New Clause 1 — Legislative competence for water in Wales

Water Bill – in the House of Commons at 4:51 pm on 6th January 2014.

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‘The National Assembly for Wales shall have legislative competence for water up to the geographical boundary with England.’.—(Hywel Williams.)

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

New clause 2—Retail exit—

‘(1) The Secretary of State may by regulations make provision about the transfer of an undertaker’s assets and liabilities associated with its non-household retail business into a separate company.

(2) Regulations under this section are to be made by statutory instrument.

(3) Regulations under subsection (1) may, in particular, make provision for any such transfer to be subject to—

(a) approval by the Secretary of State;

(b) any such safeguards as may be specified in the regulations;

(c) the transferee company holding a licence containing a retail authorisation pursuant to section 17A of the Water Industry Act 1991;

(d) the provision of any information or other such assistance from the relevant undertaker as may be required by the Secretary of State for the purposes of approving the transfer.’.

New clause 11—Duties of undertakers to furnish the Secretary of State with information: annual review—

‘(1) Section 202 of the Water Industry Act 1991 (duties to undertakers to furnish the Secretary of State with information) is amended as follows.

(2) After subsection (1A) there is inserted—

“(1B) Any company with a duty under subsections (1) and (1A) must furnish the Secretary of State and the Authority with an annual review which provides information about—

(a) their performance;

(b) the total amount of investment;

(c) their taxation structure;

(d) their corporate structure; and

(e) the total amount of dividends paid to shareholders.

(1C) Information under subsection (1B) must be provided prior to the publication of the annual statement of the Secretary of State under section 2A.”.’.

New clause 12—Oversight of charges—

‘In section 2 of the Water Industry Act 1991 (general duties with respect of the water industry), after subsection (2C) there is inserted—

“(2CA) For the purposes of subsection (2A)(a) above the Secretary of State or, as the case may be, the Authority shall have regard to the rates of charges to—

(a) household premises; and

(b) non-household premises.”.’.

New clause 14—Privatisation of water supply: review—

‘(1) Chapter 1 of this Act shall not come into force until the Secretary of State has laid before Parliament a report on the performance of the water companies since the privatisation of the arrangements for water supply came into force under the Water Act 1989, the Water Industry Act 1991 and the Water Consolidation (Consequential Provisions) Act 1991.

(2) A report under subsection (1) must in particular review—

(a) the cost of water to the consumer,

(b) the number of disconnections of water supply,

(c) the purity of the water supplied and the number and consequences of water pollution incidences attributable to the operation of the water companies,

(d) the incidences of leakages, low pressure and disruptions to water supply,

(e) the levels of investment in the water supply infrastructure by the water companies,

(f) the profits made and dividends paid to shareholders by the water companies,

(g) the levels of management remuneration of the water companies,

(h) the levels of taxation paid by the water companies, and

(i) the adherence of the water companies in their operations in the UK and internationally to the national legislation and international conventions and treaties on the protection of the environment, human rights and wages and employment conditions.’.

Government amendments 13 to 22 and 59.

Amendment 12, page 124, line 1, in clause 80, at end insert ‘(h) section [Retail exit].’.

Government new schedule 1—‘Orders under section 77: further provision.

Government amendments 23 to 28, 60, 29 to 46, 61 to 64, 47 to 50, 52, 53, 65 to 87 and 54.

Photo of Hywel Williams Hywel Williams Shadow PC Spokesperson (Education), Shadow PC Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Health)

As is often remarked, Wales is the land of mountains and valleys, and of lakes and rivers. It is therefore very appropriate that I, as a Welsh Member, speak on the Water Bill.

Water and lakes have had a central part in Welsh culture for many centuries. We witnessed astonishing discoveries some decades ago at Llyn Cerrig Bach, the lake on Ynys Môn, of metal offerings to the gods from 2,000 years ago, including some gruesome slave chains.

There is the story of Llyn y Fan Fach. The poor farm boy wins the love of the maiden of the lake. By intrigue, they marry and prosper. He strikes her inadvertently three times, and on the third blow she returns to the lake with all their worldly wealth. There are many other such stories.

Our lakes have inspired poets—too many to quote. One very short extract, which I will translate, will suffice. Gwilym Cowlyd, in his long poem to the mountains of Wales sings thus:

“Y llynnau gywyrddion llonnydd - a gysgant

Mewn gw as gawd ofynydd

A thynn heulwen ysblennydd

Ar len y dwr lun y dydd”.

That translates as: the still green lakes sleep in a waistcoat of mountain, and splendid sunlight draws on the sheet of the water the picture of the day.

Our lakes and rivers inspired Welsh artists such as Richard Wilson, who is sometimes called the father of “English”—sic—landscape painting. His two substantial paintings of Afon Dyfrdwy, the River Dee, can be seen in the National Gallery. His defining painting of Llyn-y-Cau on Cader Idris can be seen at Tate Britain.

So far, so uncontroversial. That fits into the usual Wales box—it is nothing to disturb Front Benchers on either side of the House—and is the conventional picture of our country as a place of extreme natural beauty, and of a long-lived, varied and inspiring culture, but water has also been an emotive, emblematic and defining political matter in Wales for many decades. Let no one in the Chamber doubt or underestimate the power and significance of the water issue in Wales.

I referred in Committee to the controversy and conflict in the 1950s and 1960s over the drowning of Welsh valleys to supply English conurbations against the will of the people of Wales. That was demonstrated in this very House of Commons, when all but one of Wales’s MPs voted against the removal of the people of the village of Capel Celyn and the drowning of their valley to supply the burgeoning and thirsty industrial development of Merseyside.

At the time, the developers saw that as the entirely reasonable harnessing of readily available natural resources for much needed development. They wondered what all the fuss was about. Many Welsh people saw it as straightforward expropriation, akin to the highland clearances. Chillingly, the drowning of Welsh valleys led to the first sustained campaign of bombing in Wales, which, in a further development, led tragically to the injury of an innocent schoolboy, and to the deaths of two of the bombers and the jailing of some of the key perpetrators. Some hon. Members will be familiar with the pictures taken by Geoff Charles, the photo-journalist, of the 1956 demonstration in Liverpool. The people of Capel Celyn marched through the streets of the city to the council buildings, only to find the doors barred against them. Their banners, carried through a city still bearing the many scars of aerial bombardment, said: “Your homes are safe. Save ours. Do not drown our homes.”

One of the leaders of that march in 1956 was Gwynfor Evans, the president of Plaid Cymru, who in 1966 was elected as the MP for Carmarthen. He was the first Plaid Cymru MP, a political earthquake that still reverberates today. Let no one here today doubt or underestimate the power of the water issue in Wales. To borrow RS Thomas’s line, rather than

“Worrying the carcass of an old song”,

let us look at the situation facing us today.

Dwr Cymru Welsh Water is the provider for most of Wales and for parts of England. Dee Valley Water supplies part of north-east Wales and part of the north-west of England. Severn Trent Water supplies mid-Wales and benefits from its water resources. Indeed, it has a 99-year contract with Welsh Water, dating most recently from 1984, to supply up to 360 megalitres per day of non-potable water. That contract ends in 2073.

This arrangement has its roots in the Birmingham Corporation Water Act 1892. It might appear to some as reasonable and practical at the height of municipal power at the end of the 19th century or when water was in public ownership. Indeed, it was the pattern adopted on privatisation and it continues today. To others, it is nothing less than a clear injustice, with a private sector organisation from another country benefiting from a substantial part of what should be a valuable public resource for Wales.

The water industry in Wales is different from the industry in England and in Scotland. It is run on a non-profit distributing basis. Any profits are channelled into lower prices or investment in the service. This has led to below-inflation price rises for the past three years, with a promise of similar for the future; to a sustained lowering of the gearing of the organisation in an industry where gearing is notoriously high; and to a substantial and sustained investment programme.

