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Water Bill

Volume 35: debated on Tuesday 18 January 1983

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As amended (in the Standing Committee), considered.

4.42 pm

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Perhaps it might be convenient for you to consider, very early in our proceedings, a submission. New clause 5 appears on the Amendment Paper but not on the provisional selection list that was provided by Mr. Speaker. I emphasise the words "provisional selection list". May I make the point through you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to Mr. Speaker, that new clause 5 falls entirely within the purview of the Bill?

The Bill's title is the "Water Bill". The long title is:
"To make provision as to the constitution and procedure of water authorities and their borrowing and other powers"—
I emphasise "and other powers". The long title also provides, unfortunately, for the dissolution of the National Water Council and seeks
"to repeal section 25(1)(d) of the Local Government Act 1974".
Given that this is the Water Bill, that the long title includes the words "and other powers" and that the long title specifically allows for repeal of part of the Local Government Act 1974, I would ask you to submit to Mr. Speaker that new clause 5 should be debated. It states:
"In section 11 of the Local Government Act 1974"—
which is referred to in the long title—
"(which provides for the statutory rate rebate scheme)"—
and water authorities are to obtain their money on the basis of a rate scheme and of the rateable value of a house—
"after the word 'rates' in subsection (1) there shall be inserted the words 'including water rates'."
Unfortunately new clause 5 is not at present included in the provisional selection list but it would give the Minister and the water authority the power to allow water rate rebates just as other authorities are entitled to give rate rebates on the rateable value of houses.

The hon. Gentleman must not make a speech now. Has he concluded his point of order?

No, Sir. I was suggesting that new clause 5 did nothing that was not referred to in the long title and which the Bill allows others to do. Will you draw to Mr. Speaker's attention my suggestion that it might be possible to debate and discuss this admirable new clause later?

I think that I can help the hon. Gentleman. As the hon. Gentleman will understand, Mr. Speaker has made the selection. However, new clause 5 refers to section 11 of the Local Government Act 1974 and is out of order because that Act was repealed by the Social Security and Housing Benefits Act 1982.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Might it not have been more helpful if the normal procedure for tabling amendments had been followed? We could then have tabled amendments yesterday instead of running the risk of having them starred. Surely it is in the best interests of the House that relevant issues are fully discussed. As a result of a change in the business of the House, hon. Members went away during the recess under the impression that they could spend yesterday getting their amendments in order. However, they found on their arrival yesterday that it was too late to table amendments other than in the starred form. Although some hon. Members received the message that the Chair might adopt a different attitude towards starred amendments from usual, it was too late for those of us who wished to ensure a proper debate about rebates on the water rate to table amendments.

I should have thought that the procedures of the House would encourage the full and frank debate of such issues and would not prevent a debate because an hon. Member had failed to ensure that a reference in an amendment was completely accurate.

It was perfectly possible to table amendments during the recess. I understand that Mr. Speaker has already selected some of the starred amendments, so the hon. Gentleman is not making a particularly sound point.

New Clause 1

Regional Water Recreation Advisory Committees

  • '(1) Each regional water authority shall appoint a regional water recreation advisory committee which shall have the duty to advise respective water authorities and associated water undertakings on the discharge of their statutory responsibilities, and matters related thereto, in respect of recreation, navigation, conservation and amenity.
  • (2) Each regional water recreation advisory committee shall consist of not less than 12 members but shall not exceed 20, who shall elect from their own members a chairman and vice-chairman Who shall hold office for each financial year.
  • (3) Of the members of the committee:
  • (a) not less than two, but no more than four, shall be appointed by the authority after consultation with those statutory and other bodies who appear to the authority as having a duty or concern for navigation;
  • (b) not less than four, but no more than six persons shall be appointed by the authority after consultation with national or local bodies who have responsibility or concern for the encouragement of sport and recreation—other than recreational fishing or angling—or who provide facilities therefor;
  • (c) not less than three, but no more than four persons, shall be appointed by the authority after consultation with bodies concerned with recreational fishing or angling;
  • (d) not less than two, but no more than four persons, shall be appointed after consultation with national or local bodies having a concern for wildlife or the conservation of the natural environment;
  • (e) others may be appointed up to the maximum number after consultation with the water recreation advisory committee.
  • (4) Each member of the committee shall hold and vacate office in accordance with his respective appointment and shall be eligible for re-appointment on ceasing to hold office, but any such member may at any time by notice addressed to the chairman of the respective water authority resign his office.
  • (5) In making appointments to the regional water recreation advisory committee each water authority shall have regard to the balance of water related activity and features found in their respective regions and for continuity in membership of each committee.
  • (6) Each regional water recreation advisory committee shall make an annual report to the Secretary of State concerning the discharge of their duties, together with an associated financial statement.
  • (7) Each regional water authority shall provide its respective water recreation advisory committee with such accommodation, officers and facilities as appears to them appropriate and shall defray expenditure incurred by the committee as they or the Secretary of State shall decide.
  • (8) Each regional water authority may pay members of each water recreation advisory committee such allowances or reimbursement of expenses incurred by the duties of their office as may be determined by the Secretary of State with the consent of the Treasury.'.—[Mr. Spearing.]
  • Brought up, and read the First time.

    With this, we shall take new clause 7—Regional Water Space Amenity Council

  • '(1) Each Water Authority shall establish a body to be known as the Water Space Amenity Council consisting of:—
  • (a) a chairman appointed by the Secretary of State;
  • (b) two members appointed after consultation with the Countryside Commission;
  • (c) one member appointed after consultation with the English Tourist Board;
  • (d) two members appointed after consultation with the Sports Council;
  • (e) members appointed after consultation with such association of local authorities and such bodies representing persons interested in the use of water and of any land associated with water for the purposes of recreation or the enhancement and preservation of amenity, as the Secretary of State considers desirable;
  • (f) two members appointed after consultation with the National Anglers Council;
  • (2) It shall be the duty of the Council—
  • (a) to advise the Water Authority, after consultation with the Countryside Commission, the English Tourist board and the Sports Council, on the formulation, promotion and execution of the national policy for water so far as relating to recreation and amenity in England;
  • (b) to advise the water authorities on the discharge of their respective functions so far as so relating;
  • (c) to submit to water authorities any proposals which the Commission consider appropriate for the discharge of the authorities' functions so far as so relating; and
  • (d) to encourage and assist the water authorities in the preparation of plans and programmes under section 24 below for the discharge of those functions so far as so relating.
  • (3) The Commission may collate and publish information and reports on matters relating to recreation and amenity in connection with water.
  • (4) The members of the Council shall be appointed for a period of time to be designated by the Secretary of State and shall, each year, elect a Chairman and Deputy Chairman of their Council.
  • (5) The Water Authority shall provide the Commission with such officers and such accommodation as the Secretary of State considers appropriate and shall defray any expenditure incurred by the Commission with the Approval of the Secretary of State in the discharge of their functions.
  • (6) The Water Authority may pay members of the Commission, other than the Chairman of the Water authorities, such allowances as may be determined by the Secretary of State with the consent of the Minister for the Civil Service.'. and the following amendments: No. 10, in clause 7, page 5, line 20, at end insert—
  • '(2) Arrangements under subsection (1) above shall require each water authority to establish committees, called Consumer Consultative Committees.
  • (3) The number of Committees to be established shall be determined by each water authority after consultation with each relevant local authority whose area is wholly or partly in the area of the water authority.
  • (4) The water authority shall secure, as respects each Consumer Consultative Committee, that:—
  • (a) at least one member thereof is appointed by each relevant local authority;
  • (b) at least half of the members thereof shall consist of persons appointed by those relevant local authorities;
  • (c) the Chairman thereof shall be elected by the members from one of their number;
  • (d) the appointment of a person to act as Secretary thereof shall be made by the Consumer Consultative Committee;
  • (e) the expenses reasonably incurred by the Consumer Consultative Committee are approved and paid.
  • (5) In this section, "relevant local authority" means, in relation to a Consumer Consultative Committee, the council of a London Borough or of a country or district as defined in relation to England in section 270(1) of the Local Government Act 1972 or of a county or district mentioned in section 20(3) of that Act (which relates to Wales) or the Common Council of the City of London of which the area or part of it is in each case included in the area of the Consumer Consultative Committee".
  • No. 11, in clause 7, page 5, line 21 leave out subsection (2) and insert—

    '(2) Any body established for the purposes of representing consumers' interests shall include persons nominated by the following bodies:

  • (a) the regional organisations of the Confederation of British Industry and the Trades Union Congress;
  • (b) Chambers of Commerce
  • (c) the Consumer Council and the Consumer Association;
  • (d) the Regional Council for Sport and Recreation; and
  • (e) local authorities within the area of the Water Authority.'.
  • No. 13, in clause 7, page 6, line 7 at end insert

    ';and
    (c) to appoint to any consumer body specified by the arrangements such representatives of the interests of consumers in the area as may be nominated by local authorities or other bodies in accordance with the arrangements, unless the Secretary of State directs otherwise.'.

    Government amendment No. 15.

    I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

    The new clause seeks to set up regional water recreation advisory committees in every part of England and Wales that is covered by the respective water authorities. As a Back Bencher I am privileged to move a new clause to this important Bill at prime time. I am glad that the new Secretary of State for the Environment is present, at least for the moment. We look to him for imaginative and sympathetic administration. We know something of his record as a Minister in the Department, and I hope that he will set a precedent by considering, in new clause 1, matters that have nothing to do with party differences.

    The new clause does not relate to any party difference. It is a pity that this debate was originally advertised for tomorrow. On 23 December it was announced that this debate would take place on Wednesday. For reasons that we can guess, the business has been transposed. As a result, many hon. Members may not attend the debate today. However, I hope that they will exercise their judgment, if necessary, in due course.

    Although there may be a difference of opinion about the advisability of removing all local representation from water authorities, everyone agrees that some alternative or additional means of public consultation must be written into the Bill.

    Clause 7 purports to set up some new form of consultative machinery. I hope that there will not be too many differences, but the differences that exist centre on the machinery that should be set up and on whether and how it should be incorporated into statute. I note that the hon. Member for Reading, North (Mr. Durant) has tabled an amendment that relates to strengthening clause 7 and to making the consumer committees that the Government are committed to more effective than at present proposed. There is no need to disagree and there is no difference between us about the powers of the new advisory or consultative committees. They will have powers only to advise, and they will only be consultative.

    The differences are fairly narrow and have nothing to do with party politics. Therefore, one of the issues is whether the general advisory consultative committees are good enough. The other is, as far as my new clause is concerned, whether there need to be additional consultative committees in relation to recreation, conservation, amenity and navigation.

    My right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Howell) has tabled a new clause that is parallel to mine. His new clause 7 sets up in each region of Britain a machinery similar to that proposed in my new clause. There is not much difference between our new clauses, although there are differences of detail. I should naturally prefer my version, but when the Minister replies he will have to cover both of them together.

    There is a strong and important case for the representation, or machinery for the representation, of amenity, recreation, navigation and conservation that is separate from the consumer bodies that are incorporated in clause 7. The Minister need not necessarily accept the wording of my new clause or that of my right hon. Friend. However, if he accepts the principle of a separate advisory committee with statutory responsibility and powers, provided with sufficient accommodation and having to make a public report, preferably to the Secretary of State, he accepts the principle that we seek to establish.

    It may be that the Minister cannot accept the precise wording of either my right hon. Friend's clause or mine. However, if he accepts that principle there may be contentment, but if he refuses and says that the Government have considered that the representatives on the consumer advisory committees—those in clause 7—are sufficient for these particular interests, he will be disappointing the House and millions of people.

    I say that because the interests concerned are specific and cover a wide section of the British population. Let us look at some of the separate functions other than the supply and disposal of water through pipes and sewers, which is the main financial and operational obligation on the water authorities. There is navigation on rivers and the large number of recreations on reservoirs. There is commercial navigation and cruising navigation. There is the inland sailing world. Dinghys by the tens of thousands are found on the lakes and rivers.

    There is rowing and canoeing, which are important sports, particularly for young people. There is swimming, water skiing and sub-aqua, all of which are on the margin between sport and recreation because they involve competitive events such as regattas, but can just be a sport for an afternoon of recreation in the real sense of that word.

    On top of all that, there is the world of conservation. The Minister will know that water and conservation is a controversial topic. There have been celebrated cases where the interests of conservation as against flood control or agriculture have been matters of great controversy.

    There is also fishing. Recreational fishing interests and angling are already, to some extent, protected by statutory committees, but when we think of the use of water space and the way in which rivers, streams and reservoirs are used for surface recreation or for angling, and for the raising of fishing stock and conservation, it is clear that they must be taken together.

    Thus, although fishing is already provided for by statutory committees, if we examine recreation, conservation and amenity as a whole, it is clear that the anglers and the fishing fraternity must be there. As everybody knows, more people go fishing on a Saturday than go to football matches. It is a rapidly growing recreation, which is also a sport because there is competition in it. It is a strong and proper amenity interest.

    The Government cannot deny any of those facts. However, as it stands, clause 7 provides only the very weakest nod in the direction of consumer interests. Clause 7 does not set up machinery in the sense of statutory consumer councils. It does not even—I see the Minister nodding his head in agreement—set up something as strong as the Post Office consumer council. Hon. Members will know from their mail just how strong or weak the Post Office statutory machine is. The electricity boards also have statutory consultative machinery, as do the gas boards, but hon. Members will also know from their mail just how effective or not those bodies can be. Clause 7 arrangements do not even meet the general arrangements of the public utilities.

    Clause 7 is for all water "consumers". Water consumers, in the sense of that word, are primarily consumers of pure water coming in pipes through a public service, or private in some cases—a service that we all appreciate and depend upon as the events of this week have shown—and its disposal. That is the prime and main objective and duty of the regional water authorities—the complete water cycle. A great deal of money, investment and technical and managerial expertise goes into that complex process.

    Industry is interested in water as well because it uses water in vast quantities. Water is a major raw material. The water authorities also get rid of dirty water in vast quantities, and the cost of that is a very important component not only for industry but for the regional water authorities. As there are all these consumers, it is clear that any consumer council in any regional water authority must, almost by function, be primarily concerned with these major matters of clean water supply and dirty water disposal and purification.

    I hope that the Government do not stick to their amendment No. 15 to clause 7. In it, they say that for the purpose of clause 7
    "'consumers' include persons who use or are likely to use, for the purpose of recreation, any water or land associated with water".
    In other words, the Government are making it clear that they extend the definition of consumer to all the interests that I have outlined. In strict terms that is so, and may include those who walk by water on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon stroll.

    Does the Minister think that the manifold interests that I have outlined in a whole area, say from Southend to Hull, or from Cirencester to Barking in the Thames water authority can be looked after by one, two or even half a dozen representatives in a consumer machinery that is not laid down in the Bill, and which will be primarily concerned with the major duties of the regional water authorities? I have known the Minister for a long time. I do not believe that he will try to persuade the House that that is what the Government think. The hon. Gentleman knows from his experience as an hon. Member the difficulties that have arisen for local committees covering perhaps a town or half a county in relation to the gas and electricity undertakings and the Post Office.

