Interests of Consumers Prior to Trials

Public Utility Transfers and Water Charges Bill – in the House of Commons at 3:57 pm on 2nd February 1988.

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'(1) Prior to the commencement of all water metering trials, representatives of water undertakers shall contact all households and explain to them the nature of the trials and the rights the household has under existing consumer law and any other matter determined by this Act.(2) The contact with the householder can be by telephone or visit.(3) Trials shall not commence until all households in the trial scheme have been contacted.(4) Should any household not have been contacted prior to the commencement of the trial, then that household shall have the right not to take part by notifying the water undertaker of their intention. This right shall be indicated to the households in writing one week before the trials commence and the householders shall be given one week to notify the water undertakers.'.

Brought up, and read the First time[Mr. Boyes.]

Photo of Mr Bernard Weatherill Mr Bernard Weatherill , Croydon North East

With this it will be convenient to take new clause 3—

Provisions relating to redress for consumers etc.'(1) During the period of a metering trial scheme, a person subject to a charge from a water undertaker, under the latter's powers, conferred under this Act or under any other enactment shall be entitled to redress in the form of financial compensation if—

  1. (a) that person's water supply falls below the standard as set by the EEC;
  2. (b) the supply of water to that person is cut off for a period of a minimum of 12 hours resulting from circumstances which are in no way attributable to that person; and
  3. (c) the drainage of sewerage from the residence of that person is rendered inadequate so as to interfere with that person's enjoyment of his residence.';
and amendment No. 4, in clause 4, page 5, line 34, at end insert'and consumer bodies representing their interests'.

Photo of Mr Roland Boyes Mr Roland Boyes , Houghton and Washington 4:08 pm, 2nd February 1988

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

We are now entering the final stages of a shoddy and undesirable Bill. It provides for trials to take place in the use of water meters so that water is charged for by consumption rather than by rateable value. The Bill has not provided for any consultation with the people who will take part in the trials; they will have no choice in the matter. Even if they do not consent to participate, the premises may he entered by force.

For many years, it has been possible for households to opt freely for water meters. When requested, they are fitted by the water undertakers. However, the data available show that only 0·67 per cent of domestic users –126,000 out of 18,000,737 households—have taken the opportunity. That hardly proves that there is a demand for universal water metering. Furthermore, it shows that the Bill is unnecessary because the metering facility that it seeks to test is already available. In addition, a number of reports on the advantages and disadvantages of water metering have been prepared, both in this country and abroad. All this suggests that the further trials have nothing to do with the interests of the consumer.

Opposition Members have spoken to a number of people who have argued strongly against the introduction of meters, principally because it will result in increased water costs for many people on low incomes. Those particularly affected will be large families and those who work in dirty conditions and have abnormally large washing and laundry needs. People are also concerned about the group of people who will worry greatly about using water if it is metered. We all know of elderly people who sit in the dark or do not switch on their electric heaters because they fear large bills. Exactly the same people will worry about running the bath or flushing the lavatory.

On 2 June 1986, Rosemary Collins reported in The Guardian on the national conference of water consumer consultative committees. She said that the delegates were almost unanimous in their dislike of compulsory metering. They thought that, in areas of high unemployment, metering would lead to a woman with six children bathing them all once a week and pulling the chain once every four days and that the implications for public health were frightening.

That point of view was supported by an editorial in the Western Mail on 16 May 1986: many large families, supported by only one income earner, are liable to be heavily hit badly if metering is made obligatory. This, along with the fear that pensioners would economise on the use of water to the detriment of health and hygiene, is one of the objections now advanced by the consumer council. It is clear that there is no interest in, or support for, the Bill among the consumer organisations.

Normanton is one of the areas in which trials will take place. My hon. Friend the Member for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien) is the only hon. Member who served on the Standing Committe in whose patch a trial is due to take place. Not one of the 10 Conservative Members in whose constituencies trials are to take place saw his way to serving on the Committee. That is curious, and it is equally curious, given that the trials are supposed to be conducted scientifically, that 10 of the 11 constituencies to be used are Conservative constituencies. I presume that the Government wished to reduce the number of complaints from Members of Parliament. That is the only conclusion that we can draw.

Midweek Extra, the local newspaper that circulates in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, recently carried the headline: Residents plan water 'lock-out'. Meter trials under threat. The article states: Normanton residents are threatening to refuse Yorkshire Water Authority access to their homes to instal water meters.Around 750 homes in the Queen Elizabeth Drive and Warmfield areas of Normanton have been chosen to take part in water metering trials over an estimated three years.However local district councillor Paul Barrett claims people are talking among themselves about refusing workmen access to instal the necessary equipment. The interests of the consumer are not the interests of the Government. The Government are treating the consumer shoddily in peddling this Bill.

4.15 pm

In Committee, Opposition Members argued strenuously and at length on behalf of the consumer, who has been largely ignored by the Government. On all occasions, we showed that our amendments were designed to safeguard the interests of the consumer taking part in water trials and, in the longer term, of all those who may be subject to the introduction of compulsory water metering.

We know that the real purpose of the trials has nothing to do with the interests of consumers. They are designed to determine and establish the conditions that will prevent consumers from opting out. We spent 75 hours or more in Committee questioning the Minister about how he would measure the results and what result would lead the Government to make a firm decision to introduce compulsory metering or abandon the idea completely. At this last opportunity, I ask him that question again. Perhaps he will come up with a comprehensive reply. If the experiment cannot fail, it is not an experiment.

The new clauses and the amendment are an extension of our argument for more consumer rights. That means rights before, during and after the trials take place. Incidentally, it also means rights for Members of Parliament. Before the Committee stage the Water Companies Association circulated an astonishing letter, and it is important that its contents should be on the record. It was dated 21 August 1987 and was marked "confidential": It is understood that Ministers are nervous about the passage of the Public Utility Transfers and Water Charges Bill through Parliament (especially through the Lords). As a result you are asked in particular not to give MPs, the press or the public the impression that:

  1. (a) it is a foregone conclusion that compulsory trials will take place;
  2. (b) the areas have already been selected and cannot be altered; and
  3. (c) whatever the outcome of the trials, universal metering will be introduced."
I am sure that you, Mr. Speaker, as the guardian of this House, will agree that it is drastically wrong, and undesirable, for people to write letters which say that hon. Members must be denied information.

Opposition Members believe that every household taking part in the trials should be aware of its rights under existing consumer law before the trials begin. This should be achieved by the water undertakers contacting the consumer directly — preferably by visit or, if that is inconvenient for the consumer, by telephone. The right of the consumer to question the water undertaker, to have the meter explained in detail and to express an opinion should be fundamental to the trial process. That is vital because many people cannot understand, and are frightened by, the mumbo jumbo of official letters. Equally, the small print of the exclusion clauses must be carefully explained because they are worded in jargon understandable only to a small number of specialists.

We believe that an exercise of properly informing consumers before the trials begin is an absolute necessity. New clause 1 prevents trials from taking place until every household has been fully informed and its members have had their rights explained to them. The very least that the Government can do is to promise to instruct water undertakers involved in the trials to ensure that every household taking part knows its rights. Until that has been done, the trials have no right to start and they should be delayed until that exercise has been completed. If a householder is not contacted, he should have the legal right to opt out of these squalid, unnecessary, undesirable and unwanted trials.

Photo of Joan Walley Joan Walley , Stoke-on-Trent North

I rise in support of new clause 1. The main purpose of the new clause is to make it clear that water is basic to public health and that, for far too long, we have taken water supplies for granted. In view of the proposed poll tax, there is an urgent need to provide an alternative way of charging for water and metering appears to have become that alternative.

The Bill proposes to introduce compulsory water metering in selected areas. We have considered the Bill over the past few weeks and it has become clear that consumer protection and consumer rights will not be safeguarded when compulsory meters are installed. The money which will be invested in water meters could be much better invested in ensuring safer and purer water supplies and in dealing with nitrate and nitrite problems. Although water meters will be compulsorily introduced only in experimental areas, when the proposals for privatisation, rather than nationalisation, of the water industry come before the House, consumer rights will become a much more important issue as water consumers will have to pay much higher charges on the basis of volume of water used.

