Water Industry (Consumer Council)

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

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4.25 p.m.

Photo of Mr Anthony Durant Mr Anthony Durant , Reading North

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to establish a consumer council for the water industry. In view of the serious matters that the country faces, I do not intend to delay the House for more than a few minutes.

The Water Act 1973 set up the new authorities, and I welcomed that. I think that it was right. The Act encouraged the water authorities to become financially self-sufficient, but, under section 30, by 1981 all consumers will have to pay according to their consumption, without discretion. That will mean a lowering of the water rate for industry and an increase for the householder, which will be a serious matter. In the Thames water authority area, for example, it is suggested that the domestic water rate could increase by as much as 25 per cent. That is a cause of considerable concern. The Berkshire County Council has already passed a resolution pointing out the dangers of the proposals to move towards equalisation of charges for water between industry and the consumer.

The first step that the water authorities in most parts of the country have taken is to introduce direct billing, though not all authorities have yet done so. When direct billing was introduced there was widespread anger and concern about it. The first reason was that there was the introduction of a standing charge, of which there had previously been no mention. That hit the small householder. There was no discount for the low paid and no rebate. The hon. Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett) has introduced a Bill to take account of that, and I welcome his steps in that direction.

There were no clear methods of payment. The whole matter was completely arbitrary. The only concession that we had, after pressure, was that the householder can now pay his bill quarterly. However, that gives no satisfaction to council tenants, who are used to paying their rent, part of which used to go towards the water payment, weekly or monthly.

The pay arrangements were bad at the time. Insufficient facilities were arranged for people to pay. There have been threats to cut off the supply of those who do not pay.

The conduct of the water authorities needs examination. My Reading ratepayers, ever vigilant, have examined the local accounts of the Thames water authority and have found one or two interesting anomalies. For example, they found that the directors of the Thames water authority are each given a car— I am not opposed to that—but when they have to go to the headquarters in London a chauffeur-driven car is sent to pick them up, take them to the meeting and take them back again. They do not even use their own cars. That is the sort of thing that consumer councils would consider.

The directors have had expensive trips abroad. The late Member for Lambeth, Central, Mr. Marcus Lipton, raised the whole question of the trip to Japan, which was to cost the authority about £10,000.

I am not critical of the fact that we now have the water authorities. What I am critical of is the way in which they are examined. They are not really responsible to anyone. Therefore, they should have a consumer council. They constitute one of the few national authorities with. out a consumer council.

The council should have powers to interview officers, look at the accounts, ask for information and discuss the whole basis of payment—the whole formula that will be used in getting the money into the authorities. That would be of help to the consumer.

I should like to see such a body composed of volunteers—representatives of industry, other consumer councils, trade unions, women's organisations, waterways where appropriate, and national industries where appropriate. Perhaps, for a change, those members could be voluntary instead of receiving a fee. I am sure that people would do these jobs voluntarily. I know of plenty who would. The administrative cost could possibly be met by a percentage from the National Water Council.

It was right to set up the authorities, but water is a vital resource. We have heard from an application under Standing Order No. 9 today what happens when water authorities cannot carry out their job.

The new water authorities have existed for about five years. They are now tackling the backlog of neglect, particularly on the sewerage side of the industry. It is right that they should do that. But we should have a body which can watch over the excesses and extravagances of the water authorities, to represent the interests of the consumer and to discuss methods of payment and the reactions of the citizen. A consumer council would be the correct body to do that.

I have received a letter from the National Consumer Council, which has been in correspondence with the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection about this matter. That council is in favour of establishing such a body. I commend this important Bill to the House.

4.31 p.m.

Photo of Mr Tom Litterick Mr Tom Litterick , Birmingham, Selly Oak

I oppose the Bill for a number of reasons.

The House will be surprised to hear a Conservative Member bringing forward a Bill of this character, particularly since the current Act which determined the present structure and rules was enacted by the last Conservative Government. There is no reason why that Conservative Government, if it was thought that this was a matter of importance, did not establish a consumer council for the water industry.

The hon. Member for Reading, North (Mr. Durant) did not mention that the members of existing water authorities are elected and are responsible to their constituents. There is an element of responsibility in that.

When I was a local councillor, more than once my council invited the officials of the local water board to attend meetings and be questioned. The officials responded to those invitations. I was present at more than one such meeting. The type of examination that took place was precisely the type to which the hon. Member referred in the context of establishing a consumer council.

