I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."
Before proceeding, I would like to express my indebtedness to my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Epsom (Sir A. Southby) for drawing my attention to the anomalies of water supply, out of which the Bill has been produced. We feel that the principle contained in the Bill makes it an important measure of reform. We believe that it is generally acceptable to the Ministry of Health, and will be of benefit to undertakers and consumers alike. In 1929, a sub-committee of the Advisory Committee on Water Supply was appointed by the Ministry of Health. It gave the matter exhaustive examination and came to certain conclusions and recommendations, which are the vital foundation of the Bill. I do not propose to deal with the report and those conclusions, but will leave them to my hon. and gallant Friend who will second this Motion. I propose to confine myself to the present-day situation and to the precise terms of the Bill.
The principle of the Bill is quite simple, but during the past few weeks I have been surprised to find that the preparation and the drafting of the Bill have involved so much legal machinery as to necessitate it being embodied in 18 Clauses. In order to avoid any suspicion that this is a complicated Measure I have arranged that a brief memorandum is attached to the Bill. With four exceptions, the legislative powers relating to the supply of water are derived from an Act of 1847, over 90 years ago. The four exceptions are of recent date, and arise out of the work of the Advisory Committee to which I have just referred. Those four recent Acts are the Metropolitan Water Board Act, 1932, the South Essex Water Works Act, 1936, the South Staffordshire Water Works Act, 1936, and the Barnet District Gas and Water Act, 1937. In addition there are three private Bills now before the House containing provisions similar to those in the Bill before us to-day. The 90-year-old Act places the responsibility for connection to a water main entirely on the consumer, including the authority to break up roads and streets. That is an absurd situation. The Bill does not propose to interfere in any way with the initial cost of the connections of the water main, which must exist as at present, but to transfer from the consumer to the water undertaker the ownership of the existing connection, the responsibility to maintain it, the cost of maintenance and the authority to open up roads. I had better go through the Bill and explain briefly the operative Clauses.
Clause 2 is the main operative Clause by which the communication pipe, which is virtually the service from the main to the consumer, is transferred to the undertakers—which is a short expression for the water undertaking, whether it be a company or a local authority. This sentence occurs in the Clause:
On the commencement of this Act so much of every service pipe comprised in an undertaking for the supply of water to which this Act applies as constitutes a communication pipe not then the property of the undertakers shall by virtue of this Act become transferred to the undertakers.
Clause 3 sets out that new communication pipes are to be laid by the undertaker as an exclusive right, but if he does not provide them at the request of the builder, a householder or the consumer, whoever it may be that demands a supply of water, a penalty is provided. Clause 5 deals with the maintenance of these communication pipes, whether existing or future, and transfers the responsibility for their maintenance from the consumer to the undertaker. At the top of page 5 of the Bill are these words:
after the commencement of this Act no person other than the undertakers shall be responsible for the maintenance, repair, renewal or removal of so much of any service pipe as constitutes a communication pipe transferred to the undertakers as aforesaid or laid by the undertakers pursuant to this Act.
They have not these powers in general legislation to-day with respect to making these connections, and this Clause legalises the undertakers' powers in 109 cases, to which I will refer later in which they are already breaking up streets and are virtually acting without statutory authority. This Clause legalises their authority on all future occasions.
The other Clauses are all more or less legal machinery. Clause 10 deals with stop-cocks, and it states:
On every service pipe laid after the commencement of this Act the undertakers shall, and on every service pipe laid before that date the undertakers may, fit a stopcock enclosed in a covered box or pit of such size as may be reasonably necessary.
It has been found desirable to standardise that situation. Clauses from 11 to 16 inclusive are more or less legal machinery and adjustments. Clause 17 contains the definitions, and Clause 18 prescribes the date when the Bill would come into force. I should like to say a word on this point. On the prescribed date, 30th September, 1939, the Bill would come automatically into force. The date has been fixed in accordance with precedent because in the existing four Acts and the three Bills now before the House practically the same date is prescribed, three of them for the first day of the new year following, and for an obviously convenient date to suit the financial arrangements. If the Bill is thought worth while the date, 30th September, might be adopted, as we might as well have the Measure at once and transfer the responsibility. Attention may be drawn to the additional cost which will be borne by undertakings by reason of their taking over responsibility for the maintenance of water connections. We feel, however, that, spread over a large number of consumers and connections, this cannot be regarded as a serious matter, particularly as water undertakings have received a certain amount of benefit as a result of the increase of assessments under the Rating and Valuation Act, 1925.
I come now to one of the most impressive justifications for the Bill. As the House knows, general legislation of this character is based largely on precedent. A number of Private Bills, whether of companies or local authorities, contain Clauses relating to some particular matter, and, after a lapse of time, the Government produce a Consolidation Bill in which those Clauses which have created precedents are prescribed in a stereotyped form in a general Measure for general application. Virtually, that is what this Bill does. But in this particular case we find, not only the four legislative precedents to which I have referred, but something far stronger, namely, voluntary arrangements between supplier and consumer to the same effect
in over 100 areas of supply. I am much indebted to the British Waterworks Association for some useful statistics on this question. Apparently they had anticipated the possibility of general legislation, and sent out a questionnaire in November, 1937, and I feel that I cannot do better than quote from the document which they have produced as a result of that questionnaire. Having set out a number of figures obtained as a result of the questionnaire, they go on to state:
From the analysis appear the facts that 238 undertakings in England and Wales are considered and that the population accounted for is 30,587,000. This represents over 75 per cent, of the total actual population of England and Wales, and of the remaining 9,000,000"——
that is to say, the 9,000,000 not covered by the survey and questionnaire—
it may be assumed that probably one-third, or 3,000,000, have not a piped water supply. Thus the figures are sufficient upon which to form a very sound judgment as to present practice. With approximately 22¾ millions of people out of a total of 30½ millions within the areas of undertakings where the present practice is for maintenance to fall upon the water undertaking, it results that approximately three-fourths of the whole is thus situated.
This three-quarters of the population is now being brought within the amending code of the present Bill. The document goes on to say:
Furthermore, the South Essex Waterworks Company did not make a return to the questionnaire, but by their Act of 1936 they are now responsible for maintenance and repairs. They supply a population of 606,000, and cannot therefore be disregarded. Thus there are in round figures 23,500,000 people in the areas of 113 undertakings where maintenance is the province of the water undertakings out of a population of 31,200,000 and 239 undertakings accounted for.
I would like the House to remember that this Bill does not touch the capital cost of providing the supply, but merely the question of maintenance.
So much for the question of population. As to the 239 undertakings, which represent the vast majority of the water undertakings in this country, 113 are responsible for maintaining the repairs. These 113 include 92 local authorities and 21 companies, all of whom are really acting without statutory authority except the four companies already referred to, which have special Acts. The balance, namely, 126 undertakings, will be immediately affected by the Bill. It will have the effect of legalising and confirming the existing practice of nearly half the water undertakings of the country, and bringing into line the balance of just over half, namely, 126.
It might interest the House if I give particulars of the present practice. The undertakings concerned fall, roughly speaking, into 11 categories. I will not go into details, but will merely state what the categories are. In 81 cases the communication pipes are both provided and maintained by the consumer or proprietor; and in 20 cases the undertaking will carry out the work if requested. In 22 cases the undertakers do carry out the work at the cost of the consumer, while in six cases similar conditions apply except that the undertakers only do work in the highway, or up to the stopcock, or up to the boundary of the premises. In 16 other cases similar conditions apply, but repairs are undertaken as specified; and this also applies to a further five cases, in which, however, the work is done by authorised plumbers. In a further 23 cases the consumer bears the cost of laying the communication pipe, but the maintenance is done by the undertakers. In 29 cases the consumer bears the cost of laying the communication pipe, and the undertakers are responsible for repairs, but in some cases only in the highway, in others up to the stopcock in the footpath, and in still others up to the boundary of the premises. In nine cases the undertaker lays and maintains the communication pipe free of cost to the consumer, and in 23 the undertakers bear the cost of laying the communication pipes either up to the stopcock or up to the boundary of the premises, and the undertakers and consumers each bear the cost of repairs to their own part of the pipe. Then there are 36 miscellaneous cases which do not come within any of the previous categories.
I think I have said enough to show the necessity and desirability of some uniformity and standardisation of the situation. In conclusion, I would say that, broadly, this amending code seems to us to be an equitable arrangement. The consumer hands over his property in the communication pipe and the responsibility for maintaining it; and, in exchange, the water undertaking accepts that property and accepts the responsibility of maintaining it in good repair, plus the authority to open up the street for the purpose of maintaining it. We have taken some time and trouble in drafting the Bill, and have endeavoured to hold the scales evenly between the supplier and the consumer. We sincerely hope that the House will see its way to give unopposed sanction to a Measure which, we think, will be of benefit to a large number of our fellow citizens.