For all these reasons, it is more important than ever to have a proper consumers' charter. Under the provisions of new clause 1, consumers will be better safeguarded and will have a better chance to ensure that the amount they pay for their water is correct. It will also give them the right to check on the quality of the water coming through the taps into their homes.

My hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Washington (Mr. Boyes) drew attention to the many families who will be seriously affected because they will be unable to afford baths and to use all the water facilities in their homes. Like many gas and electricity consumers, water consumers, without proper safeguards, will not get proper service. We should support the new clauses in the hope of safeguarding consumer interests.

Photo of Doug Henderson Doug Henderson , Newcastle upon Tyne North

I am grateful for the opportunity to endorse the comments of my hon. Friends the Members for Houghton and Washington (Mr. Boyes) and for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms. Walley).

In Committee, the Minister was at pains to show how open and informative he wanted to be in presenting his case for selling off the water industry. I hope that he will recall that and will accept that new clause 1 can add to the coherence of the Bill. I hope that he will recognise that it is unreasonable to make major changes to an essential household utility without fully informing the residents of the household. I hope that he will understand that it is natural for people to worry about changes that might be made to their domestic set-up. It is a worrying prospect for people to have a meter installed in their homes. Like me, I am sure that the Minister and Conservative Members have constituents who will fret for weeks at the prospect of having their water cut off while a meter is installed, perhaps in a very cold part of the winter.

There was a recent case of this in my constituency concerning the residents of Westwood road in the Brunton park estate. Those residents got in touch with me to express their concern about matters involving the water board. According to street gossip, the street and gardens would be dug up and water would be cut off in the middle of winter. Some residents claimed that they did not know why the the water board wanted to do that. They were not sure whether special arrangements had been made to provide water storage or supplies on very cold days. I contacted the Newcastle and Gateshead Water Company which told me that, because of corrosion in pipes, 100m. sections had to be removed before a new lining could be installed, and that this process could take up to 30 hours.

The water company also confirmed that residents would be warned in advance. It confirmed that special arrangements could be made to advise people how to store water and that board personnel would be available to assist elderly residents who could not carry water to the place where it was needed or prepare for water storage before the water was cut off. I do not know whether the Newcastle and Gateshead Water Company publicised properly what it intended to do in this case. I suspect that it did its best to advise people, but it has emerged from my investigation that the residents did not understand what was about to happen. No matter how hard the water board had tried to inform people, the message had not got across.

It would be most alarming if a similar situation were to arise when water meter trials take place. The example I have cited and other examples which my hon. Friends will be able to cite show the need for individual contact with consumers. I relate my remarks specifically to new clause 1(2) where we refer to telephone contact or individual contact. I should prefer individual contact. I am not sure whether it is proper to pick up the phone and get in touch with people throughout an area. Some people may be alarmed by that approach. It would be better to have individual contact via a water board officer.

Consumers will want to know how long they will be without water when the meters are installed. They will want to know where the meters will be fitted. We heard in Committee that there are several options and that meters can be fixed at the gate or at least two other places in domestic premises. Many consumers will say, "The water board may know where it wants to install the meter, but will I have a choice?" Consumers will also want to know what happens if their decorations are damaged when the meter is installed. Who would be responsible for putting right the damage? Would the water board be responsible or would people be expected to do it themselves?

We have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Washington about some consumers in Normanton being so much in the dark that they might refuse access to board officials. Whatever our views on the desirability of installing water meters, no hon. Member would want that to happen. Consumers will inevitably want to ask whether there will be a mess. I must be careful not to make a sexist point, but we all have mothers and grandmothers who will want a cast-iron guarantee from the water board, as they would from the gas board, the electricity board or painters and decorators, that there will be no mess before giving free access to their homes. Those who face the prospect of the installation of a water meter have the right to be told by the water board whether there will be a mess in their homes.

4.30 pm

Those Conservative Members whose constituencies are involved have not taken the time to be with us this afternoon. I wish that they had because if the Government do not accept the new clause they will be inundated by demands from constituents who want the answers to such questions. I see the Minister checking the Opposition Benches, but we are all here. Hon. Members will all have been shown the mess left by council officials and others. I have visited attics, cellars, under the stairs and rooftops to see the mess that has been left. Conservative Members will be inundated with such requests and the Government would be wise to accept the new clause.

Consumers will also want to know when the job will be started, how long it will take and who will pay for it. They will want to know whether their water bill will be affected after the meter is installed, who will take the readings, when they will be taken, and so on. Consumers will also want to know what will happen if the trial is a flop. They will rightly want to know the answer to such questions and to many others.

If the Government can spend £23 million advertising the sale of British Petroleum, surely they can provide the finance necessary to enable the water board to approach directly every consumer faced with the prospect of the compulsory installation of a water meter.

People have a right to know. Two weeks ago the Government whipped Conservative Members to curtail the public's right to know what was happening in government under the Protection of Official Information Bill prepared by the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills is (Mr. Shepherd). I appeal to the Minister to refrain from whipping Conservative Members this afternoon to prevent water consumers having the right to know.

Photo of Mrs Virginia Bottomley Mrs Virginia Bottomley , South West Surrey

It is an example of the unreconstructed, blinkered, backward-looking attitude of the Labour party that the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson) should refer to only mothers and grandmothers being so worried about the mess. We all know where the Labour party stands on the roles of men and women in the household. If he were worried about the mess, he should be just as worried about the attitude of fathers and grandfathers. I take that as a basis upon which to respond to the new clause.

To hear the comments from Labour Members, anyone would think that we had not had meters for electricity and gas for many years. It is ludicrous to suggest that meters are an alien and new way of measuring supplies of vital necessities. Furthermore, most European countries meter their water.

I speak as a director of a water company in whose area one of the trials is to take place and I would respond with some amusement to the reaction of Labour Members to the cynical attitude of the hon. Member for Houghton and Washington (Mr. Boyes) to those who are volunteering for the trials. I had no idea that hon. Members were thought to have been press-ganged where there might be some difficulty with the public. With the Local Government Finance Bill and a fairer system for paying for local government, it is right to find a fairer, more appropriate and modern way to pay for water.

It is also important to move on with the trials with some speed. Before long-term solutions are found for the paying for water locally, we need to learn the lessons of the trials. Therefore, I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to take no notice of the new clause, which will lead to greater delays, bureaucracy and difficulty. The water company of which I have the privilege to be a director takes great trouble over its customer relations, as I am sure do all the others. If there are any difficulties with people's uncertainty about what is involved in the metering trials, I am sure that they will have no difficulty in explaining it. I urge my hon. Friend to reject the new clause hastily.

Photo of Ms Joyce Quin Ms Joyce Quin , Gateshead East

I want to address my remarks specifically to new clause 3. However, before doing so I want to support my hon. Friends in the arguments that they have been putting forward in seeking to amend the Bill, which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Washington (Mr. Boyes) pointed out, is a shoddy, ill-thought-out piece of legislation—perhaps the most madcap privatisation of all. Not surprisingly, a recent opinion poll has shown that the public oppose more Government sell-offs. I am sure that the prospect of the privatisation of the water industry was uppermost in their minds when they were asked to participate in that particular poll.

I agree with my hon. Friends that new clauses 1 and 3 show that throughout our discussions the interests of the consumers have been paramount for us. Consumers have not been taken much into account in the Bill. I do not know whether the water company that was referred to by the hon. Member for Surrey, South-West (Mrs. Bottomley) consulted the consumers in its trial area, or how many questions it asked them about whether they wanted to be involved in such a trial, but the information that we have, in particular from the area represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien), is that the public strongly oppose being dragooned into a trial in which they do not wish to participate. The general public are worried not only about the principle of water metering but about many of the practical issues relating to the installation of meters, and so on, which were referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson).