Notwithstanding the unsatisfactory structure established by the Water Act 1973, at least two of the objections to which the hon. Member referred are not well founded. Perhaps in his area the local authorities are not aware of what they are entitled to do.

I can assure the hon. Member that the Severn-Trent water authority is only too happy to meet the local council and to subject its officials to the type of grilling which a Select Committee of the House would conduct if so instructed. That is an effective way of satisfying one element in our responsibility towards our constituents.

The hon. Member used the word "responsibility". I presume he meant that in the political sense. He must know that setting up a consumer council will not create a responsible body since no consumer council exists on which there are elected representatives. Consumer councils comprise nominees of other bodies. That means that his proposal would not create an additional, helpful institution which would enable the public voice to be heard and made effective within the governing councils of the industry. It would simply add another talking shop of nominees.

At present, elected councillors nominate some of their members to serve on the water authorities. That ensures that more than half of all the members of the authorities arc elected and can be held responsible for the behaviour of the water authorities. They can recommend to their councils that they should act as representatives of the local population and subject the local authority to questioning.

It is a little puzzling that a Conservative Member should seek to set up another quango. The hon. Member sought to escape from that dilemma by suggesting that members of the proposed council would agree to serve without payment. But that would set a precedent which would probably be unacceptable.

At present all consumer councils are served by salaried people. The hon. Member is advocating the setting up of another quango and increasing public expenditure. That is an all too familiar situation for Conservative Back Benchers. Collectively the Conservatives argue in favour of reductions in public expenditure, but individually they regularly make proposals which involve increases in public expenditure and which might buy them a little popularity in their own patches.

I am not suggesting that that is the game that the hon. Member for Reading, North is playing, but he will admit that his colleagues play that game with boring frequency. They should exercise a little restraint in the interests of political consistency and of containing public expenditure.

The hon. Member's emphasis on consumer interests leaves aside a number of profoundly important questions which require the urgent attention of the House. Earlier today hon. Members urged that we should have a debate about these matters. Part of the water industry's problem is that it has been neglected in terms of capital investment. The industry is staffed mainly by low-paid workers. A large proportion of them have been found by the Child Poverty Action Group to be low paid. A significant number of the workers receive family income supplement. That is one reason for the dispute in the North. The Conservatives seem to be little concerned about that.

Water is a vital commodity. The industry's negotiating procedures are sadly deficient. The House should examine

Division No. 33]AYES[4.39 p.m.
Ashton, JoeGray, HamishPattie, Geoffrey
Atkinson, David (B'mouth, East)Hamilton, Michael (Salisbury)Penhallgon, David
Atkinson, Norman (H'gey, Tott'ham)Hicks, RobertPeyton, Rt Hon John
Banks, RobertHooson, EmlynRathbone, Tim
Bennett, Andrew (Stockport N)Hordern, PeterRhodes James, R.
Berry, Hon AnthonyHutchison, Michael ClarkRidley, Hon Nicholas
Biggs-Davison, JohnIrving, Charles (Cheltenham)Roberts, Michael (Cardiff NW)
Boscawen, Hon RobertIrving, Rt Hon S. (Dartford)Rooker, J. W.
Brotherton, MichaelJopllng, MichaelRoss, Stephen (Isle of Wight)
Buchanan-Smith, AlickKilfedder, JamesRost, Peter (SE Derbyshire)
Buck, AntonyLawrence,IvanShelton, William (Streatham)
Chalker, Mrs LyndaLester, Jim (Beeston)Skeet, T. H. H.
Clark, Alan (Plymouth, Sutton)McCrindle, RobertSmith, Cyril (Rochdale)
Clark, William (Croydon S)Macfarlane, NeilStradling, Thomas J.
Costain, A. P.MacKay, Andrew (Stechford)Trotter, Neville
Craig, Rt Hon W. (Belfast E)Madel, DavidWainwright, Richard (Colne V)
Crouch, DavidMates, MichaelWalker, Rt Hon P. (Worcester)
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord JamesMather, CarolWall, Patrick
Drayson, BurnabyMawby, RayWeatherill, Bernard
Eden, Rt Hon Sir JohnMeyer, Sir AnthonyWeetch, Ken
Elliott, Sir WilliamMitchell, Austin (Grimsby)Wells, John
Fairgrieve, RussellMonro, HectorWhite, Frank R. (Bury)
Farr, JohnMontgomery, FergusWiggin, Jerry
Finsberg, GeoffreyMore, Jasper (Ludlow)Willey, Rt Hon Frederick
Fookes, Miss JanetMorgan, GeraintWinterton, Nicholas
Fry, PeterMorgan-Giles, Rear-AdmiralYoung, Sir G. (Ealing, Acton)
Glyn, Dr AlanMudd, DavidYounger, Hon George
Goodhart, PhilipOvenden, John
Goodhew, VictorPage, John (Harrow West)TELLERS FOR THE AYES:
Gower, Sir Raymond (Barry)Paisley, Rev IanMr. Tony Durant and
Grant, Anthony (Harrow C)Pardoe, JohnMr. Ian Gow.
Anderson, DonaldBrown, Hugh D. (Provan)Concannon, Rt Hon John
Archer, Rt Hon PeterBuchan, NormanCook, Robin F. (Edin C)
Atkins, Ronald (Preston N)Callaghan, Jim (Middleton & P)Cowans, Harry
Bates, AlfCanavan, DennisCox, Thomas (Tooting)
Beith, A. J.Carter Jones, LewisCraigen, Jim (Maryhill)
Bidwell, SydneyCocks, Rt Hon Michael (Bristol S)Davies, Bryan (Enfield N)
Bishop, Rt Hon EdwardCohen, StanleyDavis, Clinton (Hackney C)

