The Minister called this a modest Bill. It is certainly not much of a Bill by any standards and we are surprised to see it presented for Third Reading in view of the Government's declared intention of introducing another and more comprehensive measure before long. Perhaps it is the imminence of the Government's loss of office that has persuaded them that the Bill is worth preserving despite its deficiencies.
My first criticism of the Bill is that it does not live up to its title. It does not fully equalise water charges as the title suggests. It equalises them only partly. Had the Bill come into operation next month, the highest average domestic bills would still have been payable in the Welsh and South-West water authority areas. The lowest Bills would still have been payable in the North-West and Thames Water Authority areas.
It is true that the range of average domestic bills would have been narrowed and that the gap between the highest and lowest bills would have been reduced from £11·70 to £7·35. That would have been the value of the Bill had it been introduced in time to take effect this coming year, and that is the extent of the equalisation that it introduces.
The most glaring defect of the measure is undoubtedly the one that has been pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Hodgson). namely, that the Bill does not cover the unmeasured consumers supplied by private water companies. They account for nearly a quarter of all unmeasured consumers in England and Wales. However, the Minister is looking into that matter and seeking to bring in the private companies, so we cannot be too hard on him.
Since Thames will be the largest contributor to the levy pool and Wales will be the largest beneficiary, it is tempting to attack the Bill—as the right hon. Member for Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish) did in an intervention during my Second Reading speech—by asking how one could possibly justify London subsidising Welsh consumers. We have tended to forget that Anglia is also a considerable beneficiary and it could be argued that the Thames levy will go to that area, while receipts in Wales will be made up of levies from Severn and Trent and the North-West, which will total more than £2 million. These areas are supplied with water from Wales and I argued in Committee that if Welsh charges for transferred water had been higher, the water charges to Welsh consumers would not be so high and there might not have been so much need for the Bill. This would still have left the South-West with abysmally high charges, but they might have been alleviated by Exchequer subsidy, as some of my hon. Friends have suggested.
The Government have seriously mishandled the Bill. They introduced it too late for it to become effective this year. The more we look into it, the more doubtful we become about whether it was ever the Government's intention that the Bill should come into effect this year. My hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths) was adamant on this point as early as the second sitting of the Committee. My hon. Friend said:
The Minister must know that it is not possible, in the circumstances, for the Bill to come into effect in April. This is nothing
to do with the Committee. Even if the Committee were to close up shop now, there would be no way in which that could be done."—[Official Report, Standing Committee B, 3rd February 1977, c. 60.]
What has been disgraceful is the ununconscionable way in which the Government have sought to blame the Opposition for their own dilatoriness. I am not referring so much to the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment as to the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Secretary of State for Wales, who appears to have briefed the Lobby correspondent of the Liverpool Daily Post on 17th February—the day on which the Minister announced that it was too late for the Bill to become effective this year. The following morning's paper contained an article which said:
Welsh Secretary Mr. John Morris last night put the blame on the Tories—and accused them of deliberately holding up the Water Charges Bill".
Later in the same article we read:
Mr. Morris scored a personal triumph by persuading his Cabinet colleagues to include the legislation in this year's congested programme.
If the right hon. and learned Gentleman scored a personal triumph in Cabinet, there must have been some opposition to him and it is clear that the opposition succeeded in delaying the presentation of the Bill for Second Reading until 24th January. [Interruption.]