New clause 3 specifically lists various conditions under which a customer in the metering trial areas can have redress and financial compensation. That is important. New clause 3(1)(a) refers to the fact that such compensation shall be given if a person's water supply falls below the standard as set by the EEC". The Government have freely agreed to implement that standard but have been slow to do so in practice. There is much public concern about that and the European Commission is considering many cases concerning various parts of Britain where our water quality does not meet EEC standards. We do not want to see people pay more for inferior water, and that point needs to be made clearly.

The cost of complying with the EEC directive has not been clarified during the long hours we have spent on the issue in Committee. It has been claimed that it will cost about £6 billion to ensure that our water quality comes up to the required standard. That figure has been disputed by the Government, but so far we have no clear figure that we can tell people is the right one. Nor do we have a figure for the different water authorities, some of which will be involved in the metering trial schemes.

New clause 3(1)(b) refers to the fact that we believe that consumers in the trial areas will think that they have already been put to considerable inconvenience, and we want to ensure that we do not inconvenience them even more—hence the specific points of redress in the new clause, especially in the eventuality of the water supply being cut off during the trial period. New clause 3(1)(c) also gives consumers the possibility of redress if problems are experienced with drainage and sewerage in the trial period.

Amendment No. 4 is part and parcel of our concern for the consumer. In it, we refer to the consumer bodies that may represent the consumer. That is important, because it is likely that consumers in the trial areas will be worried about the trial but may not have the time to write letters and make telephone calls and all the other sorts of representations that they might otherwise want to make. That is why groups formed to represent their interests need to be taken into account. So far, we have had no clear evidence from the Minister that he has engaged in in-depth consultations with such consumer bodies, or that he has even made an effort to contact them. We recommend that he does; otherwise, there is no doubt that public discontent in the trial areas may become great, as has already happened in Normanton.

The amendments are important. They would bring in an element of safeguarding the interests of the consumer. They form part of the background of our discontent with the Bill. We think that the priority now should be to bring our water up to EEC standards and to ensure that the infrastructure is of a good quality throughout the country, so that consumers receive the clean and safe water supplies that they need. Then, and only then, if the Government still insist on embarking on privatisation, should they do so. Privatisation is not the priority; even the Government should not consider it as such now.

Photo of Mr Tom Pendry Mr Tom Pendry , Stalybridge and Hyde

I had intended to begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Surrey, South-West (Mrs. Bottomley) on putting her head above the parapet and making a contribution. She declared her interest; no doubt she has a vested interest in the legislation. She did her two minutes and vanished from the Chamber, so perhaps I should not dwell on my congratulations to her.

I want to speak mostly to new clause 3 and amendment No. 4. Throughout the Committee stage of the Bill my hon. Friends and I have been concerned with consumers' interests. We have battled for them, but we have not had too much to show for our pains, for the Minister has not responded positively. We are anxious to ensure that those who must take part in compulsory trials are not significantly inconvenienced. They should be protected, not least because, as has already been said, the trial areas have been selected in constituencies represented by Conservative Members, with the exception of Normanton. It was explained, and not refuted, in Committee that that was a mistake by the Government. They thought that they were getting another Member of Parliament, but it turned out to be my hon. Friend the Member for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien), who is clearly an expert on these matters. The Government must have regretted that mistake.

4.45 pm

We have no faith that hon. Members representing these constituencies, with the exception of my hon. Friend, will actively represent their consumers' interests. So we think we should take time on Report to speak up once more for those consumers. It is axiomatic to us that any householder who finds that the quality of water supplied has deteriorated to below the EEC standards mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East (Ms. Quin) should receive compensation, and we say so in new clause 3.

The quality of water is, more than ever before, a real issue today. We want to ensure that the Government do not use the trials as an excuse to squeeze money out of consumers while failing to supply them with a quality product. The purpose of the standards set by the EEC is to provide a decent quality of water nationwide. Yet it was only in 1987 that the Government accepted the 1985 directive on water standards. That is disgraceful testimony to the Government's regard for water quality.

My hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms. Walley) and for Gateshead, East spent a great deal of time in Committee explaining the problems of nitrates in our water. The Government did not respond positively to ensure that the levels would be eliminated in the short term.

We are also concerned about the problem of the cowboy contractors. It is a pity that the plumber's mate, the hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire), is not here today. It was bad enough that Conservative Members in Committee said nothing, but now they seem to have deserted the Minister completley on Report, and are not to be seen—except, I suppose, in the Division Lobbies tonight. We know that the hon. Member for Hornchurch represents plumbers in the House and he should be here to take part in the debate, because he intervened shortly in Committee to say that he was concerned that the Minister was not doing enough. We are worried that the cowboy contractors will get into the act as a result of the Bill.

The water industry does not have the sort of safeguards that the gas industry has, and I asked the Minister a question about that in Committee, to which he promised to respond. Perhaps he will do so tonight. The gas suppliers have CORGI — the Confederation for the Registration of Gas Installers —to maintain standards. The water industry should have such a safeguard, because many authorities, including mine in the north-west, have sent out leaflets to alert consumers to the dangers of certain private contractors who are not qualified. Now, when the water meters are installed, things will be far worse, and people will use anyone who can thread a pipe—or conduit or whatever—or work with lead piping. Anyone who can do so will be allowed, if the Bill is passed, to install meters. The Minister has a responsibility to guarantee to us and people in the water meter areas that their meters will be installed by registered plumbers of an acceptable calibre.

Amendment No. 4 has been referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East. The Government cannot ride roughshod over reputable consumer bodies. The National Consumer Council has said clearly through the redoubtable champion of consumer rights, Miss Day, to whom I referred many times in Committee: The first thing we noted about the study was that it was a report whose members were drawn entirely from the industry itself. There was no consumer representation or participation, and it shows. I am glad that the hon. Member for Surrey, South-West is back in her place. That was the point that she missed. There has been no consumer representation. Consumers have not been asked for their views and they have not participated in the thinking. We understand that the hon. Lady has a vested interest; least she was brave enough to say so.

Photo of Mrs Virginia Bottomley Mrs Virginia Bottomley , South West Surrey

It would be improper for me not to say so. As to service to the consumer, I want to point out that trials are a good idea before moving forward generally. I have established in regard to the water company with which I am associated that letters have already gone out to every consumer in the area. Public meetings have been offered. Even a mini survey has been embarked on to test how people are reacting to the prospect of metering trials. Visits have taken place in the evenings and at other times, if necessary. I have every reason to believe that the other companies and authorities have behaved in the same way. The hon. Gentleman should think again before suggesting that there is not the highest standard of service to customers and concern for their interest.

Photo of Mr Tom Pendry Mr Tom Pendry , Stalybridge and Hyde

It is clear that the hon. Lady's company has done something to bridge the gap. It is a pity that she and other Conservative Members did not press the Government to do a similar exercise throughout the trial areas. The Government and the Minister stand condemned. The hon. Lady should have spoken up loudly in the past and should, with other hon. Members, have pressurised the Government. Representatives of consumers need to be involved in the decisions or at least in the discussions. We urge the Government, even at this late stage, to state clearly that they will be involved from now on.

Photo of Matthew Taylor Matthew Taylor Liberal-SDP Alliance Spokesperson (Energy)

The amendments concentrate precisely on the area that has been most neglected by the Government—the rights of consumers, consultations with consumers and ensuring that the best interests of consumers are defended. That was evident throughout the proceedings in Committee from what the Minister said, or, rather, from what he did not say. We did not get long speeches about how much the consumer would benefit from metering. We did not get long explanations about the benefits to consumers of the privatisation that the metering scheme presages. What we got was a series of detailed and not very stimulating speeches from the Minister about the specifics of metering trials, whether a certain type of meter was the most appropriate, and so on. The interests of the consumer did not feature, except in reply to detailed questions as to whether the best specifics were being adopted.

In new clause 1 we have the first essential —consultation with consumers to make sure that they are fully involved and aware of what is going on. I can cite an example of a similar problem that happened to one of my constituents in dealing with the Inland Revenue. The Inland Revenue said that it had written to him, giving him the necessary details to make a return. He said that he had never received the letter. All the evidence is that he did not receive the letter because, as a result of not having responded to it, he lost many thousands of pounds. He now finds it impossible to get the money back because the Inland Revenue says that he never replied to a letter which he says he did not receive.