    How on earth will the arrangements under clause 7 be able to cope with the amenity and recreation interests that I have mentioned? I do not believe that the Minister will properly be able to claim that they can. That is why I have tabled my new clause and why new clause 7 has also been suggested. Our proposals will not give any powers to amenity or recreational committees. They will only establish and constitute them, provide them with offices together with a few people to carry out secretarial work, and ensure that an annual report is made. I would have thought such proposals to be almost harmless. What objection can any Government possibly have to that type of arrangement? Without it, there will be enormous difficulty.

    5 pm

    In many parts of the country, there are good non-statutory arrangements. A number of unofficial committees have evolved in some water authorities as they have settled down over the last 10 years. They work only within the context of local authority representation on the water authorities with a hierarchy of committees manned by local representations. There has been criticism that the committees have not become sufficiently well known or as efficient as might have been the case. It is, however, undeniable that the unofficial and non-statutory arrangements, which may be operating well in may places, are rooted in the local authority sub-structure. However, the Government are removing the local authority sub-structure. There is at least a risk, given the nine or 15 directly appointed gentlemen from Whitehall who are to take their place, that the unofficial and non-statutory arrangements will be unable to flourish as they have done.

    If these arrangements are to continue, the Bill ensures that they will operate within a completely different statutory framework. The reaction of many hon. Members will be to call for a statutory consumer network or at least a network related to recreation, navigation and amenity. Until now, this has been handled on a national basis by the Water Space Amenity Commission. Every chairman of a regional water authority has been a member, ex officio, of that body, as he has of the National Water Council. Those two bodies are to be wound up. There will be no national statutory network to sustain and encourage any of the informal arrangements aleady in force. Not only the regional statutory framework, but the national statutory framework, is changed. The Water Space Amenity Commission had a duty to advise water authorities on their statutory functions under sections 20 to 22 of the parent 1973 Act. That also disappears. It is yet another reason why there is need to subsitute at local level some form of statutory advisory committee.

    I should like to make a regional point of some significance. As the hon. Member for Newham, South, I have the privilege of being a Thames riparian member. The Thames is Britain's premier river. The management of the river is well known throughout the world for its efficiency. The old story of the water of the Thames having gone through five or six stomachs before hon. Members or the people of London drink it is well known. This has only been possible because of excellent water cycle management over the years. The Thames water cycle was working towards the end of the last century and long before the 1973 Act.

    What the Minister may not know is that the River Thames has been managed by local representatives since 1750 when the first Thames commissioners were appointed. An Act of 1770 set them up in a big way. The commissioners were numerous. They included every riverside hon. Member and the mayor of every Thames riverside town as well as landowners and others. In the middle of the last century, the Thames Conservancy was created and went out of existence only in 1973.

    Under the Bill's proposals, the Thames Water Authority is to be managed by Whitehall nominees. All local representation in the management of the Thames, for the first time in over 200 years, will disappear. That may be claimed to be an emotional point. It is, I believe, much more. The management of the Thames, especially the Thames Conservancy of blessed memory, has an enviable reputation in combining the fundamental functions of clean water supply and dirty water disposal together with all the amenities we have come to respect and enjoy.

    The upper Thames, in its semi-artificial state, is the joy of landscape painters. Yet it fulfils all the other functions that I have described. This is because a single body, the Thames Conservancy, was responsible for water supply and disposal and for amenity, recreation, navigation and fisheries. The Minister may argue that this state of affairs will continue. That is not so. It will not be the same. Although the Thames Water Authority will be responsible, those managing it will not be local people. For the first time in history, they will be appointed by the Secretary of State. It will be a very different local set-up. This will be repeated all over the country, not merely for the other navigable rivers such as the Trent and the Severn, and the Calder and the Ouse, but for every reservoir owned by local authorities where the local council or an adjacent council has been able to have its say on the board. All that is to disappear. Nothing adequate is at the moment to take its place.

    On the issue of specific water recreational advisory committees, I would have thought that the Government would leap at the opportunity. Hon. Members hear so often that the Government wish to safeguard the public, to set the people free and to give power to the people. It is a theme heard constantly from Conservative Members. I seem to recall hearing it often from the Prime Minister herself. We hear constant criticism of bureaucrats. We hear constant criticism of quangos. However, what are the Government doing? They are doing the exact opposite. They are creating new quango water authorities, which are directly appointed by Whitehall, and they are putting fully-paid bureaucrats in charge of them, with no additional safeguard for the public.

    I shall not argue about whether what these new bodies do is necessary. That is not part of this debate. The Government think that it is necessary, and they have so persuaded the Committee and the House on Second Reading. If that is so, they have a reciprocal obligation to see that the risks of so doing, the risks of bureaucracy, and the risks inherent in every quango are dealt with, and that the public are properly safeguarded. That is fully in line with their election manifesto.

    I hope that I have shown that the safeguards are not at all adequate. The responsibilities of water authorities are clear. In sections 20, 21 and 22, the responsibilities are clear. Section 20 deals with navigation and recreation. Section 22 says that regional water authorities
    "shall have regard to the desirability of preserving natural beauty, of conserving flora, fauna and geological or physiographical features of special interest, and of protecting buildings and other objects of architectural, archaeological or historic interest and shall take into account any effect which the proposals would have on the beauty of, or amenity in, any rural or urban area or on any such flora, fauna, features, buildings or objects".
    As I said, hon. Members know how much correspondence these matters engender. If no such proper amenity and recreation local committees are set up, local Members will have to handle these issues. I am sure that no one on the Government Benches wants extra mileage on those issues, because we all know how much mileage they will generate and how strong feelings are. If we have a regional recreational advisory committee where people interested in these matters can get together with the experts of the regional water authorities and administrators, and perhaps discuss informally how these matters can best be dealt with, come to the optimum solutions, and put them to the water authority, hon. Members need not be bothered—nor, indeed, the Minister. At present, no such possibility exists in practice.

    The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment gave an undertaking on 9 December 1982 in Committee. He said:
    "We shall seek to write into the Bill the reaffirmation of the statutory position that was included in the 1973 Act. This will ensure that under the new Act regional water authorities will have to provide the kind of linkages whose description I gave in the first part of my reply."—[Official Report, Standing Committee B, 9 December 1982; c. 200.]
    Linkage is the fundamental issue. In their amendment to clause 7, the Government are trying to say that the general consumer councils will be the linkage. I hope that I have shown that they will not be adequate and that they will not do the job.

    Although there has been little notice, I have received some support for that view. I have had letters of support from the British Canoe Union, the River Thames Society, the Countryside Commission, the Salmon and Trout Association, the Inland Waterways Association, the British Water Ski Federation, the Sports Council for England, the Sports Council for Wales, the Central Council of Physical Recreation, the Council for the Protection for Rural England, the Calder Navigation Society, and the Broads Society, as well as many letters from subsidiary organisations, branches and individuals.

    5.15 pm

    I want to quote the letter I received only this morning from the North West Council for Sport and Recreation which says:
    "This Clause we would support since, within the North West Region, the Regional Water Authority, through its various holdings, has a major influence on recreation. Its land holdings total some 150,000 acres, of which thirty-eight thousand are within the Lake District. The remainder is distributed … as follows:—
    • 47,000 acres in Lancashire
    • 36,000 acres in Cheshire
    • 10,000 acres in Merseyside
    • 19,000 in G.M.C.
    … There are also some 3,000 miles of river, and in excess of three hundred reservoirs."
    That is in the North-West region alone. To suggest that the interests and dilemmas inherent in that scale of plant can be dealt with by clause 7 committees is unrealistic in the extreme.

    I look forward to hearing the Minister's reply, because I know that his practical common sense, if nothing else, will ensure that even if he cannot accept the wording of the new clause, he will accept the principles and thinking behind it.

    So as to keep my speech within reasonable bounds, I shall adopt most of the arguments that were put by my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing), whom I congratulate on his assiduous devotion to this issue, particularly during the Christmas recess, and on the trouble that he has taken to get in touch with many of the organisations which are directly involved.

    It is well within the knowledge of hon. Members that when the 1973 Water Act went through this place, the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths) described the use of our water resources for the purposes of recreation, sport and amenity as the third dimension—a totally new dimension in the use of the nation's water resources. That thinking, with which both sides of the House agreed, led the Government in the Committee on that legislation in 1973 to make arrangements for the Water Space Amenity Commission and to relate them directly to the National Water Council.

    The dilemma in which we now find ourselves is that the Government, for reasons best known to themselves—only a Conservative Government could do this, and it is a matter to which we shall return again and again—have decided to abolish the nationalised industry of the National Water Council, and establish in its place 10 new nationalised industries. That rate of inflation exceeds everything they have done on the economic front. So we are faced with the dilemma of how to translate what the House wanted, the meaning of the 1973 proposals to create a national Water Space Amenity Commission, in a meaningful fashion in the new 10 independent authorities.

    My hon. Friend read out the undertaking that was given by the Minister in Committee, so I shall content myself with merely referring to it. The Minister said that the use of water resources for recreation, sport and amenity was such an important matter that he would seek to protect its statutory provision in the 1973 Act. Now we have before us the Government's proposals in that regard, amendment No. 15. The Government are trying to persuade the House that, by giving sports, recreation, amenity and conservation interests representation on a consumer council for each of the regional water authorities and the Welsh water authority, they are providing an adequate substitute for the much more vigorous and direct powers of the old Water Space Amenity Commission.

    We reject the Minister's proposal, although we accept that he has made it in good faith. We do not believe that it gets anywhere near giving statutory rights to sporting, recreation and amenity bodies in the way that existed under the old WSAC arrangement. That is the principal reason why we shall be voting against the Minister's proposal and supporting the proposal of my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing), which is a much more adequate substitute.

    Why is it proposed to eliminate WSAC from statutory provisions? How did the Government reach such a decision? We know that there was no consultation with WSAC. It was not even asked about its future. It was eliminated overnight. General Galtieri could not have done a more effective job of elimination than that which was carried out by Ministers. That is what happened to the WSAC. That has raised our suspicions and those of all concerned with sport and recreation.

    Everyone who has had any association with the WSAC will concede that it has done an outstanding job of work. I was responsible for these matters for five years while in government and I consider that its most important achievement was to ensure, on account of its statutory provision, that every one of the 10 water authorities took recreation and sporting amenities fully into account and ensured that the legitimate interests of anglers, boaters, swimmers, campers, caravanners, preservationists and amenity bodies were safeguarded by the authorities.

    When I was a Minister I found it invaluable to be able to ask WSAC for its advice. I have in mind the attitudes of a number of water authorities but I think that they have probably changed now. However, they might persist, and it must be remembered that we are legislating for the next 50 or 100 years. We are not doing so for those who are here now. No doubt it is the Minister's hope that the Bill, when enacted, will remain on the statute book for 50 or 100 years. If his hope is fulfilled, he cannot know who will be controlling these interests in future.

    When on holiday in the south-west and the north-west I discovered lakes of considerable amenity importance that were not accessible to the public. On two pleasant occasions following two successive holidays I returned to my ministerial office and sent short, sharp messages to WSAC and the water authorities concerned to ask why lakes, which were public property and which they had the privilege of managing on behalf of the nation, had railings all around them to ensure that the public had no access to them.

    I am glad to say that in both instances action was taken very shortly after the writing of my letters. However, action in the north-west was taken only as a result of WSAC's intervention. It persuaded the regional water authority concerned that there was no danger in allowing the public access to Thirlmere and that such access was in every way justifiable. It stressed in its intervention that the public should have access both to the water resource and to the immediate gathering grounds for activities such as camping and rambling. The public had always had access for angling purposes.

    It is proposed that we should eliminate all local authority representatives from any right of membership on any of the regional water authorities. The Bill removes the rights of the ombudsman. On new clause 3, we shall be discussing the right of the press to have access to all the meetings of water authorities. We are asked to remove all these safeguards and to take it on trust from the Minister and the Government that sport and recreation will get a fair deal and that we can rest content with consumer councils providing the answer to the problem.

    As I said in Committee, it is my view that consumer councils are not a great source of satisfaction to any of us who know in practice what they can achieve. We shall have another toothless wonder which will not satisfy anglers, water skiers, ramblers, swimmers, campers, caravanners, conservation interests and countryside interests. In new clause 7 we seek to say that there should be representatives of the Countryside Commission, the English tourist board, the Sports Council and the National Anglers Council on the sort of body that we have recommended in the clause, having regard to the new type of authorities that have been created.

    I cannot understand why the Minister is not prepared to have a water space amenity council set up as of right by statute. Even that would give only half the provision that sportsmen and amenity interests have at present with WSAC as a national body. However, it would be better than nothing.

    Statutory representation on a consumer council must, by definition, be limited. Presumably such a council will consider a range of water matters including charging, the quality of water and the efficiency of an authority in dealing, for example, with repairs. Sport and recreation interests will be only one small part of a consumer council. Let us acknowledge what the House acknowledged, that sport and recreation is a new dimension of growing importance. Its importance can never be overstated.

    The number of people with enforced leisure available to them who wish to take advantage of the opportunities that we wish them to have is growing. There are the 4 million unemployed, those who are retiring earlier because of the economic situation or from personal preference and those who have more extended holidays available to them now than ever before. This means that the leisure provision of the nation is of growing significance in its affairs. This should be reflected by establishing in every area an organisation akin to that which has been available for the past 10 years at national level.

    Is there not a danger also that the majority within the consumer councils may be at variance with the minority view of those who are interested in recreation in areas where there are water facilities?

    That must be an obvious danger. If there are representatives on the councils of commercial interests, trade unions and consumers generally, the representatives of sport and recreation will be outnumbered. It would have been even more pertinent if my hon. Friend had said that the interests of those who are concerned about recreation will be sometimes diametrically opposed to some of the other interests that will be found represented on consumer councils. Many of the other representatives will say that the only issue that matters to them is keeping down the price of water. Some of us will be saying that it is important, even if it involves a slight extra cost, to provide services that ensure that water is used as an amenity for the whole nation. Therefore, my hon. Friend has made a pertinent point.

    5.30 pm

    I shall not labour my intervention, but I want to record my great concern on behalf of sporting and recreation interests that the Government have not acceded to our proposal that every water authority should have a water space amenity council.

    When the Government consulted on this matter, they did not consult WSAC itself. They consulted the sports bodies widely. About 200 sports bodies are members of the Sports Council. They consulted all the countryside and amenity bodies associated with the Countryside Commission. When the Government consulted all those bodies, not a single sporting, recreational or amenity organisation supported their proposals. All were largely hostile to them. We shall reflect that hostility by voting against the Government's proposals, which means that we shall vote for new clause 1, although I hope that the Minister, even at this late stage, will obviate the necessity to do that by telling us that he is prepared to have another think about the matters that we regard as being of considerable importance.