To get to the nub of the matter before us in new clause 1, the current arrangements are that the National Assembly for Wales has responsibility for water in Wales, save for that water which flows from mid-Wales to England. New clause 1 provides that the National Assembly for Wales shall have legislative competence for water up to the geographical boundary with England—nothing more and nothing less. It is a reasonable aspiration for any legislature to have legislative competence for important resources within its territory, and it is reasonable that the current arrangements should be changed.

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

I am listening to the hon. Gentleman’s speech with great interest. When the water industry was established, the boundaries were set on the basis of natural watersheds, which, unfortunately, do not coincide with the boundary between Wales and England. Would the new clause not cause unnecessary and potentially expensive administrative complexity which would benefit neither Dwr Cymru customers nor those in England?

Photo of Hywel Williams Hywel Williams Shadow PC Spokesperson (Education), Shadow PC Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Health)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He anticipates my next points, though he is welcome to intervene again should he still be unsatisfied.

We are not in a static, pre-privatisation and pre-devolution situation. Things have moved on, not least in respect of the current status of the NAW as a legislature following the most recent Act—I note that some hon. Members still call it a Welsh Administration, but that is another matter—and there is the prospect of further change as a result of the Silk commission’s reports. Change is central to the relationship between England and Wales, and has been so at least since the establishment of the Welsh Office in 1964. The pace picked up enormously since 1997 and 1999, with the establishment of the Welsh Assembly. The then Labour Secretary of State for Wales said famously that devolution is a “process, not an event”. That is a truism, whatever the current Labour First Minister in Cardiff might wish for as a constitutional settlement, so that it will “all just go away” and he can continue on his unambitious meander.

Plaid Cymru tabled amendments to Labour’s Government of Wales Bill in 2005-06 that would have had a similar effect to new clause 1, but the then Labour Government rejected them. They retained what, as a shorthand, I call the “London veto on Welsh water”. Their attitude was in contrast to that of the then hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal and former Environment Minister, John Selwyn Gummer, who is now in another place. In response to my right hon. Friend Mr Llwyd, he said:

“Under the clause, a Secretary of State, by diktat, would be able to say that a Measure that has a passing or glancing effect on some matter of importance—sufficiently important for the Assembly to feel that a Measure is needed—should be stopped because he has ‘reasonable grounds to believe’ that it would have an ‘adverse effect’. It is difficult to imagine that a Secretary of State would not be able to stop anything that he did not like. The condition of having ‘reasonable grounds’ does not help, so vague is the wording used in the following paragraphs.”

It was not just the Plaid Cymru MP who was sceptical about the Labour Government’s attitude. John Selwyn Gummer went on to say:

“I agree with the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy.”

That was his constituency at the time.

“Either we trust the Welsh people or we do not. It is extremely difficult for me to accept that the Welsh people have to be singled out and measures taken to ensure that, where water is concerned, they should not in any way or in any circumstances be able to do anything that might upset the plans of English Ministers.”—[Hansard, 24 January 2006; Vol. 441, c. 1359.]

Photo of Jonathan Edwards Jonathan Edwards Shadow PC Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Wales)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on making a powerful case for the full devolution of Welsh water resources. Is it not the case that were his new clause successful, the people of Wales would be in full control over their entire water portfolio and that those who abstain or oppose his new clause when we divide will essentially be saying that large parts of Welsh water resources should be under the control of the British state?

Photo of Hywel Williams Hywel Williams Shadow PC Spokesperson (Education), Shadow PC Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Health)

My hon. Friend makes a telling point that I shall refer to later: there is no centre ground on this matter. Either the Assembly controls Welsh resources or the Government here in London do so. It is a question of whether the Welsh people have self-determination on this matter or whether there is a veto from London. I know which option he favours—it is the same one I favour.

Photo of Jonathan Evans Jonathan Evans Conservative, Cardiff North

The hon. Gentleman rightly referred to the Capel Celyn situation—I remember it from many years ago when I first entered politics—and rightly said that across the political spectrum there was universal opposition in Wales to the drowning of valleys. Today, however, he should help the House. What is the mood in Wales today? He obviously feels that this is yet another step in devolution, but there is no great appetite for it elsewhere in Wales.

Photo of Hywel Williams Hywel Williams Shadow PC Spokesperson (Education), Shadow PC Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Health)

That is an interesting point. At every turn, when further devolution is proposed, right hon. and hon. Members of all parties always say that there is no appetite for it, and they point to polls allegedly showing no appetite for further change, but subsequent polls always show that the Welsh people support further devolution. They support devolution that goes further than the Government’s proposals. They supported further devolution before and after the Government of Wales Act. The hon. Gentleman has his own opinion and I have mine, but I think I have my ear closer to the ground of Welsh people’s opinion.

Photo of Jonathan Edwards Jonathan Edwards Shadow PC Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Wales)

Jonathan Evans might have noticed over the summer that the Silk commission undertook the most detailed study of devolutionary attitudes in Wales since the Senedd was created in 1999, and it clearly indicated overwhelming support for the people of Wales getting control over their natural resources, be that wind, water, shale gas or whatever. The people of Wales want those resources in the ownership of the Welsh people, and the guardian of the Welsh people is our own sovereign Parliament in Cardiff.

Photo of Hywel Williams Hywel Williams Shadow PC Spokesperson (Education), Shadow PC Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Health)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that further point, however disappointed we both might be with the guardianship of the current Government in Cardiff.

Eight years after the Government of Wales Act, circumstances on the ground are much more pressing. For example—a small example, perhaps—the fracking industry, if it proceeds, will be a heavy user of water, and as the Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, Michael Fallon, has confirmed:

“Water sourced from local water companies for projects in England could potentially originate from Wales.”—[Hansard, 18 December 2013; Vol. 572, c. 640W.]

At the very least, there is the threat of history repeating itself—of industrial development and growth in wealth in England being based on resources from Wales, of the benefits to Wales being limited and of the legislative control of the Welsh Government being limited to part of the country only and being subject to a London veto. I believe that that is insupportable. It would be seen by many as Capel Celyn and Tryweryn once again.

Photo of Bob Stewart Bob Stewart Conservative, Beckenham

Does the hon. Gentleman’s new clause imply that the Welsh Assembly could stop water coming into England if it wished to do so?

Photo of Hywel Williams Hywel Williams Shadow PC Spokesperson (Education), Shadow PC Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Health)

The hon. Gentleman anticipates my next point: it is a matter for the Welsh Government to decide what they would do; they have the right to decide for themselves. What I am against is this place’s veto and this place telling the Welsh Government what they would or should do. I think that in a reasonable world—and I think the Welsh Government are very reasonable people—they would be highly unlikely to turn the off taps, but they might be able to reverse what I described earlier as a patent injustice. What might the Welsh Government do with legislative competence up to the border? That is a matter for them.

This Water Bill introduces competition into water provision. Water companies in Wales are wholly or mainly exempt, but that still leaves open to competition a huge area of Wales owned by Severn Trent, which is expressly against the wishes of the Welsh Government—at least for that part of Wales for which they have the power to decide.

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

I am following the hon. Gentleman’s speech with genuine interest. If water is abstracted from the area within Dwr Cymru’s competence and Dwr Cymru receives proceeds from that abstraction, could that money be used to keep water bills down for the vast majority of Welsh Water customers?

Photo of Hywel Williams Hywel Williams Shadow PC Spokesperson (Education), Shadow PC Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Health)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. As I said, the agreement with Severn Trent predates privatisation, and the amount of money that changes hands is, I think, nominal. I have to confess that I do not know precisely how much it is, but my hon. Friend Jonathan Edwards has referred in the past to a very small amount of money changing hands, which has only a marginal effect on what Welsh Water is able to achieve. I would also point out that what it achieves by being a not-for-distributive-profits organisation is enormously greater than any money it might get from Severn Trent.