That is precisely the kind of concern that I have about the proposals in the Bill. There may be better consultation in some trial areas, but that provision should be written into the Bill. New clause 1 is one way of doing it. It is not necessarily the best or the most adequate way, but the proposal that is before the House would ensure that there is consultation.

I should have thought that new clause 3 was self-evidently desirable and the right way to approach things. If someone does not get a service for which he is expected to pay, he should not have to pay for it. That is what one would expect to happen in the private sector. As the metering trials are the forerunners of the privatisation of water, it makes sense that the consumer should be protected financially. It is a basic principle, after consultation, to have a system of redress, not through the courts, or with extreme difficulty, but as an automatic right for the consumer. Had the Minister presented in Committee detailed and convincing arguments on how consumers would benefit from the proposals, it might be argued that, as they were benefiting so much from metering, they did not need such protection, although I do not think that would wash well with any other private industry. As he did not even attempt to do that, I hope that he, and the House, will see the logic of accepting the new clause.

Amendment No. 4 seeks to involve consumer groups to represent the interests of consumers. I do not understand why the Government oppose the amendment. It is logical and clear. I am sure that the Minister hopes that that would happen, so it should be written into the Bill. Perhaps the Minister will accept it.

Photo of Matthew Taylor Matthew Taylor Liberal-SDP Alliance Spokesperson (Energy)

"Perhaps I will," says the Minister. This could be an almost unique occasion in the passage of the Bill. It may just be that the Minister is about to accept something. I hope so, because I think that there is no reason to reject it. It would be beneficial to the people involved in the trials if they were represented in the drawing up of schemes.

Photo of Mr Bill O'Brien Mr Bill O'Brien , Normanton

It is clear from the contributions from the Opposition side of the House that there is intense interest in the consumer. This is in line with the information and declarations that we had in Committee, that the Secretary of State for the Environment has the interests of consumers at heart and that at all times their interests should be paramount. Those words were used in the explanatory notes that were issued to hon. Members in Committee by the Department of the Environment. On the very question of the interests of the consumer being paramount, the Minister should accept the new clauses that we have proposed, because they would carry out the Secretary of State's intention that the interests of consumers should be looked after and defended.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Pendry) referred to standards of metering and of services, Again, we must ensure that any services provided to consumers under the metering schemes are at all times of the highest possible standard.

5 pm

The hon. Member for Surrey, South-West (Mrs. Bottomley) explained that the company in which she has an interest has contacted consumers, made representations to them in some detail and offered to hold public meetings. Many other companies that are contemplating introducing trial metering schemes would have contacted their customers. That being so, I put to the hon. Member for Surrey, South-West some questions that I have been asked by my constituents who are involved in a trial scheme; questions that I have put to the Yorkshire water authority, to which I am still awaiting a reply; and questions that have been put to the Minister in Committee, which are still awaiting a reply.

Will the hon. Member advise the House and her constituents of the tariffs that will be applied by the water company in which she has an interest? What will the tariff procedure be? Will the North West Surrey water company introduce the scheme in the area? How will people be charged for water following the trials? What standing charges will be attached to the scheme? What will be the increase in standing charges for water supply and sewage disposal? Those questions are relevant to the new clauses that we are proposing. I am prepared to give way to the hon. Member if she will explain to the House and to the people involved in trials what the tariff structure will be and how standing charges will be affected for metering of water and disposal of sewage.

Photo of Mrs Virginia Bottomley Mrs Virginia Bottomley , South West Surrey

I will not respond at length because the debate is about the principle of having metering trials and how they should be conducted. I drew upon the company with which I am associated as an example, but I do not want to turn the debate into a discussion of its practices, good though they are. I say only that people want information, but that there is no anxiety. People are used to electricity and gas charges based on metering, so there should be no paranoia that there is a conspiracy against the consumer. In fact, many people have requested that their supplies be metered. The purpose of having consultation and a public meeting is that all those matters can be clarified.

Photo of Mr Bill O'Brien Mr Bill O'Brien , Normanton

It is clear to hon. Members that the North West Surrey water company has not yet decided how to charge consumers when it introduces metering trials. The purpose of the new clauses is to ensure that people involved in metering trials will be given all the information well in advance of the trials, so that they can ask further questions if they are dissatisfied with the tariffs of the various water companies and authorities.

The document that we received in Committee states: The Government intend to monitor each trial very carefully and in particular will be looking at the nature of complaints from customers and how they are dealt with. If customers are not advised of the charges, how the tariffs will apply and how standing charges will be influenced by the metering trials, how will they be able to make representations to the Secretary of State in line with the directive issued by him? Labour Members consider that it is unfair, unjust and unreal to bring in legislation that does not explain in detail the consequences to consumers involved in trials.

The hon. Member for Surrey, South-West has compared water metering with gas and electricity metering. The difference is that, unlike water, people can choose between gas and electricity, but there is no alternative to water. People can manage without gas and electricity but they cannot manage without water, so we should not compare gas and electricity with water.

Photo of Joan Walley Joan Walley , Stoke-on-Trent North

Will my hon. Friend comment on the information that 80 per cent. of gas and electricity bills relate to the volume of gas and electricity used, whereas only 20 per cent. of a water bill applies to the water used? That raises the question: how much of a bill relates to the infrastructure and standing charges which must be paid?

Photo of Mr Bill O'Brien Mr Bill O'Brien , Normanton

My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms. Walley) introduces an important and pertinent point. Furthermore, the tariff structure is causing concern among people, because every water authority offers people the right to have water meters if they wish. Meters are available to domestic consumers if they want to take advantage of them. Water companies are dragooning people into water meter trials, and that is unfair, undemocratic and alien to what we believe.

Photo of Mr Eric Heffer Mr Eric Heffer , Liverpool, Walton

In relation to people having heating or water, I give the example of a working-class family with four children. The family may spend the entire evening in the same room to cut down heating costs, but when it comes to bathing those children, unless they are put into one bath, the family will have to pay more for water. That is the essence of the issue. It is a matter of principle. I shall do very well out of water metering, because I do not always live at my home, but if I had five children I would do very badly out of it. Water metering will cause more burdens to be put on to the shoulders of ordinary working people. That is exactly why we should oppose it.

Photo of Mr Bill O'Brien Mr Bill O'Brien , Normanton

The point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) was dealt with at length in Committee. In my constituency, where a trial is taking place, people are afraid of the results of the trial. Some people are refusing to take up tenancies in council houses in the trial area because they are afraid of the consequences. I have received a report concerning council houses, but there could be a blight on private houses. Owners may have difficulty in selling houses in the metering area, because people will not know what is involved in the meter trial areas.

The real issue with which we are concerned is what the tariffs and cost will be to the consumer. In the Yorkshire water authority area people have been advised that the rising block tariff will be used, but no one is prepared to explain how it will apply to them. We are making the point in new clause I that, prior to the commencement of a water metering trial, representatives of the water undertakers should contact my constituents, and every other person involved, to explain what the cost and charges will be when the meters are installed. Failing that, my constituents cannot make representations to the Secretary of State before the metering trial starts; therefore, their views cannot be taken into consideration. The aim of the new clause is that, before trials start, contact should be made with the people concerned. They should have the right to make representations through the consumer organisations, or through the local authority, if they are council tenants, or direct to the Secretary of State or the Minister. If consumers do not have that right and are contacted before the metering trials start, they should not be included in the metering trial areas. That is the point that we are making in the new clause.

Finally, as has been explained on more than one occasion, different water companies and authorities are planning different ways of applying the metering trials. I understand that in my area all the meters will be installed in the properties. We have been advised that in other areas meters will be fixed to a stop tap either in the curtilage of the property or on the footpath. If properties and households are going to be disturbed by tradesmen entering to fit the meters, examine the plumbing and perhaps install new pipes to ensure that the meters can work, it is important that this exercise of informing people of the consequences and of the action to be undertaken is carried out. It is important that the people affected should be informed at every stage on what is to take place. That is the purpose of the new clause.