    I wish to speak to amendment No. 13. In Committee I expressed concern about clause 7 as proposed because many organisations such as the National Farmers Union, which, in addition to local authorities, are entitled to nominate representatives to consumer consultative committees, are particularly concerned that water authorities would continue rejecting nominees until they were offered a name that was acceptable to them. In reply to my concern, the Minister gave two reasons why he was not willing to accept my amendment—first, that the Government were engaged in consultation on guidelines for consumer consultative committees and did not wish to pre-empt the result, and secondly, that there should be provision for water authorities to refuse a nomination if they were aware of something that made it inappropriate for the nominee to be appointed. He added that a nominated person might be in dispute with the authority. One wonders whether such a person might be an ideal person for such a committee. Perhaps the Minister was referring to a legal dispute rather than one of another nature.

    With regard to the first part of the Minister's answer, the laying down of certain general requirements by Parliament in this legislation would not appear to be inconsistent with continuing consultation on the details of the constitution and operation of consumer consultative committees. With regard to the second part of the Minister's answer, the amendment allows scope for just such an eventuality through the intervention of the Secretary of State.

    I am also concerned that the clause appears to refer specifically to the Secretary of State for the Environment rather than the Secretary of State for Trade, or, more properly, the Minister for Consumer Affairs, who would be the most appropriate guardian of the public interest. I appreciate that the matter is being dealt with in haste, but I am concerned that the public, who would need to refer to those consumer consultative committees, ought to be clear that they are at arm's length and that the water authorities would not therefore be controlling them.

    I appreciate that the ultimate appeal is through the Member of Parliament, but my hon. Friend the Minister will appreciate that we already have considerable demands on our time by way of complaints against various public utility undertakings. I hope that we shall be able to try to reduce the volume of complaints that we are likely to receive by ensuring that the public are clear and satisfied with the service that is provided. Therefore, I hope that we can make it clear that there are no conflicts of interest. It would seem right and proper that the Minister for Consumer Affairs was intimately involved in the matter. That surely is what his job is all about.

    Therefore, I urge my hon. Friend to re-examine my points in the interests of and in fairness to the consumer. I hope that in doing so he will be able to allay the very real fears that exist on this subject.

    I was unable to hear the whole of the speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing). I believe that it was extremely substantial. I am sure that he made a convincing case.

    I shall refer in particular to new clause 1 because I fear that under the new structure we shall remove the water authorities from political sensitivity. In my part of the world the thousands of people who are interested in angling have to travel many miles to indulge in their chosen activity. If present policies persist they will not have to travel many miles, but they will find it increasingly difficult to exercise proper political pressure to secure a higher priority for the necessary improvement of our rivers and streams.

    It is dangerous to try to establish a structure that protects a body from political pressure and insulates it from necessary sensitivity. I hope that my hon. Friend's argument, the comments made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Howell) and the obvious logic of new clause 1 will lead the Minister to look carefully at the matter.

    This week I have been looking at a recent publication by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Today I wrote to Ministers in the Department of the Environment and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, which in many ways is perhaps a bigger villain in the piece than the Department of the Environment. That formidable document, which I hope will receive ministerial attention, concludes that there is already excessive secrecy in many areas of concern. If the environmental and conservation interests, with which I am heavily associated, are to fear that there will be further secrecy and greater insensitivity, the frustration and justified anger that are already felt will increase.

    Given my right hon. Friend's argument about the increase in leisure time and the need for adequate access and conservation arrangements, the conservation interests are entitled to feel that they should be given an opportunity to express adequately the real concern about secrecy and the waste of public money. That concern is clearly and formidably presented in the report.

    The contribution of my right hon. Friend the Member for Small Heath was convincing. He demonstrated the need for ministerial holidays. I am glad that his holidays were put to good use.

    indicated assent

    I am glad that the Minister agrees, because this Government are more in need of a long holiday than any previous Government. The longer holidays they have, the less damage they will do.

    The situation is unsatisfactory at present. The Bill is likely to make things worse. My hon. Friend's proposal is a useful way of ameliorating the defects inherent in the Bill. I trust that the Minister will build on the remarks that he made last year, which suggested that he would take a helpful view on this matter. His remarks will be logical and consistent if he accepts my hon. Friend's proposals.

    I wish to speak to amendment No. 10, dealing with representation on the water consumer committees. We are all well aware that local authorites and councillors—I speak as vice-president of the Association of District Councils—were very unhappy about the Government's proposal to change the structure of the boards. We received a great deal of correspondence and many people felt bitter about this. I do not share their view. I believe that the Government have taken the right course. It should be placed on record, however, that many councillors felt that they were doing a reasonable job on the water authorities and have now lost representation. Of course, some of them were keen, took an active interest and served the water authorities well, although there were others, unfortunately, who did not turn up. In other cases the turnover was too rapid. Nevertheless, the background is that local authorities felt deprived of representation.

    The water authorities arose out of local government and were originally the creatures of district or borough councils. There is thus a feeling that something of the past has been cut off and local authorities feel deprived of representation. Although I do not necessarily support that view, it is important that that anxiety should be on record.

    With regard to the consumer committees, local authorities feel that instead of merely suggesting nominations, as at present proposed, they should be able to nominate to the new consumer committees as of right. This would at least increase their involvement and elected representatives could express the views of those whom they represent at consumer council level. I support that view.

    My amendment also suggests that the chairmen of consumer committees should be elected from among the members. I rather support that view. I support the view expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Thorne) that the consumer committees should be at arm's length from the water authorities if the committees are to have any strength at all. One of the weaknesses of the gas and electricity consumer councils is that they are too close to the nationalised industries involved. I certainly favour keeping the consumer committees at arm's length.

    I tabled my amendment—I know that I cannot move it at this stage—because I believe that this aspect requires careful consideration. Local authorities feel strongly about it and the Association of District Councils asked me to table the amendment.

    I have been approached by the Reading ratepayers, who are very active in my constituency, about the rights of ratepayers to examine water authorities' accounts. Despite pressure to remove those rights, they were maintained before the latest proposal. The Government gave way on that occasion and allowed such examinations to continue so that ratepayers could make a considered judgment as to whether their money was being used wisely and carefully. The ratepayers now fear that that power is being removed. I am not sure whether that is so. Perhaps the Minister will make it clear whether the new proposals deny ratepayers the right to examine the accounts. The powers may in fact remain, but the Reading ratepayers suspect that that is not the case and have asked me to raise the matter. That is, of course, the view of most ratepayers' associations throughout the country, but the Reading group approached me as the local Member of Parliament.

    Having explained the reasons for my amendment, I shall listen carefully to the Minister's reply. I shall also be interested to hear his views about the examination of accounts.

    I have some sympathy with the views of the hon. Member for Newham, South on the leisure aspects of the water industry. I am a member of IWAAC—the Inland Waterways Amenity Advisory Council—so I am very much involved with the Thames and other waterways and amenities. I am also a member of the Southern Sports council, so I have a considerable interest in the points raised. I am nervous about the hon. Gentleman's proposal, however, in that he seems to be proposing another quango and I am nervous about quangos. That is why I am not entirely convinced by his argument.

    If a quango is a quasi-autonomous national government organisation, the water authorities themselves are quangos, but surely a consumer and/or advisory committee as it were shadowing a quango cannot also be a quango.

    5.45 pm

    What quangos are is a matter of opinion, although the hon. Gentleman's interpretation is certainly correct in terms of the meaning put forward by at least one of my hon. Friends. Nevertheless, all such bodies tend to breed more bodies, so I am reluctant to create another.

    Yes, IWAAC is a quango of a sort, but we managed to save it. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman and I were both involved in saving it.

    To sum up, I have sympathy with the hon. Gentleman's view but I am not sure that his proposal is the best way to proceed and I shall be interested to hear the Minister's response to the new clause. The main burden of my speech, however, relates to amendment No. 10 dealing with representation. Having explained the purpose of that amendment, I shall be interested to hear the Minister's comments.

    I have some sympathy with the hon. Member for Reading, North (Mr. Durant) in his dislike of quangos, but he set out from an illogical position. He should have attacked the Government's proposals and suggested that the water authorities should be under democratic control. The proposal of my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) would not then be necessary. Having started from the Government's proposal to set up the new quangos—the water authorities—and to remove democratically elected representation, it is important to redress the balance and to have some representation for recreational interests in the decision-making process. I am therefore happy to support my hon. Friend's proposal at this stage. If we have to put up with the Government's basic framework, it is important that recreational interests be included in the consultation process and can make their voices heard.

    The Government suggest that this could be achieved simply by setting up a consumer body and including in it one or perhaps two people representing recreational interests. The Minister cannot have thought very carefully about the problems involved, as there are major conflicts between the various recreational interests. One could not expect one person or even two people to represent all the conflicting interests. Inevitably, the person involved will have a particular background—he may have a keen interest in fishing, boating or some other aspect—but he will be expected to represent not only the groups of recreational users with which he has been associated but many others with which he is regularly and frequently in conflict about the use of resources.

    If the dialogue is to be useful, it must be a two-way process in which the recreational users can put their views to the water authority, which may in turn explain the difficulties, problems of cost or other reasons why it cannot do as much as those users wish. The conflicts between the different recreational users may be resolved through an advisory body of that nature, but it would be extremely difficult for that process to be channeled through just one or two members of a consumer body.

    I cite one problem. I am continually approached by fishermen in my constituency who are most aggrieved at the loss of angling facilities. Fishermen point out the tremendous pressure in some urban areas to fill in ponds because some people can make money by doing that. They discover that their ponds disappear or that they must pay an increased rate for their use because the landowner says that he can make more money by filling it with rubbish than by fishermen stocking it with fish and fishing it.

    Fishermen find that the number of areas that they can use is being eroded. They are always looking for new ones. They can use reservoirs in the north of England, but they want more areas to use. They also point out the increasing conflict about the uses to which existing areas of water should be put. They say that there is far more competition than there used to be.

    There are now many more people who enjoy canoeing. Twenty of thirty years ago few people owned canoes in Britain. Buying canvas and plywood to make a canoe involved a good deal of pocket money and much time spent on a Saturday job. It is now much cheaper for a youngster to buy a fibreglass canoe or to make it himself. Immediately, we are faced with conflict between fishermen who do not want waters to be disturbed and someone who wants to splash about in a canoe.

    Twenty or thirty years ago it was unusual for someone to own a power boat and for the peace and quiet of a space of water to be disturbed by an outboard motor. It is now much cheaper and easier for people to go boating with such motors. The new sport of windsurfing also demands open water. All those interests want more water space and more opportunity for recreation. Far more people have far more time and money to spend on such recreations.

    There is also the conservationists' interests. They want to preserve more water space for wildlife which is not disturbed by people or noisy boats. It is extremely difficult for a water authority to reconcile all those interests. There is a danger that a water authority will simply say: "Because we are being pressed by so many conflicting recreational interests, we shall do nothing about any of them."

    One of the things that the National Water Council has managed to do in the past few years is demonstrate that conflicting interests can be reconciled. It has also enabled recreational users to have more insight into each other's problems and to encourage greater understanding and co-operation in the use of water amenities. By setting up a proper recreational users' body, such interests could be reconciled much more effectively.

    Who will campaign for more resources? That is another important subject. I regret the tendency among water authorities to give low priority to recreational interests. Some water authorities have given much more attention to public relations and saying that they are doing something for recreational users than they have to achieving something practical.

    With regard to river pollution, much could be done for anglers in the north-west if rivers such as the Mersey and the Irwell were cleaned up. Much is being done to channel effluent into sewers, but there is still occasional pollution of those rivers. The pollution is often sewage and it is often the water authorities who are to blame. Such effluent may not make the rivers much more obnoxious but a sudden shock of noxious material kills many fish. Therefore, some rivers cannot be stocked with fish, not because the normal level of pollution is too high for them to survive but because they are occasionally killed off by shocks of pollution.

    The Government have made some play about extra money for cleaning up the Mersey, but many of my constituents want more to happen. They believe that a forceful recreational users' advisory committee could campaign far more for rivers to be cleaned up so that they may be brought back into recreational use, especially for fishermen.

    In the north-west, there are many old reservoirs that were built by water authorities in the last century. Many did not have treatment plant, so water went straight from the reservoir to the tap. Much more could be done to ensure that some of those reservoirs are brought into public use, especially for sailing and canoeing. It is now rare for water in such reservoirs to find its way straight to the tap without passing through treatment plant.

    Not only does the water authority in the north-west have substantial areas of reservoirs and rivers, it owns large tracts of moorland. It undertook in the last century to maintain clear areas of land so that water going to the reservoirs would not be polluted. Now that water is treated by cleaning plant, it is far easier to gain access to those moorland areas but large areas are still not open and access to them could be allowed.

    Water authorities are also under pressure to balance their books. The water authority in the north-west is increasingly under pressure to plant conifer trees on its land. That may increase its income but it is changing the landscape. Groups that are concerned with the conservation of wildlife are unhappy about that development. An advisory body should be able to discuss those matters.

    It used to be a tradition in the Greater Manchester area to flood land in the river valleys during the winter to take off storm water. In January and February the flooded water meadows froze over. The water was often less than a foot deep and it provided an attractive area to go skating. Most water authorities have stopped that practice.

    Far more should be done to increase recreational uses. That cannot be done by putting one or two people on a consumer body. Many interests are involved and there is bound to be conflict. The best solution is to set up an advisory body to ensure that there are regular meetings between that body and the water authority so that conflicts can be discussed and water authorities contributions to the quantity of areas for leisure amenities can be extended.

    I beg the Minister to accept the amendment. If the Government are not prepared to accept it at this stage, the subject should at least be examined carefully in the other place. I am sure that many noble Lords will want to discuss the subject at greater length. There is much interest in wildlife, conservation and recreational uses in the other place. I hope that before the Bill becomes an Act, the Government will accept the spirit of the amendment even if they do not like its present wording.

    Water authorities have a uniquely important role in recreation. I wish to speak in support of the broad aims of new clause 1.

    Recreation involves a wide range of sports, activities and amenity groups. Each of those groups generally forms itself either into an association or a club. They are enthusiasts. It is vital that they should be enabled to be in close contact with water authorities. By being members of a recreational committee, their influence as a spur to water authorities to improve amenities, and as a body that receives information from water authorities, would be enhanced. As often as not, it is the lack of communication between people and authority that can lead to misunderstandings and difficulties. The advantage of having committees of people drawn from groups, associations and bodies that are especially knowledgeable, and have their feet on the ground, would be of great importance in cutting through any areas of misunderstanding between their objectives and those of the water authorities.

    6 pm

    In many parts of Britain the water authorities have done a good job. For instance reservoirs that have been opened for fishing have produced a marvellous amenity. I could not conceive of a reservoir where fishing had been introduced being closed because it had not been fully utilised. Membership of some of the reservoir fishing clubs has to be restricted because of the large numbers of people wishing to fish. But in some areas reservoirs are lying idle and have not been opened up to sport. If the committees are established they could draw the attention of water authorities to the opportunities that could be developed to give more people a better chance to enjoy themselves in the country.