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

The hon. Gentleman mentioned fracking, which could well be a growth business in Wales as in England. From what he says, it seems to me that any water abstracted from Dwr Cymru’s area could mean a negotiation between Dwr Cymru and the users of that water. If it wanted to do so, Dwr Cymru could charge quite a high price for what is a very valuable resource.

Photo of Hywel Williams Hywel Williams Shadow PC Spokesperson (Education), Shadow PC Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Health)

The hon. Gentleman makes a fine point. That would be the case if, say, Northumbrian Water sells to Yorkshire Water: there are different prices in different parts of the country, depending on the economics of the transport of water. The moot point about water is that it is in some ways a transport business rather than a water supply business, because water is extremely heavy and difficult to move about. It would be a matter of negotiation. As I pointed out, however, Welsh Water does not have control of some of the more significant water resources in Wales—the water sources in mid-Wales. Incidentally, I do not want to stray from the water industry, Madam Deputy Speaker, but fracking might take place in south Wales and possibly not in north-west Wales—the part I represent. Someone has to say that, I suppose—start at home.

Ofwat addressed the matter of realigning legislative competence in its evidence to the Silk commission. People who frighten the horses over the costs would do well to listen to what Ofwat had to say about the “potential impacts” of moving away from the “wholly or mainly” boundary—that is, the current situation. It said:

“During our evidence session I was asked about any possible impacts of moving away from the current policy boundary definition. We believe that there are likely to be some administrative costs to companies (and customers) from such a change and that there could be some incidence effects on customer bills (which could be positive or negative for different customers).”

In other words, it will impact differently, but Ofwat says:

“Generally we would expect both of these to be relatively minor.”

I do not think that there is a reason to be particularly frightened of any costs that might be involved.

More significantly, perhaps, I point out to those on the Opposition Front Bench that the Labour party’s stance on the matter is clear. In their submission to the Commission on Devolution in Wales, the Labour Welsh Government stated that they wanted the National Assembly to have full legislative control over water up to the geographical boundary with England. They also stated that they wanted to remove the London Government’s power to intervene in Welsh affairs in relation to water, which I referred to earlier as the London veto. Interestingly, that is a complete volte-face from the stance taken by the Labour Secretary of State for Wales in 2006, who was insistent on the veto.

In its evidence to the Silk commission, Labour said that

“the Assembly’s legislative competence should henceforth extend up to the geographical boundary with England” and, on page 9, that competence should be

“extended to the geographical boundary with England in line with the legislative competence for other acts of the Assembly.”

Labour also said:

“We also propose removal of the existing Secretary of State unilateral intervention power in the case of functions relating to water”— that is, the veto. It went on to say:

“There is an important interdependency between Wales and England in terms of water resource management, water supply and water quality. We consider that any concerns about potential adverse impact in England in relation to these matters would be more appropriately addressed through inter-governmental mechanisms that set out the basis for co-operation and joint working between the respective Governments.”

That is the Labour party’s stance.

Photo of Hywel Williams Hywel Williams Shadow PC Spokesperson (Education), Shadow PC Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Health)

Alas, I am not surprised at all by the complete lack of Labour MPs from Wales in the Chamber. They might still be celebrating, who knows?

In conclusion, if the coalition Government are unwise and refuse to accept the new clause and we are forced to press it to a Division, I expect the main Opposition party, which is also the Government party in Wales, to join us in the Lobby. After all, this is not just a Welsh test for the coalition Government. It is also a test for the Opposition in this place and for their friends in Wales of their consistency and commitment to the people of Wales. Are they serious about devolving power to Cardiff, or is this to be a case of echoing St Augustine: “Make me pure, but not yet”?

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee

It is a pleasure to follow Hywel Williams, who moved his amendment so eloquently.

I want to speak in support of two little amendments that have been grouped under the heading “Regime of the water industry”. New clause 2 and amendment 12 have been tabled in my name and those of a number of colleagues on the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. We followed the proceedings in the Public Bill Committee with great interest, but chose to bide our time until the remaining stages before we entered into the legislative process, having done what I thought was a welcome piece of work in the pre-legislative scrutiny of the draft Bill.

New clause 2 specifically considers the possibility of allowing a retail exit. It would empower the Secretary of State to make provision by regulation for the transfer of an undertaker’s assets and liabilities associated with its non-household retail business into a separate company. Regulations would be made in the normal way by statutory instrument and would make provision for any transfer to be subject to the approval of the Secretary of State and such safeguards as may be specified in the regulations. Amendment 12 would amend clause 80 by inserting the relevant section on retail exit.

We considered retail exit during the pre-legislative scrutiny. Inevitably, a number of companies may not necessarily fail but will regrettably have insufficient customers to allow them to stay in the market. New clause 2 and amendment 12 would simply recognise that impact and allow companies to function in what would be considered a normal competitive market. An exit clause such as we propose would facilitate new entrants, particularly larger ones, into the water and sewerage retail markets.

We recommended in our report during the pre-legislative scrutiny that the Bill should include such provisions to enable incumbent companies to exit the retail market voluntarily. It would be helpful to hear from the Minister whether he is minded to accept new clause 2 and amendment 12. During our inquiry, both regulators—Ofwat, which covers England and Wales, and the Water Industry Commission for Scotland—said that incumbent companies and, indeed, new entrants were united in calling for the Bill to include an exit route.

During the Public Bill Committee, Opposition Members proposed a new clause to allow incumbent companies to choose whether to provide to the retail or wholesale market only, subject to approval by the Secretary of State. Regrettably, the Opposition’s new clause was defeated in a vote. New clause 2 would have a different effect from the new clause proposed by the Opposition in Committee, as it would specifically enable companies to exit the retail market by transferring their retail contracts and liabilities—that is, their retail business—to a third party where they chose to do so. That would open up the market to new entrants who hold a retail authorisation, by allowing them to acquire whole retail businesses, rather than acquiring one contract at a time. That would allow economies of scale.

Photo of Alison Seabeck Alison Seabeck Shadow Minister (Defence)

The hon. Lady is without doubt an expert in these matters, given her role on the Select Committee as well as the all-party group. On the basis of the work done by her Committee, will she give the House a sense of the amount of interest in entering the market and the number of people involved?

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her good services to the all-party group, where we serve as fellow officers. We hear of many entrants, but obviously, until the law is in place, it is difficult to put a number on that. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will have heard and can perhaps comment, as he is closer to the issue.

We suggest that if existing companies are unable to compete with new entrants who want to come in for very good reasons and lose customers as a result, it makes sense to allow an exit strategy. I personally feel that we heard no compelling evidence during the pre-legislative scrutiny of the draft Bill and during our consideration of the water White Paper to suggest that the reform should not include a retail exit strategy. That is why we feel honour bound to come forward for the sake the Bill’s completeness.

New clause 2 would give all undertakers the power but not the obligation to transfer their non-household retail business to a different company. It would give the Secretary of State the power to make any such transfer subject to approval and any necessary safeguards to ensure an orderly exit from the market. I hope that the House will be able to support the proposals because much of the Bill is silent on these matters and we want to use the new clause and amendment to give it more teeth.

There are several arguments in favour of allowing such a retail exit. For example, an exit clause is needed to allow the market to function normally and competitively. Additionally, a company should be able to organise its business in the way it considers best in the interests of its customers and shareholders. An exit clause would facilitate new entrants, especially larger ones, into the water and sewerage retail market because they would not need to win one contract at a time. Without new clause 2, I understand that economies of scale would work against new entrants and either prevent them from entering the market or, at the very least, reduce the benefits that they could provide to new customers due to higher costs of entry. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister agrees that the proposal is helpful and that he will be minded to accept it. It would not be in the interest of companies or their customers to force companies to stay in a market in which they have few or no customers.