We put it to the Minister and his supporters that the new clause is constructive. It is there to help the people who are going to be compulsorily involved in the meter trial areas. I hope that we shall have their co-operation this afternoon.

I made the point in Committee—and the Minister said that he would look into it—that if consultations are to be effective and constructive they must apply to everyone. When the first scheme was planned the geographical area in my constituency included a large industrial opencast coal working. A few weeks after the declaration by the Yorkshire water authority that the scheme would be carried out, it was found that the opencast coal site had been taken out of the scheme. Clearly, there had been some consultation with a customer who did not want to get involved in the scheme, or that customer made representations highlighting his situation, and he was taken out of the scheme.

If that principle can apply to the British Coal Opencast Executive, why can it not apply to my constituents who do not want to take part in the meter trials? There must be some explanation why the British Coal Opencast Executive can suddenly be taken out of the scheme because it does not want to be included, but my constituents, 90 per cent. of whom signed a petition rejecting the meter trial scheme, cannot be taken out. I put it to the Minister that if it is right for the British Coal Opencast Executive to be taken out of the scheme, it is right for the rest of the people who object to be taken out.

5.15 pm

In the light of the background to the new clauses and the amendment which are before the House this afternoon, I appeal to the Minister to give careful consideration to the points that we have made and to accept these proposals. We believe that they are in line with the declaration of the Secretary of State and that they are for the benefit of consumers in the meter trial areas.

Photo of Mr Colin Moynihan Mr Colin Moynihan , Lewisham East

I shall deal first with new clause 1.

Hon. Members who followed the proceedings of the Committee that considered this Bill will be aware that the Government consider it very important that a full consultation exercise take place in the proposed metering trial areas both before and during the trials. This is why, under clause 4(4) of the Bill, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is required, when considering a metering trial scheme for approval, to have regard to the consultations about the proposal or about the implementation, effect and operation of the scheme which have been or are to be conducted with persons who are likely to be or have been affected by the scheme. My right hon. Friend is also required to have regard to the handling of any representations about the implementation, effect or operation of the scheme. Those water authorities and companies that said that they would like to carry out a trial were asked some time ago to keep records of all consultation and its results. I can assure the House that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will consider the scope and results of such consultation very carefully indeed when considering schemes submitted for approval.

Many undertakers have already begun this consultation exercise. We have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey, South-West (Mrs. Bottomley) about the position in her constituency. They have done this on an entirely voluntary basis. For example, I have a copy here of a letter which the Bristol waterworks company sent out to various bodies likely to be affected by the trials. Those bodies included local Members of this House, councillors, and local branches of the citizens advice bureau, the Confederation of British Industry, Age Concern, Pensioners Voice, the Department of Health and Social Security, the local trading standards office and many more. This is proof, if proof were needed, of how seriously the industry regards the consultation process and the need to allow good time for it.

The Government are also particularly concerned that individual customers likely to take part in the trials are given full information. This will probably be in the form of an information pack on, for example, the purpose of the trials, customers' legal rights and obligations in relation to metering, how to read and test the meter, what happens if a meter is found to be inaccurate, guidance on typical water consumption, and the name, address and telephone number of someone at the water utility to answer their queries.

Photo of Mr Bill O'Brien Mr Bill O'Brien , Normanton

I am grateful to the Minister for allowing me to make one point. Out of all the information that has been put forward — and I made the point that the Yorkshire water authority is in my constituency—where is there any reference to what it will cost the consumers, what tariff structure will be applied — the Minister reported that there are four different structures — and will it increase standing charges?

Photo of Mr Colin Moynihan Mr Colin Moynihan , Lewisham East

I am happy to answer the hon. Gentleman's question by drawing to his attention the fact that before the Secretary of State can approve any trial he must give due consideration to each of the points that have been raised by the hon. Gentleman. He must know the tariff structure that will be used and the method of billing, and he will have to take into consideration precisely how each water undertaker that is involved with the trials wishes to use them. I expect that there will be a range of tariff structures. The purpose of the trials is for the Water Authorities Association to look at a range of meters, charging procedures and tariffs. They will be evaluated. That is why so much attention has been given to the proposed site areas by the association. It has used the ACORN model to make sure that a socio-economic cross-section is studied. It has taken particular account of a variety of infrastructure problems that are faced in rural areas and heavily built-up urban areas. All that is very important.

I take this opportunity in reply to the hon. Member for Houghton and Washington (Mr. Boyes) to say that it is vitally important to emphasise that the trial areas have not been chosen on the basis of party political representation. The trial areas have been proposed by the Water Authorities Association to the Government, and the Secretary of State, in making up his mind whether to approve each of the trials, has to take into account all of the points that I have just mentioned, and indeed each and every one of the points that the hon. Gentleman has raised.

Photo of Mr Bill O'Brien Mr Bill O'Brien , Normanton

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. He has said that the Secretary of State will want to know everything about tariff systems and charges, but when will customers know about this, and will they have an opportunity to make representations to the Secretary of State if a tariff structure is alien to them? When will they get to know when the structures will be applied?

Photo of Mr Colin Moynihan Mr Colin Moynihan , Lewisham East

The consumers will know in advance the final proposals that will be put to the Secretary of State, and they will have the opportunity—I stress that —to make representations individually to the Secretary of State about the proposed trials, or they will be able to make representations jointly. They will be able to see in advance of the trial being submitted exactly what the water undertakers wish to put into effect in a trial area. They will have the opportunity to make representations individually, whether they are in favour of the trial, or collectively if they are against it. It saddens me to hear that a mini-referendum or questionnaire has been put out in the trial area that is covered by the hon. Gentleman's constituency, when no firm decision has been reached about holding a proposed trial scheme in that area. That questionnaire has been put out before the people there even know the tariff structure or the cost effect.

Yorkshire water authority, as the hon. Gentleman has rightly pointed out, has yet to calculate the tariff to be used in its trial. I believe that it has been made known to the hon. Gentleman, who has taken up the issue so assiduously, that it is likely to be dealt with by a rising block tariff, with a relatively low standard charge. It is designed to recover the same amount of charges through the trial scheme that is covered by the rateable values. That is the promise and the water authority is now working on the details. It is a matter not simply of considering the details in the Yorkshire area, but of co-ordinating the scheme with other water authorities. I am glad to have this opportunity of reassuring the hon. Gentleman that the views of consumers and of his constituents will be taken into account fully. Consumers will be able to make direct representations to the Secretary of State.

We believe that the best means of bringing the full information about the trials to individual consumers is in the form of an information pack. We believe that that might also be the most cost-effective method. An information pack could be retained by consumers for future reference. That could not be achieved by a telephone inquiry or a doorstep visit, as the new clause proposes. The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson) said that some people would be alarmed by a telephone approach, although that was written into the new clause that he proposed. He has a point. It is important to find the best way of reaching consumers. The best way to do so, in the Government's view, is by using an information pack.

Photo of Doug Henderson Doug Henderson , Newcastle upon Tyne North

Is the Minister aware that polling organisations and other surveyors of public opinion would usually expect no more than a 15 per cent. return from a personalised letter? Does the Minister accept, in the general sense of this point, that people do have some reservations about a personal telephone approach? Does he therefore guarantee that every consumer will be visited personally by a water board official?

Photo of Mr Colin Moynihan Mr Colin Moynihan , Lewisham East

That is not an undertaking that I can or will give. What I can say is that each and every household in the trial areas will be contacted by post, certainly in the first instance. I expect that some assiduous undertakers will wish to visit each household. That is a decision for them. What is essential is that the Secretary of State is satisfied that an adequate consultation exercise has taken place. If that is not the case, and a number of households in a trial area are not contacted, I would be of the view that that is less than satisfactory consultation. I am sure that the water undertakers will ensure that a comprehensive consultation exercise will take place to make sure that every household is aware of the broad outline and the details of the proposed trial.