I beg to second the Motion so ably proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Newport (Sir R. Clarry). My hon. Friend has explained the provisions of the Bill—a thing that is not always done by those who move private Bills in this House—and he has explained them both carefully and efficiently. I would like to give some reasons which led to the introduction of this Bill, and endeavour to show why, in my opinion, the House would be well advised to give it a Second Reading. Pressure of public opinion made the introduction of such a Measure as this imperative. No impartial investigator would be able to deny that the present position as regards undertakers and consumers is very unsatisfactory. Indeed, this Bill might well be called the water consumers' charter of freedom. I expect that my experience is much the same as that of other hon. Members on both sides of the House, irrespective of Party. Inquiries and demands have reached me from residents' associations, ratepayers' associations, and officially from local authorities, and all ask that the statutory powers which we have granted in the past to water undertakers should be amended in the interests of the consumers. The demand is justified, insistent and overwhelming. If the House will allow me, I would like to read some small extracts from some of the demands with which I have been inundated in the past year. One is from a residents' association, which says:
Consumers of water supplied by the Sutton District Company are responsible for the maintenance and repair to pipes and connections between the water main pipes and their premises. This is considered to be harsh and unreasonable. Consumers are not in a position to inspect such pipes, etc., and cannot specify what materials are to be used for laying the road or sidewalk.
Another residents' association complains that
The further continual digging up and relaying roads and sidewalks for one purpose or another, i.e., gas, telephone, electricity, etc.,
is liable to damage the pipeline or stopcocks, in which case the consumer is called upon to pay.
Although not responsible for any damage done, he is called upon to pay not only for the reopening of the road, but for the repairs to the pipe itself. I would like to refer to a specific case which occurred in my division. A leakage of water occurred on 11th June, 1938. After examining the service at the residence of the consumer, the pipe leading from the main pipe, which was on the opposite of the road, the consumer was notified that it must be repaired within 48 hours or his water supply would be cut off. He refused to accept responsibility until it was established that the pipe or connection was faulty and that the damage was not caused by circumstances over which he had no control. There was a ditch adjacent to the water pipes before the road was made up, and it may well be that there had been a subsidence which caused the pipes to give way. Lastly, one of the local councils in my division approached me and sent me a copy of a letter which they had sent to the Minister of Health on this subject. They said they had had much correspondence with ratepayers' associations in the district, in which it was suggested that the undertaker should be responsible for all pipes and fittings up to the boundary of the consumer's property. They were in sympathy with this suggestion, having regard to the fact that statutory effect had already been given to their wishes in regard to the Metropolitan Water Board, which supplies water to part of the borough of Sutton. They asked that legislation should be introduced at an early date.
Here is the legislation. It is non-party, non-controversial, and has this perhaps unique characteristic, that it is welcomed not only by consumers of water but by suppliers of water as well. I suppose the greatest benefit which can be conferred on mankind is a plentiful, pure and convenient supply of water. That is a thing which has been recognised throughout the world since the earliest times. No one will deny that the water supply of this country is something of which, on the whole, we can be proud. Anyone who travels on the Continent knows that in most places it is dangerous to drink the water, but, generally speaking, we in this
country can drink water with impunity. Most of us have known foreigners who on coming to this country for the first time ask, "Is it quite safe to drink the water?" The answer, I am glad to say, is nearly always in the affirmative. Owing to the increase in the assessments of dwelling houses affected by the Rating and Valuation Act, 1925, there was an enormous windfall which accrued to the undertakers, which certainly they did not expect, and for which they had been put to no cost at all. This was the subject of a Question by my hon. Friend the Member for North Newcastle-on-Tyne (Sir N. Grattan-Doyle) to the then Minister of Health, now the Prime Minister. He asked:
whether he is aware that in consequence of the increase of assessments as the result of the Rating and Valuation Act. 1925, water rates where charged on rateable value will be automatically increased; and whether, seeing that no greater value is given for the increased charge, he proposes to introduce legislation with a view to an equitable adjustment?
The reply he got was:
I am aware of the position, and propose to continue to keep it under review. I hope that water undertakers generally can be relied upon to make reasonable reductions on their water rates and that the need for legislation will not arise."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 14th February, 1929; cols. 539-40, Vol. 225.
I think the need for legislation has arisen because not only in many cases does the consumer have to pay more for his water, but he has been and is still, liable for very heavy charges for the maintenance of his connections with the main, and for opening the road in case of damage, the amount of which he is quite unable to estimate and the cost of which should be borne by the undertaker.
Not directly, but I am pointing out that the user has a right to expect relief from one of the liabilities that he has to bear. The House should take notice of the report in 1929 of the sub-committee of the Advisory Committee on Water, appointed by the then Minister of Health. The position was most clearly stated, and my hon. Friend referred to the fact that I would give some extracts from that report in order that hon. Members might see that this committee, which went most carefully into the position, viewed the position
with some apprehension. It would be better for me to give the committee's own words. They referred to the existing position, and said:
Under the sections of the Waterworks Act, 1887, Clauses 48 to 53 "—
which are referred to in the Explanatory Memorandum of this Bill—
the new consumer is given the right, when he has paid the portion of the water rate which is payable in advance, to open the ground between his premises and the mains of the undertakers, and to lay the necessary supply pipe to communicate with those mains. He must first obtain the consent of the owners and occupiers of the ground affected, and must give the undertakers 14 days' notice of his intention. Provision is made for the regulation of the bore, strength and material of the pipes laid by him. The connection with the mains of the undertakers is to be made under their superintendence, subject to provision for cases of dispute.
They go on to say:
The consumer is expressly authorised to break up so much of the pavement of any street as lies between the mains and his premises, and any sewer or drain therein, provided that he does as little damage as may be and compensates where damage does, in fact, result. Generally, he is subject to the same conditions and restrictions in the execution of the work as the undertakers themselves. The work completed, and the water rate in respect of his premises paid, he is entitled to receive a sufficient supply of water for his domestic purposes. The pipes so laid may be removed by the consumer who has laid them, or who has become the proprietor of them, after due notice to the undertakers and subject to compensation for damage sustained by them as a result of the removal.
Can anything be more inequitable in the public interest that that? Here you have a consumer who owns the pipes. He may terminate his tenancy after due notice and, in addition, he may say that he is going to remove the pipes which belong to him. The committee quite obviously proposed that there should be revision.
The whole question of the breaking up of the roads was recognised by the committee as being important. Nowadays, the improved methods of road construction and the more durable nature of the material which is now used for the roads, firstly, makes it much more expensive and much more difficult, and a much longer job to break up a road, and secondly, permanent damage to the road may well result, and indeed does result, from the frequent breaking up. Heaven knows, our roads appear to be in a perpetual state of being broken up. We spend vast amounts of money upon them, and yet, as this House will bear witness, whether in the Metropolis or big cities or the country districts, ceaseless breaking up of the roads goes on. One day you may pass along a road and see it being relaid. A week or two later you pass along the same road and find some undertaker breaking it up. Common sense and efficiency demand that as few people as possible should be entitled to break up roads and highways.
The dense modern traffic and the greatly increased use of the roads demand that the public should have some safeguard in this matter, and that they should be inconvenienced as little as possible. In a busy city, the immense inconvenience which is occasioned to the average member of the public by the haphazard breaking-up of roads is something with which we are all familiar. The modern trend, I am glad to say, is to restrict the powers to break up roads to as few people as possible. I do not think that anybody in this House would deny that that is the right attitude. If they have to be broken up, then let as few people as possible be able to do it. I hope that one day, perhaps, we shall be able to see a city in which the gas, electricity and the water, and the cables for electric light and the telephone go through one or two big conduits which would exist permanently under the road, and could be got at without difficulty. It would be an immensely costly thing to inaugurate, but I often wonder why, when new districts are being laid out, it is not done.
As regards gas and electricity, the principle has already been given statutory application. Only as regards water does the practice vary. Indeed, to show how anomalous the position is, in some cases the initial laying of the water pipes and their maintenance falls upon the consumer. In other cases, the initial laying of the water pipe falls upon the consumer, but the undertaker carries out the maintenance, and yet again, in other cases, the undertaker shoulders the burden both of the cost of the original laying of the pipes and of their subsequent maintenance. I think that the work is better executed and that better materials are used if the undertaker alone is responsible for the carrying out of the work. There is something which, I think, is even more important. If the work is carried out by the undertaker you get standardised fittings used throughout the country. It is to the advantage of both the undertaker and the consumer that the water fittings should be standardised.
It cannot be equitable, for example, that consumers should have different liabilities and different responsibilities as regards the same supply of water. That such anomalies do exist is borne out by the very voluminous report of the subcommittee. They pointed out that in some cases the position was aggravated by the fact that the consumers whose pipes traverse the whole width of the highway have precisely the same liability for maintenance as those whose pipes do not underlie the highway at all. That cannot be equitable. A man has a house on one side of the street, and because the water main lies perhaps under the path on the other side of the street, he has the whole street width of pipe, which because of its greater length, is more liable to damage, as his responsibility. He is at the present time liable for damage to that and for the break-up of the road in order to get at it, whereas the man on the other side of the street may only have a very short length of pipe which runs to his house from the main in the path outside his gate. I do not think that anybody would argue that it is either right or proper that such a state of affairs should continue.
Much legislation passed by us in this House imposes fresh burdens upon the backs of the public, and very often makes fresh demands upon the purses and the resources of the public, burdens and demands which the public does not always appreciate. But this is not the case as regards this proposed legislation. Here we have an almost unique position. The burden is being removed from the backs of the citizens. It is being transferred to the backs of the undertakers. Not only is removal from the citizen demanded by the citizen, and not only will its removal be welcomed by the citizen, but there is no complaint from those undertakers upon whose back the burden is to be laid. That is something that we do not very often achieve in introducing legislation into this House.