The general thrust of the new clause goes to the heart of this group of amendments dealing with the regime of the water industry. We should learn from what has happened in Scotland. I understand that DEFRA has stated that it intends to create a market in which access is regulated—in other words, with the rules of entry clearly set out and adhered to by all market participants. The reverse side of the coin is that if the rules of entry are to be set out, the House would, I am sure, want rules of orderly exit to be set out. I am not saying that exit would happen in many cases, but it is important that such rules are on the statute book.

Following our pre-legislative scrutiny, we said that as much detail as possible should be set out in the Bill so that the House could consider it. It is wrong—I part company from my hon. Friend the Minister in this respect —to leave too much to regulations, given that many of us with a great interest in this subject will not be selected to serve on the Delegated Legislation Committees that consider them. As the Bill does not provide for retail exit, the strategy is too open. It could be argued that the Government’s approach is based on the premise that parties in the retail market should be left to negotiate among themselves about matters such as service and price, but that could be set out in the Bill.

Considerations of price, service levels and the ability to respond to difficulties go to the heart of why is it important to have a competitive market in England, as has been achieved in Scotland. There must be a way of policing a situation in which incumbents are simply slow in responding to requests for information or services from new entrants. It is important not only to facilitate the path for new entrants, but to allow for an exit strategy and to bring about a competitive market. The Bill is completing its remaining stages in the House today, but little is known about upstream competition. The Government are asking that we take an awful lot on trust, but it would be better if the Bill provided for a definite exit strategy, which is why I commend new clause 2 and amendment 12 to the House.

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington

I am pleased to follow Miss McIntosh. I see in the national press that she has had a little local difficulty. I hope that she can resolve the matter, because she would be a loss to the House if she were not returned at the next election—unless of course she were replaced by a Labour member.

I want to speak to new clause 14, which is in my name. It suggests to the House that before we move forward with further legislation, we stand back and look objectively at the performance of the water supply industry since 1989 when it was privatised. I am not part of this common agreement among some parties in the House that privatisation and competition have been a success and are the way forward. In fact, I deeply regret what has happened since privatisation.

I have set out the suggestion that before we go further, the Government should produce a report that examines some of the key issues affecting the water supply industry and the consumer. I am talking here about the cost of water to the consumer, the number of disconnections that took place during privatisation—although that is no longer allowed under the Ofwat regulations—the purity of water supplies, the leakages, the levels of investment, the profits and the dividends paid to shareholders, management remuneration, the levels of taxation, particularly taxation avoidance, by the water companies and also their adherence to employment, human rights and environmental practices across the world. I say that because the water industry is second only to the energy industry in ripping off the British public. Since privatisation, the water companies have stolen from the average consumer of water in this country. The Government need to expose that in a comprehensive assessment, which this House can debate, before we consider the future structure of the water industry.

Let me go through some statistics showing what has happened since privatisation. Since 1989, real water bills have risen 50%. Since 2005, there has been a 35% nominal increase and a 7% real increase in bills. Since 2010, bills have gone up by more than 12.5%. At the same time, individual family incomes have gone down by 5%. It is interesting to see where the money has gone. Most of it has gone into paying interest charges on water company debts or dividends to their owners and shareholders. Interestingly, most of those owners and shareholders are now overseas.

The performance of the companies has not really matched the rise in payments. I looked at, for example, the issue of leakages. A great deal has been said about the investment in the infrastructure of the water industry since privatisation. I represent a constituency that is served by Thames Water, which continues to lose up to a third of its water in leakages every year. Simon Hughes wrote an article in the Evening Standard, which excoriated Thames Water for its failure to invest in tackling that particular problem. Not only do the companies fail to tackle the leakages, but they are some of the worst polluters of our rivers. I asked the House of Commons Library to provide some recent information on the companies. South West Water was fined £50,000 plus costs for sewage discharge into Salcombe bay in November 2013. It was fined a further £50,000 for sewage discharge into the Tamar estuary. Thames Water lost a final appeal against pollution fines in 2011, and the estimated final cost of those fines was £400,000.

Photo of Richard Benyon Richard Benyon Conservative, Newbury 5:30 pm, 6th January 2014

The hon. Gentleman has been a consistent if sometimes lonely voice on this issue for a great many years. It is not for me or for anybody to defend individual water companies, but does he not concede that companies such as South West Water have spent an enormous amount of money cleaning up our beaches and rivers? Has he measured the trajectory of investment that was happening before privatisation and compared it with the £100 billion plus that has been spent since privatisation on improving our water sector and making it more environmentally-friendly and on keeping costs down for customers?

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington

I have heard the argument about infrastructure investment doubling since privatisation, but what is significant—

Photo of Alison Seabeck Alison Seabeck Shadow Minister (Defence)

Let me pursue the point about South West Water. There is no doubt that it has made dramatic inroads into the problems around the coasts, but there is an issue with the privatisation in the first place. The customer base was far too small to sustain the work that needed to be done around those coasts. As a result, bill payers in the south west—here I disagree with Richard Benyon—are paying an extraordinarily high amount for their water.

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington

I agree that significant investment has been made in the infrastructure, but the problem is that since the 1990s that has declined as a proportion of the overall turnover of the industry. So the record is not glowing by any means, and the cost of that investment has been paid through significant debt burdens on those companies, which is eventually then paid for by consumers

Photo of Hywel Williams Hywel Williams Shadow PC Spokesperson (Education), Shadow PC Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Health)

I am sure the hon. Gentleman would agree that the level of investment would be even higher if all the profits were devoted to investment in the infrastructure, rather than being siphoned off abroad.

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington

That is one reason why I support the Welsh model of a not-for-profit company, because, as I say, I feel that the general public have been ripped off throughout this period.

Let me just finish off with my last couple of examples, because I would not want to miss them out: United Utilities was fined £75,000 for management failures that contributed to a fire in October 2013; and Severn Trent Water received a £30,000 fine for sewage pollution in September last year. The performance record of these companies is that not only do they not tackle the leakages and the real need for infrastructure investment, but they are polluting the very water they are supposed to be protecting and supplying.

Photo of Joan Walley Joan Walley Chair, Environmental Audit Committee

My hon. Friend mentioned Severn Trent Water. Given the pollution incidents involving water companies, does he agree that there is an urgent need to examine the court costs and fines imposed on water companies? Does he also agree that there is a real danger that some companies might prefer to go ahead, pollute and accept a fine because that approach is nowhere near as expensive as making the investment in the first place?

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington

The drive for profits is making these companies ignore their duty towards the wider environment, and the fines and costs are relatively marginal in comparison with the profits they make.

Photo of Richard Benyon Richard Benyon Conservative, Newbury

I promise not to intervene again, but I cannot resist doing so now. Does the hon. Gentleman’s research go back prior to the privatisation of the water sector? In those years, were there any cases of pollution, of leakage or of poor infrastructure? The Minister will know that there were, because there were some appalling cases, one of which was in his constituency, and that the £100 billion we managed to gear into this sector has dramatically improved things. I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman that there is much more work to be done, and we cannot have a system where the water industry sits outside—

Photo of Dawn Primarolo Dawn Primarolo Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. Interventions are supposed to be brief. If the hon. Gentleman wants to make a defence of the water industry, he can stand up to make a speech—he may not do so in an intervention.

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington

Former Ministers need an element of retraining, so may I say to the hon. Gentleman that he can intervene on me as often as wants, but perhaps he could be a bit briefer?

The issue is this: we are not talking about advocating a return to the previous model of nationalisation here; we are talking about the long-term future of the water industry, which is why this debate is important. My view is that privatisation and competition has not worked, but there are other models that we should explore. The Welsh model of a not-for-profit organisation ploughing the money that comes back into the infrastructure and into quality of service is the one we should now be exploring.

