Clause 38 - Consumer Council for Water

Water Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 6:15 pm on 14 October 2003.

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Photo of Ms Candy Atherton Ms Candy Atherton Labour, Falmouth and Camborne 6:15, 14 October 2003

I beg to move amendment No. 230, in

clause 38, page 41, leave out lines 4 to 6 and insert—

'(12) The Council shall exercise and perform its powers and duties so as to contribute to the achievement of sustainable development.'.

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

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 245, in

clause 38, page 41, line 5, leave out from 'to' to end of line.

Photo of Ms Candy Atherton Ms Candy Atherton Labour, Falmouth and Camborne

Thank you, Mr. Amess, and may I say that, cold or otherwise, I shall not be crossing the Floor?

The amendment is designed to clarify the Government's commitment to sustainability. It is a probing amendment, and I look forward to hearing the Minister's response. It would place a requirement on the Consumer Council for Water to

''exercise and perform its powers and duties so as to contribute to the achievement of sustainable development.''

That goes a little further than the Government allowed with an amendment in the other place, which my amendment would replace.

Sustainability is very relevant to consumers. It is central to the approach favoured by the Government, which combines economic, environmental and social concerns in the long-term interests of consumers. Last year, research by MORI showed that consumer interest in water went beyond price and included the quality of bathing water, cleaner beaches and protecting our environment. However, we all know that such programmes come at a cost. That is part of the wider debate about how we pay for our water. For consumers and the council that represents them it is vital that those issues are central to the wider debate—the big picture concerning water.

As I represent constituents in a low-income area with the highest water bills in the country, I believe that the wider picture is vital. I am anxious that we link the interests of consumers with that wider agenda, linking sustainability with affordability, and we could strengthen that link via the amendment. Only by addressing the wider issues can we properly tackle the question of how we pay for our water while dealing with problems such as water scarcity in East Anglia, or cleaning up the vast coastline of the south-west and polluted rivers throughout the country.

The Committee will note that the wording of the amendment echoes the requirement that page 46 of the Bill places on the regulator regarding sustainable development. It would add welcome consistency and coherence to the Bill. On Second Reading the Minister said:

''Both the new regulatory authority and the council will have a duty to contribute to sustainable development''—[Official Report, 8 September 2003; Vol. 410, c. 60.]

That is a little more than the Bill says, and I thought it important to clarify the point. I should welcome my hon. Friend's comments.

Photo of Hugo Swire Hugo Swire Opposition Whip (Commons)

I am extremely grateful to be called to speak to this amendment. It has been tabled by a fellow west country MP, albeit one of a different political persuasion. The clause is weakly worded. It says that the council shall have regard to sustainable development, and the amendment would go some way to tightening it up.

I am very supportive of the amendment, and I believe that the hon. Lady made some extremely pertinent points. People in the south-west have a sense of great and increasing injustice as we look forward to incredible rises in water prices over the next few years.

I agree with Water Voice, which will soon be replaced, when it says that the whole structure of charging is unsustainable and needs to be looked at. We in the south-west are in an invidious position. We have a small population who must not only pay for the restructuring of our water and sewerage infrastructure system, but comply with an increasing number of directives from the EU such as the water bathing directive. We have to meet a disproportionate amount of those costs. Every study shows clearly that the south-west has to pay way and above what the rest of the country pays. The recent statistics, if I can find them, make for difficult reading.

Photo of Ian Liddell-Grainger Ian Liddell-Grainger Conservative, Bridgwater

I may have intervened at the right time. My hon. Friend makes a valid point. Like the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Ms Atherton), I am a south-west MP. I know that the interface between sustainable development on surface water and on groundwater has changed. The Minister made a pertinent point about Wessex Water. I agree with my hon. Friend that our long-term commitment to sustainability will be instrumental in the long-term implementation of the Bill.

Photo of Hugo Swire Hugo Swire Opposition Whip (Commons)

My hon. Friend makes an excellent and timely point. Another problem that we have in the south-west is flooding, although we will not discuss that at this point. We also have the problems of our extensive seascape, the need to clean up the water along our beaches and the very high water charges.