This is a Bill in which as I said at the beginning, there is no question of controversy or dispute. It will be of in estimable benefit to thousands of house holders in this country, and for that reason, if for no other, I commend it to the House.
I should like to congratulate the hon. Member for Newport (Sir R. Clarry) upon using so well his success in the Ballot to bring in such a useful and unspectacular Bill. He might have chosen a Bill which would have got headlines in the newspapers and caused much excitement, together with multitudes of correspondence to Members of Parliament, and Lobbying and all the rest of it, but the hon. Gentleman, being of a peace-loving character, has introduced this Bill in an atmosphere of calm, which I do not think will be disturbed during the time of its passing through its Second Reading stage. If this had been a Bill concerning beer instead of water, the postbags of Members of this House would have been overflowing during the last few days, and no doubt there would have been a very much larger attendance than there is here this morning, and much excitement. Speaking as a member of the largest water authority in this country, the Metropolitan Water Board, I would like to say a few words on this Bill, which affects a thousand water supply authorities. The Metropolitan Water Board has no objection to this Bill. On the contrary, I think it will welcome it.
The Explanatory Memorandum which accompanies the Bill gives a perfectly fair statement of the case, without any bias. I have taken the opportunity of going through the Bill and drafting a summary of the advantages and the disadvantages that will accrue to the water authority and the consumer from this Measure. The advantages to the consumer are that there will be a relief of serious liability for repairs to pipes between the main in the street and his premises. There will be a removal of the difficulty associated with the opening up of streets by private individuals, and there will be promptitude of repair work under expert direction. The owner-occupier will be relieved of the cost of the maintenance of pipes in the street liable to be damaged through circumstances outside his control. There will also be the advantage of better work and materials by reason of the water authority's own interest in the effect on waste of bad work.
It is only fair to state the disadvantages. The Mover and Seconder of the Bill suggested that there were no disadvantages. The disadvantage to the water consumer is the possibility of an addition to his water rate by reason of the additional costs which will be thrown on the water authorities, and the consequent transfer of that cost to the general body of ratepayers. The water authority have to find their money from somewhere, and they find it through the water rate. Therefore, that is a disadvantage which has to be contemplated. I would, however, make this present to the Mover and Seconder of the Bill, that our experience in London does not bear out the suggestion of an increase in the water rate. On the contrary, since the Metropolitan Water Board took over these duties there has been a reduction. The advantages to the water authority of the proposed legislation is that the control of all pipes in the street must be of benefit in the control of waste. There will be greater expedition in repair work because of the statutory right of the water authority to break up streets. There will also be the standardising of pipes and the providing of better facilities for doing the work rather than by odd and miscellaneous plumbers or contractors. What is of very great importance to the water authorities, there will be definite knowledge of the position and layout of communication pipes in relation to mains.
There is another point, which the Mover and Seconder has not mentioned. For the past two days the House has been discussing at considerable length the question of air raid precautions, and the Debate has concerned itself, and rightly so, with the provision that can be made for the saving of human life. It should not be forgotten that in the event of war, if it ever unfortunately comes to this country, there will be a tremendous amount of waste, expense and confusion caused by the damage that will be done to water mains, electricity mains, gas mains and other things. Therefore, as under some authorities to-day, the maintenance of the water pipes in the street from the main to the premises of private individuals should be under the control of the water authorities, so that speedy repairs can be effected.
I am advised that there is a little doubt in regard to Clause 17 which defines the word "undertaker" and says that these provisions shall apply to undertakers within whose area of supply "provisions similar in effect" are in force. It is a small point but it has been raised by the advisers to the Metropolitan Water Board, who point out that although the provisions of the Board's Act of 1932 may be said to be "similar in effect" to those of this Bill, they are not exactly the same in view of the fact that Clause 4 contains a penalty provision which does not appear in the Metropolitan Water Board Act. Therefore, they wish it to be made clear that there is no doubt as to their absolute exemption from the provisions of the Bill.
I would make one final appeal to the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health. It is evident that the House will be unanimous about this Measure and that it will receive a Second Reading, but it is getting rather late in the Parliamentary Session for a Measure of this importance to get through as a Private Member's Bill. Therefore, I hope that not only will the Parliamentary Secretary say that the Government welcome the Bill, but that, in view of the unanimity of the House, they will go further and say that they will put their weight behind the Bill, in order that it may be placed on the Statute Book. No matter how good a Private Member's Bill may be it will not reach the Statute Book unless it is given Government facilities, and I am sure that I am speaking on behalf of hon. Members in all quarters of the House in saying that it is the general desire of the House and of the water authorities of the country that this Measure should be put on the Statute Book. I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will see his way not only to say the Government support the Bill, but that they will give facilities for its reaching the Statute Book.
I rise to support the Bill for two reasons. In the first place, it enables the Metropolitan Water Board to carry out its obligation and its undertaking that were made at the time when a Private Member brought in a Bill with the object of relieving owner-occupiers of premises from the liability for repairs in connection with pipes under the street, and to transfer that liability to the Board. In the second place, I support it because it relieves the owner-occupier of the responsibility of maintaining pipes, damage to which may be caused by forces over which he has no control. I had an experience in connection with my own house, where street repairs caused damage to the pipes and I was called upon to pay for the repairs. It is a good thing that there should be unified control and direction of the suppliers of water right from the reservoir to the houses. Water pipes do not last for ever. Certain pipes last 15 years and cast iron pipes last much longer. There is a liability on the owner at the present time to maintain his pipes, but under this Bill there will be an advantage for these people, who are now responsible for what may be very heavy repairs and maintenance charges. Therefore, I welcome the Bill.
There are several points which may be cleared up in the Committee stage. In Clause 3 there is a provision that:
If the undertakers refuse or neglect to provide and lay any communication pipe or apparatus or to connect any communication pipe with the main pursuant to the provisions of this subsection they shall be liable to forfeit to the consumer a sum of five pounds and a further sum of forty shillings for every day during which such refusal or neglect shall continue and such penalties shall be recoverable in a summary manner.
It is difficult to determine what constitutes a "refusal," or what constitutes "neglect," and I think that some more specific provision will be required. On page 3 of the same Clause these words appear:
If the undertakers require a separate service pipe to be laid as aforesaid they shall provide and lay with all reasonable dispatch so much of such separate service pipe as constitutes a communication pipe and may make such reasonable charges for so doing as they shall think fit and the amount of such charges shall be paid to the undertakers by the owner of the house to which the service pipe is required to be laid and may be recovered by them from him summarily as a civil debt.
I do not think the same authority which does the work should decide what is a reasonable charge. I might dispute the charge as being unreasonable, and I think there should be some provision for an appeal against what may be an exorbitant charge. I hope, also, that Sub-section (3) of this Clause has not been put in as a means of enabling a water board to collect its rates. Sub-section (3) reads:
Where on the commencement of this Act two or more houses were being supplied with water by a single service pipe, the undertakers shall not require the provision 01 separate service pipes for those houses until either—
I draw particular attention to paragraphs (b) and (c). I do not know why they appear in the Bill. The water supply of two houses may be connected; one has paid the water rate and the other has not. In that case there is no means of using the power of cutting off the water supply, because if you cut off the water supply from one house you cut it off from the other. I hope the Bill is not a debt-collecting device to enable a water board to say that if a householder has not paid his water rate and is connected with another house, it will be compelled to put in a new pipe for which the householder will have to pay. That is a way of ensuring that every householder pays his rates. I hope in Committee the promoters will give a right of appeal against what may be an exorbitant charge, and possibly clear up the other point I have mentioned, so as not to allow the Bill to be used as a means of coercing a ratepayer to pay his rate.
The Bill has been so ably expounded by the hon. Member for Newport (Sir R. Clarry) and the hon. and gallant Member for Epsom (Sir A. Southby), as well as by the hon. Member for Tottenham North (Mr. R. C. Morrison), that it would seem that any further argument is unnecessary, but I think there are certain points which may still be emphasised with advantage to any hon. Member who has not given the Bill very careful consideration. We are influenced in our approach to the Measure by the fact that its main principles have already been approved by Parliament and embodied in the Metropolitan Water Board Act, which was passed as recently as 1932. It was then agreed that the obligation to maintain these communication pipes should pass from the property owner to the water supply authority. It is true that the original expense of laying communication pipes will still be borne by the consumer, but thereafter the Bill will relieve the consumer of very heavy liabilities as the water supply authority becomes responsible for the maintenance of the pipes, and also for the very substantial charges for remaking the roadway and pathways after renewals and repairs have been made, and which are rendered necessary by the ever increasing volume of traffic on our roads.