    I shall listen with great care to what my hon. Friend the Minister has to say. I hope that he will consider the position of those who have colossal enthusiasm and wish to play a part in developing recreation in Britain. It is those who will be of the greatest benefit to the greatest number of people.

    I shall speak briefly to new clauses 1 and 7. As the Bill proceeded through Committee, we were told that the Government's objective was a more efficient water industry. My hon. Friends and I must ask ourselves, at what price? That is what the debate is about. The traditional industry, is being transformed from a public service into a profit-making exercise, perhaps pending privatisation. The Minister and his hon. Friends have concluded that the previous arrangement of WSAC was an encumberance—an obstruction to profitability in the industry—which is why it is being so ruthlessly phased out.

    Consultation with various bodies, which was provided for in the water industry as it has traditionally existed, is being removed—whether it be with local authority representatives on the water authorities, the ombudsman or the press. In this debate, I am concerned with the body that has taken upon itself the responsibility to guard the nation's interests in recreational water facilities. The new clauses would create regional WSACs. That is being done in the spirit to which the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths) in 1973 referred as the third dimension. That was also referred to by the Opposition. The third dimension in 1973 related to water recreation, wildlife sports—including angling and fishing—skiing, canoeing, sailing, diving, adventure holidaying and water conservation—all areas in which it could be seen that the public would have a recreational interest.

    The public's great fear about the Bill is that the Government are no longer sensitive about those issues, but are preoccupied with ensuring that water authorities make profits irrespective of the wider public interest. The Opposition wish to establish who will assume those responsibilities. The Government's amendments deal only partly with that because it seeks only to place on consumer committees those who are likely to use water or land associated with water for recreational purposes. That is a sop—an inadequate substitute for what has traditionally existed. As I said when I intervened earlier, we are deeply concerned that the representation of recreation on the consumer committees will be outvoted and dominated by other interests.

    When the Minister replies, he should direct himself directly to that matter. It is his role to convince the House that those interests, as they have been traditionally represented, will be equally represented by the two persons serving on the proposed consumer committees.

    The new clauses recognise the need for the widest form of representation, whether that be the Countryside Commission and its members with an interest in the protection of the countryside; the English tourist board that has a traditional interest in exploiting water resources for tourist purposes; the Sports Council, which will be represented because of its interest in water-related sporting activities; the local authorities that will be represented for obvious reasons or the anglers who must have a direct interest. My constituency and those of two members of the Cabinet form part of the British lakeland in Cumbria. I hope that they want the most effective representation of angling groups. Perhaps excluded—but I am sure that the spirit is embodied in the new clauses—are the representatives of the national park planning boards and the Lake District planning board.

    All those organisations have a real interest in an area that has traditionally been the responsibility of the WSAC. We want the WSAC to be replaced by regional WSACs that have exactly the same responsibilities. They must have equal access to Ministers so that the voice of the recreational consumer in the national parks and urban areas can be heard clearly. Millions of people from urban areas annually descend upon the national parks and their voices must not he stifled by the commercial interests that will dominate the inadequate consumer councils proposed by the Government.

    We have had a substantial debate about various aspects of recreation. It is an important area, and I understand why right hon. and hon. Members wish to contribute to the debate. The water authorities operate in large measure within the terms of reference laid down, and unaltered, in the 1973 Act. Section 20 makes it clear that they have a duty that they must discharge. It requires them

    "to take such steps as are reasonably practicable for putting their rights to the use of water and of any land associated with water to the best use for those purposes."
    Those purposes are the importance of recreation and amenity. They must discharge that duty, which is in no way altered by the provisions of the Bill.

    We are debating the appropriate arrangements for consumers and whether I can satisfy the House that arrangements for those who use recreational facilities will be provided. In that context, the Government put down amendment No. 15, which defines consumers as those persons who participate in recreation. The amendment triggers clause 7, which allows duties to be imposed to make provision for consumers in the water authorities, including the consumers of recreation.

    In Committee I quoted from a letter that I received from the chairman of the South-West regional water authority, who was writing on behalf of all other water authority chairmen. He committed them to national consultation with national recreational and sporting bodies. A recreational and amenity advisory committee will be formed within the proposed association of water authorities, which will provide a forum of discussion with the recreational and sporting bodies as and when a need for such meetings is identified.

    This is not WSAC in another guise. Hon. Members have rightly drawn attention to WSAC's substantial contribution but the fact that WSAC would be wound up by the Bill shows that in large measure WSAC has done its job. That was to ensure that the recreational potential for water authorities should be properly and fully developed. In the period of about 10 years in which WSAC operated under the ambit of the Water Act 1973, that duty has been largely discharged. The water authorities agree that there should be consultation at the national level.

    Hon. Members are anxious, especially the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) who moved new clause 1, about the Committee's intention to consult bodies connected with conservation, in respect of which water authorities are under a duty under section 22 of the 1973 Act. Given the importance widely attributed to nature conservation, which was referred to by the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Hardy), the House will welcome the linkage at the national level.

    I also said in Committee that in all regional water authority areas it was intended to include sport and recreation committees to establish links at the regional level with sporting organisations. Amendment No. 15 will allow that to be done within the ambit of clause 7, which will provide that adequate arrangements must be made for consulting consumers and that the Secretary of State must approve such arrangements before they can be implemented. In our opinion that is the correct place for the amendment. Those who use recreational facilities are consumers with a special interest. Amendment No. 15 emphasises that the special interests of those consumers will be catered for by the water authorities when they prepare their report and arrangements under clause 7.

    If by accepting amendment No. 15, we somehow strengthen representation on the consumer councils, how is it that consumer councils in Wales, before the amendment was tabled, could have fishing, recreational and amenity interests on those bodies?

    The right hon. Gentleman raised a similar point in Committee. The legislation under which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales acted in the intermediate period will subsumed by clause 7. Together, the two provisions will provide that wealth of consumer consultation so beloved by the Welsh.

    Unlike new clauses 1 and 7, our amendment does not provide for the establishment of new bodies. We do not think it appropriate to spell out in detail in primary legislation the committees and their constitutions that are necessary to meet the needs as they are perceived today. Needs vary over time and there is a substantial variation in the requirements of individual regional water authorities and their consumers, ranging from very small authorities to very large ones.

    We intend to ensure that water authorities establish committees at regional level. In that way, we could provide linkage with the sport and recreational bodies for which Opposition Members are asking. The water authorities will be required to do so and they will be required to submit proposals to be endorsed by the Secretary of State. That will ensure that the guidelines that we have already circulated for comment, when they are finally submitted and approved, will ensure that the water authorities appoint specific recreation committees that will also deal with conservation issues and ensure that they are consistently applied under each regional water authority.

    I say to the hon. Member for Newham, South, who moved new clause 1, that I accept the need to make a more specific commitment to the process of handling recreational and amenity issues at regional level. The correct way to do that is in a manner consistent with the consultation process with consumers rather than by the establishment by primary legislation of a range of bodies such as he proposes.

    6.15 pm

    My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Thorne) sought reassurance about nominations to water authorities' consumer consultative committees. I agree that in principle water authorities should appoint to their consumer consultative committees those who are nominated by the relevant bodies and that the water authorities should not exercise their own preference. We shall make that point clear in the final version of the consumer guidelines.

    My hon. Friend the Member for Reading, North (Mr. Durant) asked about local representation. In the same way, it would be appropriate for local authorities to accept the nominee representatives who are proposed. District councils will have on the consultative committees a representative for each district that comes within the operating division of the water authority so they will constitute a substantial number of those who are entitled to serve on the consultative committees. We have not specified in the consultation document whether those representatives should be a majority. However, I imagine that about half the membership will be drawn from local authorities. I also assure my hon. Friend that there will be no change in the ratepayers' right to examine a cut.

    My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South asked about joint approval of the system of joint consultative committees. I agree that it is appropriate that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade, and the Minister for Consumer Affairs in particular, should agree the final proposals for consumer consultative committees. We shall therefore discuss the proposals with him and he will share in their approval. He should also share in the approval of individual proposals for each regional authority which will emanate from clause 7 when that becomes part of the Bill.

    The House should not accept new clauses in the manner proposed by the hon. Member for Newham, South, and the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Howell). The proposals that we have made take on board the fact that undertakings should be both taken and delivered that in executing their statutory duties under sections 20 and 22 of the 1973 Act, the regional authorities should set up a structure which reflects at the national level a commitment to consult recreational, amenity and conservation bodies and, at regional level, a separate consultative committee to deal with regional variations of the same bodies. By making that recommendation in our consumer consultative guidelines, we would be separating sport, recreation and conservation from the wide range of issues that would normally be on the agenda of such consumer consultative committees.

    My hon. Friend answered my point about representation, but I should be grateful if he would clarify it again. Can each local authority in the area covered by the consumer consultative committee make a nomination that might be accepted, or will each authority have a nomination to the committee by right? There is a slight difference of emphasis.

    I remind my hon. Friend that the consumer consultative committees are still in draft proposal form. However, it is intended that each committee should be drawn from an area comparable to a water authority division, and within that committee each district council that is represented in the division should have a representative on that committee. The nominations may come from bodies other than individual district councils, such as an association of local authorities, but my purpose in answering my hon. Friend's point was to accept that it would be wrong for water authorities to be selective about local authority representation. Unless there are special reasons, they should normally accept the recommendation of the local authority or the association of local authorities. I hope that that answers my hon. Friend's query.

    My final point, in recommending that the House should accept amendment No. 15 and not the new clauses, is that in understanding what the hon. Member for Newham, South is trying to do, I reiterate that we can and should provide both separation and commitment from local authorities to the recreational, amenity and conservation bodies at regional and national level. It does not require a major addition to this legislation. It requires proper interpretation of the powers in clause 7. It is our final intention that the guidelines to be issued under that clause will provide much of the contact and the commitment that the hon. Gentleman seeks in his amendment.

    I thank the Minister for the great compliment of not dissenting in principle from anything that I said in my speech. I regard his silence on the wide range of matters as a compliment, although he did not make it explicit. I thank my right hon. and hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Howell), Rother Valley (Mr. Hardy), Birmingham, Stechford (Mr. Davis) and Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) for their support, and the hon. Member for Harrogate (Mr. Banks), who supported my sentiments. My hon. Friend the Member for Workington referred to the distinct nature of the Lake District. My proposed new clause contains a flexible constitution. As in the Lake District, where the interests of climbers or walkers on land owned by regional water authorities are taken into account, there is provision for such representation on what I still believe are necessary regional advisory committees. Of course, that representation varies from one part of Britain to another, which is one reason why we need separate and specific legislation.

    My hon. Friend the Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett) helpfully put his finger on a matter that I should have emphasised more in my opening remarks. That is that the non-dirty water, clean water consumers—the recreation, navigation and conservation interests—are not an interest as a whole but have inbuilt tensions and competition among them. Only in the form that we advocate can they learn to live together and come to a common approach whereby the total value of water space can be enhanced by the minimum contribution of money. After discussing and learning together they can say to the water authority, "We disagree on this, but in general we have come to these conclusions." That process of constant consultation, backed by the statutory duties of providing recommendations and giving advice, alone will provide the results that the Minister believes that he can obtain from his solution. It cannot be done in his way.

    The Minister said that sections 20 and 22 provide the statutory responsibilities. Of course they do, but how are they to be exercised? That is the fundamental question. The hon. Gentleman referred to his speech of 9 December and to the letter from the chairman of the South-West regional water authority. The letter stated that, at regional level, the Government would expect to include in all regional water authority areas sport and recreation committees appointed by the new authorities. That is fine up to a point, but although the Minister mentioned wider interests in his speech, sport and recreation—important though they are—are only part of the total amenity picture. I hope that the non-statutory committees will go wider than that. If they do not, they cannot comprehend, discuss and agree upon the inevitable conflicts that my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport, North pointed out so eloquently.

    Even if the committees are established on a regional basis, they will be inadequate. The Minister offered some movement in that direction and said that the guidelines, which we have not yet seen, will require such committees. He went on to say in reply to the hon. Member for Reading, North (Mr. Durant) that, in addition to a committee for sport, recreation, amenity and conservation—if it is extended that far—there will be regional consumer groups for other matters. There will be difficulties in that proposal, especially if there are guidelines.

    As the Minister has not gone far enough on this matter of principle, and as I have received so much support from all those bodies, and as the central body is being dissolved—the Minister glossed over the central non-statutory machinery—we must protect the interests of the public, who own the water facilities and who have the right to be consulted about their use. On those grounds, I ask my right hon. and hon. Friends to support new clause 1.

    Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:—

    The House divided: Ayes 218, Noes 277.

    Division No. 41]

    [6.27 pm

    AYES

    Abse, LeoBray, Dr Jeremy
    Adams, AllenBrocklebank-Fowler, C.
    Allaun, FrankBrown, Hugh D. (Provan)
    Alton, DavidBrown, R. C. (N'castle W)
    Anderson, DonaldBrown, Ron (E'burgh, Leith)
    Archer, Rt Hon PeterBuchan, Norman
    Ashley, Rt Hon JackCallaghan, Rt Hon J.
    Ashton, JoeCampbell, Ian
    Atkinson, N. (H'gey,)Campbell-Savours, Dale
    Barnett, Guy (Greenwich)Canavan, Dennis
    Beith, A. J.Cant, R. B.
    Benn, Rt Hon TonyCarter-Jones, Lewis
    Booth, Rt Hon AlbertCartwright, John
    Bottomley, Rt Hon A. (M'b'ro)Clark, Dr David (S Shields)