that because therein lies much of the trouble.

These workers are not in the habit of taking industrial action. They do not bargain or negotiate in a militant manner—which is one reason why they are so badly paid. But the hon. Member's proposal has nothing to do with that. It would add nothing of positive value to the water industry's institutions but it would add to public expenditure. For that reason, I call upon the House to reject the proposal.

Photo of Mr George Thomas Mr George Thomas , Cardiff West

May I tell the hon. Gentleman, before I put the Question, that he is not bound to vote unless he wishes to do so just because he has expressed opposition to the Bill?

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 13 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and Nomination of Select Committees at Commencement of Public Business):—

The House divided: Ayes 89, Noes 106.

Dean, Joseph (Leeds West)John, BrynmorParry, Robert
Dewar, DonaldJudd, FrankPavitt, Laurie
Dormand, J. D.Kaufman, Rt Hon GeraldRees, Rt Hon Merlyn (Leeds S)
Duffy, A. E. P.Kerr, RussellRodgers, George (Chorley)
Eadie, AlexLambie, DavidRyman, John
English, MichaelLamborn, HarrySandelson, Neville
Evans, Fred (Caerphilly)Lamond, JamesSilverman, Julius
Evans Gwynfor (Carmarthen)Litterick, TomSkinner, Dennis
Evans, loan (Aberdare)Lofthouse, GeoffreySteel, Rt Hon David
Evans, John (Newton)Loyden, EddieStrang, Gavin
Fernyhough, Rt Hon E.McCartney, HughTaylor, Mrs Ann (Bolton W)
Fitt, Gerard (Belfast W)McElhone, FrankThomas, Ron (Bristol NW)
Flannery, MartinMcKay, Alan (Penistone)Thorne, Stan (Preston South)
Fletcher, Ted (Darlington)Madden, MaxTierney, Sydney
Freud, ClementMahon, SimonTinn, James
Garrett, W. E. (Wallsend)Mallalieu, J. P. W.Tomlinson, John
George, BruceMarks, KennethUrwin, T. W.
Golding, JohnMarshall, Dr Edmund (Goole)Walker, Terry (Kingswood)
Graham, TedMarshall, Jim (Leicester S)Ward, Michael
Grant, George (Morpeth)Maynard, Miss JoanWilliams, Rt Hon Shirley (Hertford)
Grant, John (Islington C)Mikardo, IanWilson, William (Coventry SE)
Hamilton, James (Bothwell)Miller, Dr M. S. (E Kilbride)Wise, Mrs Audrey
Hamilton, W. W. (Central Fife)Morris, Alfred (Wythenshawe)Woodall, Alec
Hardy, PeterMorris, Rt Hon Charles R.Woof, Robert
Home Robertson, JohnMurray, Rt Hon Ronald KingYoung, David (Bolton E)
Hoyle, Doug (Nelson)Oakes, Gordon
Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)Ogden, EricTELLERS FOR THE NOES:
Hughes, Roy (Newport)O'Halloran, MichaelMr. Kevin McNamara and
Hunter, AdamPark, GeorgeMr. A. W. Stallard.
Jay, Rt Hon DouglasParker, John

Question accordingly negatived.