Photo of Doug Henderson Doug Henderson , Newcastle upon Tyne North

Will the Minister say, in the light of that statement, that he will issue guidelines to water authorities on that specific point, to encourage individual contacts?

Photo of Mr Colin Moynihan Mr Colin Moynihan , Lewisham East

We have not just issued guidelines; we have written that requirement into the Bill. We have made it clear in clause 4 exactly what we believe the water authorities should do to satisfy the Secretary of State that the proposed metering trial will go ahead and that the methodology is suited to the particular circumstances. That must be right.

I am confident, not least because of the exhaustive and sometimes exhausting debates in Committee, that water undertakers will take due note of the importance of consultation. Indeed, in response to the hon. Member for Houghton and Washington, who was particularly keen that I should write to the chairman of the Water Authorities Association, may I say that I have done so and brought to his attention the fact that effective consultation was recognised as being very important to those consumers affected by the trials. I am happy to allow a copy of the letter to be sent to any hon. Member who is interested in the subject. It is right and proper that a copy of that letter is sent to every right hon. and hon. Member who served on the Standing Committee.

As a further safeguard to ensure that customers are given adequate information, clause 5 enables the Secretary of State to make regulations supplementing the provisions in relation to various clauses, including metering. Clause 5(3)(e) will require water undertakers to include with any demand for payment information about the fixing of charges that may be specified by the Secretary of State. My officials have already held talks with the water industry and consumer bodies, such as LACOTs, on the contents of the regulations. As a result, I expect a full range of relevant information will be supplied on or with each demand for payment. I hope that right hon. and hon. Members will agree that new clause 1 is both unnecessary and unworkable, and I call on the House to reject it.

Turning to new clause 3, let me first deal with drinking water. There has been much misinformed speculation about this in the press and elsewhere. It should not need me to tell the House that our drinking water is perfectly safe to drink; of course it is. Millions of people up and down the land have been drinking the water from their taps all their lives without any harm at all, and they know that perfectly well. There is nothing which passes our lips in the course of a day—hon. Members have experience of many other things which pass their lips—that is more wholesome than the drinking water that is taken from our public supplies.

Let me make two other points about this. First, right hon. and hon. Members would not find many of their constituents who had as much confidence in supplies of water overseas including those of some of our European Community partner nations. If Members have any doubts about that, they should ask their constituents.

Secondly, it is deplorable that some irresponsible organisations have attempted to stir up fears about our drinking water. I am thinking in particular of a recent series of advertisements in the national press showing poison coming out of a tap, implying all sorts of harm came from drinking water. That is exactly the sort of mischief-making that could be deeply troubling some readers, and which casts doubts on the credibility of organisations that spread this sort of nonsense. I must say that such things are strongly resented by the thousands of dedicated people in the water supply industry who work hard to ensure the high standard and reliability of our supplies. We owe them a very great deal.

Photo of Mr Roland Boyes Mr Roland Boyes , Houghton and Washington

While recognising the dedication of the people who work in the water industry and putting no blame whatsoever on them, it is still a fact that, according to a written answer of 7 July 1987, the water authorities had been granted 272 derogations under article 9(1)(a) of the EEC regulations. In other words, there were 272 derogations to water authorities where the drinking water was not up to the required standards. That has nothing to do with the people who work in the industry. The Minister cannot hedge his bets by suggesting that we lay the blame on them. We are laying the blame on the Government who are not investing properly in the water industry.

Photo of Mr Colin Moynihan Mr Colin Moynihan , Lewisham East 5:30 pm, 2nd February 1988

The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that if one compares investment on water by the Labour Administration with that of this Administration, our investment is much better, particularly in view of the cuts that were made by his Government. However, the hon. Gentleman has raised an important point about the directive and about ensuring that we try to reduce the number of derogations and take appropriate action.

The hon. Gentleman is right about the EC drinking water directive. The directive specifies 44 substances which should not exceed certain concentrations, what are called maximum admissible concentrations, in drinking water. The Government are fully committed to the proper implementation of this directive in the United Kingdom. We did at one time tell the industry that, for some substances, they could interpret maximum admissible concentrations as applying to an average of samples, over a period, rather than to every sample. That meant that occasional instances of samples exceeding the limits for particular substances would not have mattered; and it is important to stress that in no case could that have had any conceivable health implication.

One example is the iron parameter. Iron is, of course, good for one, and at concentrations well above the limit specified in the directive. The iron limit is there because in some circumstances a high iron concentration may colour the water. That happens only infrequently, and where any damage occurs, for example, to washing, the consumer may be able to claim compensation from the water supplier.

Photo of Ms Joyce Quin Ms Joyce Quin , Gateshead East

In view of the different figures that have appeared in the press and those that have been quoted by the Water Authorities Association, will the Minister give the House a clear estimate of how much it will cost fully to comply with the EEC directives?

Photo of Mr Colin Moynihan Mr Colin Moynihan , Lewisham East

From a sedentary position, the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) shouts, "Get out of that." However, the hon. Gentleman will know, because, as I am sure the whole House is aware, he is keenly interested in the subject, that extensive discussions are taking place at present with all the water undertakers to make sure that the Government's commitment with regard to the European directives on drinking water quality are met and that appropriate investment is made over a period of time to ensure that those directives are met.

Hon. Members will know that water must be wholesome, which is what the law provides at present. However, in addition, the Secretary of State will have to be able to state by regulation that water falling below certain standards is not wholesome. The House will recognise that our provisions go beyond what is required by the directive by retaining the important British legal concept of wholesomeness.

Photo of Joan Walley Joan Walley , Stoke-on-Trent North

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. In view of the reply that he has just given, can the Minister confirm that water consumers will be paying the full amount of the investment needed to bring water up to EEC standards? Under those circumstances, would it not be better if the Government spent that money in making the necessary investment rather than calling for money to be wasted in installing meters?

Photo of Mr Colin Moynihan Mr Colin Moynihan , Lewisham East

The hon. Lady knows full well that recovery of the costs to ensure that the water that is provided is of a wholesome nature and within the qualities laid down by the Water Act 1973 and the European directives is, of course, passed on to the consumer. I find the hon. Lady's distinction remarkable — that the Government have money but consumers have a different amount of money. Of course, all the money that is spent by the Government is recovered from consumers through taxation.

The answer about the water undertakers is that they will have to adhere to the Government's policy, which has been clearly defined, about withdrawing derogations from the directive in respect, for example, of nitrate which apply in 48 areas. We shall be considering with the water authorities affected the implications of that withdrawal for their capital programmes. That will mean further investment over several years and those costs will be passed on to the consumers.

Photo of Mr John Garrett Mr John Garrett , Norwich South

I am surprised that the Minister referred to iron oxides as being subject to derogations under the EEC guidelines, when nitrates are much more important, especially in the county of Norfolk. Norfolk suffers from substantial pollution from the run-off from nitrogenous fertilisers into the water supply. Does he agree that iron oxide may not be shown to be inimical to health, but that nitrates certainly are, through the "blue baby" syndrome at least? Will he kindly explain by what means the water authorities will be required, under the regime that he is proposing, to comply with regulations in respect of nitrates?

Photo of Mr Colin Moynihan Mr Colin Moynihan , Lewisham East

I can answer the hon. Gentleman's question clearly. He will be aware that we are looking at the role that could be played by protecting certain sensitive areas from further nitrate contamination. There are already instances, both here and in other countries, of protective measures reducing nitrate levels significantly. We need to learn from those. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we are discussing with colleagues in other Departments that have a keen interest, not least the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, means of identifying the best possible methods of ensuring that we reduce nitrate concentrations, especially in water authorities such as his, Anglian. As he will be aware, there is also a problem in the Severn-Trent area. It is important that we tackle that because we intend to deal with the derogations and the new maximum admissible concentrations within the directive and the understanding that we publicly announced in this House on, I think, 12 December when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made a statement on that subject.