The Bill quite definitely enables water supply authorities to give the public a much more efficient service. The hon. Member for North Tottenham, with his great experience as a member of the Metropolitan Water Board, summarised very well the advantages which will accrue to the community as a result of this Bill. The control of communication pipes will mean early detection of any faults and the avoidance of waste which goes on at present on a considerable scale. As a matter of fact, the Bill will make for economy which in all our services is so necessary and essential. Again, we shall avoid, if we pass the Bill, the indiscriminate breaking up of the roads. This may not be so bad at the present time, but a few years ago all sorts of irresponsible persons seemed to have the right to open up the streets. In London not so long ago a practical joker came along with a barrow and two shovels, squatted in a main thoroughfare, and proceeded to open up the road without anybody asking him his business. If we pass the Bill we shall remove this kind of individual. You will also get the great advantage of standardised pipes and fittings, which again means economy for the householder and the water supply authority.
There will also be better facilities for the work of the company to be done as compared with the many small contractors and amateur plumbers who often undertake this work at present. A great deal of plumbing work is done in this country by men who have not the training or experience required for these important tasks, which very often means the protection of the health of the community. The time will come when all plumbers will have to be registered and to hold certificates, but in the meantime, this Bill ensures that repair work will be done by authorities employing highly skilled men and using the best materials for the jobs. It is of supreme importance to the water companies and the local authorities to know exactly the layout of the pipes, but the Bill will also be of economic advantage to the community as a whole. The House will realise that other advantages to the community will accrue from this Bill. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Epsom has referred to the opening up of streets. A single obstruction of this nature in a street may delay the passage of all the traffic from one part of a district to another. As a result of this Bill, the water boards will be able to plan work on a considerable scale, and no doubt they will deal with groups of houses together, so that the obstruction will be reduced to a minimum.
One matter to which reference has not been made is the significance of this Bill from the point of view of public health. With leaking pipes and unskilled plumbers, there is always the danger of a contamination of the water supplies. I do not need to remind the House of the recent epidemic at Croydon, which demonstrated so frightfully the danger of water-borne infection. It may be said that this Bill deals only with individual houses, but if there is a case of typhoid fever in a house where perhaps the householder is employed in a dairy or a restaurant, that man as a carrier of disease may affect a large part of the community. Therefore, the Bill will safeguard not merely single houses, but it may be a whole town.
I would remind the House that it is 10 years since the Advisory Committee on water supplies appointed by the Ministry of Health recommended that work involving interference with the mains should be confined, as far as possible, to Statutory or public authorities, to the exclusion of private householders. It was three years later that the Metropolitan Water Board secured for Greater London such advantages as are now afforded generally by the Bill we are discussing. Since that time, other boards and corporations have acquired similar powers under such Bills as the South East Essex Water Act, 1936, and the Barnet and District Gas and Water Act, 1937 This brings me to the fact that the Bill will apply so widely that every Member of the House is immediately and personally concerned. No one can exaggerate the advantages that the Bill will confer, from the point of view of efficiency, on the administration of water supplies all over the country. It will standardise the practice of over 1,000 water authorities—545 local authorities, 15 joint boards operating under the Public Health Acts, and a further 466 local authorities and water companies having special water Acts. As the Bill will secure uniformity of practice and greater efficiency, I think it deserves to be given a Second Reading.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newport (Sir R. Clarry) deserves to be congratulated upon introducing a Bill which—although its provisions are extremely limited, will, if passed, be of great benefit to millions of consumers who receive their water supplies from public bodies—local authorities and water companies. I am very glad to find myself in agreement with the hon. Member for North Tottenham (Mr. R. C. Morrison). The hon. Member is a member of the Metropolitan Water Board, and I have the privilege of being a member of the Thames Conservancy Board. Those two bodies are responsible for the water supplies of London. I wonder how many Londoners realise how much they depend upon the River Thames, from which the bulk of their water supply comes. If that river were to dry up, London would perish. The duty of the Thames Conservancy Board is to ensure that the supply of water to London is as regular and as pure as possible. The Board maintains a large staff of inspection officers for the purpose of ensuring that as little contamination as possible, and if possible no contamination, occurs in the river. If anybody builds a house in the Thames valley, a very short time after the foundations are laid, or even before they are laid, he is visited by a member of the Board's staff, who sees that the sanitary arrangements are such as not to produce any contamination of the river.
The hon. Member for North Tottenham mentioned clearly and convincingly the advantages that this Bill will confer both on the supplier and the consumer, and the hon. and gallant Member for Blackburn (Captain Elliston) also referred to some of its advantages. The hon. Member for North Tottenham spoke of the very important question of waste. That is a matter which becomes very important in years of drought. Recently, there has been a series of dry years. [Interruption.] We are not at present speaking of beer. The question of the water supply of London became rather serious, and warnings were issued by the Metropolitan Water Board. This Bill will do a great deal to reduce the possibility of waste. It will enable the Metropolitan Water Board and other boards more easily to detect waste and to prevent it. One result of the years of drought and the serious position which they created was to induce the Metropolitan Water Board to begin the construction of two additional reservoirs. The Board have at present a very fine system of reservoirs—for instance, the Staines reservoir—and now they are adding two new large reservoirs. But, after all, the capacity of the system is limited, and it behoves the consumers to do what they can to reduce the possibilities of waste. It seems to be thought sometimes that the effect of waste is felt only by the suppliers, but in the long run it may be of serious consequence to the consumers. At one time 0what was the condition of the river? It was practically a series of almost stagnant pools from the source at Teddington, and instead of the average flow of 1,000 million gallons a day at Teddington, the outflow was reduced to a comparative trickle.
The hon. Member for North Tottenham has mentioned the number of authorities and other bodies that would be affected by the Bill. I believe that the exact number of public bodies, including local authorities, that would be affected, is 1,011, of which some 790 are local authorities. Mention of these figures shows how far-reaching the effect of this Bill would be. Of those 790 authorities some 60 are in the Thames Valley. So far as I know, only the Metropolitan Water Board enjoys the privileges that this Bill will confer upon public bodies. As we see in the Memorandum, those privileges were obtained by the Metropolitan Water Board by the Bill of 1932. This Bill seems likely to receive the unanimous approval of the House and it is evident that the Bill is an excellent example of legislative co-operation between the supplier and the consumer. So far as I can see there is only one objection to the Bill, and that is that it is so far-reaching in its provisions that some may say it ought to be a Government Measure. It is quite possible for the Government to make it so, by amendment if necessary and by benevolent help in Committee. I sincerely hope that the Government will see its way to adopt the Bill and pass it into law.
I wish to support the Second Reading of the Bill. There are one or two points which I want to bring to the notice of my hon. Friend who moved the Second Reading. They are points which deserve consideration in the passage of the Bill to the Statute Book. In my constituency we have a very fine modern water supply, which gives a very good supply of soft water to the consumers, and as a matter of fact the undertakers do maintain and repair the communication pipes which they have actually laid. Under the Bill, in cases where the communication pipes have to be turned over to the undertaker, is it fair that the undertaker should be given the control of maintenance and repair of those pipes which have been put in by a consumer, the consumer, it may be, having had to consider merely the initial cost of putting in the pipes and not necessarily the maintenance and repair of the pipes or their durability. It seems to me that consideration should be given to that point. To large undertakers this will not involve a very big problem, but a small undertaking taking over these communication pipes might suddenly find itself faced with a very big outlay in supplying new pipes or replacing pipes which have rotted or decayed or for other reasons require renewal. In such circumstances small undertakings might very well find themselves put in a very awkward position financially. I should be glad if consideration could be given to that point.
I agree with everything that has been said with reference to communication pipes being controlled by the water undertakings and the taking away of liability from the consumers, but I feel that in specially hard cases small undertakings should be given a reasonable time, say two or three years, for repayment of the money they would have to expend on renewal of pipes. It is a point that should be considered, though I realise that it is a Committee point rather than one affecting the principle of the Bill.
There is one other matter I ask my hon. Friend to consider. Can he give the water undertakings an idea as to what their responsibilities are to be in dealing with these communication pipes? I am now referring to the stopcocks mentioned in Clause 10. As far as I can see, this Clause is of a compulsory nature. I understand my hon. Friend's reasons for wishing to have some standardisation in the placing of these stopcocks, but I would point out the wording of Clause 10 (2):
Every stopcock fitted on a service pipe after the commencement of this Act shall be placed as follows.
It goes on to say that where the premises supplied abut on the street in which the main is laid:
the stopcock shall be placed in those premises, and as near to the street as is reasonably practicable.
As far as I can understand these words, it is proposed to lay down arbitrarily the exact position where the stopcock should be placed. Perhaps my hon. Friend would let us know whether this is intended to be compulsory or not, but there is an idea among some water undertakers that this Sub-section will interfere with the rights of undertakers or the people controlling these communications in regard to the placing of stopcocks.
If my hon. and gallant Friend reads Sub-section (1) he will see that it provides that the undertakers "shall" do this in the case of new communications, but that they "may" do it in the case of existing pipes.
I thank my hon. Friend for clearing up that point, but I am not yet sure how you can lay down in an Act of Parliament, in the case of new communications, exactly where a stopcock is to be put—for instance, whether it is to be on one side of the road or the other. In actual practice when the undertaker comes to do the actual work on the spot, he may find that there is a suitable place for the stopcock, but that he is not allowed to put it there.
