Why does the Minister persist in putting the public's health at risk by water privatisation? Does he not realise that water is an essential commodity which cannot be substituted? What will happen to investment in the water authorities, especially with respect to replacing sewerage and recreation centres? Does this mean that the water supply will be in the hands of the City of London and foreign investment? Why does the hon. Gentleman persist in this folly, especially as the public are outraged by this privatistion?
Does the hon. Gentleman not realise that if he continues with this programme the public will rise up and give him a black eye? That is no trivial matter.
I am aware that water is essential to human life. The House would do well to remember that 25 per cent. of the British people are already provided with fresh water by the private water companies. Hon. Members should understand that many great benefits will accrue to the water industry and, above all, to customers if we can bring a measure of privatisation to the water industry. The Government intend persevering in their examination to ascertain whether they can bring some free enterprise to the industry.
Is my hon. Friend aware that private water companies are celebrating this year their 100th anniversary of supplying wholesome water to the people? Will my hon. Friend consider, during discussions on privatisation, the possibility of using the legislation covering the water companies as a model for the privatisation of the authorities?
There could be no better example of the success of the private water companies than the successful private water company of which my hon. Friend is a director. During our examination of privatisation we shall certainly consider the lessons that we can learn from the successful private companies.
Although that matter does not arise directly from this question, I can point out that I had a meeting yesterday with the Government's Chief Medical Adviser on the subject. I shall be announcing the decision on derogations shortly.
If a decision is taken on that matter, will my hon. Friend bear in mind that it is desirable not only that costs should be kept as low as possible but that there should be no great variation of water prices throughout Britain? That would be most undesirable as regards past investment in the industry and what is available now. Such a variation might widen the gap between those areas that are fortunate in fostering investment and those that are not.
I shall certainly consider my hon. Friend's advice. I remind the House that among the advantages of privatisation will be the possibility that those who at present work for water authorities and, not least, those who are customers of the water authorities will become shareholders.
Will the Minister reflect on the fact that water is far too important a commodity, to use his own words, to leave to the "whims" of the free market? If he will not reflect on that, I am bound to say that the Labour party in power will return it to public control. If the private sector is so good, will the Minister kindly explain why the private firm that supplies Eastbourne charges more than the public sector?
It used to be believed, even by some of my right hon. and hon. Friends, that the ratchet-effect of Socialism was such that any threat to renationalise that which we denationalised should be taken seriously. I say to the House and to the engaging Labour party spokesman on water that a threat to renationalise that which we may denationalise is no threat.
Is not the present position unsatisfactory, in that those who supply water are not properly accountable as virtually all water authorities, with some notable exceptions, meet in private? Why would a privatised system be more accountable than the present system, which is hardly accountable to consumers? What protection will there be to ensure a pure water supply?
It is because the present organisation of the water industry, though greatly improved since 1979, is not yet perfect that we are examining the possibility of a measure of privatisation. I should have thought that the Liberal party, which claims to be the party of participation, would have welcomed the opportunity for more and more customers and more and more employees to become owners of the business. It is characteristic of the Liberal party — that band of visionary missionaries with neither vision nor mission — that it should make a wet observation of that kind.