    Clarke, Thomas(C'b'dge, A'rie)Lambie, David
    Cocks, Rt Hon M. (B'stol S)Lamond, James
    Cohen, StanleyLeadbitter, Ted
    Concannon, Rt Hon J. D.Leighton, Ronald
    Conlan, BernardLewis, Arthur (N'ham NW)
    Cook, Robin F.Lewis, Ron (Carlisle)
    Cowans, HarryLitherland, Robert
    Craigen, J. M. (G'gow, M'hill)Lofthouse, Geoffrey
    Crawshaw, RichardMcCartney, Hugh
    Crowther, StanMcDonald, Dr Oonagh
    Cunliffe, LawrenceMcElhone, Mrs Helen
    Cunningham, G. (Islington S)McKay, Allen (Penistone)
    Cunningham, Dr J. (W'h'n)McKelvey, William
    Davidson, ArthurMacKenzie, Rt Hon Gregor
    Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (L'lli)McMahon, Andrew
    Davis, Clinton (Hackney C)McWilliam, John
    Davis, Terry (B'ham, Stechf'd)Marks, Kenneth
    Deakins, EricMarshall, D (G'gow S'ton)
    Dean, Joseph (Leeds West)Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)
    Dewar, DonaldMartin, M (G'gow S'burn)
    Dixon, DonaldMason, Rt Hon Roy
    Dobson, FrankMaxton, John
    Dormand, JackMaynard, Miss Joan
    Douglas, DickMeacher, Michael
    Dubs, AlfredMikardo, Ian
    Dunnett, JackMillan, Rt Hon Bruce
    Dunwoody, Hon Mrs G.Miller, Dr M. S. (E Kilbride)
    Eastham, KenMitchell, Austin (Grimsby)
    Edwards, R. (W'hampt'n S E)Mitchell, R. C. (Soton Itchen)
    Ellis, R. (NE D'bysh're)Morris, Rt Hon C. (O'shaw)
    Ellis, Tom (Wrexham)Morris, Rt Hon J. (Aberavon)
    English, MichaelMorton, George
    Ennals, Rt Hon DavidMoyle, Rt Hon Roland
    Evans, Ioan (Aberdare)Mulley, Rt Hon Frederick
    Evans, John (Newton)Newens, Stanley
    Ewing, HarryOakes, Rt Hon Gordon
    Faulds, AndrewOgden, Eric
    Field, FrankO'Halloran, Michael
    Fitch, AlanO'Neill, Martin
    Flannery, MartinOrme, Rt Hon Stanley
    Foot, Rt Hon MichaelPalmer, Arthur
    Ford, BenPark, George
    Forrester, JohnParker, John
    Foster, DerekParry, Robert
    Foulkes, GeorgePavitt, Laurie
    Freeson, Rt Hon ReginaldPendry, Tom
    Garrett, John (Norwich S)Penhaligon, David
    Garrett, W. E. (Wallsend)Pitt, William Henry
    Golding, JohnPowell, Raymond (Ogmore)
    Gourlay, HarryPrescott, John
    Graham, TedPrice, C. (Lewisham W)
    Grimond, Rt Hon J.Race, Reg
    Hamilton, James (Bothwell)Radice, Giles
    Hamilton, W. W. (C'tral Fife)Rees, Rt Hon M (Leeds S)
    Harman, Harriet (Peckham)Richardson, Jo
    Harrison, Rt Hon WalterRoberts, Albert (Normanton)
    Haynes, FrankRoberts, Allan (Bootle)
    Heffer, Eric S.Roberts, Ernest (Hackney N)
    Hogg, N. (E Dunb't'nshire)Roberts, Gwilym (Cannock)
    Holland, S. (L'b'th, Vauxh'll)Robertson, George
    Home Robertson, JohnRobinson, G. (Coventry NW)
    Homewood, WilliamRooker, J. W.
    Hooley, FrankRoper, John
    Howell, Rt Hon D.Ross, Ernest (Dundee West)
    Howells, GeraintSandelson, Neville
    Hoyle, DouglasSever, John
    Huckfield, LesSheerman, Barry
    Hughes, Mark (Durham)Sheldon, Rt Hon R.
    Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)Short, Mrs Renée
    Hughes, Roy (Newport)Silkin, Rt Hon J. (Deptford)
    Janner, Hon GrevilleSilverman, Julius
    Jay, Rt Hon DouglasSkinner, Dennis
    John, BrynmorSnape, Peter
    Johnson, James (Hull West)Soley, Clive
    Johnson, Walter (Derby S)Spearing, Nigel
    Johnston, Russell (Inverness)Spriggs, Leslie
    Jones, Rt Hon Alec (Rh'dda)Stallard, A. W.
    Kaufman, Rt Hon GeraldSteel, Rt Hon David
    Kerr, RussellStoddart, David
    Kilroy-Silk, RobertStott, Roger

    Strang, GavinWhite, J. (G'gow Pollok)
    Straw, JackWhitlock, William
    Summerskill, Hon Dr ShirleyWigley, Dafydd
    Taylor, Mrs Ann (Bolton W)Willey, Rt Hon Frederick
    Thomas, Dafydd (Merioneth)Williams, Rt Hon A. (S'sea W)
    Thomas, Dr R (Carmarthen)Williams, Rt Hon Mrs (Crosby)
    Thorne, Stan (Preston South)Wilson, Rt Hon Sir H. (H'ton)
    Tinn, JamesWilson, William (C'try SE)
    Torney, TomWinnick, David
    Varley, Rt Hon Eric G.Woodall, Alec
    Wainwright, E. (Dearne V)Woolmer, Kenneth
    Wainwright, R. (Colne V)Wright, Sheila
    Walker, Rt Hon H. (D'caster)Young, David (Bolton E)
    Wardell, Gareth
    Wellbeloved, JamesTellers for the Ayes:
    Welsh, MichaelMr. Andrew F. Bennett and
    White, Frank R.Mr. Peter Hardy.

    NOES

    Adley, RobertDickens, Geoffrey
    Alexander, RichardDorrell, Stephen
    Alison, Rt Hon MichaelDouglas-Hamilton, Lord J.
    Amery, Rt Hon JulianDunn, Robert (Dartford)
    Ancram, MichaelDurant, Tony
    Arnold, TomDykes, Hugh
    Aspinwall, JackEden, Rt Hon Sir John
    Atkins, Rt Hon H. (S'thorne)Edwards, Rt Hon N. (P'broke)
    Atkins, Robert (Preston N)Eggar, Tim
    Atkinson, David (B'm'th, E)Elliott, Sir William
    Baker, Kenneth (St.M'bone)Emery, Sir Peter
    Baker, Nicholas (N Dorset)Eyre, Reginald
    Banks, RobertFairbairn, Nicholas
    Beaumont-Dark, AnthonyFairgrieve, Sir Russell
    Bendall, VivianFaith, Mrs Sheila
    Bennett, Sir Frederic (T'bay)Farr, John
    Benyon, W. (Buckingham)Fell, Sir Anthony
    Berry, Hon AnthonyFenner, Mrs Peggy
    Best, KeithFinsberg, Geoffrey
    Bevan, David GilroyFisher, Sir Nigel
    Biffen, Rt Hon JohnFletcher, A. (Ed'nb'gh N)
    Biggs-Davison, Sir JohnFookes, Miss Janet
    Blackburn, JohnFowler, Rt Hon Norman
    Blaker, PeterFox, Marcus
    Body, RichardGardiner, George (Reigate)
    Bonsor, Sir NicholasGardner, Sir Edward
    Boscawen, Hon RobertGarel-Jones, Tristan
    Bottomley, Peter (W'wich W)Gilmour, Rt Hon Sir Ian
    Bowden, AndrewGlyn, Dr Alan
    Boyson, Dr RhodesGoodhart, Sir Philip
    Braine, Sir BernardGoodlad, Alastair
    Bright, GrahamGorst, John
    Brinton, TimGow, Ian
    Brittan, Rt. Hon. LeonGrant, Sir Anthony
    Brooke, Hon PeterGray, Rt Hon Hamish
    Brotherton, MichaelGreenway, Harry
    Brown, Michael (Brigg & Sc'n)Grieve, Percy
    Browne, John (Winchester)Griffiths, E. (B'y St. Edm'ds)
    Bryan, Sir PaulGriffiths, Peter (Portsm'th N)
    Buck, AntonyGrist, Ian
    Budgen, NickGummer, John Selwyn
    Bulmer, EsmondHamilton, Hon A.
    Butcher, JohnHamilton, Michael (Salisbury)
    Carlisle, John (Luton West)Hampson, Dr Keith
    Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)Hannam, John
    Carlisle, Rt Hon M. (R'c'n)Haselhurst, Alan
    Chalker, Mrs. LyndaHastings, Stephen
    Channon, Rt. Hon. PaulHavers, Rt Hon Sir Michael
    Chapman, SydneyHawkins, Sir Paul
    Churchill, W. S.Hawksley, Warren
    Clark, Hon A. (Plym'th, S'n)Hayhoe, Barney
    Clark, Sir W. (Croydon S)Heddle, John
    Clarke, Kenneth (Rushcliffe)Henderson, Barry
    Clegg, Sir WalterHeseltine, Rt Hon Michael
    Cockeram, EricHiggins, Rt Hon Terence L.
    Colvin, MichaelHill, James
    Cope, JohnHogg, Hon Douglas (Gr'th'm)
    Corrie, JohnHolland, Philip (Carlton)
    Cranborne, ViscountHooson, Tom
    Critchley, JulianHordern, Peter
    Crouch, DavidHowell, Rt Hon D. (G'ldf'd)

    Howell, Ralph (N Norfolk)Rees, Peter (Dover and Deal)
    Hunt, John (Ravensbourne)Rees-Davies, W. R.
    Hurd, Rt Hon DouglasRenton, Tim
    Irvine, Rt Hon Bryant GodmanRhodes James, Robert
    Irving, Charles (Cheltenham)Rhys Williams, Sir Brandon
    Johnson Smith, Sir GeoffreyRidley, Hon Nicholas
    Jopling, Rt Hon MichaelRoberts, M. (Cardiff NW)
    Joseph, Rt Hon Sir KeithRoberts, Wyn (Conway)
    Kellett-Bowman, Mrs ElaineRossi, Hugh
    Kershaw, Sir AnthonyRost, Peter
    King, Rt Hon TomRoyle, Sir Anthony
    Knight, Mrs JillRumbold, Mrs A. C. R.
    Knox, DavidSainsbury, Hon Timothy
    Lamont, NormanSt. John-Stevas, Rt Hon N.
    Lang, IanShaw, Giles (Pudsey)
    Latham, MichaelShaw, Sir Michael (Scarb')
    Lawrence, IvanShelton, William (Streatham)
    Lawson, Rt Hon NigelShepherd, Colin (Hereford)
    Lee, JohnShepherd, Richard
    Le Marchant, SpencerShersby, Michael
    Lennox-Boyd, Hon MarkSilvester, Fred
    Lester, Jim (Beeston)Sims, Roger
    Lewis, Sir Kenneth (Rutland)Skeet, T. H. H.
    Lloyd, Ian (Havant & W'loo)Smith, Dudley
    Lloyd, Peter (Fareham)Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)
    Loveridge, JohnSpeed, Keith
    Lyell, NicholasSpeller, Tony
    McCrindle, RobertSpence, John
    Macfarlane, NeilSpicer, Jim (West Dorset)
    MacGregor, JohnSpicer, Michael (S Worcs)
    MacKay, John (Argyll)Sproat, Iain
    McNair-Wilson, M. (N'bury)Squire, Robin
    McNair-Wilson, P. (New F'st)Stainton, Keith
    McQuarrie, AlbertStanbrook, Ivor
    Major, JohnStanley, John
    Marland, PaulSteen, Anthony
    Marten, Rt Hon NeilStevens, Martin
    Mates, MichaelStewart, A.(E Renfrewshire)
    Mather, CarolStewart, Ian (Hitchin)
    Maude, Rt Hon Sir AngusStokes, John
    Mawby, RayStradling Thomas, J.
    Mawhinney, Dr BrianTaylor, Teddy (S'end E)
    Mayhew, PatrickTebbit, Rt Hon Norman
    Mellor, DavidTemple-Morris, Peter
    Meyer, Sir AnthonyThomas, Rt Hon Peter
    Miller, Hal (B'grove)Thorne, Neil (Ilford South)
    Mills, Iain (Meriden)Thornton, Malcolm
    Miscampbell, NormanTownend, John (Bridlington)
    Moate, RogerTownsend, Cyril D, (B'heath)
    Monro, Sir HectorTrippier, David
    Montgomery, FergusTrotter, Neville
    Moore, Johnvan Straubenzee, Sir W.
    Morgan, GeraintVaughan, Dr Gerard
    Morrison, Hon P. (Chester)Viggers, Peter
    Murphy, ChristopherWaddington, David
    Myles, DavidWakeham,John
    Neale, GerrardWaldegrave, Hon William
    Nelson, AnthonyWalker, B. (Perth)
    Neubert, MichaelWalker-Smith, Rt Hon Sir D.
    Newton, TonyWaller, Gary
    Nott, Rt Hon Sir JohnWalters, Dennis
    Oppenheim, Rt Hon Mrs S.Ward, John
    Osborn, JohnWarren, Kenneth
    Page, John (Harrow, West)Watson, John
    Page, Richard (SW Herts)Wells, Bowen
    Parkinson, Rt Hon CecilWells, John (Maidstone)
    Parris, MatthewWheeler, John
    Patten, John (Oxford)Whitelaw, Rt Hon William
    Pattie, GeoffreyWhitney, Raymond
    Pawsey, JamesWilkinson, John
    Percival, Sir IanWilliams, D.(Montgomery)
    Peyton, Rt Hon JohnWinterton, Nicholas
    Pink, R. BonnerWolfson, Mark
    Pollock, AlexanderYoung, Sir George (Acton)
    Porter, BarryYounger, Rt Hon George
    Prentice, Rt Hon Reg
    Price, Sir David (Eastleigh)Tellers for the Noes:
    Proctor, K. HarveyMr. Donald Thompson and
    Pym, Rt Hon FrancisMr. David Hunt.
    Rathbone, Tim

    Question accordingly negatived.

    New Clause 3

    Right Of Access By The Media

    'The provisions of the Public Bodies (Admission of Press to Meetings) Bill shall apply to the meetings of the Welsh Water Authority and each regional water authority in England.'— [Mr. Denis Howell.]

    Brought up and read the First time.

    With this we may discuss Government amendment No. 31.

    New clause 3, dealing with the right of access by the press to meetings of the water authorities, is of considerable importance. That right has been historic, traditional and of considerable importance for many years, not just to the press but to the public interest as a whole. The Government propose to remove that right of access not just to meetings, but to papers and the thinking of managerial and scientific advisers in the industry. We are amazed at the breathtaking character of that proposition.

    Most water authorities derive their undertakings from local government. For the past 100 years the press has had access to essential information and to the managerial decisions and policy considerations involved. We must consider whether that traditional access has been of any importance. The only answer is that it has been of overwhelming importance, especially during the nine years since the passing of the Water Act 1973.

    The elimination of the press from water authority meetings should not be considered in isolation from other proposals in the Bill. We must also have regard to the fact that every local authority in the land will have its elected local representatives eliminated from the membership of water authorities. In addition, every regional water authority will no longer be accountable to the ombudsman in his investigation of any abuses that are brought to his attention by customers or local citizens. Indeed, because the Government propose to eliminate local councillors and access to the ombudsman, the press will be the only effective presence available at water authority meetings. That makes media access even more important and vital than has previously been the case.

    As a substitute to this great democratic safeguard that we have always enjoyed, the Government propose a cosy round-up of information to be provided by the water authority chairmen at the conclusion of each principal meeting. Of course, the press and, therefore, the public, will be told only of issues and matters that the chairmen and authority members bring to their attention. What a ludicrous proposition.

    The essence of our democratic system is that the weight of public pressure can make itself felt. Such public campaigns and pressure can be educated, informed and effective as a result of the information available before the meetings take place. Most of us would agree that the greatest weakness of all in the nationalised industries—this applies to gas, electricity and the Post Office as well as to water—is that the consumer council system, on which the Government are now choosing to rely, has in practice proved totally inadequate in generating public interest and creating legitimate public pressure. That is something about which we must be concerned.