I have tried to bring forward one or two points which I have been asked to place before the House and bring to the notice of my hon. Friend the Member for Newport (Sir R. Clarry). I am sure that he will give them due consideration, and thus relieve the doubts which are felt by the people on whose behalf I am speaking. The principle of the Bill is one that most water undertakers will support. They have long desired to see this principle embodied in a Bill, and it seems to me that, generally speaking, this is a Measure which would be of the greatest use to the community as a whole. There are many instances of the inconvenience caused to local authorities where there is a large number of consumers, in the matter of taking up roads in order to deal with water communications. I hope, therefore, that the House will unanimously support the Bill, and that it will soon be placed on the Statute Book.
This Bill, so far, has had a very smooth passage. It is true that there have been criticisms of detail, but the principle has met with general approval. There is a saying, however, that a man should beware when all speak well of him, and I wonder whether there is not lurking somewhere in the background some threat to this Bill. A rumour has reached me that at least one hon. Member is prepared to fight it almost to the last ditch. I hope, however, after the way in which the Bill has been received this morning, that it will not only run the gauntlet successfully in the House to-day, but will receive from the Ministry the practical support necessary to enable it to reach the Statute Book. The Bill embodies a reform which has been too long delayed. It is over 10 years since a committee appointed by the Ministry of Health reported upon this matter and made recommendations upon the lines of the Bill. This is one more example of how slowly the mills of legislation grind.
There have been many well-deserved congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Newport (Sir R. Clarry) for having introduced this Bill, and I think the House finds it a relief to be dealing to-day with peaceful domestic legislation of a more useful kind. I only wish there were more opportunities for this House to deal with matters on which Members of all parties agree, instead of spending so much time in sham fights. There are occasions when these benches are crowded, but what is the practical result of the Debates upon those occasions? As regards the great majority of citizens the results are practically nil. This morning, we are dealing with a matter which will affect the lives of hundreds of thousands of our fellow-citizens, but the House is comparatively empty.
I am sorry that the hon. Member for Chester-le-Street (Mr. Lawson) should have tried to interfere with the way in which I am endeavouring to present my case, and it is particularly hard lines that this should be my fate, because, as hon. Members opposite are well aware, I am a fairly regular attender at our debates, and I have listened to very long speches from the other side when I have on many occasions, as you Mr. Speaker, know, myself desired to take part in the debate; and I think that on one of the few occasions when I have been fortunate enough to catch the Speaker's eye and to make a speech, which I ask hon. Members to believe I am making in all sincerity, I should be allowed to continue without unnecessary interruption.
This Bill interests me from various points of view. I welcome it, because it is one of those rare occasions when the consumer really comes into his own. So much of our modern legislation is entirely for the benefit of the producer, and the consumer is largely ignored, Nay, he is the milch cow who is exploited so often for the benefit of the producer I think that in legislation we ought to pay attention to the consumer, because we are all consumers of some commodity or another, and there is no particular commodity of which this is more true than water. Everybody in these islands is affected by legislation that deals with water, and I am glad that legislation of this kind is contemplated now, because, as a member of two local authorities, I am very well aware of the great progress that is being made in my own area— and I think that is true also of other areas—in the extension of water supplies. One never attends, in these days, a meeting of one's own county council without having brought before that body proposals for the supply of water to rural districts in the area, and there are growing up new estates for which water has also to be supplied. Therefore, it is right that advantage should be taken of the progress that is being made, quite rightly, in the extension of water supplies to see that a square deal is given to consumers and that the arrangements as between undertakers and consumers are put on a right and proper basis.
This Bill does that. It is remarkable, as has been pointed out, that this Bill is welcomed alike by consumers and by undertakers, and the question naturally arises, whenever any Bill is brought before this House, Who is to pay, on whom will the burden fall? Quite clearly, the burden this time will be transferred from the consumer to the undertaker, and the question then arises, Are the undertakers in a position to bear this burden? I think that all the evidence goes to show that they are. We had the very valuable evidence given by the hon. Member for North Tottenham (Mr. R. C. Morrison) that the Metropolitan Water Board already act in accordance with the provisions outlined in this Bill and that they are able to meet these charges without any increase in the water rate. I think that what is true of the Metropolitan Water Board ought to be true, and can indeed be true, of every water undertaking in these islands, because I think it will be found that so far as local authorities are concerned there is every year a considerable surplus of profit on their water undertakings. Indeed, in many areas it is the practice of the local authority, when the expenditure has mounted up rather unduly and the finance committee are alarmed at the amount of additional rates that will have to be imposed, to take advantage of what is quite clearly a nest egg and to take something out of the profits of the water undertaking for the relief of the rates, so that it is clear from practice that water undertakings can take on this perfectly reasonable liability from the consumer without having to pass on the cost to the consumer in increased rates. Indeed, by anticipation, under the increased assessments to which attention has already been drawn, they were provided with more than sufficient means to deal with this particular matter.
I would, therefore, like to commend this Bill to the House as a Measure which, while it may not be very spectacular, will be of real and lasting benefit to a great many people in these islands. It will remove anomalies, it will remove injustices, it will bring all undertakings into line with those which by Statute have been able to provide for their water consumers the benefits which this Bill proposes to extend to all; and I would appeal to the Government to take cognisance of the support which this Bill is receiving from all quarters of this House, the very great support that there is for it in the country, and also the fact that those on whom the burden imposed by the Bill falls raise no objection to it. This is a piece of useful legislation which I am sure the House will do itself credit by passing and the Government will gain general approval by supporting in its safe passage on to the Statute Book.
On a point of Order. As there has, obviously, been no opposition to the Bill from this side of the House, as no opposition has been disclosed in any other part of the House, and as it is clear that hon. Members opposite are finding it increasingly difficult to find new points to discuss, would it not be better if we found out on this side of the House what is the attitude of the Government toward the Bill, because that might relieve some of us from the necessity of listening to further repetition?
If the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Bevan), who put the point of Order, had listened to only one speech, he would have learned what the Bill was about, but before I sit down I will endeavour to enlighten him myself. The hon. Member for North Tottenham (Mr. R. C. Morrison), who
is a leading member of the Metropolitan Water Board, raised a rather important point of interpretation which is of interest both to him and to me. In Clause 17 the word "undertaker" is defined. It means
any local authority…within whose limits of supply as defined by any such Act or Order provisions similar in effect to the provisions of this Act are not in force at the commencement of this Act.
In other words, where these powers are already in existence through other Acts, the provisions of this Bill will not apply. They are in operation so far as the Metropolitan Water Board is concerned, and I hope that the Minister will take note of it in view of possible legisation next Session. In the area of the Metropolitan Water Board the provisions of the Bill are already in operation, while in Croydon they are not. In the next Session a Bill is likely to be introduced under which the Croydon undertaking will be transferred from the local authority to that great body, the Metropolitan Water Board. The important point is whether, where a transfer of that kind takes place, the provisions of this Bill will automatically apply in the Croydon case. We have to be certain that the Bill covers that point, otherwise we may find a serious gap. I am glad that the hon. Member raised that point of interpretation, because it is one that must be looked into both by my hon. Friend who promoted the Bill and the Government Department which has to make sure that it passes into law in a proper manner.
For the benefit of the hon. Gentleman opposite who raised the point of Order, I would explain that in the case of water, as distinct from gas and electricity, the means of communication between the public main and the internal circuit of pipes are provided by the owner of the property, and not by the utility undertaking. This has many disadvantages, and my hon. Friend has introduced this Bill to correct what is not merely an anomaly but something much worse. The Debate this morning has ranged round not merely the desirability of the change, but some of the consequencies that will result from it. I hope that the hon. Gentleman the Member for Chester-le-Street (Mr. Lawson), who is not now listening, is quite clear what the Bill will do. Since he made the request to know what the Bill is about, I think he might be a little more courteous than he is being at the moment. He asked a question and I have given the answer, but as he has not heard the answer he will have the opportunity of asking the question of somebody else later on.
In addition to this advantage which the Bill confers on the consumer—an advantage not of initial capital expenditure, but of subsequent maintenance—the consumer is deprived of a right which he now enjoys, which is an undesirable right from the community point of view, which makes him an addition to the number of people who have the right to break up the roads. The breaking up of roads is one of the greatest hindrances to traffic and is a costly process. The right of breaking up roads is now vested in the Postmaster-General, water, gas and electricity undertakings, hydraulic companies, and also the public health authorities who are responsible for drains and sewers. There is a point in that connection about which I am not clear. Although I am delighted to be a backer of the Bill so far as the principle is concerned, the Bill was not drafted when I gave my name to it, and I had no opportunity of playing any part in its drafting. I am not clear whether the communications of sewers are in the same position as water pipes. I think that my hon. Friend ought to look into it, for it is a matter of considerable substance and the same principle is at stake. When houses are built the obligation is on the builder to provide the communications to the main sewer, and that anomaly presumably will still remain. These sets of pipes sometimes almost join one another and the same trench is used for both. There is thus an engineering problem which needs considering, and I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will look into it, because it may be necessary to go a little further than we have done in the Bill.
Only last week the House decided, in response to a message from another place, to appoint a number of our colleagues to sit with a number of Members of the other place on a joint committee of both Houses to deal with the difficult problem of mains and cables in the highways. They will commence a difficult investigation into the subject matter that we are considering to-day, although in a wider aspect.
