Schedule 2 - The Consumer Council for Water

Water Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 6:45 pm on 14 October 2003.

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Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 6:45, 14 October 2003

I beg to move amendment No. 122, in

schedule 2, page 136, leave out lines 10 to 12 and insert 'understands disability'.

On page 136, the Government have sought to include disability as one of the criteria that would be constructive. Although I am in favour of taking all factors into consideration when appointing people, I am concerned that there is the potential for positive discrimination to creep into this provision. I therefore seek clarification by suggesting that the subsection should be omitted.

I hope that the Secretary of State would appoint the best person, and would consider that if they were disabled, that could be advantageous in terms of their viewpoint and experiences. However, I do not believe that it is helpful to include a provision regarding disability in the Bill. During much of the debate that we have had this evening, we have trusted that the Secretary of State would do the right thing and, in this case, that is the right way to proceed. The matter

should be addressed through a code of conduct, rather than by requiring a person to have a disability.

Most importantly, we are expecting the person in question to contribute in terms of their abilities and knowledge, but that contribution will not necessarily relate only to their ability, but to their experience on water. I therefore feel that this may be an inappropriate use of positive discrimination, and seek to clarify it with this amendment.

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley Minister of State (Environment and Agri-Environment), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Bill recognises that disabled people have special needs in relation to water supply. They are a special group, and need to have a reliable supply of water—an example of that would be people who are on dialysis. There are technical factors that must be understood, in addition to the problem of affordability, which is universal.

The issue of disability and water supply is important. I know from my experience as a constituency Member that when there was a debate about compulsory water metering in my area, affordability and water cost were raised as key issues for people who were chronically sick and disabled.

The problem with the amendment is that it is vague. It could make it more difficult for the Secretary of State and the Assembly to ensure that the candidates under consideration had a sufficient depth of knowledge fully to promote the needs of people with disabilities within the consumer council. In the Bill as currently drafted, the Secretary of State will ''have regard to'' the matter—it is not compulsory. However, if there is a good candidate, who has a great deal of experience of consumer issues and a great deal of credibility in relation to their own background, and also has experience of disability, it is not unreasonable to take that into account when making the appointment.

Photo of Mr Simon Thomas Mr Simon Thomas Plaid Cymru, Ceredigion

I must confess that I tend to the Minister's view rather than to that of the hon. Member for Leominster; but does the Minister not think that that is an excellent reason to have at least five members on any such board, because about 20 per cent. of the population suffer from a disability?

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley Minister of State (Environment and Agri-Environment), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

That was a really good attempt. Of course that would reflect the issues, and there is an argument for having a reasonably sized board to include a cross-section of opinions, experience and skills. I take that point, and I fully expect the board to reflect that. I hope that the hon. Member for Leominster will accept my explanation, which, I think, demonstrates that the Bill's drafting gives much more emphasis to the needs of the disabled than his amendment, which is a bit on the baseline.

Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I accept everything that the Minister has said, but there is one thing that I should like him to do as well. I recognise that in drafting the Bill the Government felt that it would be particularly important to give extra emphasis to disabled people, and I welcome that. However, the purpose of my amendment is to ensure that should an appropriate person not be available or not wish to serve, that would not in any way slow down or prohibit the

appointments taking place. It is not compulsory in the wording, but I want to ensure that we are not insisting on something that might not be possible.

I take the point that the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) made, but I do not necessarily feel that this wording is the most appropriate for what the Government seek to do. With that in mind, providing that I have the assurance that the measure will never be held against the appointments procedure, I will have no problem withdrawing the amendment.

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley Minister of State (Environment and Agri-Environment), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I can confirm that, as the Bill is drafted, there is no compulsion. The measure ensures that the needs of disabled people are fully taken into account in the appointments and that where there is an opportunity to reflect those needs through appointments to the board, that should be done.

Photo of Ms Sue Doughty Ms Sue Doughty Liberal Democrat, Guildford

I, too, thought that I would listen to the argument first and examine the schedule. The more I read it, the more I think that it deserves its place in the Bill as it stands. It is important that there are people to champion the cause of the disabled. It may be very difficult to recruit for the post from among the disabled, but this measure puts rights some of the problems of the past when the needs of disabled people have been considered by those who have very little personal experience or understanding. The schedule says ''shall have regard to''. It may not be possible to appoint such a person, but it says that the requirements of people with disabilities must be considered. If someone with deep knowledge cannot be appointed, it is still a useful reminder not to consider matters that may have an impact on disabled people without at least seeking advice and, for preference, having someone there with the knowledge. We would certainly not support the amendment.

Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

As I said, I have no problem withdrawing the amendment now that the Minister has duly given me the assurance that I sought. I am grateful for the debate that we have had, because it is easy to misinterpret an amendment of this sort. In no way did I wish to do anything that would disadvantage people with disabilities; on the other hand, it is important to use our scrutiny to ensure that we do not have the wrong sort of discrimination. My probing amendment has succeeded there, and I am grateful to the Minister for his answer. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I beg to move amendment No. 63, in

schedule 2, page 137, line 29, leave out from 'Council' to end of line 7 on page 138 and insert

'may include any information which relates to the affairs of any particular individual or body of persons (corporate or incorporate) if—

(a) the individual or body has consented to the disclosure; or

(b) the benefit to the interests of consumers from publishing the information would, in the opinion of the Council, be greater than any prejudicial effect to the interests of the individual or body.'.