    6.45 pm

    Let me name a few of the issues about which the public should be informed so that there can be proper debate and so that sensible pressures can be brought to bear on water authority members. These are issues in respect of which total access to information by the press is of considerable importance. There is the strategic planning of our water resources. Any hon. Member who has been a Minister in the Department of the Environment knows perfectly well that there are now various means by which additional water supplies can be made available for the benefit of consumers. It should be remembered that when we talk about the water cycle—the provision of water, its use, its clean-up and its return to the system—we are talking about a time scale of not less than 20 years.

    Once an alternative Government are in office and are pursuing policies to get the economy moving again, we shall need more water to sustain industrial recovery. Water authorities such as Severn-Trent will then have to decide whether to build additional reservoirs or whether to transfer water by the river basin system from areas of plenty to areas of scarcity. That very problem confronted me at the time of the great drought, but it is now relevant to hon. Members who represent Wales and who are concerned about the pricing policy of the water authorities. A third option, which a Select Committee in another place reported on last week and seems to favour, is the provision of additional water using the bore-hole system.

    Such matters are of importance to water authorities, be they in Wales or the English regions. Many people have differing views about such matters. For example, every time it is proposed to build a new reservoir in the middle of Dartmoor, concern is expressed by amenity groups, conservationists and others. That is the first of the great issues that should be argued publicly from day one. The moment an engineer proposes to build a reservoir, extract water from a river system or obtain water by boring, the public are entitled to a say. They have legitimate opinions to express not only on the practicality and cost of such proposals but on the amenity considerations. Strategic planning is, therefore, of cardinal importance.

    Nowhere in the Bill are we told who is to be responsible nationally for strategic planning. We are abolishing the National Water Council but nothing has yet been put in its place. One can only assume that either it is to be left to the Thames water authority separately to make what it can of national strategic planning needs or it will all be done in Whitehall by the Ministry, which thinks it knows better than anyone else. The Minister should tell us what he proposes or else the press will be left to ferret around, as they certainly will, members and employees of regional water undertakings. It is much better to be open with them, give them all the information, and let them have access rather than have them ferreting round because from my experience the results of that are likely to be more embarrassing to Ministers.

    The second point to which I draw attention is the importance of pricing policies. The average water bill for each household is about £65. We hear a lot of argument about it but when we think about not having clean water and adequate sewerage arrangements available, which might be the case next week, we realise what good value for money the £65 per annum is. There are very few issues that have been more emotive in recent years than the increasing price of water. We know many of the reasons. Often people equate the cost of the supply of water, sewerage and drainage services with what was previously a bill for only one of those processes, the supply of water. Whatever view one takes about the cost of water it is of considerable public interest and there should be full access to information and to the discussions within water authorities.

    Under the same heading of pricing policies, the relationship between the capitalisation of the undertaking and the revenue implications of those capital undertakings which affect pricing is also of great importance.

    I turn to the abuse of power. No one can deny that during the nine years of the existence of the Water Act there have been occasions when the press have thought it right to report what they believed to be abuses by bureaucracy concerning the water industry. Many illustrations immediately come to mind. I do not think it will be challenged that abuses have existed and have been brought to our attention by the press, which does a great public service, enabling Members of Parliament to table questions. We would not have known about many of these matters had it not been for the vigilance of the press, particularly the local press, in reporting them. Those of us who have been on the receiving end of press comments which we did not like often had cause to smart. In our more sober and rational moments we appreciate that it is vital in a democratic system that the press should have access to meetings.

    I was astonished that one of the reasons given by the Government for terminating the right of access by the press should have been that advantage had not always been taken of the right and that the press had not turned up at every meeting. We must be honest and admit that that is true. The press does not turn up at every meeting of Committees of the House. Although we are safeguarding its interests, it is not particularly plentiful in its presence now. That is not the issue. The point is that it knows in advance what a committee will be discussing and it has the right to attend if it wishes. It must make a judgment. We cannot expect newspapers to send reporters to every meeting of every public authority to which they have the right of access. It would be economically impossible. To suggest that we eliminate the right because it is not exercised at every sub-committee meeting in the land is such a nonsensical proposition that I am amazed it was ever put forward.

    Health standards are of vital importance. There is also the question of wage negotiation and industrial relations about which I will say nothing because that will be the subject of the next batch of amendments. When a water authority takes up an attitude on wages and industrial relations, the press should have the right to be there to present the information to the public. Another important matter to be dealt with by water authorities, is sport and recreation policy. Again, I will not elaborate on that because we have just had a debate about it.

    Originally these matters were brought to our attention by the Guild of British Newspapers Editors. Most of us are indebted to it for this example of its vigilance in examining Government proposals. In the press release issued on 11 January, the guild says that having looked at what the Government said in Committee it has no reason to change its fundamental objection to the proposals. The guild draws attention to what the Prime Minister said in her maiden speech in 1960 when she introduced the Public Bodies (Admission to Meetings) Bill. We would like to reinstitute those provisions in relation to water authorities; although Mr. Speaker, in his wisdom, has not selected that amendment I think I may refer to it. The Prime Minister quoted the following words:
    "Publicity is the greatest and most effective check against any arbitrary action."—[Official Report, 5 February, 1960; Vol 616, c. 1351.]
    All that any one can say to that is amen.

    At Question Time today, the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) asked the Prime Minister why, when she had introduced that Bill which she wished to apply to everybody, she was now against the principle in respect of water authorities. The Prime Minister said it was because water authorities would be different under this Bill. If I took down correctly what she said, she said that they will now be executive bodies. Of course, that is our great objection to the whole of the Bill. It seeks to remove the water industry from the democratic process and to turn water authorities into executive bodies. I can only say in response to the Prime Minister's reply, "game, set and match." The Prime Minister conceded the whole of our case against the principle of the Bill. Local authority is being butchered. The Prime Minister did not put it in that way but that is what she meant. Local democracy is being butchered and executive control is being substituted for it.

    The Guild of British Newspapers Editors also tells us that the size of the authority ought to have nothing to do with the principle of admission and points out that regional health authorities are no bigger or no smaller but roughly the same size as the proposed water authorities. It regards the voluntary code of practice as
    "a shabby substitute for a legally established right of access".
    That is something with which all hon. Members must agree.

    Labour Members have not tabled new clause 3 for purely political advantage, although I hope that there will be some political advantage in seeking to secure the democratic rights of the British people and the traditional rights of access for the press. We are interested in the essential question how we should govern the affairs of national industries—particularly in one where it is proposed that 10 boards will operate where previously there was only one authority—with regard to access information for the press and the need, indeed, the duty, to stimulate the right sort of public discussion arising out of such information being readily and freely available to the media. That right, which has existed since the beginning of the water industry 100 years ago, should be maintained. It is a disgrace that the Government are proposing to eliminate it and we shall most certainly be pressing new clause 3 to a Division this evening.

    7 pm

    I shall not delay the House for more than a minute or two in speaking on new clause 3, which I support. The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Howell) will remember that, during proceedings on the Water Bill in 1973, which was piloted through the House by Sir Graham Page—when I did a small bag-carrying job for him—we had considerable difficulty in getting the House to accept the admission of the press to water authorities' meetings. It was achieved only by the great efforts of Sir Graham Page. That was a battle which Conservative Members fought to win.

    I am disappointed that the Minister—who is not only a Minister but a friend—should see fit not to accept the remonstrations that have been made both in Committee and elsewhere to include the right of the press to attend water authorities' meetings. It is no answer to the points made to refer to such bodies as the Central Electricity Generating Board or the National Coal Board or such area institutions. Those bodies were established a long time ago and certain aspects of their activities would be subject to the surveillance of the press if we were creating such bodies now. Nor do I regard with favour the exclusion of the press when the activities of the new water authorities are described as being executive and are not subject to the ombudsman's jurisdiction. That is a step backwards, not forwards. The water authorities are rate-levying bodies and people have the right to be represented.

    I ask the Minister to consider carefully what he is doing and not to be subverted on the way but to stand up and fight for the right of the press to attend the meetings of bodies which are charging people rates. He will know from his constituency postbag that such matters are the subject of considerable correspondence and dissatisfaction. I see nothing in the Bill which will remove that.

    I welcome, as I am sure all hon. Members will, the forthright and succinct speech of the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Spence). No doubt he shares a water authority with the Minister. They both represent constituencies in Yorkshire. The Minister should listen to the sound common sense of a fellow Yorkshireman on this occasion.

    The advice of the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton is firmly planted in the traditions set by the Prime Minister in 1960 when she moved her private Member's Bill—the Public Bodies (Admission to Meetings) Bill. In her maiden speech she dispensed with all the customary formalities about the beauties of Finchley and got straight down to business, moving the Second Reading of her Bill. In doing so the right hon. Lady was forthright and clear. In addition to what was quoted earlier by the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Howell), she said:
    "I do not know whether hon. Members generally appreciate the total amount of money spent by local authorities."
    She then went on to give the figure of £1,400 million a year for England and Wales. How times have changed. The Prime Minister went on to say:
    "Those sums are not insignificant, even in terms of national budgets. Less than half is raised by ratepayers' money and the rest by taxpayers' money, and the first purpose in admitting the Press is that we may know how those moneys are being spent."
    That is surely right. To remove that from an industry that is spending large sums of money that are raised by direct levy, by direct precept upon the British ratepayers, is indefensible.

    The Prime Minister went on to use the words that have already been quoted. In doing so, she was quoting, topically enough, from the Franks report, although on a different subject from the current one. It was:
    "Publicity is the greatest and most effective check against any arbitrary action."
    She went on to say:
    "That is one of the fundamental rights of the subject"— [Official Report, 5 February 1960; Vol. 616, c. 1350ߝ1].
    Yet here we have one of her Ministers coming before the House asking hon. Members to remove the effect of her legislation from this important area of activity. It is impossible to find any justification for that.

    The first people to notice the damage that would be done were not only the newspaper editors but the local authorities. I have had correspondence from local authorities in my constituency, not of any particular party political persuasion but a mixture of independent and party political councillors, expressing their strong objection to the removal of the press from meetings of a body which will be able to levy rates through the rates machinery on their ratepayers. They have become accustomed to the fact that they must be subject to the scrutiny of the press at all their meetings. It sometimes irks them when they are criticised but they accept it as part of the democratic process. They do not see why a body with the powers and financial resources of the water authority should be free from such public scrutiny.

    I cannot understand why the Government should want to exclude the press. Can it be that the embarrassment that was caused when some local authority decisions were shown by the press to be ludicrous and extravagant has built up in the Department of the Environment a feeling that we should protect water authorities from such criticism and scrutiny in the future? The uncovering by the press of abuses and waste in the water authorities was a major and necessary public service.

    Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the answer might simply be that it is for the same reason that the board of ICI or Courtaulds would not allow representatives of the press access to their meetings?

    They have similar misgivings and reservations, but the boards of ICI and Courtaulds are not spending the money that the ordinary British ratepayer has to pay in water rates. That is levied upon them and is not the same as the choice to buy a company's products or shares. A body that can levy rates upon the British people, that is not elected by them and to which the press has no access, is in an indefensibly protected position. Therefore, it will be likely to behave badly. If such protection is built up around a public body, some of the most important safeguards against unwise, extravagant and careless action are removed.

    In answering my question this afternoon the Prime Minister's reason for excluding the new water authorities from the purview of her legislation was that these are to be executive bodies. That is a bogus argument. Hon. Members and the British people, both in local authorities are elsewhere, are concerned about the authorities precisely because of the executive power that they will be able to exercise. They are not merely executive bodies, but policy-making bodies. They will make policies over whole areas of activity and decide how to spend large sums of money. It is the same sort of responsibility as local authorities exercise, and it should be subject to public scrutiny and accountability. The members should be elected and not appointed by the Minister. At the very least, there should be proper public scrutiny of such power. To say that we are talking about executive bodies is to dismiss the range of their responsibilities or to imply that, due to the nature of their power, they are somehow entitled to be protected from press scrutiny.

    Underlying the Bill is the Minister's philosophy about the new shape of the water industry. It appears that both he and the Prime Minister mean that under the new system the members of water authorities will not have any powers but will do as the Minister says. They are appointed by the Minister, so they will go away and do exactly what they are told. They will make no decisions of any consequence, so there is no point in sending a lot of journalists along to report an authority's meeting, when the only subject of debate will be what the Minister has told it to do and how the members should set about doing it.

    If that is the Minister's view of the water industry he should come clean and tell us so. He should make it clear that hon. Members will be able to ask questions about every activity of every regional water authority. The Minister will be making the policy decisions and the authority members will be his executive servants, like civil servants who work behind the counter in local DHSS offices. Let us get the picture clear and understand the type of parliamentary accountability that is implied.

    However, if the bodies are to enjoy—as the Act implies—considerable autonomy and freedom to plan expenditure and to make policy decisions, they will then behave like any local authority, with money raised in the same way. Therefore, they should be subject to the same scrutiny as local authorities. If they are not, the worst abuses will follow. I cannot see how the Government can possibly defend their stance tonight by seeking to exclude such bodies from proper press scrutiny.

    The fiction is that, after the Bill's passage, water authorities will be purely executive businesses, and will not need press surveillance. However, that is entire fiction.

    Let us consider some of the policy-making functions—as opposed to the pure business functions—to be carried out by water authorities. We must ask ourselves whether the press should monitor the arguments and discussions that eventually result in policy decisions. Unless the press monitor them, the public will be inadequately informed about them and unable to bring pressure to bear to influence them. The provision of recreational facilities involves the admission of the public to or exclusion of the public from, reservoirs and their surrounding land. It also involves expenditure, and a decision about how much should be spent. Those are not business or executive matters, but policy issues. They are political issues, with a small "p".

    The folly of direct billing has resulted in an increase in total costs to the consumer and in a significant increase in the office space demanded by water authorities. That space is paid for not only by consumers, but by those who are connected neither to the water mains nor to the sewers. They are paid for through a tax imposed by the water authority. Environmental service charges are nothing more or less than a tax, and I do not agree with the principle of an entirely nominated body imposing taxation. The Minister's argument is that it represents only a small proportion of the total cost. We have heard that argument before. It is said that it is only a small baby, as if the principle is any different. Of course the principle is in no way different.

    7.15 pm

    We should have gone in the other direction and set up directly elected water authorities. The system of indirect nomination by local authorities has been a failure, because their members have not considered themselves accountable to the local authorities that appointed them. However, the Bill calls for more, not less, press monitoring. We should be clear about that. In theory, local authority nominees used to have a majority on the board, even if they never really chose to exercise their power, and like others who do not choose to exercise their power, in the fullness of time lost it, and bewailed its loss too late.

    Our only recourse will be, as Members of Parliament, to ask the Minister to dismiss the chairman and members of the board. The Minister has made a rod for his own back. In future, he will be very busy. As the only source of remedy, he will rightly be at the receiving end of all the criticism. After all, he has written into the Bill that the powers will fall on his shoulders through elected Members of Parliament. There is no other avenue of redress, so the Minister and his successors will have a busy time.