Miraculously, I have now found the statistics that I mentioned. They show that the annual household bill for 1997–98 in the south-west was £352, whereas the bill for Thames Water—the Government Whip nearly leapt into the waters of the Thames a few minutes ago—was £191. In the east of Scotland, if we are prepared to go that far, the bill was £109. That clearly shows the large burden that the south-west has to bear.

The tourists who flock to our beaches—I hope that many Committee members visit the south-west on a regular basis and I would seek to do nothing to dissuade them—come to enjoy our excellent water and our excellent sea. Yet we in the south-west are left with the bill. There is also the sense that we suffer from our geographic position in the peninsula; people believe, rightly or wrongly, that decisions are made far away and somehow we are disadvantaged.

In the south-west, we will benefit from anything that gives the council greater transparency and more teeth, and leads to a greater requirement to take all elements into account and discuss them under the umbrella heading of sustainable development. We may benefit as disproportionately as we currently suffer under current water charges.

Photo of Mr Simon Thomas Mr Simon Thomas Plaid Cymru, Ceredigion 6:30, 14 October 2003

I, too, support the amendment. I am sorry that it is a probing amendment because it is a lot better than the current wording. What the Government have decided on, and achieved through an amendment in the other place, has more hedges than Hampton Court. The provision says:

''In the exercise of its functions the Council shall have regard''—

that is the first hedge—

''where relevant''—

that is another hedge—

''to any benefits''—

that is a bit vague, so I think that it is another bit of hedging—

''to consumers''—

which limits it to people paying the bill rather than society as a whole.

That is a mealy-mouthed attempt to include sustainable development in the Bill. Can the Minister name one achievement of sustainable development that does not bring benefits to consumers? When it is considered from that perspective, the Government's attempt to achieve sustainable development is a load of rubbish and makes no sense. They are really saying, ''Yes, we will have sustainable development, as long as it doesn't cost too much.'' That is a disastrous approach to the water industry.

One of the huge problems facing us—perhaps not in the next five years but certainly in the next 20—is the decline of our Victorian sewerage system. It is already collapsing all over the place—in Aberystwyth and London—and will need huge investment. There cannot be a better example of sustainable development than ensuring that sewage is properly treated and disposed of in a way that does not affect the environment or the health of those who live in that environment, as we all do. How can we achieve that with cheapskate measures for sustainable development? We cannot.

We must adequately consider those in low-income groups, and we must examine the disproportionate water costs for people in some parts of the UK. I accept what has been said about the south-west of England, and considering the amount of water that Wales has, water bills there are also high.

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

I am sure that the hon. Lady is prepared to swap bills.

Water is, of course, free. The water is not the problem; it is storing, transporting and cleaning water and dealing with sewage that costs money. There is also the effect of tourists in some parts of the country. If there is to be a real sustainable development

approach to the problem, we cannot cut corners. We must place sustainable development firmly in the Bill, without caveats, without hedging about and without trying to restrict the benefits to one section of the population—namely consumers. The authority has the over-arching aim to achieve sustainable development, and it is important that the consumer body works in the same way.

The Government have been half-hearted. I am disappointed because, although the Minister has been a champion of sustainable development in many other respects, the Government have included it in the Bill in this narrow, hedged-about way. They could be more generous with sustainable development, and they could be more honest with consumers and the water companies about the task facing us in ensuring that our beaches remain clean, our sewerage system keeps going and our water remains clean and healthy. That does not come cheap, and every one of us will bear the responsibility for that. Together, that is sustainable development.

There is no achievement of sustainable development that does not bring benefits, and the way that the concept has been included in the Bill makes a nonsense of the Government's other laudable aims. I hope that they will reconsider the matter and return, if not today then on Report, with a better form of words.

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

Because these are substantial issues we tabled an amendment similar to the one moved by the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne. She rightly drew attention to the huge tensions between the investment required to provide sewerage services and clean water in the south-west, and the desire for an affordable price. We are also seeing problems in other parts of the country such as south-east England.

People think that there is special pleading from Liberal Democrats about the Thames gateway. Let me assure hon. Members that the Thames gateway is a long way from Guildford—I do not hold a special brief for it. However, it is common sense to be concerned about large-scale developments. Somehow, the water has to get there, and, if rainfall is very low, the sustainability and cost of water supplies become a major issue.

