Water Supplies (North-West England)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 17th January 1979.

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Photo of Mr Winston Churchill Mr Winston Churchill , Stretford 12:00 am, 17th January 1979

I beg to ask leave to move the Adjournment of the House, under Standing Order No. 9, for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration, namely, the threat to public health in the North-West where 1 million people are without a filtered and chemically treated water supply. I submit that the matter is specific, because since midnight last Thursday 1 million people in Rossendale, Oldham, Rochdale and the vicinity have been without any filtered and treated water supplies as the result of an unofficial all-out strike by 600 water and sewerage workers in the Pennine division of the North-West water authority. At least 2,000 houses are without any water at all, because no repair crews are available to deal with burst pipes.

I submit that it is an important, because it represents, in the judgment of officials of the water authority, a serious risk to public health. Warnings have been issued to residents to boil water for at least one and a half minutes, but there is always the possibility that, in the absence of parents, children may out of habit go to a tap and drink water that is contaminated. Since last Friday, volunteers from the staff of the North-West water authority have been working to clean the filters, which otherwise would clog and all water supply would have ceased.

I submit that this matter has now become urgent because, following a meeting last night between the authority and the unofficial strike committee, the strike committee has declared that this action by senior staff in cleaning the filters to maintain the flow of at least dirty water to these 1 million homes constitutes strike breaking, and it has announced its intention to seek to spread the strike throughout the North-West of England.

This morning, picket lines were established outside the Audenshaw depot of the eastern division, which supplies Greater Manchester's water. So far, workers in this and in other divisions have, I am glad to say, refused to join this unofficial strike. But unless agreement is reached by Monday, when there is to be a one-day official strike of all manual workers, the water supplies of up to 5 million citizens of the country could be affected, and it has become a matter of urgency that the Government should declare whether they accept responsibility for the maintenance of essential supplies, of which water is possibly the most vital.

Photo of Mr George Thomas Mr George Thomas , Cardiff West

The hon. Gentleman gave me notice this morning that he would seek leave to move the Adjournment of the House, under Standing Order No. 9, for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter that he thinks should have urgent consideration, namely, the threat to public health in the North-West where 1 million people are without a filtered and chemically treated water supply". We are undoubtedly faced with very difficult circumstances in the country. I have listened carefully to the observations that have been made this afternoon. As the House knows, under Standing Order No. 9 I am directed to take into account the several factors set out in the Order but to give no reasons for my decision. There are times when I wish that I could give my reasons. I can say to the hon. Gentleman that I must rule that his submission does not fall within the provisions of the Standing Order, and that today I cannot submit his application to the House. The House will understand that we are in very difficult circumstances.

Photo of Mr Michael Foot Mr Michael Foot , Ebbw Vale

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. There will be a statement to the House tomorrow, and I am sure that it will cover this matter, which is very important. Indeed, there may be other questions that other hon. Members will naturally wish to raise. A statement will be made to the House tomorrow—[HON. MEMBERS: "Why not today?"] I am asked "Why not today?" Discussions are going on which we hope will assist in dealing with the situation. The Government must judge that factor as well. But the Government will seek to make a statement to the House tomorrow, and I hope that that will be of assistance to the House and will be taken in that sense.

Photo of Mr Norman St John-Stevas Mr Norman St John-Stevas , Chelmsford

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. We are grateful to the Leader of the House for that indication of the intention of the Government to do something in this respect, but may we be told who is to make the statement? Since the right hon. Gentleman has agreed that a statement should be made tomorrow, I think that many of us would have been much happier if it had been made today. Can he give an undertaking to the House that while the emergency lasts a statement will be made on the course of the situation each day to the House?

Photo of Mr Michael Foot Mr Michael Foot , Ebbw Vale

I acknowledge what the hon. Gentleman says about the absolute requirement that the House should be kept informed constantly on the matter. Whether there should be a statement every day, and who would be the most appropriate Minister in each case to make it, is another matter, but I assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that I take fully into account what he has said, and it is in that spirit that we will respond to the situation over the coming days. As I have indicated, it is not yet decided who will make the statement. It may be that two Ministers will make a statement, but let us wait to see who will be the appropriate Minister to make the statement tomorrow.