Clearly, there will need to be machinery to ensure that water undertakers comply with the requirements, and that customers continue to have adequate redress for any loss they may suffer through failure on the part of the undertakers. One significant element will be the role of local authorities in checking compliance of drinking water with the standards laid down. That exists at present, and it will be maintained.

The next part of the new clause deals with interruptions to water supply. The law on water supply and sewerage was subject to an extensive review, culminating in a consultation paper published in 1986. We shall be incorporating proposals resulting from that exercise in the water privatisation Bill. Questions of relative rights of customers and undertakers were carefully considered in that consultation process.

I do not consider it right to put a blanket liability on water undertakers for all breaks in supply which last more than 12 hours. Water undertakers naturally go to considerable lengths to provide and maintain reliable supplies of water to their customers. Where interruptions to the piped supply are unavoidable, they provide emergency supplies in bowsers or by standpipes. If, however, they fail to maintain supplies, for whatever period of time, without sufficient reason, they are already liable to be sued for damages and prosecuted in the criminal courts. But the law recognises that acts of God or essential works may lead to interruptions and, quite rightly, it exempts undertakers from liability in such cases. That seems an entirely adequate provision and I see no reason to extend it.

The third limb of the new clause is intended to provide compensation for the foul flooding of customers' homes. I have every sympathy with those whose property or land is flooded by sewage and it is tempting to look to compensation as a means of redress. In fact, however, I do not believe it to be either necessary or desirable. It is unnecessary first because if the flooding is the result of water authority negligence, it can already be sued for damages. In addition, water authorities generally make exgratia payments when flooding is caused by the failure of their equipment even though they are not technically negligent. Secondly, it is normally possible to insure against the flooding of property.

Finally, the new clause attempts to make water authorities liable for flooding from the private sewers and drains serving individual buildings even though they are entirely the responsibility of the owners of the buildings. Therefore, I urge the House to reject the new clause.

We are also considering amendment No. 4, which bears on the consultations which undertakers will have to carry out before and during a metering trial. Although I expect that undertakers will in any event wish to consult the various consumer bodies representing consumers in the areas likely to be affected by the trials, I agree that it would be helpful to put the issue beyond doubt. I am therefore pleased to give an undertaking that the Government will table an appropriate amendment in another place. With that undertaking, I hope that the hon. Member for Houghton and Washington will not press the amendment. However, I urge my hon. Friends to vote against new clause 1 and new clause 3.

Photo of Mr Roland Boyes Mr Roland Boyes , Houghton and Washington

I am grateful to the Minister for his undertaking that a new amendment will be tabled in another place that will satisfy what we sought to do in amendment No. 4. It reflects the continuous bombardment that the Minister has faced from the Opposition about consumer interests. Nevertheless, it is good that he is changing his mind at the last moment. However, we cannot accept his argument on new clause 1, and we shall have to press it to a Division.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:—

The House divided: Ayes 215, Noes 270.