Nothing in this Bill, as far as I can see is likely to conflict with that inquiry, but I would urge my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to ascertain whether there is likely to be any conflict, because it would be rather tragic if, as a result of the proceedings of that committee, my hon. Friend had to withdraw this Bill. This complicated subject has been under discussion for the last ten years between the public utility undertakings and the highway authorities. The highway authorities are generally the county councils and the county borough councils, and the owners of undertakings are municipal boroughs and urban districts. We get therefore, a split in the municipal interests, and on the same side as the municipal trading undertakings are the company undertakings which are all concerned in the grave problem that arises out of the digging up of our streets. I hope that my hon. Friend will look carefully into that point.
The hon. Member for North Tottenham pointed out that apparently there would be no net gain to the consumer in the change proposed, and that, so far as the water undertaking assumes a burden which in the past has been discharged by the consumer, the net effect will be a transfer of the expenditure to the consumer from one form to another form since the only source of revenue of the water undertaking is the water rate. Actually, however, I think there is likely to be a net gain. The standardisation which has been mentioned by the hon. and gallant Member who seconded the Motion will be most helpful. The standard of maintenance will be higher and more economical than it has been in the past, and I gather from the speech of the hon. Member for North Tottenham that that has been the experience of the Metropolitan Water Board. Even where there is a slight increase in the total burden, I think it will represent a material advantage to the consumer, because if he has to pay for a renewal it may be to him a large sum coming unexpectedly. On balance, there will be under the Bill the smallest fraction of an increase spread over the year in the incidence of the water rate, so that the consumer will in fact be paying an insurance premium of a small amount to meet the rather heavy emergency when it arises. In that case, even if the actual cost in the long run is a little higher, it will be advantageous to the consumer, who might otherwise have a heavy burden unexpectedly thrown on to him.
There are one or two Committee points which I want to raise because, if they are raised now, warning will be given to everyone to look into them. One or two Clauses state that undertakers may make reasonable charges. In other words, the undertaker does the work and sends in the bill, and presumably he is to be the judge of what are reasonable charges, though further on I see a provision that the charges may be recovered summarily as a civil debt, and so perhaps the court will decide whether the charges are reasonable. But I think we ought to consider whether the undertaker should not be required to quote a price before the work is done so that the consumer shall know what he is in for. I am not one of those who suggest that when public utility undertakings do work of this kind they are unreasonable or exacting, but this Bill does seem to hand the consumer over to the undertaking in rather too rigid a manner. Another point about which I am not clear is whether the power to recover summarily as a civil debt means a process before a court of summary jurisdiction or before a county court. I gather now from what I hear that it means the consumer can be summoned before the magistrates, and I am a little doubtful whether they are an appropriate body to decide whether the charge is reasonable. The work of magistrates is not extensively concerned with this kind of thing, and I should not have thought that a magistrates' court was necessarily the right court.
I have had occasion to visit the police courts so seldom that, of
course, I have not the extensive knowledge of their procedure that some Members may have. There is one Clause which frankly I do not understand. The hon. and gallant Member for Cambridge (Lieut.-Commander Tufnell) made an eloquent speech upon stopcocks and where they should be situated. Perhaps hon. Members will examine paragraph (a) of Clause 10 (2). I have read it through two or three times, and though it may be clear, it is not yet clear to me. It says—
(a) Where the premises supplied or to be supplied, or any intervening premises through which the service pipe is, or is to be laid, abut on the street in which the main is laid, and the service pipe enters or is to enter those premises otherwise than through the outer wall of a building abutting on the street the stopcock shall be placed in those premises, and as near to the street as is reasonably practicable;
Lawyers may be able to interpret that, but I cannot, and I would ask my hon. Friend to examine the drafting of that paragraph to see whether it cannot be made a little more clear. In Clause 11 we have the point about reasonableness, which has already been referred to, occurring again. A further point concerns the definition of the word "street," which appears in the Interpretation Clause. I think the definition there is a little unusual, but perhaps the hon. Member who has already intervened may be able to contribute to our information again. It says:—
The Joint Select Committee, of which I was a member, upon the Public Health Act of last Session had to define a street for certain purposes in that Act and I think the definition there is much simpler than this one and I would ask my hon. Friend to look into that matter also. There is a point of drafting in Clause 16 to which some attention might be given. I happen to be connected with the electricity supply industry. In Clause 16 there is the customary protective subsection for electricity undertakings. Electricity undertakings are carried on under the general powers given by the Electricity Acts. Municipal undertakings, generally speaking, obtain their powers
by a Provisional Order, and so, also, do some companies, but other companies have obtained an Act of Parliament which confers upon them certain powers in addition to the general powers under the Electricity Acts. The safeguarding words in this Bill will cover powers which are derived directly from the Electricity Acts but do not deal with companies which have been brought into being by a separate Act of Parliament, and I would, therefore, ask my hon. Friend to consider inserting the words "or under the provisions of any private Acts" at the end of paragraph (ii) in Clause 16. I feel that such words are necessary in order that this Bill, which deals with one set of public utilities, should not conflict with the interests of other public utilities which also have obligations to the public.
(whether the same be or be not dedicated to public use).
I think my hon. Friend is to be congratulated upon having used his opportunity in the Ballot to introduce not one of those Bills which, as another hon. Member has said, lead to great excitement in the House but achieve little, but a Bill intended to bring about a definite reform affecting many millions of people. But this in one way it is a definite and simple reform, its reactions are yet so complicated that it has involved the drafting of a Bill of 18 Clauses—and difficult drafting, I should imagine. The innumerable sub-headings to Clauses show the number of cases in which we are amending public Acts, and therefore though this is a small Friday Bill dealing with what is a simple problem, it raises difficulties from the point of view of legal interpretation. I hope that when the Minister speaks he will give us an undertaking, first, that he will support the Bill, secondly that he will do his best to persuade the Patronage Secretary to provide it with facilities, if necessary, and, thirdly, that the services of the Parliamentary Counsel and other officials in his office will be available for my hon. Friend in order to put right any points of drafting which require attention, because it is important, when private Members introduce Bills which are to become law, that the draftsmanship should be just as careful as though the Bill had been presented by the Government, with all the resources which they have at their disposal.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Newport (Sir R. Clarry) on bringing forward a Bill to deal with this subject which, though it may be wet in one way, is in another sense one of the driest. The discussion this morning has shown the great interest which is taken in the water supplies of the country, and the figures quoted show that something like three quarters of our population is dependent upon certain undertakings for water supplies. Until 1929, the cost of water supply was undoubtedly in a chaotic state. In that year appeared the report of the Departmental Committee set up by the Ministry of Health, which suggested what the Bill is attempting to put into practice and what the hon. Member for North Tottenham (Mr. R. C. Morrison) has pointed out has been put into practice by the Metropolitan Water Board's own legislation. Other authorities have brought Measures into this House putting into effect certain of the recommendations of that report. I understand that all hon. Members directly or indirectly connected with water undertakings welcome the Bill. It was very interesting to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor (Mr. A. Somerville), who is connected with the Thames Conservancy Board, welcome the Bill, as did the hon. Member for North Tottenham, who is associated with the Metropolitan Water Board. They are, undoubtedly, the two greatest water authorities in the world. I welcome the Bill on behalf of Manchester, which has the best water supply in the world. Nobody realises the truth of this fact better than a man who has been brought up in Manchester and, having moved from that area, has to drink water provided by other undertakers.
Whenever we entertain guests in Manchester we never inflict upon them the necessity of drinking water, at least not in its pure state. They probably knew my hon. Friend. I was pointing out that, so far as I could gather from those who have spoken, everyone welcomes the Bill. Some hon. Members have pointed out matters for improvement in the Bill. Undoubtedly there are points at which improvement could be effected. The hon. Member for North Tottenham was the first to examine the Bill in detail, and he referred to Clause 17 and to the word "undertakers." That point has been fairly dealt with by my hon. Friend the Member for South Croydon (Mr. H. G. Williams), and I do not intend to carry it further. Another hon. Member, before we came into the House, expressed his astonishment that the interpretation Clause contained no definition of water. I am not surprised. It would be most difficult to define water, because there are many varieties of it in the country. I have already pointed out that the water supply of Manchester is much different in character from that supplied in London. A definition of water would interest only those who were prepared to drink a lot of water, and I am not interested in that definition at all; but I am interested in questions of costs and charges, and of apportioning such charges.
The Bill sets out that a local authority or undertaker who carries out certain work shall be entitled to recover certain debts, but there is nothing new in that principle. The hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede), who is connected with the Surrey County Council, pointed out that that has been done for years by courts of summary jurisdiction under the Streets Act. In Manchester and Stock-port lay magistrates regularly, as I know from personal experience, deal with matters relating to streets that have been taken up by local authorities and with questions of sewers and the proportioning of costs, where difficult points arise. As a lay magistrate, my experience is that those matters are handled exceedingly well and that no fair-minded man, be he lawyer or layman, could quarrel with the way in which they are handled. The person who has to foot the bill is always allowed to put in the defence that the cost is excessive, exactly as he may do in the county court or the High Court. The provisions of the Bill relating to recovery of debts are not as harsh as they would seem from the phrasing of the Clauses. In practice I have never heard any complaint of the way in which questions of costs and charges have been handled by lay magistrates.