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments:

No. 58, in

clause 46, page 52, line 44, leave out from 'unincorporate' to end of line 20 on page 53 and insert

'may be disclosed in the exercise of the Council's function under this section if—

(a) the individual or body has consented to the disclosure; or

(b) the benefit to the interests of consumers from publishing the information would, in the opinion of the Council, be greater than any prejudicial effect to the interests of the individual or body.'.

No. 59, in

clause 46, page 53, line 30, leave out 'to' and insert 'and'.

No. 60, in

clause 46, page 54, line 13, leave from 'unincorporate)' to end of line 24 and insert

'may be published in the exercise of the Council's function under this section if—

(a) the individual or body has consented to the disclosure; or

(b) the benefit to the interests of consumers from publishing the information would, in the opinion of the Council, be greater than any prejudicial effect to the interests of the individual or body.'.

No. 61, in

clause 47, page 55, line 42, leave out from 'unincorporate)' to end of line 20 on page 56 and insert

'may be published in the exercise of the Council's function under this section if—

(a) the individual or body has consented to the disclosure; or

(b) the benefit to the interests of consumers from publishing the information would, in the opinion of the Council, be greater than any prejudicial effect to the interests of the individual or body.'.

No. 62, in

clause 50, page 60, leave out from beginning of line 25 to end of line 3 on page 61 and insert

'may be in a report under subsection (4) if—

(a) the individual or body has consented to the disclosure; or

(b) the benefit to the interests of consumers from publishing the information would, in the opinion of the Council, be greater than any prejudicial effect to the interests of the individual or body.'.

Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 7:00, 14 October 2003

Once again, we are examining the gist of the Bill. We are considering the huge amount in pensions, gratuities and other funding that the Secretary of State may determine, and suggesting replacing that with the benefits of the disclosure. Quite a large body of text would be replaced with the wording in amendment No. 63. I look forward to hearing from the Minister how detrimental that may or may not be to his Bill.

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley Minister of State (Environment and Agri-Environment), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The amendments are concerned with the CCW's powers to publish information and raise two key issues—the protection for the individual or body and the extent to which the CCW can act on its own.

I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman's concern about the restriction on the publication of information that might seriously and prejudicially affect the interests of water companies or individuals—unless they agree to publication—but I want to assure him that the clause is not intended to protect poorly performing water companies.

The Bill aims to protect the privacy of the individuals involved. When we legislate, we have a duty to find the right balance between an individual's rights and the public's need for information, and the Bill strikes the right balance between the two concerns. Under the amendments, however, the individual would not even have to be consulted, and they would have no knowledge that they might be named in public until it was too late. The individual would then have no redress or right of appeal. The balance of the amendments is wrong.

I note the hon. Gentleman's concerns about the need for the CCW to be independent from the authority, but in this case it is right for it to have regard to the authority's opinion. Assessing whether publishing information may have serious or prejudicial effects on a company is bound to mean the examination of technical issues involving the financial markets. It would therefore be better for the CCW to make use of the greater expertise of the regulator in those matters and to have regard to their opinion. It is worth noting that it will still be up to the CCW to take the final decision. In taking account of those concerns, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Ms Sue Doughty Ms Sue Doughty Liberal Democrat, Guildford

I am not entirely happy with the Minister's response. The provision favours the water companies and fails to emphasise transparency of information. Sometimes we need to know what is going wrong. The amendment states:

'''publishing the information would, in the opinion of the Council,''—

that would give the CCW the opportunity to moderate what is done—

''be greater than any prejudicial effect to the interests of the individual or body.''

Sometimes companies get things wrong, at which point the CCW must represent consumers. The CCW must be able to ask questions, to get answers and to publish those answers. There are times at which it will be inappropriate to publish such answers, but the balance of the Bill favours companies and is prejudicial to the consumer getting a straight answer.

Sometimes it is difficult enough for consumers to get straight answers, and all of us know that from our constituency surgeries. The Bill gives companies lots of opportunities to hide behind it. It will encourage the CCW to say, ''Well, we are not going to tell you much about this, but it will all come out later with the regulator.'' The CCW's purpose is to defend and to pursue the rights of the consumer, and to publish the results of those activities.

The Freedom of Information Act 2000 will become law in January 2005. It contains a presumption that a body can publish rather than not publish. That is a less restrictive test of publication, which balances the public interest in disclosure against the public interest in non-disclosure. The Bill should be amended to align the provisions on the publication of information by the CCW with the 2000 Act.

Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

The hon. Lady makes good points. I would be grateful if the Minister answered them, but at this stage I intend to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley Minister of State (Environment and Agri-Environment), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

We are back to the balance argument. There is a human rights legislation issue, which must be taken into account. A balance must be struck between the rights of the individual and the importance of making information available for scrutiny. The Bill attempts to get that balance right.

Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I am grateful to the Minister. The matter is difficult. I agree with the hon. Member for Guildford (Sue Doughty) that this is a wording issue, and I am grateful to her. I do not think that it is worth pressing the amendment to a vote. We may need to talk about the matter again on Report. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Schedule 2 agreed to.

Clause 39 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 3 agreed to.