Photo of Hywel Williams Hywel Williams Shadow PC Spokesperson (Education), Shadow PC Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Health)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that this can be clearly seen in Welsh Water’s response to the cryptosporidium outbreak in my constituency some years ago, when it managed to spend £1 million almost immediately on installing new mechanisms to get rid of the cryptosporidium and then spent £7 million on further treatment works? It responded appropriately and quickly to the outbreak.

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington

Competition and privatisation have not worked, which is why I do not think that the Bill, the main thrust of which is to introduce more competition and privatisation, represents the way forward. It provides further opportunities for exploitation. I think that we can all agree to condemn the level of profiteering that has taken pace, particularly in recent years.

I wish to put on the record what has been happening, as independent examinations have shown. Sir Ian Byatt, Britain’s top water regulator throughout the 1990s, wrote in the foreword to a report by the think-tank CentreForum that

“many companies, especially the private equity infrastructure funds, have paid out excessive dividends to their owners.”

He went on to argue for some form of dividend control. That was echoed by Jonson Cox, Ofwat’s chairman, who has called for water companies to share unintended gains with consumers, arguing that the profits and tax- reducing corporate structures were “morally questionable”. I can understand why.

Let me give some examples of the profiteering that has gone on. Northumbrian Water is owned by Cheung Kong Infrastructure Holdings, which is based in Hong

Kong. Last year its operating profits were £154 million, but it paid nothing in tax. Its debt was £4 billion. Its chief executive, Heidi Mottram, received a salary, bonus and benefits worth £595,000. Yorkshire Water is owned by Citi, a US company, GIC, which is based in Singapore, Infracapital Partners and HSBC, based in the UK. Last year its operating profit was £335 million, but it paid only £100,000 in tax. Its debt was £4.7 billion. Its chief executive, Richard Flint, received a salary, bonus and benefits worth £800,000.

Anglian Water is owned by Canadian Pension Plan, Colonial First State Global Asset Management and Industry Funds Management, which is based in Australia, and 3i, which is based in the UK. Last year its operating profit was £363 million, but it paid only £1 million in tax. Its debt was £6.9 billion. Its chief executive, Peter Simpson, received a salary, bonus and benefits worth £1,024,000. Thames Water is owned by Macquaire Group, which is based in Australia, China Investment Corporation and Abu Dhabi Investment Authority. Last year its operating profit was £577 million, but it paid minus £70 million in tax, because it is receiving grants from the Government, as Simon Hughes pointed out at the time in his article in the Standard on behalf of the Liberal Democrats. Its debt was £9 billion. Its chief executive, Martin Baggs, received a salary, bonus and benefits worth £845,000.

South Staffs Water is owned by Alinda Capital Partners, which is based in the US. Last year its operating profit was £16 million, but it paid only £200,000 in tax. Its debt was £488 million. Its chief executive, Elizabeth Swarbrick, received a salary, bonus and benefits worth £202,000. Sutton and East Surrey Water is owned by Sumitomo Corporation, based in Japan. Last year its operating profit was £17 million, but it paid only £1 million in tax. Its debt was £219 million. Its chief executive, Anthony Ferrar, received a salary, bonus and benefits worth £290,000. Those are obscene levels of profiteering at the expense of the consumer.

Why is the borrowing level so high? It is not because it is all going into infrastructure. It has now been exposed that some of the borrowing is being used to pay dividends to shareholders and high salaries to chief executives and board directors. That was not the intention of the Thatcher Government’s original privatisation—well, it was not the stated intention. Privatisation was meant to reduce prices, increase investment and make the industry more accountable to the wider public through shareholding. That has not been the case. It is not more accountable through shareholding, because most of the companies that now own British water are owned by overseas shareholders. It does not make it any more efficient for the consumer, because prices have gone through the roof in recent years, which people are angry about. It does not make it more accountable to the taxpayer. In fact, the taxpayer is being bled dry as a result of tax avoidance and the various scams that have been going on, which have been explored by Richard Murphy, the tax justice expert.

Corporate Watch has produced an excellent report on some of those issues. It reports that six UK water companies took high-interest loans from their owners through the Channel Islands and then converted them into euro bonds. They then lent them back to the companies and paid virtually no tax on them whatsoever. This is a tax scam for which these water companies are used as a vehicle. Corporate Watch found that the six companies it looked at—Northumbrian, Yorkshire, Anglian, Thames, South Staffs, and Sutton and East Surrey—had borrowed £3.4 billion using this method. It highlights Northumbrian Water as “the most brazen case” as it paid 11% on just over £1 billion of loans it had taken from its owner, the Cheung Kong group, a Hong Kong-based conglomerate run by the world’s ninth-richest person. No wonder he is the world’s ninth-richest person—we are making him so. This is a scandal. The Bill does not go any way near addressing this rip-off of the British consumer or tackling some of the tax evasion and tax avoidance by these companies that has gone on. People are angry about this. In recent reports in the media there has been exposure after exposure, and people expect this House to act on these matters.

Before we go any further with this Bill, we should consider in detail the record since privatisation on all these matters—cost, performance, and implications for our taxation system—and then come to a considered view about whether privatisation has worked and whether there are alternatives. Minor reforms will not satisfy people when their next water bills come through the door; they will be extremely angry. I urge that we look sensibly at the not-for-profit model that is operating in Wales, because on that basis people can at least be confident about what they pay in and that what is given to these companies through tax subsidies as a result of their long-term investment plans is poured back into the supply of decent and pure water at a reasonable cost. That is why I tabled my new clause.

It may well be that, as Richard Benyon said, I am a lone voice in this House—with a number of others; my hon. Friend Kelvin Hopkins is here and has shared similar concerns—but I do not believe that I am a lone voice in the wider community. People are fed up with being ripped off by energy companies, water companies and others, and fed up with being exploited as a result of privatisation.

Photo of Thomas Docherty Thomas Docherty Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 5:45 pm, 6th January 2014

May I take this opportunity, Madam Deputy Speaker, to wish you and all hon. Members a happy new year? I hope that all hon. Members have had a peaceful and enjoyable break and have returned refreshed and looking forward to this busy year.

Unfortunately, the festive period was not a happy experience for many households up and down the country. Many hon. Members spent a great deal of their recess dealing with the impacts of the recent weather events on their constituents. It is therefore appropriate that later we will discuss a series of amendments on the clauses that will help to provide support to many of those affected households. I look forward to having that debate in more detail, but for the moment I want to focus on the new clauses in the first group of amendments.

Last year, in his now infamous letter to water companies, the Secretary of State trumpeted water privatisation as

“one of the greatest success stories of privatisation.”

If one measures success by the payouts made to investors, it is without doubt a great success story. Let me echo the thoughtful remarks by my hon. Friend the Member for

Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) and pick out a few examples of the dividends paid out since 1989. Severn Trent Water has paid out £6.2 billion in dividends, Thames Water has paid out £6.3 billion, the north-west’s United Utilities has paid out £7.3 billion, and Anglian Water investors have recouped some £6 billion. Overall, a staggering £40 billion has flowed into the pockets of investors. It is fair to say that many customers would not share the Secretary of State’s appreciation for his wonderful friends the chaps running the water companies.

Indeed, their view is shared by many of the coalition’s own MPs. I am disappointed that Julian Smith is not present. In last year’s excellent debate on the water industry he said that

Yorkshire Water…is exploiting my constituents and people across Yorkshire.”—[Hansard, 5 November 2013; Vol. 570, c. 213.]

I do not know whether the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee shares that view of Yorkshire Water.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee

Any company that is prepared to invest £1 million in improving the provision of water to Filey has to be congratulated, so I congratulate Yorkshire Water on that. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that this Government’s arrangements leave Yorkshire Water and other companies free to raise money on the markets in a way that otherwise would not be possible?