Some people think that these matters would be handled much better by a stipendiary or a judge of the High Court or county court, but I do not agree with them. This is not a matter of law. Questions of cost and of amount have nothing to do with the law. As soon as it is admitted that the person who has been brought before the court owes something, the legal part of the matter ends. What takes the time of the court is whether the bill is fair or harsh and whether the work has been done and discharged, and so on. Those are not legal matters but are purely commercial. Differently from what was suggested by an hon. Member I think that the best man to deal with such a question as costs for road-making, and so on, is undoubtedly a layman who has had experience of such matters in private life. That is what happens in Manchester and the surrounding area, and I have never heard any complaint. I agree that it would, perhaps, be safer in the general interest to put in an Amendment in the Committee stage so that there may be an appeal for a person who has to pay, in order to ensure that he will not be overcharged, although, upon my own reading of the Clause, I see no danger of that kind whatever.
Another rather interesting point was raised by the hon. Member for North Tottenham. He said that the only criticism of the Bill from the consumers' point of view was that there might be an addition to the water rate, which would be a disadvantage. Of course it would. Any addition to rates is a disadvantage to the ratepayer. Everyone knows that in some parts of the country to-day there is a great outcry against any increase in rates. We all want to pay as little rates as we possibly can. When I come to consider the possibility of an addition to the water rates, I ask, Is it a disadvantage? No, because the water rate is borne by the whole body of consumers. Under the present system the occupier or owner of a house has to bear the total cost of the supply pipes from the water mains to his premises. It may be that, if a man who is not wealthy is suddenly faced with a bill for, say, £15 in respect of his own premises, it would be much more severe to him than a slight addition to his water rate, which he would pay quarterly, half-yearly or yearly. In any case, the addition to the water rate is not borne simply by one consumer, but is borne by the whole body of consumers in the area controlled by the undertaking. Although, therefore, one must agree with the hon. Member for North Tottenham that there is the possibility of such an increase, I think that, when the two points of view are considered, the Bill will put a far smaller burden on the consumer than is the case to-day.
The hon. Member for North Tottenham also mentioned the reassessments following the Act of 1925. There is no doubt that from that valuation the water undertakings received an unexpected windfall, and it is only just that part of it should be returned to the consumer if possible. The Bill provides an indirect method of doing that by transferring the cost of this essential service to a certain extent at least, from the shoulders of the consumer to the broader shoulders of the undertakers. The hon. Member has apparently overlooked the possibility that, if the reassessment of 1925 provided such a windfall for the undertakers, something of the same kind might occur again, thus permitting the undertakers to pass on still further benefits to the consumers. Generally speaking, the Bill is undoubtedly an improvement on what happens to-day in many local authority areas.
Even at the present time there are, as has been pointed out, some 100 undertakings which carry out what is adumbrated in the Bill, and they will not be affected. There are about 130 other undertakings which do not carry out these provisions. When I consider, as an independent person so far as the supply of water in this country is concerned, that among the authorities who are carrying out these provisions to-day are the Metropolitan Water Board and the Manchester Corporation, I am forced willy-nilly to support a Bill of this character, because I know that by doing so I am merely extending the advantage which I enjoy in Manchester and in London to those people in other areas who ought to share the advantages of a better water supply. Several other points have been raised, but I do not want to deal with them, because they are Committee points. I would, however, say that the hon. Members who have raised these points at the present juncture have undoubtedly done a service to those responsible for the Bill, by giving them an opportunity of considering the points in the meantime, and also by giving to the Parliamentary Secretary an opportunity to consider them and to take note of the suggestion of the hon. Member for North Tottenham that the Government should give every possible opportunity and facility for the Bill to be passed speedily and take its place on the Statute Book.
There seems to be general agreement that this is a good Bill. Certainly it has been ably moved and seconded, and there seems to be no serious difference of opinion as to its merits, but there are one or two points which I should like to mention. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Epsom (Sir A. Southby) said that it was a non-party and non-controversial Bill, and that it was welcomed by consumers and undertakers alike. I confess that, having started to read through the Bill, I thought it very likely, as I worked through it, that it had been received as a non-party Measure, because it appears to me that some of it requires a little trouble to understand, and I do not think that many people have really got to the end of the Bill. That is borne out by the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for South Croydon (Mr. H. G. Williams), who has been here this morning and has taken part in the Debate, said that there was one Clause in the Bill which he had not been able to understand. As I understand it, the Bill unifies the law, so that all those concerned will know where they are. The Metropolitan Water Board is exempted because, as has been pointed out already by the hon. Member for North Tottenham (Mr. R. C. Morrison), it has promoted its own Bill, which does for its area what I understand this Bill, if passed, will do for the rest of the country. The explanatory Memorandum says that:
The object of the present Bill is to make applicable to water supply undertakers generally a new code of enactments placing upon the undertakers, instead of the consumers, the power and duty of laying the communication pipes, and the work of breaking up and reinstating the highway for that purpose.
I agree with the suggestion, which has been made by several hon. Members, that there should be as few authorities as possible who are allowed to break up the roads; but I would go further and say that, the roads having been broken up, as many authorities as possible should be put on to the work of repairing them. It seems to me that very often, having got the road up, they mark time, and a considerable interval elapses before any
thing further is done. Towards the end of the Memorandum there is this statement:
In the case of new services the person requiring the supply will be called upon to pay the reasonable charges of the undertakers for laying the communication pipe and connecting it to the main, but he will be relieved of any responsibility for its maintenance and repair.
That is to say, the burden is transferred to the undertaker, as my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Epsom has said. The hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Lipson) went still further, and said that the consumer is really coming into his own. While, however, I agree that the Bill is a good Bill, I cannot think that all this is being done merely with an eye to the consumer coming into his own. It is a long time since we have seen the consumer coming into his own. [An Hon Member: "You know your friends."] I hope so; I learn by degrees. It seems to me that the Bill covers all districts. I have been asked whether it applies to rural districts. It seems to me that it must. Some owners of estates or farms who have themselves put in connecting pipes, sometimes for a distance of a quarter of a mile, half a mile or more, are anxious to know whether, if the Bill is passed, the companies will take over these new pipes. As I read the Bill they will take them over, and will also be responsible for their upkeep in the future, although no compensation will be paid. I assume also that they will replace them if and when they get choked up. If this is so, that is, if the companies do take over these pipes from an estate or a farm, will they guarantee to maintain the existing pressure? Obviously that is important. If they add a number of other buildings on to a pipe the pressure may consequently be reduced.
I hope the hon. and gallant Member for Cambridge (Lieut.-Commander Tufnell) will receive answers to some of the questions he put. I am surprised at the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Bevan) asking that the Parliamentary Secretary should now reply to the Debate, because the Debate should surely take place before the Parliamentary Secretary speaks, so that he can answer the questions which have been asked. There have been a number of interesting points mentioned since the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale interrupted, which the Parliamentary Secretary will, no doubt, now be able to clear up. The hon. Member for Windsor (Mr. A. Somerville) said that the hon. Member for Newport (Sir R. Clarry) was to be congratulated on bringing forward such a short and simple Bill. I agree that the hon. Member for Newport is to be congratulated, but I think he is to be congratulated more on the idea underlying the Bill than on the construction of the Bill itself. I hope the Bill can be made shorter, clearer and simpler during the Committee stage. It has been often said to-day that this is a Bill that everybody should support, and if it is taken to a division I shall vote in favour of it.
I am sorry that I was unable to hear the Mover and Seconder of the Bill as I had wanted to, because I had to attend an important committee. While I have been here, very little has been said about the Bill from the rural point of view. The Bill is rather difficult to follow. It has been said that the consumer has not to pay very high charges. I do not think that is often the case in the country, and it certainly has not been the case with me. My service pipe cuts through 450 yards, and I wanted to be laid on to the proper supply, which is on the top of the hill above my house, but I was ordered by the engineer of the undertaking to fix it on to a pipe which is much lower than the top of my house. The engineer said, "We cannot allow you to put it on the tower, because you take too much of the supply—3,000 gallons a day—for your mansion, and there will not be enough for the village." They promised to give me a good permanent supply of water if I fixed it according to their suggestions. It cost me £200. Having got the pipe up to the estate, it was found that they could get it only to the bottom of the mansion. Having found that the undertaking could not fulfil their promise, I cut their pipe off and went back to my own inadequate supply. To whom does that pipe belong? I understand that if I put on water it belongs to the undertaking company, who have done me down. That would be very unfair. Am I entitled to take that pipe out and use it for other parts of my estate? It has been there only nine months, and I hope that it will not be filled up with sand and that it may come in useful. But I understand that, under this Bill, I shall not be able to make use of it in that way.
What remedy is there when a very incompetent rural council badly lets one down? I have put nearly all my cottages along the bottom of the road, and that is satisfactory. When you have an engineer in charge of a district water supply who promises to run the water uphill and then fails to do so, I think there ought to be something in the Bill to make the undertakers liable for breach of contract, as well as making the consumer liable when he neglects his part of the contract. There is a badly arranged water undertaking in my part of the world. I have seen on the list at the local court about 50 cases, most of them for non-payment of water rates. That shows the agitation that is going on in that district over the very incompetent way that the local council and their engineer manage their supply. One has only to read the local papers over the last three years to appreciate this. The undertaking first started to get the water from 20 miles away. Then they arranged a small scheme. The pressure they had to put on for the pipes burst the main, so the Crawley district was without water. What remedy have we against undertakings which fail to carry out their contract in such circumstances? The Minister ought to look into the whole of this muddle that has been going on for the last three years in connection with the Crawley water supply. If it had not been for the Surrey Water Board I do not know what we should have done. We should have had a greater shortage of water than ever, because we have to buy 60,000 gallons of water every day from the Surrey Water Board.
