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Regional Water Authorities

Volume 981: debated on Wednesday 26 March 1980

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asked the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he considers that the regional water authorities are sufficiently accountable to the ratepayer.

A majority of the members of each water authority are locally elected councillors who are responsible for representing the interests of the ratepayers.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. However, in view of the Government's stated policy not only of reducing Government waste but simplifying bureaucracy, how does he justify the continuance and extension of separate billing of the water rate?

If I were quite frank with my hon. Friend, I think that, to quote a phrase used before, I could say that, without difficulty, I could confine my enthusiasm for direct billing within the bounds of decorum. But the fact is that this process had been carried out substantially through a large number of water authorities before we came to office. I do not think it is quite practicable to change this proposal. It is a fact that it will show savings for the water authorities, but I would not claim that there are net savings overall for the public purse.

Is the Minister aware that in Leeds direct billing has just been introduced and the ratepayers see an increase of over 100 per cent. in their water rate? This is causing genuine worry and anxiety. Will he consider, in particular, taking the water authorities back from direct billing? Secondly, will he consider extending rate relief for water rates? Thirdly, will he consider insisting that water authorities offer, publicly and straightforwardlly, a fortnightly or monthly system of payment, instead of frightening people, old people in particular, who simply cannot meet twice-yearly bills?

I should like to have details, if the hon. Gentleman would care to give them to me, of the particular percentage to which he has referred, because it is certainly very different from the average for the area. There must be very particular problems in that area. I understand the concern about the charges for the water industry. I have instituted, and I am now in the middle of, a series of meetings—I understand that such meetings have never been held before—between the Minister responsible and the chairman and chief executive of each water authority, to consider with them how the water authorities are being run, and to consider more effective ways in which they might operate in the future.

Is not the degree of local option in such vexed issues as the fluoridation of water supplies much less now than it used to be? Should not a greater degree of control be restored to the elected representatives of the people?

As my hon. and learned Friend will be aware, that is primarily a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services. I shall be grateful if he directs his remarks and questions to my right hon. Friend.

Is the Minister aware that there were regular meetings between Ministers and the chairmen of water authorities throughout the lifetime of the previous Labour Government?

Action was taken. Is the Minister further aware that, as a result of those meetings, water authorities were asked to defer the implementation of direct charges? Will he confirm that it is not now possible to cancel them altogether and that they have to continue because they follow automatically from the Act of Parliament which the previous Conservative Government introduced, which has proved to be disastrous?

I think that the right hon. Gentleman's supplementary question must rank as one of the most confused questions asked during this Session. If he took such exception to the measure introduced by the previous Conservative Government he had plenty of opportunity to change it. I understand that the meetings that were held previously were held collectively with all the chairmen present. If one wants to get to the heart of the matter, it is necessary to deal with each authority separately and to talk about the separate problems of the in- dividual areas. I do not think that such meetings have ever been held before.

I will get it right. Is it not a fact that the previous Labour Government introduced a White Paper, in which were proposed the necessary changes, which was opposed by the then Conservative Opposition?

I do not know how many bites of the cherry the right hon. Gentleman proposes to take, but that is not correct either.