Photo of Thomas Docherty Thomas Docherty Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I do not want to get sidetracked by a debate about the merits of privatisation—I think you would pull me back in line if I did so, Madam Deputy Speaker—but I will just point out to the hon. Lady that Scottish Water, which is owned by the state, has invested more per connected property, I think, than any of the English water companies, with the exception of South West Water, so I am not entirely convinced by her argument.

To go back to the comments made by the hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon, despite paying out hundreds of millions of pounds to investors, Yorkshire Water has paid next to nothing in corporation tax over the past few years. I am not singling out Yorkshire Water in particular—it is clear that its behaviour is no better or worse than that of any of its competitors. The problem lies with the culture of water companies themselves. They have behaved in an unacceptable manner towards their customers for too many years. It is clear that they have come to regard customers as nothing more than cash cows, and many have paid little or no attention to customer complaints. That is why we believe it is in the interests of hard-pressed customers that the industry be subjected to greater scrutiny.

New clause 11 in particular shines a light on the opaque world of the companies’ financial and business practices. This is not an unreasonable or overly bureaucratic requirement. For many years, water companies voluntarily produced reports such as those that the new clause would require of them; yet, strangely, in recent years they seem to have got out of the habit of providing that information to customers, the regulator and the Department.

It is also worth noting, before the Minister replies, that Ofwat’s Scottish counterpart, the Water Industry Commission for Scotland, requires Scottish Water to produce the relevant information on an annual basis. Therefore, we believe that this is not an onerous or bureaucratic requirement.

New clause 12 would require Ofwat to pay far more attention to the problem of affordability of bills. I am conscious that we will have a wider debate about affordability when we discuss the second group of amendments, but Ofwat’s current interpretation of its role as an economic regulator is far too narrow. Both household and business customers feel that they are an afterthought, and the new clause makes it clear that Ofwat must have due regard to the cost of bills when setting the prices in future review periods. Labour believes that during a time of unprecedented squeezes on household budgets, much more must be done to help hard-pressed customers. Our two new clauses are important measures that would ensure that water companies served their customers’ interests, not the other way around.

We will, unsurprisingly, support the Select Committee’s new clause 2 on retail exit if it is pressed to a vote. We welcome the fact that Roger Williams appears to have had a change of heart over the festive break. During the Bill’s Committee stage he did not vote in favour of Labour’s proposal, but we very much welcome his change of heart. If we do not get an opportunity to discuss the proposal today, we hope that the other place will note that even members of the Bill Committee have signalled that they believe, on reflection, that it is a sensible and worthwhile measure. I will not repeat the discussion we had in Committee, but I think it is fair to say that, based on the signatories to the new clause, the proposal has cross-party support, which we welcome.

We will also support the Government’s amendments. I am slightly surprised that they felt the need to table a series of amendments, but not as surprised, I suspect, as the Minister when he was informed by his civil servants. The Minister has told us many times that he is lucky enough to be half Welsh, so one would have thought that he would have noticed the impact on Wales of the new clauses tabled by the Government in Committee. I hope he will explain how that slightly embarrassing oversight occurred.

We hope we will have an opportunity later this evening to press our new clauses to a Division. We welcome the spirit in which this first part of the debate has been conducted and I do not wish to detain the House any further at this point.

Photo of Dan Rogerson Dan Rogerson The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I start by echoing the remarks of the Opposition spokesman, Thomas Docherty, with regard to the earlier statement made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. Our thoughts are with those who have been affected by the storms and flooding over the Christmas and new year period, and I pay tribute to all those who have worked incredibly hard, including the Environment Agency, local authorities, the emergency services and, of course, those volunteers and community representatives who have supported their neighbourhoods and neighbours.

This discussion has covered a number of new clauses and amendments in relation to the regulation of water and sewerage undertakers and licensees, particularly those provisions designed to extend competition in the sector. The new clause tabled by Hywel Williams would alter the devolution settlement by devolving further powers to the National Assembly, and he has set out his appetite for doing so. Generally, the Government of Wales Act 2006 devolves its issues down the national border, but the situation is not so straightforward for water supply. Water catchment areas and water supply management infrastructure cross the national boundary. The appointment and regulation of any incumbent water company whose area is not wholly or mainly in Wales is not devolved. That means that the legislative competence of the Assembly does not cover the parts of Severn Trent Water’s area in Wales.

Photo of Jonathan Edwards Jonathan Edwards Shadow PC Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Wales)

Would the Minister be so kind as to inform the House of the situation in terms of the geographical boundaries of the water system in Northern Ireland? Is it based on the water table, as is the case in Wales, or on the actual state border with the Republic?

Photo of Dan Rogerson Dan Rogerson The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The hon. Gentleman sets out his aspirations quite clearly by viewing the boundary between Wales and England in the same way as the sovereign state boundary between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, but I am addressing my remarks to the devolution settlement within the United Kingdom.

Photo of Roger Williams Roger Williams Liberal Democrat, Brecon and Radnorshire

The Minister is well aware of the new clause’s implications for devolution. Does he agree that such a fundamental change would be better considered as part of devolution legislation, not as a new clause in a Bill on another matter?

Photo of Dan Rogerson Dan Rogerson The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I thank my hon. Friend for his helpful intervention. He has somewhat pre-empted the remarks I was about to make, but I am happy that we speak as one on this issue.

Licensing of water suppliers is also not devolved. I recognise the deep, historical reverberations in Wales—we heard about them in the heartfelt speech by the hon. Member for Arfon—about the management of water, which is an essential natural resource. Much of the responsibility for water is, I am pleased to say, now devolved. However, further changes to the current devolution arrangements would have implications for customers and household bills on both sides of the border. They would also affect the companies, their assets and their operating rules, and possibly the people who work for them. Therefore, changes should not be undertaken without very serious consideration of all the implications.

The UK Government position is that we will not make changes to the devolution settlement in advance of the review and report by the Commission on Devolution in Wales—the Silk commission—which, as hon. Members will know, is led by Mr Paul Silk. The commission is currently working on part II of its remit and is expected to report in the spring. It is reviewing the powers of the National Assembly for Wales in the light of experience. The commission’s terms of reference make it clear that any changes it proposes must enable the UK Parliament and the National Assembly better to serve the people of Wales.

New clause 2 would provide the Secretary of State with the power to make regulations allowing incumbent water companies to transfer their non-household customers to a water supply licensee with a retail authorisation, subject to the approval of the Secretary of State. That would allow such companies partially to exit the water supply retail market or, alternatively, it might enable the introduction of regulations to mandate the separation of retail and wholesale functions into two legally separate companies, both of which would be within the incumbent’s control. Amendment 12 would commence the provision on Royal Assent, which means that it might be possible to transfer customers before the retail market opens in April 2017, if the Secretary of State produced the regulations before that date.

We heard a range of arguments for retail exit during the debate in Committee. Although some of them undoubtedly have merit—I again emphasise that we do not rule out coming back to the issue in future—other arguments are less convincing. The intention of new clause 2 is to allow retail exit only from the non-household market, leaving household customers with incumbent companies. That does not address our concern that enabling water companies to walk away from the non-household retail market risks being a bad outcome for household customers.

Photo of Thomas Docherty Thomas Docherty Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 6:00 pm, 6th January 2014

I wish you a happy new year, Mr Deputy Speaker. Given that new clause 2 specifies that the process can take place only with the Secretary of State’s consent, will the Minister tell the House how such an unintended consequence might happen?

Photo of Dan Rogerson Dan Rogerson The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

We are very clear that we look at such issues strategically across the whole market, rather than picking them case by case. The issue is that we want to make reforms based on the principles that we set out during discussions in Committee and elsewhere.