    The clause is essential because of the political—with a small "p"—decisions that the body will take. For example, how much will be spent on new and lavish headquarters and on staff perks, such as new motor cars, paid for by the consumer, who has no redress? Will that be concealed from the public who pay for it? Alternatively, will the arguments take place in the presence of the press and the media? They must do so.

    My hon. Friend the Minister and his colleagues are fond of saying that there is a parallel with the gas industry. However, someone who is not connected to the gas supply does not pay any gas bills. Therefore, there is no analogy, and my hon. Friend should be well aware of that. Similarly, the extent of flood prevention work is a political decision. The Minister may say that such subjects are for the decision of land drainage committees. That may be so, but the resources at the disposal of the land drainage committees will be provided by a body whose members are not appointed by elected bodies.

    Once again, everyone will have to look to the Minister for redress. I foresee an even busier future for him in my crystal ball. What arguments could be advanced against a press presence? We know the type of argument that will be advanced. It will be said that a merely executive business is involved. However, that argument is not tenable, because it does not accord with the facts. That is why I shall vote for the new clause, which is not only excellent, but vital in the public interest.

    I congratulate the hon. Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) on his succinct argument, and on clarifying the matter for all of us. I also congratulate him and his hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Spence) on having the courage to say that they disagree with the proposals in the Bill and intend to vote accordingly. This is one matter that is more important than the views of the Government Whips' Office, and the issue on which the House, above all, should be prepared to stand up and say that it believes in the principle of democracy and accountability. Part of that principle is open access to the meetings of public bodies such as the one that we are discussing in this amendment.

    Just over a decade ago those of us who served on the late lamented local authorities campaigned in various ways against the 1972 Local Government Act. On my local authority there was general unity among the three political parties. We all felt that the Act would not help local democracy, and that the creation of the new and bigger authorities would make local democracy a thing of the past and create bureaucratic and remote bodies. Regardless of our party allegiances, we should all now be inclined to say that that is what happened.

    Immediately after the 1972 Act was put on the statute book, the previous Conservative Government embarked on the wild gamble of amalgamations, changes and new bodies. One of the gambles was the creation of the regional water authorities. My right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Howell), who knows more about these matters than I do, said earlier that the price of water is about £65 per household, which he said could be regarded as a bargain. Water is, after all, an essential part of life and if that is a reasonable and legitimate price, we all accept that that is the price that it is necessary to pay. However, I know that that price is considerably in excess of the price of water at the time that the regional water authorities were formed. I would hazard a guess that, compared to the rise in the rate of inflation since the mid-1970s, the price of water has increased fairly dramatically.

    As the hon. Member for Tiverton said, part of the aftermath of the creation of water authorities was separate billing. I agree with him that no one will ever convince me that the adoption of such a procedure did not lead to an increase in administrative staff. As the hon. Member also pointed out, it led to an increase in the somewhat palatial headquarters of the water authorities, not the least the Severn-Trent water authority, which more or less covers my constituency.

    Many of the excesses of the Severn-Trent authority became public knowledge through the activities of local and evening newspapers covering the area. It seems to me that the new bodies will be concerned to exclude newspapers so that embarrassing news can be covered up. However, without the activities of the newspapers in my constituency and in the Severn-Trent water authority area, many of the things that have come to light would not have done so.

    Reference has already been made to the fact that the present water authorities will be replaced by these executive bodies. I do not approve of executive bodies, and that is not because nobody has ever asked me to serve on one. However, they are noticeable for their belief that they know what is good for the rest of us.

    When the present Government decide to set up an executive body, alarm bells ring. I look round my region, which I share with my right hon. Friend the Member for Small Heath, and I notice that where the present Government have responsibility for the reappointment of members of executive bodies, they follow party political interests. I was going to say that anyone who shows sympathy with the Labour party is replaced, but I should say that anyone who is not an apparently devoted member of the Conservative party is removed and replaced by someone who is regarded as politically more sound.

    If the present Government are to appoint these bodies, they will not depart from their practice since the 1979 election. We shall have an executive body packed with Conservatives with free time on their hands, one-time whiz-kids who, thanks to the bankruptcies in their companies due to the policies of the Government that they appear to support, have enough time on their hands to do the paid bidding of the Government of the day.

    My hon. Friends, and many Conservative Members who have spoken, regard the presence of newspaper reporters at meetings of such bodies as essential. The borough of Sandwell has had four members of the Labour party serving on it since its creation. The borough is also well served by having two evening newspapers. If the executive body to which we are referring was meeting exclusively in London and met on Saturday, the Minister could argue that it would not be necessary to admit the press because London does not have a Saturday evening paper. However, my area has two evening newspapers, and two on Saturday as well, with two sports editions to follow.

    The exclusion of representatives of the Sandwell edition of the Express and Star and the Sandwell Evening Mail would not only be resented by the editors of the newspapers—and is, as I shall show—but would be a great disservice to the people of the borough. The people of the borough will be responsible through their rates, levied by the executive body, which the Minister will doubtless blithely describe, without any democratic say or any knowledge of what has taken place at meetings of the new authority, unless they bothered to turn up to the press conference. There they will be given glossy handouts, a cup of coffee and be sent on their way.

    The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) is correct.

    Tonight, in the Sandwell Evening Mail, there is an interesting editorial. The editor, Mr. John Bradbury, has given me permission to quote from it. Unfortunately, he had to read it over the telephone, as a copy of the paper has not arrived within the precincts of the House. It says:
    "If the Government has its way the water workers will be employed by immensely powerful new authorities completely unaccountable to the public. The Bill … means that meetings will not be open to the press. The press is the representative of the public. Its presence ensures that there is some check on the activities of such bodies.
    In the face of protests the Government has come up with a sham form of press representation. Press conferences after meetings. These will merely report what decisions have been taken and publicity will not influence those decisions."
    The editorial goes on:
    "It is ironic"—
    that is not a word I would use personally but I must quote my evening newspaper accurately—
    "that this shabby substitute is put forward by an administration supposedly devoted to the principle of open government."
    7.30 pm

    It goes on to repeat the speech made by the right hon. Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) back in 1960 to which the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed has referred. I suppose one could argue that there is good reason for her change of heart. At that time, she was not Prime Minister. Now that she is, she knows what is good for us. However, she does not evidently know what is good for the editor of one of my local evening newspapers. The editorial goes on:
    "Yet her Government propose to put no such check"—
    that is the check of democracy and accountability—
    "on water authorities. They will be able to levy rates and yet be unaccountable to ratepayers. There is still time for second thoughts."
    I would have thought the prospects of a change of mind by the Minister were fairly minimal. I would have thought the prospect of the hon. Gentleman accepting this Sensible new clause was fairly slim. I know him moderately well and recognise that he thinks for himself. I hope that he will not merely read a brief containing all the excuses beloved of civil servants to show why the light of press accountability should not shine on this executive body. Before making such a speech, if he intends to do so, the hon. Gentleman should know that he has not so far found any friends in the House. I do not believe that the House of Commons, with its belief in democracy, accountability and the right of the press to report meetings of public bodies, will accept the clause as it stands but will demand that the new clause should be passed.

    I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) but the Minister will find that he has a friend on the Conservative Back Benches who wishes to support the decision taken by the Government. I have been a journalist. I have attended and reported council meetings. I am aware that there are occasions during council meetings when the press are asked to leave and dutifully troop out, returning when the council decides the moment when they can be allowed back. One can overstate the effectiveness of the press sitting in on meetings.

    I have referred to council meetings. If the water authorities are to be accepted as excutive bodies, our thinking has to change accordingly. If they are executive bodies spending public money, so are nationalised industries. When they charge for water on a meter, are they levying a rate or simply charging for water? In the same way, nationalised industries charge for their services. The analogy can be drawn to the extent that water authorities came within the purview of the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries of which I was a member. It seems to me to follow that we cannot accept a certain amount of press intervention for one executive body without applying the same condition for other publicly owned executive bodies. By the same token, if the water companies are not required to have the press at their board meetings, why should the water authorities, if they are executive bodies?

    A further argument has to be advanced. Will an executive be able to do its job better, more frankly and more effectively and will it be able to discuss in greater detail and in total honesty all that needs to be discussed if it knows that the press is sitting at its elbow taking everything down? The water authorities will be much smaller. Their executive boards can be likened to a board of directors. The decisions of such a group of people will be more properly reached if they are fully discussed and put together rationally without the press actually being present at the discussion.

    By offering the voluntary code of practice and by insisting upon press conferences at the end of board meetings and other meetings, we are enabling the presss to find out from those who run the authority the reasons for the decisions that they have reached. To hear Opposition Members, one would think that the press lacked the ability to discover what goes on behind the closed doors of all authorities. Yet, every day of the week, we can read about what happens in the Cabinet, in Government Departments, in the Labour party's private sanctums and in the alliance, among the friends of the alliance and the alliance itself. All that information is made available to us every day of the week. However, the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Howell) in particular tries to argue that if the press is not allowed to sit with the executive around the table it will not be able to inform the public about what the water authority is or is not doing, how it reached a decision and the basis for that decision. I do not believe that the right hon. Gentleman is so naive. He is putting forward special pleading because he believes that through clause 3 he can embarrass the Government.

    As the Prime Minister herself has demonstrated at the Dispatch Box today, it will be easier for the press to know what has gone on in Cabinet and secret Select Committees than it will for the press to know what is happening in water authorities. The reason is simple. Everyone knows what is on the agenda of the Cabinet. Unless the chairman of a water authority is prepared to tell us, no one will know what is on the agenda of a water authority.

    I am not sure that I follow the logic of the right hon. Gentleman's comments. I cannot see how the press conference, which is part and parcel of the voluntary code, could take place without the press being aware of what has been discussed at the board meeting. In those terms alone, the press would have an agenda. No self-respecting journalist aware of a local problem will allow those who speak at a press conference to get away with it. I hope that the chairman and chief executive of the authority will be required to be present at such press conferences. I see those conferences as vital in achieving accountability, which I agree should be available to the press in relation to decisions.

    When the proposals in the Bill were first announced to the House the statement was made by the present Secretary of State for the Environment. I asked if his statement meant that in the future water authorities would be accountable to this House on the Floor of the House, meaning that the Secretary of State would answer for them. My right hon. Friend replied that it did. That is accountability that did not exist before. The accountability that allows every hon. Member to question the Secretary of State together with the fact that the press will be able to take part in press conferences, where those making the decisions can be questioned, gives a new measure of accountability. It is sufficient accountability to make any ratepayer believe that he will be as well, if not better, informed than in the past.

    I trust that my hon. Friend has passed on that valuable information to the Table Office so that it will accept questions which until now it has been unable to accept.

    I am sure that my hon. Friend knows that until the Bill becomes an Act of Parliament, the Table Office does not need to take new instructions from anyone.

    I read the Guild of British Newspaper Editors document with interest and some sympathy, and although my local editor has asked me to persuade the Government to think again about allowing the press into all the meetings of the water authorities, I cannot convince myself that that will make for a more accountable water industry than we have had in the past, nor that it will not create an inequality between those executive bodies running our water industry and the executive bodies that run other state-owned industries.

    We have heard a fascinating speech—the only speech supporting the Government, as I am sure the Minister will have noted. The speech was about the important presupposition that henceforward we shall be able to table any and every parliamentary question that we want and get answers. We shall not be blocked at the Table Office. We shall not be blocked by Ministers saying that it is not their responsibility. We shall be able to ask these questions and get full and meaningful answers. That was the presupposition of the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson). I see the Minister nodding. Now he shakes his head. Now he has a look of uncertainty, even horror. I hope that that horror and uncertainty will find their way to the Back Benches, and that the hon. Member for Newbury will understand that his assumption is not shared by his Front Bench. We are not quite so certain whether we can ask all these questions and get the answers. In other words, the activities of water authorities will be kept from the public, and we shall continue to be unable to ask the questions in this place that we should be able to ask.

    My constituents come to my surgeries week after week with problems about their water supply. They have a leak, or there is a problem with the water supply, sewerage, or something else. They tell me that they have been to the district councillor, who says that he cannot do anything about it. They have been to their county councillor, who tells them that the Gwynedd county council can do nothing. They tell me that they have tried to get at the water authority, but they cannot find the office. So they ask me to raise the matter in Parliament. We know the answer to that. We cannot raise the matter in Parliament. We are told that it is not a ministerial responsibility, that it is a matter for the nationalised industry, the board. We are told that these important matters, which are brought up in my surgeries week after week, will be discussed by the board behind closed doors, where no one can scrutinise what goes on. It is no wonder that there is frustration in Wales, and no doubt elsewhere, at the way in which the water industry has developed in recent years.

    I would say to the hon. Member for Newbury that there is a massive difference between a press statement at the end of a meeting and someone sitting listening to the meeting. If the press statement is comprehensive and balanced, at the very best it reflects only what happened at the meeting. In all probability it will be less than that and will involve a weighting or trimming or will have a presentational aspect. So what comes out is not quite the same as what went on at the meeting.

    Our friends in the press are left with only one option, and that is to nose around among members of the authority, employees, waste paper baskets, or whatever is available, to get a story. No doubt the story that goes out is unbalanced, not because of any fault on the part of the press but because they are not allowed access to the fundamental information.

    Like the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape), I was a member of a local authority before coming to this place. That was before reorganisation. I know that from time to time sensitive decisions are taken in local authorities, and that when that happens the press are asked either to go out or not to report what they hear for five minutes, or perhaps half an hour. Invariably, the press cooperate, and there is no doubt that the press would cooperate in the same way when sensitive decisions are taken in the water industry.

    As in local government, discussions in the water industry will take place outside formal meetings. There will be discussions of technical matters at managerial level, where the press are not involved. So some of the more sensitive matters are decided some time before the final decisions are taken. That does not stop discussion. It does not paralyse the water industry to think about the important issues that face it. Those issues are important and are becoming increasingly important. For example, the escalating costs of replacing sewers will involve community after community in the coming months and years, and there will be massive decisions of priority in public expenditure. Decisions will have to be made to carry out one project and reject another, and those decisions will affect the communities involved, where every house will be affected by those decisions. So the communities should know what is going on in their name.

    7.45 pm

    I believe that the authorities should be directly elected. I was interested to hear what the hon. Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) said, although I do not remember getting his support when the Wales Bill and the Scotland Bill went through Parliament. However, we regarded that as a method of getting democratic control of the water authorities and others.

    The water authority, in particular, needs democratic control and scrutiny because, as has been said, it has a tax-raising power. That is the difference between this industry and other nationalised industries. Other nationalised industries charge a price in relation to the commodity they sell and the volume of the commodity they sell. In this case, a rate is charged. Industrial and commercial consumers may have a metered consumption, but, for the vast majority of citizens in each water authority it is a rate, and that rate is not related to the use of the commodity, but to the rateable value of the property in which they live.

    There is a small shop in my constituency, which I have mentioned before. It has a wash basin and a toilet, and it was paying £800 a year in water rates. It was a scandal. That shop has a direct interest in the decisions that are taken, and it should know what is going on within the walls of the water authorities.