The problems of the south-west's geography include not only those concerning infrastructure but the additional demands that will be placed on a dwindling resource and the effect of abstraction. In earlier sittings, we discussed at length the sustainability requirements to be taken into account when licences are issued and the problems that must be faced.

I, too, am very disappointed with the half-hearted comment in the clause. It is not even consistent with clause 42, which gives water companies a responsibility for sustainability. That is right—we debated it at length and agreed to it. However, the matter comes up again in the sloppy little statement in this clause, which really does not ask for much apart from stating that the council ''shall have regard'' to sustainable development.

Yes, we must represent consumers. Yes, there are injustices in water pricing. Yes, poverty and the price of water are desperately important. As we go through the Bill, I hope that we will spend a lot of time discussing those real problems, but we cannot go for the quick buck. The water companies need to know where they stand. We are requiring them to invest for long-term as well as short-term benefits and for sustainability. Therefore, we cannot say that sustainability only matters as a last resort, if everything else is all right. We must balance the tensions, and we must take such matters into consideration.

I, too, hope that the Government will see fit to amend the wording in the clause, either by accepting the amendment or by proposing on Report stronger wording that is consistent with what we are requiring of the water companies.

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

The amendment is excellent. I am sorry that I did not write it myself, and I am also sorry that more Labour Members have not risen to support it.

My understanding of sustainability is ensuring that our needs today do not ignore the needs of consumers tomorrow. In other words, for the sake of our children, we should not screw up the planet. What better way is there to ensure that that is what we mean than to have it in the Bill, not in the wishy-washy way in which the Government have included it but in terms of the social, economic and environmental benefit that the Government talk about but singularly fail to deliver?

The amendment is first-class, and I urge the Minister to open his arms not only to the hon. Lady but to her amendment.

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

My hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne has a great deal of knowledge, involvement and interest in water, the environment and sustainability, as do many members of the Committee. That has been one of the strengths of hon. Friends who have supported me in this process, and I know that there is genuine interest on both sides.

I have been reflecting on what my hon. Friend said. She made a very powerful case, even though she was obviously a bit chilly sitting next to the window. My hon. Friend the Member for West Carmarthen and South Pembrokeshire (Mr. Ainger) was induced to rush to her aid. I thought that he was going to fling himself into the Thames because he was upset with progress, and therefore was relieved to see that he was rushing to assist her.

We are serious about sustainability, which is why we have included it in the Bill as a requirement on the regulatory body. I understand that before the current duty was placed on the Consumer Council for Water in another place, there was consideration of the formulation that should be applied and the form of wording that should be used. It is not very different from what my hon. Friend said. It was considered at that time that the wording in the Bill

was more appropriate given the CCW's purpose and functions. I can understand that; my genuine difficulty with it is that the issues of economic, social and environmental development cannot be separated from consumer and regulatory issues. In that sense, she makes a good case.

We must recognise that the CCW's functions are fairly narrow in relation to its objectives. It does not have the responsibility of dealing with planning issues at Thames gateway, for example. However, there are issues in relation to water supply and costs in which it would be interested. The three strands cannot be separated, and I am a firm believer that they should be at the heart of policy, and although my hon. Friend will appreciate that I am not in a position to make promises or give guarantees, in that respect she has made a very powerful case on which I shall reflect before Report.

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

The Minister is very kind to the hon. Lady, but unfortunately for him this is not about considering whether the wording is strong enough but about delivering on sustainability. By going away and thinking about the matter, he is not doing so. We want the proposal to be in the Bill, and I hope that that is what the hon. Lady is about to tell us.

Photo of Ms Candy Atherton Ms Candy Atherton Labour, Falmouth and Camborne

I am pleased that we have had such a good debate, although I am not sure that all hon. Members are thrilled that it is taking place at this late hour.

I always take the opportunity to make the case for South West Water customers and it is appalling that pensioners in the south-west can spend 10 per cent. of their pension on their water bill. If water bills increase £10 to £15 per year every year for the next five years on top of that, many of my constituents and those of the hon. Gentlemen who supported my argument will not be able to pay, and the CCW needs to consider the big picture in that context.