Were a company to exit and to leave household customers on their own—without the non-household element—customers would not only be left with a company that had limited incentives to focus on improving customer service, but would be at risk of having higher bills, because providing, as new clause 2 does, for forced legal separation of the companies’ retail businesses would reduce regulatory stability and risk increasing the cost of capital.

Let me be clear: we want to see a successful retail market. The Bill sets a framework for new entrant retailers to enter the market on an equal footing with the retailers of the incumbent water companies. Our opposition to a provision about retail exit has nothing to do with supporting the position of incumbent water companies; we expect Ofwat to use its regulatory powers to make sure that new entrants can be confident that they are competing on a level playing field.

However, retail exit is not about delivering a level playing field. For example, in written evidence to the Public Bill Committee, the Water Industry Commission for Scotland argued that a provision about retail exit was needed so that new entrants had other options for increasing their market share than

“to acquire customers by winning them one contract at a time.”

However, that is exactly how entrants to the market in Scotland have had to win business unless an existing licensee surrenders its licence or has it withdrawn. In that case, the customers of the exiting licensee are shared out among other licensees, but otherwise all business customers stay with the incumbent retailer, Business Stream, until they actively decide to switch.

Some commentators have painted a picture of an incumbent water company being left without any customers, because all of them are lost to their customers once our retail reforms are in place. We feel that that is a very unlikely scenario, given that non-household customers represent only some 10% of the total retail market, and that 90% of customers—in other words, households—will not be able to switch suppliers.

It is quite an assertion to say that 100% of an incumbent’s non-household customers will switch suppliers. Some 60% of non-household customers in Scotland have put their water services out to tender, but most customers have elected to stay with Business Stream. We understand that only about 5% to 10% of customers have switched since 2008. The customers who stayed with Business Stream have benefited from improved services, without having to switch, by renegotiating their terms. We might expect a more active market in England from 2017.

Photo of Thomas Docherty Thomas Docherty Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I fear that the Minister is confusing two different issues. Undoubtedly, competition in itself has brought huge savings and has made Business Stream—or Scottish Water—change its whole ethos, but like does not follow like: simply because customers have stayed with Business Stream does not mean that the market is not working. Given that only 10% of customers have switched, as he says, does he not accept it is quite likely that some smaller water companies will not be able to compete with big retail providers?

Photo of Dan Rogerson Dan Rogerson The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I certainly was not seeking to suggest that the market is not working in Scotland. My point was that some people have chosen to stay with their incumbent, and they may wish to do so rather than to have an incumbent abandon them and walk away.

An Oxera report commissioned by WICS and published in November 2012 predicted that incumbents would lose some 40% of their non-household customers in the first year of the opening of the retail market, with a 5% loss of profit. However, arguments that make an economic case for exits seem to be based on incumbents losing all their public sector and multi-site customers in the first year of market opening. The Oxera view is bolder than that of the rating agency Moody’s which, in February 2012, said that a worst-case scenario would be incumbents losing 25% of their non-household customers in the short to medium term, with a much smaller loss of 0.69% of profit. Although no doubt all incumbents will lose some customers, we can suppose incumbents will take steps, such as those that Business Stream has taken, to retain customers.

Anecdotal evidence from business customers suggests that incumbents are already upping their game, even though retail competition reform is some years away. Large business customers have suddenly discovered that they have a named customer service contact, and some have been offered improved metering services. The idea of incumbents sitting around while customers disappear is therefore, in our view, an unlikely scenario. In addition, water-only companies will be able to apply to Ofwat for a sewerage licence, which will allow them to compete with licensees and other incumbent sewerage companies by offering both water and sewerage services to their customers.

My point is that this is evolution, not revolution. Many non-household customers may choose to stick with the incumbent supplier because the incumbent supplier will improve its services to them as a result of the reforms. The benefits of that may in turn be passed on to household customers. Forcing or even allowing retail exit ignores such points. Where customers choose to switch, we anticipate a growth market in which innovation and competition lead to benefits, both environmentally and in customers’ bills. Allowing partial retail exit would open the door to forced separation if individual cases of discrimination were discovered, and we have made clear our position on that.

As I have said, any decision on separation should be made by Ministers and Parliament. We are not prepared to take the risk of forced restructuring, or even the potential for it as provided for in new clause 2, destabilising investment or increasing costs to customers. The new clause envisages the Secretary of State permitting exits, but that may not reduce the risk of a competition authority forcing an incumbent water company to make an application to exit. I therefore urge hon. Members who tabled new clause 2 and amendment 12—led by the Chair of the Select Committee, Miss McIntosh—not to press them to a Division.

The hon. Lady raised other issues about the industry in general, particularly in relation to upstream reform. We know from experience that setting out how markets should work in primary legislation is very inflexible and can stifle innovation. I know that she is keen for us to do more in that regard, but our view is that that was one clear lesson from the last attempt to extend competition through legislation in 2003. That is why the framework in the Bill sets the scope and direction of reform, without being overly prescriptive. We are working closely with Ofwat, customers and the industry—through the high-level group and the Open Water programme—to ensure that new markets work effectively, and we know that the industry does not want to constrain the market unnecessarily with too much detail in primary legislation, any more than the Government want to do that.

On new clauses 11 and 14, the hon. Members for Dunfermline and West Fife and for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) have raised important issues about how the sector is run. As the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife pointed out, we had a previous debate on this set of issues in which hon. Members from all parties were keen to put on the record their concerns about the past operation of the industry. I fear, however, that we have been talking about things as they were, not as they are and will be. Ofwat is already taking action to improve standards of corporate governance across the sector. It recently consulted on principles relating to board leadership, transparency and corporate governance, and it is putting pressure on water companies to strengthen audit arrangements, board member appointments and governance. The response from water companies has been positive and I welcome that. I do not want to belittle the issues that the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington set out, but Ofwat has listened and is providing leadership to deal with them.

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington

Is the Minister satisfied that United Utilities, which supplies water to the north-west, is forecast to have made £627 million in the year up to March last year, which is up from £594 million; that Pennon, the owner of South West Water, which must supply his constituency, is due to unveil profits of £273 million, which is up from £268 million; and that earnings at Severn Trent Water, which supplies the midlands, are expected to hit £525 million, which is up from £504 million? The profiteering is continuing as normal.

Photo of Dan Rogerson Dan Rogerson The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The hon. Gentleman is referring to the current price review period, but we are about to enter a new one. The measures that I am setting out have been prepared by Ofwat to change the industry and to meet its aspiration of better performance by the industry. They also recognise the low cost of borrowing from which companies have benefited in the latter years of the current price review period.

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington

Would the Minister put his mortgage on United Utilities, Pennon and Severn Trent not increasing their profits next year?

Photo of Dan Rogerson Dan Rogerson The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I suspect that they would not welcome my mortgage, given the debts that they are already dealing with because of the investment that they have put into the sector. The Secretary of State made it very clear in the letter that he sent to the industry and the framework that he set out for Ofwat that we want to see a settlement that reflects the market conditions that companies have benefited from in recent years. Ofwat, in turn, has been very clear that it expects companies to take account of that in the coming price review period. Companies are responding to that and we have seen some good signs.

Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Chair, Procedure Committee

I do not often applaud water companies, but Affinity Water, which serves large parts of my part of the world, hopes to achieve an average bill reduction of 0.7% before inflation in each of the five years up to 2020. That is worth welcoming.

Photo of Dan Rogerson Dan Rogerson The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. As he is not always an enthusiast for what water companies do, it means all the more that he is prepared to offer those words of congratulation. It is fair for hon. Members across the House to express clearly their view that water companies should offer a fairer deal to consumers. That is what the Government want to see as well. That is why I am pleased that water companies are responding positively to the process.

