Wales Bill - Report (1st Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:00 pm on 14th December 2016.

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Photo of Lord Wigley Lord Wigley Plaid Cymru 6:00 pm, 14th December 2016

My Lords, I am delighted to follow the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, whose interest and involvement in matters relating to water, and particularly water in Wales, has been known to us all for many years.

I wish to speak to Amendments 42, 44 and 49, which stand in my name and deal with water issues. I shall also speak to the other amendments in the group that impinge on these matters.

I say at the very start that, although the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, has rightly been praised for the way in which he has handled aspects of the Bill in Committee and, now, on Report, I am bitterly disappointed that we have not been able to get on to the face of the Bill substantive clauses that deal adequately with the three main issues in contention: an unambiguous statement that the National Assembly has total legislative control over all aspects of the creation of reservoirs in Wales, raised in Amendment 44; for the Assembly to have legislative control over all matters relating to water in all of Wales, with powers coterminous with Wales’s border, addressed in Amendment 42; and the unqualified removal of the powers of the Secretary of State to intervene, which I provide for in Amendment 49.

A few weeks ago, we were treated to a fanfare of triumph by the Secretary of State—whom I see standing at the back of our Chamber—who asserted that these matters had been sorted and the vexed issue finally put to bed. I welcome that statement, accepting it at its face value. Even today, I am willing to believe that not only were Alun Cairns, Guto Bebb and the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, sincere in that declaration but they genuinely aspired for these changes to happen, knowing how sensitive in Wales are matters relating to water. It would indeed have been a feather in their cap had they been able to deliver what they claimed to have achieved.

Today, at this last opportunity to get these three principles firmly embedded in the Wales Bill, we come to the reality of the situation—that they have, so far, failed to deliver on all these details. There is nothing whatever in the Bill or in any of the Government’s many amendments on Report that states unequivocally that the National Assembly has full legislative power over all aspects of authorising, building and controlling reservoirs in Wales in all their many guises. Yes, we were told in Committee that this would be contained in a protocol and, yes, Amendment 45 provides for a new clause entitled “Water protocol”, but we did not have the opportunity in Committee to see a copy of such an intended protocol and we still do not have one on Report. I assume of course that the detailed protocol will go way beyond the bare framework in this Bill to which the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, referred. We do not even have a draft protocol—not even an outline draft protocol—yet we are asked to confirm in legislation a provision about which we have next to no substantive knowledge whatever. We are being asked to rubber-stamp a pig in a poke.

In so doing, we are not even certain that the poke is there. Proposed new subsection (1) in Amendment 45 states:

“The Welsh Ministers and the Secretary of State may make an agreement (the ‘water protocol’) for the purpose of”— which it goes on to define in outline but not in detail. It does not state that they “shall” produce a water protocol; it just states that they “may”—or, indeed, they may not. What a weak basis on which to build policies which the Wales Office Ministers paraded as being our salvation. There is no guarantee that there is in fact, in the murky room marked “Wales Office Water Policy”, any poke whatever. It may exist at some time; equally, it may never come into being.

Even if we have this undefined poke of a protocol, what sort of a pig do we find inside? The clause goes on to stipulate that the provisions that will be facilitated by law are to safeguard the well-being of English consumers. It gratuitously adds that the protocol may also safeguard the well-being of Wales—something that would not be needed in any protocol whatever if full control over water in Wales were in the hands of the National Assembly. It gives the impression of being a charter for the meddling by English Ministers and English authorities in matters relating to water in Wales. That is what we have suffered in Wales down the years and it is something that the National Assembly was expected to bring to an end, although now it may not be able to do so. We do not know for certain for the very reason that we do not have a protocol or a draft protocol before us to examine the implications.

One of the few things that we do know, by courtesy of government Amendment 50, which is also in this group, is that,

“‘the interests of consumers’ has the same meaning as in section 2 of the Water Industry Act 1991”.

Noble Lords will remember that that Act was predicated on the Thatcherite belief that the needs of consumers are best met by competition and the market. Well, well. So we are to have a protocol based on Thatcherite dogma that the well-being of the consumer—in this case, the water consumer—is based on free-market competition. What does that mean for the future of the water industry in Wales? We currently benefit greatly from having Dwr Cymru operating as a not-for-distributed-profit entity. If the interests of consumers, whether in Wales or England, or in those bits of Wales still run by private sector profit-seeking companies from England, are to be driven by such a vision, God help Welsh water consumers. Not only do we not have a protocol but we do not have any outline of one—no draft protocol; not even an explanation of a protocol that might have cast light on such matters.

Do Ministers really think that the people of Wales will be so gullible as to buy a pig of dubious quality in a non-existent poke, with all the details shrouded in secrecy and defined in terms that could be a back-door means of generating private profit from what Welsh water consumers pay for their water? Come on. We really deserve better than that, and if we are not to get it at this stage in the House of Lords—it looks pretty unlikely that we will—then when Welsh MPs come to deal with the Bill, they must stand up and be counted. Alternatively, the National Assembly must use every device at its disposal to insist that the Bill cannot go ahead on such a flimsy basis.

I very strongly suggest that the Minister should accept my amendments, deficient in drafting though they no doubt are, and use his Christmas holiday to bring forward his own amendments, either when the House further considers the Bill on Report in January or at Third Reading, or, if the Government need more time, then as amendments to the amended Bill when it goes forward in another place.

One thing is certain: we do not have the information needed to come to a meaningful decision on the water provisions of this Bill. We need to build in a mechanism that can provide us with a further opportunity to return to it when, it is hoped, we have a draft protocol before us and are in a position to make a meaningful decision on the matter.