Division No. 161][5.43 pm
Abbott, Ms DianeCanavan, Dennis
Adams, Allen (Paisley N)Carlile, Alex (Mont'g)
Allen, GrahamClark, Dr David (S Shields)
Anderson, DonaldClarke, Tom (Monklands W)
Archer, Rt Hon PeterClay, Bob
Armstrong, Ms HilaryClelland, David
Ashdown, PaddyClwyd, Mrs Ann
Ashley, Rt Hon JackColeman, Donald
Banks, Tony (Newham NW)Corbett, Robin
Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE)Corbyn, Jeremy
Barnes, Mrs Rosie (Greenwich)Cousins, Jim
Barron, KevinCox, Tom
Battle, JohnCrowther, Stan
Beckett, MargaretCryer, Bob
Bell, StuartCummings, J.
Benn, Rt Hon TonyCunliffe, Lawrence
Bennett, A. F. (D'nt'n & R'dish)Cunningham, Dr John
Bermingham, GeraldDalyell, Tam
Bidwell, SydneyDarling, Alastair
Blair, TonyDavies, Ron (Caerphilly)
Blunkett, DavidDavis, Terry (B'ham Hodge H'l)
Boateng, PaulDewar, Donald
Boyes, RolandDixon, Don
Bradley, KeithDobson, Frank
Bray, Dr JeremyDoran, Frank
Brown, Nicholas (Newcastle E)Douglas, Dick
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon)Duffy, A. E. P.
Buckley, GeorgeDunnachie, James
Caborn, RichardDunwoody, Hon Mrs Gwyneth
Callaghan, JimEadie, Alexander
Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)Ewing, Harry (Falkirk E)
Campbell, Ron (Blyth Valley)Ewing, Mrs Margaret (Moray)
Campbell-Savours, D. N.Fatchett, Derek
Faulds, AndrewMaxton, John
Fearn, RonaldMeacher, Michael
Fields, Terry (L'pool B G'n)Michael, Alun
Fisher, MarkMichie, Bill (Sheffield Heeloy)
Flannery, MartinMichie, Mrs Ray (Arg'l & Bute)
Flynn, PaulMillan, Rt Hon Bruce
Foot, Rt Hon MichaelMitchell, Austin (G't Grimsby)
Foster, DerekMoonie, Dr Lewis
Foulkes, GeorgeMorgan, Rhodri
Fraser, JohnMorley, Elliott
Fyfe, Mrs MariaMorris, Rt Hon J (Aberavon)
Galbraith, SamuelMowlam, Marjorie
Galloway, GeorgeMurphy, Paul
Garrett, John (Norwich South)Nellist, Dave
Garrett, Ted (Wallsend)Oakes, Rt Hon Gordon
George, BruceO'Brien, William
Gilbert, Rt Hon Dr JohnO'Neill, Martin
Godman, Dr Norman A.Orme, Rt Hon Stanley
Golding, Mrs LlinParry, Robert
Gordon, Ms MildredPatchett, Terry
Gould, BryanPendry, Tom
Graham, ThomasPike, Peter
Grant, Bernie (Tottenham)Powell, Ray (Ogmore)
Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)Prescott, John
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)Primarolo, Ms Dawn
Grocott, BruceQuin, Ms Joyce
Hardy, PeterRadice, Giles
Harman, Ms HarrietRandall, Stuart
Hattersley, Rt Hon RoyRedmond, Martin
Healey, Rt Hon DenisRees, Rt Hon Merlyn
Heffer, Eric S.Richardson, Ms Jo
Henderson, DouglasRoberts, Allan (Bootle)
Hinchliffe, DavidRobinson, Geoffrey
Home Robertson, JohnRogers, Allan
Howarth, George (Knowsley N)Rooker, Jeff
Howell, Rt Hon D. (S'heath)Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)
Howells, GeraintRowlands, Ted
Hoyle, DougRuddock, Ms Joan
Hughes, John (Coventry NE)Salmond, Alex
Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)Sedgemore, Brian
Hughes, Roy (Newport E)Sheerman, Barry
Hughes, Sean (Knowsley S)Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert
Hughes, Simon (Southwark)Shore, Rt Hon Peter
Illsley, EricShort, Clare
Ingram, AdamSkinner, Dennis
Janner, GrevilleSmith, Andrew (Oxford E)
John, BrynmorSmith, C. (Isl'ton & F'bury)
Johnston, Sir RussellSnape, Peter
Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S W)Soley, Clive
Kaufman, Rt Hon GeraldSpearing, Nigel
Kilfedder, JamesSteel, Rt Hon David
Kirkwood, ArchySteinberg, Gerald
Lambie, DavidStott, Roger
Lamond, JamesStrang, Gavin
Leadbitter, TedStraw, Jack
Leighton, RonTaylor, Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
Lewis, TerryTaylor, Matthew (Truro)
Litherland, RobertThomas, Dafydd Elis
Livsey, RichardThompson, Jack (Wansbeck)
Lloyd, Tony (Stretford)Turner, Dennis
Lofthouse, GeoffreyWall, Pat
McAllion, JohnWallace, James
McAvoy, TomWalley, Ms Joan
Macdonald, CalumWarden, Gareth (Gower)
McFall, JohnWelsh, Michael (Doncaster N)
McKay, Allen (Penistone)Wigley, Dafydd
McKelvey, WilliamWilliams, Alan W. (Carm'then)
McLeish, HenryWilson, Brian
McTaggart, BobWinnick, David
McWilliam, JohnWise, Mrs Audrey
Madden, MaxWorthington, Anthony
Mahon, Mrs AliceYoung, David (Bolton SE)
Marek, Dr John
Marshall, David (Shettleston)Tellers for the Ayes:
Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)Mr. Frank Haynes and
Martlew, EricMr. Frank Cook.
Adley, RobertAmery, Rt Hon Julian
Aitken, JonathanAmess, David
Amos, AlanFinsberg, Sir Geoffrey
Arbuthnot, JamesFookes, Miss Janet
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)Forman, Nigel
Ashby, DavidForsyth, Michael (Stirling)
Aspinwall, JackForth, Eric
Atkins, RobertFox, Sir Marcus
Atkinson, DavidFranks, Cecil
Baker, Rt Hon K. (Mole Valley)French, Douglas
Baker, Nicholas (Dorset N)Gale, Roger
Banks, Robert (Harrogate)Garel-Jones, Tristan
Batiste, SpencerGill, Christopher
Beaumont-Dark, AnthonyGlyn, Dr Alan
Bellingham, HenryGoodhart, Sir Philip
Bendall, VivianGoodlad, Alastair
Bennett, Nicholas (Pembroke)Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles
Benyon, W.Gorman, Mrs Teresa
Bevan, David GilroyGow, Ian
Biffen, Rt Hon JohnGower, Sir Raymond
Biggs-Davison, Sir JohnGrant, Sir Anthony (CambsSW)
Blackburn, Dr John G.Greenway, Harry (Ealing N)
Blaker, Rt Hon Sir PeterGreenway, John (Rydale)
Body, Sir RichardGriffiths, Sir Eldon (Bury St E')
Bonsor, Sir NicholasGriffiths, Peter (Portsmouth N)
Boswell, TimGrist, Ian
Bottomley, PeterGround, Patrick
Bottomley, Mrs VirginiaGrylls, Michael
Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich)Gummer, Rt Hon John Selwyn
Bowis, JohnHamilton, Hon A. (Epsom)
Boyson, Rt Hon Dr Sir RhodesHampson, Dr Keith
Braine, Rt Hon Sir BernardHanley, Jeremy
Brazier, JulianHannam, John
Bright, GrahamHargreaves, A. (B'ham H'll Gr')
Brittan, Rt Hon LeonHarris, David
Browne, John (Winchester)Haselhurst, Alan
Bruce, Ian (Dorset South)Hawkins, Christopher
Buchanan-Smith, Rt Hon AlickHayes, Jerry
Buck, Sir AntonyHayhoe, Rt Hon Sir Barney
Budgen, NicholasHayward, Robert
Burns, SimonHeathcoat-Amory, David
Burt, AlistairHicks, Mrs Maureen (Wolv' NE)
Butcher, JohnHiggins, Rt Hon Terence L.
Butler, ChrisHill, James
Butterfill, JohnHind, Kenneth
Carrington, MatthewHogg, Hon Douglas (Gr'th'm)
Carttiss, MichaelHolt, Richard
Cash, WilliamHoward, Michael
Chapman, SydneyHowarth, Alan (Strat'd-on-A)
Chope, ChristopherHowarth, G. (Cannock & B'wd)
Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford)Howell, Rt Hon David (G'dford)
Clark, Sir W. (Croydon S)Howell, Ralph (North Norfolk)
Colvin, MichaelHughes, Robert G. (Harrow W)
Conway, DerekHunt, David (Wirral W)
Coombs, Anthony (Wyre F'rest)Hunt, John (Ravensbourne)
Coombs, Simon (Swindon)Hunter, Andrew
Cope, JohnHurd, Rt Hon Douglas
Cormack, PatrickIrvine, Michael
Couchman, JamesIrving, Charles
Cran, JamesJack, Michael
Currie, Mrs EdwinaJackson, Robert
Curry, DavidJanman, Timothy
Davies, Q. (Stamf'd & Spald'g)Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey
Davis, David (Boothferry)Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)
Day, StephenJones, Robert B (Herts W)
Devlin, TimKellett-Bowman, Dame Elaine
Dickens, GeoffreyKey, Robert
Dicks, TerryKing, Roger (B'ham N'thfield)
Dorrell, StephenKnapman, Roger
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord JamesKnight, Dame Jill (Edgbaston)
Dover, DenKnowles, Michael
Dunn, BobLang, Ian
Dykes, HughLawrence, Ivan
Eggar, TimLeigh, Edward (Gainsbor'gh)
Evans, David (Welwyn Hatf'd)Lennox-Boyd, Hon Mark
Evennett, DavidLester, Jim (Broxtowe)
Fairbairn, NicholasLightbown, David
Fallon, MichaelLloyd, Peter (Fareham)
Farr, Sir JohnMaclean, David
Favell, TonyMcLoughlin, Patrick
Fenner, Dame PeggyMans, Keith
Field, Barry (Isle of Wight)Marland, Paul
Marshall, John (Hendon S)Spicer, Michael (S Worcs)
Martin, David (Portsmouth S)Squire, Robin
Miscampbell, NormanStanbrook, Ivor
Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling)Steen, Anthony
Monro, Sir HectorStern, Michael
Moss, MalcolmStevens, Lewis
Moynihan, Hon C.Stewart, Allan (Eastwood)
Needham, RichardStewart, Andrew (Sherwood)
Nelson, AnthonyStokes, John
Neubert, MichaelStradling Thomas, Sir John
Nicholls, PatrickSumberg, David
Nicholson, David (Taunton)Summerson, Hugo
Nicholson, Miss E. (Devon W)Taylor, Ian (Esher)
Page, RichardTaylor, John M (Solihull)
Paice, JamesTebbit, Rt Hon Norman
Patnick, IrvineTemple-Morris, Peter
Patten, Chris (Bath)Thompson, D. (Calder Valley)
Patten, John (Oxford W)Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)
Pattie, Rt Hon Sir GeoffreyThome, Neil
Pawsey, JamesThornton, Malcolm
Peacock, Mrs ElizabethThurnham, Peter
Porter, Barry (Wirral S)Townend, John (Bridlington)
Porter, David (Waveney)Tracey, Richard
Powell, William (Corby)Tredinnick, David
Price, Sir DavidTwinn, Dr Ian
Raff an, KeithVaughan, Sir Gerard
Raison, Rt Hon TimothyWaddington, Rt Hon David
Rathbone, TimWakeham, Rt Hon John
Redwood, JohnWaldegrave, Hon William
Rhodes James, RobertWalden, George
Rhys Williams, Sir BrandonWalker, Bill (T'side North)
Riddick, GrahamWaller, Gary
Ridley, Rt Hon NicholasWalters, Dennis
Ridsdale, Sir JulianWard, John
Rifkind, Rt Hon MalcolmWardle, C. (Bexhill)
Roberts, Wyn (Conwy)Warren, Kenneth
Roe, Mrs MarionWatts, John
Rossi, Sir HughWells, Bowen
Rost, PeterWheeler, John
Rumbold, Mrs AngelaWhitney, Ray
Sackville, Hon TomWiddecombe, Miss Ann
Sainsbury, Hon TimWiggin, Jerry
Scott, NicholasWilkinson, John
Shaw, David (Dover)Wilshire, David
Shaw, Sir Giles (Pudsey)Winterton, Mrs Ann
Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb')Winterton, Nicholas
Shelton, William (Streatham)Wolfson, Mark
Shephard, Mrs G. (Norfolk SW)Wood, Timothy
Shersby, MichaelWoodcock, Mike
Skeet, Sir TrevorYeo, Tim
Smith, Sir Dudley (Warwick)Young, Sir George (Acton)
Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)
Soames, Hon NicholasTellers for the Noes:
Speed, KeithMr. Richard Ryder and
Speller, TonyMr. Kenneth Carlisle.

Question accordingly negatived.