Photo of Hywel Williams Hywel Williams Shadow PC Spokesperson (Education), Shadow PC Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Health)

The Minister talks about fair deals between water companies. Is he satisfied with the terms for the supply of water from Wales to Severn Trent, especially given that Severn Trent is apparently selling on 30 million litres of water a day to Anglian Water at commercial rates? Of course, that is happening on the back of Welsh resources.

Photo of Dan Rogerson Dan Rogerson The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The hon. Gentleman is tempting me to get into the specifics of individual companies. The framework that the Government have set out and our policy statements are very clear, and Ofwat is responding to that. The companies will have to take account of that and satisfy the regulator that they are acting fairly and effectively.

Photo of Richard Benyon Richard Benyon Conservative, Newbury

Given that one of the key objectives of the Bill is to increase the resilience of the water sector across the country—or perhaps I should say countries—should we not welcome the fact that Severn Trent is trading bulk quantities of water with Anglian Water and say that we hope to see more water flowing from areas where it rains a lot to areas where it does not?

Photo of Dan Rogerson Dan Rogerson The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

My hon. Friend and predecessor is a great advocate of ensuring that we have a far more resilient water sector on environmental and sustainability grounds, as well as on economic and social grounds. It is important that we get that message across and I welcome his intervention.

New clauses 11 and 14 would place a duty on water companies to report information that is already freely available in the public domain. Both new clauses require reporting about company performance, investment, tax, corporate structure and dividends. Indeed, the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington cited those figures in his speech, which shows that they are readily available.

New clause 14 would also require the Secretary of State to report on the cost of water, disconnections, water quality, leakage and the legal compliance of water companies. The cost of water to consumers is published every year in each company’s charges scheme. The Water Industry Act 1999 removed the power of any water company to disconnect homes because of the non-payment of bills. That prohibits the disconnection of the water supply to homes, schools and hospitals. The drinking water inspectorate is responsible for providing independent reassurance that water supplies are safe and that drinking water quality is acceptable to consumers. In England and Wales, 99.96% of drinking water supplies meet national and European standards. The tiny proportion that are failing to meet that standard—0.04%—are predominantly private supplies, rather than supplies from incumbent water companies. Since the mid-1990s under the current framework, there has been a 30% reduction in leakage, which is more than 2 billion litres per day. Companies are now operating at their sustainable economic level of leakage.

The information on tax and corporate governance that is required by both new clauses is already available. They would therefore not increase transparency. I direct hon. Members towards each company’s business plan and annual reports and accounts.

Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Chair, Procedure Committee 6:15 pm, 6th January 2014

To refer once again to Affinity Water, its business plan for the five-year period from 2015-16 to 2019-20 states that it intends to reduce abstraction by 42 million litres a day over that period. That is very welcome, particularly in my part of the world. How will I be able to check up on Affinity’s progress towards that objective?

Photo of Dan Rogerson Dan Rogerson The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

My hon. Friend is an astute and fearless challenger of all authorities, whether they be in the private or public sector. I am sure that he is well aware of the routes that he can take to challenge the company on that matter publicly and privately. The new clauses that we are debating would not assist him in that aspiration.

Photo of Thomas Docherty Thomas Docherty Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

The Minister probably has first-day-back blues. I refer him to Opposition new clause 11, which would allow Mr Walker to check the performance of his water company.

Photo of Dan Rogerson Dan Rogerson The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The hon. Gentleman hopes that his new clause would require further reports to be made to the Secretary of State. However, that information is already in the public domain. That is why supporting new clause 11 would not be helpful. I understand and respect his desire to ensure that the industry is as transparent as possible. I understand the ambition behind the new clause, but I do not share his enthusiasm for the wording that he has chosen.

The privatisation of the water industry has been a success story in terms of investment. Helpfully, the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington pointed out that I represent a constituency in the South West Water area. The coalition Government have recognised that there were a few flaws in the privatisation process, so there is now extra money to support bill payers in the south-west, who paid for the clean-up of the beaches around the south-west peninsula.

As was pointed out by my predecessor, my hon. Friend Richard Benyon, there has been huge investment in infrastructure since privatisation. That is one of the key successes that we want to build on and not jeopardise. The stable regulatory framework for the water sector has enabled companies to attract more than £111 billion of low-cost investment to upgrade water and sewerage infrastructure and to improve customer service and environmental standards.

I agree that we should be putting pressure on the water sector to act as transparently and responsibly as possible. Ofwat is already doing excellent work on the issues that have been raised by hon. Members. I do not believe that duplicating the reporting requirements would help. For that reason, I believe that new clauses 11 and 14 should be resisted.

New clause 12, for which the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife argued, would place a duty on Ofwat to have regard to the charges to household and non-household customers. That would simply duplicate Ofwat’s existing duty.

I turn to a number of technical amendments, which the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife charitably referred to. I will move amendments 13 to 50, 52 to 54 and 60 to 87 formally at the appropriate time. They will mainly make changes to schedules 5 and 7. Schedule 7 makes consequential changes to the Water Industry Act 1991 and other primary legislation as a result of our reforms, and schedule 5 makes further changes should the Welsh Ministers decide to adopt the reforms being introduced in England. Amendment 59 and new schedule 1 will provide the Secretary of State with the power to produce transitional orders that allow us to deliver retail and upstream reform separately.

Taken together, our amendments will provide Ministers with the maximum flexibility to commence the different market reform provisions transparently and in stages, as per our commitment to stagger the implementation of our retail and upstream reforms. They will enable the current arrangements to continue without diverting attention from the immediate priority of preparing for the opening of the reformed retail market in April 2017.

Photo of Hywel Williams Hywel Williams Shadow PC Spokesperson (Education), Shadow PC Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Health)

We have had an interesting debate, and I was glad to hear the contributions of the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Miss McIntosh, and John McDonnell, with whom I yet again agreed entirely. I was also glad to see Richard Benyon taking an interest in his former beat, and to see Roger Williams in his place, although essentially in a non-speaking role.

I was disappointed by the lack of contributions from Welsh Members, and disappointed that Thomas Docherty did not make any reference to my new clause 1. Pretending it is not there does not mean it will go away.

Photo of Thomas Docherty Thomas Docherty Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

The hon. Gentleman should have intervened on me if he was concerned that I had not covered his new clause. I echo the point that the Minister made—the Silk commission is examining the issue and will report in the spring. [Interruption.] We think that will be the right time to consider the matter properly.

Photo of Hywel Williams Hywel Williams Shadow PC Spokesperson (Education), Shadow PC Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Health)

My hon. Friend Pete Wishart asks from a sedentary position, “What do you think?” The Minister might choose to enlighten us, but possibly not—he would prefer to listen to the Silk commission.

My hon. Friend Jonathan Edwards made a point about legislative competencies and borders. In Northern Ireland the matter is not considered problematic, because the national or state boundaries are followed; nor is it considered problematic for legislative competencies to cross the border in the case of Wales. Legislative competency seems to become a problem only when proposed by Plaid Cymru. Of course, it is also proposed by the Labour Welsh Government, but they are not here to make that point. That does not seem particularly fair dealing.

The Minister said that the status quo is the status quo, and that the matter is not devolved because it is not devolved, and presumably it will not be. He gave us no indication of what the Government would eventually propose following Silk. We look forward to that with interest.

On a personal note, I missed many of the sittings of the Public Bill Committee

Photo of Hywel Williams Hywel Williams Shadow PC Spokesperson (Education), Shadow PC Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Health)

The shadow Minister is very kind. I was disappointed to have missed those sittings, and I apologise to Members of the Committee. Unfortunately, it was unavoidable.

It is my pleasure to press new clause 1 to a Division.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time.

The House divided:

Ayes 6, Noes 282.

Division number 165

See full list of votes (From The Public Whip)

Aye

No

Question accordingly negatived.