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

For the information of the Committee and for the Minister to reflect on, it may have escaped hon. Members' attention that the Welsh translation of the Consumer Council for Water is Cyngor Defnyddwyr Dwr, which means water users rather than consumers, which gives precisely the wider consideration that the hon. Lady said was needed. We should bear it in mind that some things are not precise and there will be more who benefit from the council than just those who pay the bills.

Photo of Ms Candy Atherton Ms Candy Atherton Labour, Falmouth and Camborne

My Welsh is not good so I will not pursue that matter, but I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising it.

I have made my case. I speak as chair of the parliamentary water group, to which the Minister, for whom I have great respect, is a regular visitor. I hope that he will reflect positively on the proposal and that it will return at a later stage. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Hon. Members:

Object.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 6, Noes 12.

Division number 9 Adults Abused in Childhood — Clause 38 - Consumer Council for Water

Aye: 6 MPs

No: 12 MPs

Aye: A-Z by last name

No: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

Amendment made: No. 253, in

clause 38, page 41, line 13, after 'or' insert 'by'.—[Mr. Morley.]

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

I beg to move amendment No. 70, in

clause 38, page 41, line 23, at end insert—

'(d) the Council and the Scottish Parliament.'.

The amendment is not about devolution. The Bill seeks to ensure that there is co-operation between the council and other authorities. It strikes me as remiss not to include the Scottish Parliament among those authorities simply because none of us knows over what issues there may not be co-operation. It is ridiculous to ignore such a large part of the British isles. The amendment would not interfere with the operation of Scotland and is not in any way a challenge to the Scottish Parliament. It is about ensuring that the council co-operates and vice versa.

I hope that this useful amendment will be accepted, because it would not be destructive. Obviously, I am eager to hear whether the Minister can think of any reason why Scotland should not co-operate with the rest of us on something as fundamental as water.

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

There is a problem with the hon. Gentleman's amendment—the provisions of the Water Industry Act 1991 do not apply to Scotland. The regulatory functions of the Secretary of State, the National Assembly, the authority and the council do not extend beyond England and Wales. The Scottish Executive also has no functions under the 1991 Act, and it is unnecessary for it to be covered by the duty to make arrangements to co-operate, because there is nothing for it to co-operate on.

A trans-boundary water supply is the only area in which there might be some issues concerning co-operation, but such an eventuality is covered by the Bill. However, the regulatory functions to which the hon. Gentleman referred do not extend to Scotland and are not included in the legislation.

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

I am grateful to the Minister. He is right to state that a later clause considers areas in which Scotland and the rest of the UK interact. The amendment is not about to whom the Bill applies—it is about co-operation, which is a very different thing. The amendment was not drafted to make the Scottish Parliament co-operate, but it would have been helpful to have found a way to ensure co-operation rather than adopting the Minister's dogmatic approach.

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

It is not the law but the Bill that we are debating.

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

Is the hon. Gentleman seeking the Committee's leave to withdraw the amendment?

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

I did not say that, Mr. Amess. I should like to know—I hope that the Minister takes this on board—the problems that accepting the amendment might cause. It would have been helpful, and we should not dismiss co-operation so lightly. Although I accept that he feels that the matter is not in his remit because the Bill concerns only England and Wales, I believe that the co-operation could have been cross-border. If I am to withdraw my amendment, I hope that he will accept that I seek to amend the Bill in a constructive way, and that if it is possible to include provision for some sort of cross-border co-operation, he will consider that.

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

The one area of cross-border co-operation—an important area—would be in water transfer, and that is dealt with in the Bill. We consult the Scottish Executive on water resource management, because that issue is of interest to all of us. However, the hon. Gentleman must remember that the legislation gives powers that apply only to England and Wales. If he wants an assurance that we will talk to the Scottish Parliament on general water issues and that there will be exchange of information and co-operation on such issues, I can give him that assurance.

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

I am grateful for that assurance, and if I wish to fight this battle any further, I shall do so when we discuss the next amendment. I therefore beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 38, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.