This is a personal grouse, and I do not see that the Bill will help in any way. The question of burst pipes and non-fulfilment of contracts ought to be looked into at once, especially if a crisis should come. It is rather hard if, when you have put down a service pipe, and find that you cannot get water through it, that you should not be allowed to take it up and regard it as your own property for which you have paid. These arrangements in the country are usually done in an easy sort of way, and the landlord deals with his tenant. The district council or the water undertakers may write a letter, but there is no sort of contract under which each party may be liable. There ought to be penalties imposed on both sides in respect of non-fulfilment of contract. I have no objection to the rates for water when one can get the water. It costs me under £1 a year in respect of my cottages, and water for my farm is supplied at 9d. per thousand gallons and costs about £25 a year, and it is well worth it. I get good clean water for my cows. Whether you get water or not, you have to pay for it. Many people are suffering because the water undertakers do not provide the water required.
I have looked through the Bill, and the chief point to which I object is that in regard to service pipes. If these pipes fail to supply the water, I do not see why one should be compelled to give them up to the water undertakers instead of himself being able to take them up. When the pipe comes off the roadway on to one's own land it ought to be one's own property. One ought to be allowed to do the amount of tapping he requires. I wanted a 2-inch tapping which would have taken a little more than the undertakers' pipes. It would have enabled me to obtain more water, but I was not allowed. I was told that if one pipe was not enough I could have two pipes and be charged for them.
On a point of Order, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. May I read Standing Order No. 18:
Mr. Speaker or the Chairman, after having called the attention of the House, or of the Committee, to the conduct of a Member, who persists in irrelevance, or tedious repetition either of his own arguments, or of the arguments used by other Members in debate, may direct him to discontinue his speech.
May I call your attention to that Standing Order?
I am glad that I have come to the end of my remarks. I have put my case to the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health, and I hope that he will look through the Bill very carefully. I contend that my remarks about tapping are not irrelevant. If you have those things done and then do not get water, surely, it is relevant to call attention to them. I have endeavoured to put these points to the Minister, and I hope that he will look into them when he comes to deal with the matter.
I do not want to introduce an unnecessary note of discord into what has hitherto been a period of considerable calm, but it is only fair to say, whether I stand alone or whether I do not, that I do not like the Bill. It may be that, working on the assumption that nearly all legislation is bad, we are prone to look critically over Measures which we consider from time to time. When we are dealing with so serious a matter as the supply of water, which is a monopoly service in this country, and which has almost unrivalled powers for exploiting the people to whom the water is supplied, we should take more thought for the protection of the consumer, and not quite so much for the undertaker or supplier of the water. I know that I cannot very easily convince hon. Members opposite, to whom monopoly is the breath of life, and who are the essential monopolists of this world, whose sole desire is to accelerate all supply, all services and everything else, into one vast monopoly against which there will be no appeal or protection of any kind whatever. But we have not yet reached that paradise of the Socialist party, and on this Bill we have had put before us by various speakers a number of considerations, and we have been told that the Bill is to the benefit of the water undertakers. I do not doubt that it is very much to the benefit of the water undertakers.
I should like to refer to the point as to whether it will do any good to the people who receive the water, because, as far as I can see to-day, all that we are doing is to provide in this Measure, that pipes which have already been laid at the expense of the consumer of water shall be removed without compensation, and that in return he will be relieved of a possible liability for keeping them in good repair. That liability occurs so seldom, and the amount of repair required is so small, that extraordinarily small benefit is likely to accrue to the consumer of water. This Bill is bringing no new benefit to consumers of water who are not yet consumers of water of the public authority. All that the Bill provides is that a public authority or a water authority shall lay down the communication pipe. It says nothing about what may be the main supply to a farm or some building some distance from the main road, or to a cottage. It says nothing about the passage of these pipes over what common land still remains, which is neither the premises of the user of the water nor the highway. There is still a great deal of common land in this country mainly along the verges of roads.
I dealt with that point before my hon. Friend came in. The supply pipe from the main to the house goes wrong so seldom that this provision really is not an advantage to the consumer of water. If there is trouble with the water supply it is generally with the main, and that in any case has to be kept in reasonable repair by the undertaker.
We have had no guarantee that the consumer will get any new benefit under the Bill. The fact is that he is to be allowed to pay for pipes which are not his property. When a new water supply is being laid, the water company or the local authority will be responsible for laying the communication pipes and for conveying the water from their main to the user's premises, but they are to be allowed to charge the user what they consider a reasonable price. In other words, the user will have the glorious privilege of paying for something which will not be his. Therefore, I cannot see that this proposal is in any way equitable. I do not see that a case has been made out for the Bill. If I thought there was any opportunity of raising sufficient support I should divide the House against the Bill, because I feel very strongly that we ought to scrutinise with some care the benefits which we hand out to these monopolies. The ancient task of this House is to look askance at vested interests, and not to rush out with open arms to give them more and more vested interests.—[Interruption.]—Whatever vested interest is put forward from this side of the House there are 15 vested interests put forward from the other side.
We have been told that, for some reason or other, this Measure will have a great effect upon the public health, that it will mean a purer and cleaner water supply. That is not the case. As far as I know, there has never been an occasion on which water-borne disease has ever been traced to an infection between the main and the house. Water-borne disease can only come really from the source of the water, and that is not affected by the Bill in any way. To-day provides an unfortunate illustration that when the House of Commons is unanimous, or practically unanimous, it is almost certain to be wrong. It is impossible that hon. Members who are normally so divergent in their views should agree on anything which is likely to be useful to the common weal. Although the Bill is bound to have a Second Reading, I sincerely hope that its scrutiny by the Minister in Committee will not be nearly so sympathetic as various speakers have pleaded with him to be. I hope that he will give it that close and that rather hostile examination which I believe the nature of the Bill demands.
No one can say that we have not had a thorough investigation and exhaustive discussion of the Bill. I should like to add my congratulations to the promoters on having used their success in the Ballot to introduce a Bill which we hope will be a very useful Measure. It will be for the convenience of the House if I restate the purpose of the Bill as briefly as I can, so that we may have its objects clearly before us. Under the existing law, water consumers are generally responsible for the repair and maintenance of the pipes communicating their premises to the mains of the water undertakers. In some special cases, including the Metropolitan Water Board, the water undertakers have by their own special Acts undertaken this liability as far as the portion of the communication pipes under the streets are concerned. The object of the Bill is to provide that the water undertakers should be made financially responsible for the maintenance of the communication pipes under the street.
I am happy to be able to say that the Government support the principles of the Bill. As indicated in the Explanatory Memorandum, this principle was advocated by the Ministry's Advisory Committee on Water—a very strong Committee appointed by my right hon. Friend's predecessor, which consisted very largely of water engineers and others who had great experience of water undertakings. I understand that at the moment the majority of the water undertakers are in substantial agreement with the principle of the Bill, but that there is some difference of opinion whether it is desirable that its provisions should become operative at once. On the one hand, it is thought that the provisions may impose a heavy burden on the undertakers and that they should be given an opportunity of reviewing the circumstances of the undertaking and amending, if necessary, the rates of charges where that is proved to be necessary, before the responsibility is undertaken. On the other hand it is argued that the additional expense will be negligible when spread over the whole undertaking, and that it would be better in the interests of all concerned if the undertakers were made exclusively responsible for the work as soon as the Bill becomes law. The latter view is, I think, nearer the mark, and more in accordance with the facts, but my Department does not seek to decide the matter. Reservation has been made on that point. Subject to these qualifications the broad principles of the Bill are acceptable to my right hon. Friend.
Some modifications will be required if the Bill proceeds, but I do not think it is necessary to go into any details. The points that have been raised to-day will be very carefully considered in Com mittee. There is, however, very little doubt that the Bill could be substantially shortened, and I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield (Mr. Bull) that it could be made clearer as well as shorter, and that is what we must seek to do. I must, however, point out that my hon. Friend hopes that he may be able to introduce a Bill this Session for the Consolidation of the Waterworks (Clauses) Act, and in that Bill he would propose to deal with the matters that have been raised to-day. The introduction of the Government Bill is not, however, certain and I can give no pledge in regard to it. My right hon. Friend did not feel that he could ask the House to hold up this Bill pending the introduction of our own Measure, but I feel sure that if the Government see their way to introduce such a Bill my hon. Friend who moved the Second Reading of this Bill will consider whether he will take his Bill any further.
We welcome to-day's Debate as affording an opportunity, which has certainly been taken, of testing Parliamentary opinion on this subject, and I can assure the hon. Member for North Tottenham (Mr. R. C. Morrison) that not merely do we bless the Bill, but we will give every assistance to it in Committee if the House sees fit to give it a Second Reading.