department of the Environment for Northern Ireland, which is the sole public water supplier in Northern Ireland. Certainly, the Government will examine the revised directive when it becomes available from the European Commission. Any changes which result will apply throughout the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland.

The noble Lord mentioned the right of appeal on costs or charges. Charges for the department's water and sewerage services are set under government guidelines to reflect the cost of providing the services and must be levied equitably. It is therefore inappropriate for the Water Appeals Commission to adjudicate on essentially economic transactions by the department. Those affected can appeal to the Minister for the Environment in Northern Ireland who is responsible for provision of water and sewerage services there.

The noble Lord referred to the impact of the EC compliance programme on future charges. The additional capital expenditure and increased running costs associated with improvements in quality occurring because of compliance with European Community directives is likely to lead to increased charges for water and sewerage services in Northern Ireland, but it is not possible to indicate the rate of increase. Charges are set annually to reflect the cost of providing water and sewerage services and increasing capital expenditure for EC compliance is only one element in the charge equation. The European Commission's current revision of the drinking water directive may have an impact on the level of capital expenditure.

The noble Lord intimated that there was a delay in introducing the order. Initially, the Government considered that legislation was not required to implement the 1980 drinking water directive standards as the United Kingdom considered that they could be attained by administrative action. The extent of the capital works programme necessary to achieve standards compliance was also not fully established until 1988 when technical definitions, critical for setting operational criteria, were clarified between the United Kingdom and the European Commission. Legislation in Northern Ireland follows that first introduced for the rest of the United Kingdom in 1989. I can also tell the noble Lord that the department is a statutory water undertaker in Northern Ireland, so the system of undertakings in England and Wales is not appropriate.

If I have not answered all of the questions which the noble Lord raised I shall do so as soon as I possibly can. I commend the order to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.