    There are arguments between water authorities. There was the recent one between the Welsh water authority and the Severn-Trent water authority. The position is unsatisfactory for Wales, because our rate in the pound is twice that in the Severn-Trent area. The final decision was taken at ministerial level, and we had to wait 15 months for it. If the water authority were more open, I am sure that there would have been greater pressure to ensure an earlier and a better decision.

    There have been examples in Wales where the press has done good service for the water industry. The press found that the Severn-Trent water authority was using massive assets in Wales and paying virtually no rent at all. The press reported that, and the issue came under public scrutiny. Whatever the merits of the issue, it was the press who projected it in such a way that people in local government and in Parliament could pursue the matter.

    In my view, there is an overwhelming case for the press to be allowed in to report the activities of the water authorities. There is a danger of manipulation of the press. I have a nasty suspicion that what we heard earlier today in the statement on the Falklands was a form of manipulation of the press, making sure that the story put forward was the one that was wanted by the Executive. I have a feeling that, in the case of the tragic shootings that we heard about in Kensington earlier this week, there was an attempt to manipulate the press to make sure that the story was projected in the way that the authorities wanted. Equally, I suspect that shutting the press out of water authority meetings is another attempt to ensure that what is projected is what is wanted by the establishment, and not necessarily what is in the interests of the people they serve.

    I beg the Government to look again at the matter. If we in this Chamber cannot get the change that is needed by means of this new clause, I hope that the other place will achieve what we cannot do and ensure that there is a safeguard for the people.

    I think that since 1973, when the water boards were set up, Members of Parliament on both sides of the House have received more complaints about the cost of water. There are possibly two reasons for this. First, water is now charged separately and is no longer a part of the rates. Secondly, the cost of water has increased and there is no scope for metering. The charge is related entirely to rateable value.

    I can see no reason why there should not be scrutiny of what is spent. It is clear that there is public anxiety. It is no good comparing the water industry with the gas industry. One does not have to have gas but it is necessary to have water. Those who do not have main drainage are always involved in the argument about sewerage connection. We know that there is much dissatisfaction on that score.

    What control have ratepayers over the scale of the charge which is levied? The answer is "None". We are faced with a clear problem because the water authorities are not accountable to ratepayers. However, I believe that they must be accountable to Parliament. When the Post Office was accountable to Parliament, there were so many small issues brought before it that in the end parliamentary control was removed for various reasons. We are dealing now with another nominated body which is levying tax. Surely the old maxim "No taxation without representation" is as applicable to water as to anything else. If the water industry is compared with other nationalised industries, I say that the other industries should be subject to more scrutiny than they are at present.

    There is a strange inconsistency in the Government's position which is being revealed as the debate progresses. It should be remembered that the Prime Minister promised during the 1979 general election that there would be more open government. We are not getting that open government. In the clause which deals with access by the press to meetings of water authorities, we are being given closed government.

    This is a contentious issue which we debated at great length in Committee. Following the Minister's comments, some of us were led to believe that the Government might be more forthcoming than they have been. There were representatives of the media who for 10 days or two weeks felt that the Government, because of what they had heard within their profession, were possibly going to give way. However, there has been no flexibility apart from the introduction of a code of practice, which has been described by the Guild of British Newspaper Editors as
    "a shabby substitute for a legally established right."
    I believe that the House will be grateful to Conservative Members who have expressed dissent from the Government's decision. I am glad to note that they will be joining the Opposition in voting against the Government. There must be many of their hon. Friends who think in a similar way. If there were to be a real and objective debate on this issue, I am convinced that there would be a majority against the Government. There will be Conservative Members supporting the Government tonight who have not fully considered the issue and who have ignored the representations made to them, which have also been made to the Minister. In his short intervention the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Spence) said that the Minister had a mailbag from the media within his constituency and from other constituencies in which the strongest representations are made against the Government's position.

    I shall refer to correspondence that I have received since the debates that took place in Committee from representatives of the media. I shall draw on a letter that was written by the North-Western Evening Mail, which serves a part of my county of Cumbria. The editor, Mr. Tom Welsh, states:
    "Can I mention again the argument that the press has made little use of its right of access to water authorities in the past? Whether this is true of the county as a whole I do not know but it is certainly untrue in the case of the Evening Mail. The North West water authority's meetings at Warrington discussed many important issues affecting my readers. These include the ever increasing cost to consumers, the region's chronic crisis over supply, the construction of the new pipeline from Hawes water, the deterioration of the Victorian sewerage system and the serious pollution around our coast"—
    that is the coast of Cumbria. He continues:
    "Under the 1960s Public Bodies (Admission to Meetings) Act the press has the right to receive committee documents relating to those meetings to which we have access and guidance from the Ministry of the Environment, and under the administrations of both political hues it has been agreed that this material should reach the press in adequate time to publish it, so that members of the public affected by decisions of the various authorities have the chance to make their views felt. In many cases our articles have been based on such documents rather than attendance at the meetings. In future we shall not receive those documents and therefore shall be unable to warn our readers about matters which may have the greatest significance for them."
    That is a denial and betrayal of democratic principles and the Minister and his friends should feel ashamed of themselves for bringing such a proposition before the House.

    In a letter to a number of hon. Members dated 11 January, the Guild of British Newspaper Editors replied to a point made by the Minister in Committee and stated:
    "Water authorities, unlike the Gas and Electricity Boards, are rate levying bodies. We believe that they should therefore be directly accountable to the public whose money they are spending."
    Again, the Minister rejects that argument. In doing so he betrays democracy on an essential principle. I shall omit the references that the guild makes to the Prime Minister's statements in the early 1960s. They have been well rehearsed this evening and it is for the right hon. Lady to defend the clear inconsistency in her position. However, it continues:
    "We are not impressed by the argument that the press should not attend because the new Water Authorities will be smaller than at present."
    What a spurious argument. The guild adds:
    "The Regional and District Health Authorities are of the same size and the press are admitted to their meetings. In any event the number of people seated round a table cannot seriously be thought to be so crucial that a long-established legal right should be removed at a stroke."
    How right it is in making that statement. What does it matter how large the body is? What matters is how important the decisions are that are being taken and to what extent they effect the constituents of all hon. Members. The guild argues that the
    "proposed code of practice would be wholly unsatisfactory. It would apparently require there to be press conferences after all board or main committee meetings. This would mean that the press would be informed only of actual decisions taken and would be unable to report the way in which such decisions were reached. The proposal has been put forward as if press conferences would be something new which, of course, is not the case."
    Later it states:
    "We do not accept that admission to the meetings of the proposed consumer councils or admission to the meetings of the full Authority where there are special circumstances, whatever these may be, will be sufficient to ensure that the public are informed about what the Water Authorities are doing."
    There have been perhaps thousands of pieces of correspondence that have come before hon. Members. We could have the Benches full of hon. Members on both sides of the House quoting their letters from editors, from newspapers, from journalists and from all organisations that will be affected by the Government's stupid decision.

    8 pm

    I shall give some more quotations. The Press Gazette Group is a London newspaper group. The editor, Mr. Bill Field, writes:
    "It seems to me that the Bill represents another threat to the ability of newspapers to freely report matters of public interest".
    In its original correspondence to me, the North-West Evening Mail said:
    "The exclusion of the press would mean that much less information would be available to the public about the operation of a vital public service. Water charges have become a highly controversial subject and now it seems that important decisions affecting the public are to be reached behind closed doors."
    The Government's proposal is totally at variance with every commitment and promise that they made at the general election. They promised open government. This is closed government. The British people do not want it. The Government should recognise that and remove this idiotic proposition from the Bill.

    The Cumbrian Newspapers Group comments:
    "You must be aware that there is strong public feeling about water boards. For decisions about this public service to be taken in secret will only fuel controversy and criticism."
    That is a small portion of the views expressed to my hon. Friends about the nonsense of the Government's position. In correspondence to me dated 18 January, the Guild of British Newspaper Editors asked four crucial questions, to which I ask the Minister to address himself when he replies to the debate. Those questions were:
    "Will the Water Authorities have the discretion as to what matters are put before the consultative committees or will every issue for decision by the Authority also be considered by the relevant consultative committee? Will such matters always be put to the committees before the relevant decision is taken or will there be occasions on which the Authorities will only in fact make a formal reference after decisions have been made but before their announcement? Will the committees have available the full documentation and information on which the Boards themselves will take decisions on any matter? Will the committees have powers to request and receive any papers and documents they wish from the authorities?"
    The guild asked those questions because they are crucial and in the public interest. The Minister should reply to them all. I shall persist in intervening during his reply until we receive clear undertakings on each count.

    There is the issue of what the public will no longer see, hear or know until the decisions have been taken by the water authorities. My constituency is in a part of the country in which every endeavour, manufacturing and recreational—whether angling or paper making—is directly related to the water industry and water amenities. In the county of Cumbria more bodies than in other parts of the country have a direct interest in what is going on in the water authority. Historically, they have been able to look to the local media to see the process of decision-making and to make their comments to whatever authority they wanted. They do not have confidence in the consultative arrangements that the Minister provides for in his amendment. They feel strongly that the Government are removing precious historic rights that they believe are important if they are to carry out their functions. They believe that the media should have access to the water authorities. They look to the Government to ensure that changes are made, even as late as Lords amendments, to secure what they believe, I believe and the majority of the House would believe if all hon. Members were free to vote as they wished, to be the public interest.

    We all accept that information is a vital part of our democratic system. When information is difficult to get at Government level, it does not inspire confidence when such information is made more difficult to obtain from a quango such as the water authorities. That is deeply worrying to the people.

    I shall give two examples showing how difficult and evasive the Government have been, not with regard to the Franks committee about which we heard today, but with regard to the gathering of information. When my hon. Friend the Member for Carmathen (Dr. Thomas) tried to ascertain what was the use of the dioxin-carrying weedkiller 2,4,5,T, on a number of occasions questions were asked of different Departments. Each reply stated that only 3 tonnes of that weedkiller were used in the United Kingdom. When my hon. Friend asked how much of that weedkiller was imported to the United Kingdom the answer was that such information is not separately distinguished in "British Overseas Trade Statistics". That answer did not say that such figures are available from Her Majesty's Customs and Excise. In 1980, 58 tonnes of 2, 4, 5, T were imported into the United Kingdom. Such evasion does not give us confidence that the information that the Government are giving us is either accurate or up-to-date. It seems to be deliberately evasive.

    My second example is about the Armitage report on transport. It recommended that fuel injection equipment in heavy lorries should be made tamper proof in line with regulations in other countries. When I asked the Secretary of State for Transport which countries required such tamper-proof equipment to be fitted, I received the following answer from the Under-Secretary:
    "As far as I am aware, only Sweden has a requirement intended to reduce the possibility of tampering with fuel injection equipment."—[Official Report, December 1982; Vol. 33, c. 461.]
    Further inquiries on my part to the Automobile Association led to the information that Sweden, Switzerland and Czechoslovakia have such equipment. The answer by the Minister had been prefaced by the evasive phrase:
    "As far as I am aware".
    Therefore the Department of Transport is in no position to find out where in the world those devices are fitted, but the Automobile Association can find it out quickly.

    I shall refer now to information about the water industry and the position in the Principality. The Select Committee on Welsh Affairs has beeen examining it recently. While the people of Wales anxiously await the report of the Committee, which has been delayed for a number of reasons, the evidence of that Committee has been published. It is most informative. Of all the witnesses who came before the Select Committee only the Welsh CBI opposed the continued right of public access to water authority meetings.

    It is interesting that the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, the hon. Member for Conway (Mr. Roberts), defended that right when he gave evidence to the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs on 2 December 1981. He is well versed in the problems of water in Wales and stated in his evidence:
    "I do not want to draw analogies but there are analogies in other services where they operate very efficiently. Nevertheless they hold their meetings in public. I do not really see the need for privacy in decision making as overriding the need for effective action as the Authority sees it."
    I fully endorse that and I am sure that the people of Wales also support the view so cogently put by the Under-Secretary. I sincerely hope that the Government's retrograde step in seeking to limit press access will be reversed today. So far, only one Conservative Member has befriended the Government on this.

    The headquarters of the Welsh water authority is in Brecon, so it is not an easy journey from, say, Rhossili in the western part of my constituency to see the authority performing its decision-making role. The journey will be virtually impossible by public transport when the full effects of the Government's cut in rate support grant have worked through the local authorities, with reductions in bus subsidies and consequent cuts in services, and the Gower pony will be just about defunct.

    The press is a vital instrument of information transfer when the senility of public transport in rural areas is aided by the Government and the Commissioner for Local Administration may no longer investigate cases of maladministration alleged to have been committed by water authorities. With the changes proposed by the Government in the Bill, it would seem sensible to establish a new ombudsman with substantial powers which are currently denied to the Commissioner for Local Administration.

    Under the agency agreements between water authorities and local authorities, sewerage functions are discharged by district councils. As I said in the Standing Committee—and I shall continue to pursue this until the problem is solved—a number of my constituents in Sybil street and Hebron road in Clydach live in daily fear that their kitchens and living rooms may at any time once again be flooded with raw human sewage. Even in the tourist haven of Oxwich my constituents face a similar problem.

    The Welsh water authority decides the priorities of sewerage schemes as between the conflicting claims—

    Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that he must relate his remarks to the admission of the press to water authority meetings.

    8.15 pm

    I was just coming to that, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The Welsh water authority and other water authorities have an agency agreement with regard to the discharge of sewerage functions. The press can draw attention to problems of the kind that I have described throughout Wales and in other areas.

    It is important to remember that we are dealing with a rate levying authority whose members will henceforth be nominated exclusively by Ministers. It will handle large sums of public money but will be accountable only to itself, without a press presence at its meetings.

    The retrograde nature of this was highlighted in the Western Mail—the national newspaper of Wales—on 13 July, with the following headline:
    "Welsh Water Authority dry up in secret meetings".
    If the Western Mail believed that the Welsh water authority was drying up last July, permanent aridity of information will rapidly become the norm if the Government have their way on this crucial issue.

    Like other Opposition Members, I support new clause 3 and the need to allow the press to attend the meetings of the new water authorities.

    When I talk to my constituents, when canvassing and at other times, I find that many of them, sadly, take the somewhat cynical view that politicians in general say one thing and do another. The Government's attitude to the new clause neatly illustrates that. Governments of all political persuasions in this country have supported the belief that there should be far more freedom of information and that the public should have greater rights of access to the information on which decisions are made. Yet in cases in which the Government could actually do something about that this is what happens. The Government say that they are not prepared to allow the press into meetings to report what is being done on behalf and with the money of the people of this country. That is deplorable.

    The Government offer only two possible reasons. First, they argue that the press do not attend very regularly now. Secondly, they make comparisons with other nationalised industries. It is extremely important that we enjoy rights even if we do not always exercise them. The Stockport Express and the Stockport Area Messenger, for example, certainly cannot afford to send a reporter to every meeting of the North-West water authority, but when they know that a problem will be discussed that is of particular interest to the people of Stockport they need the right to have somebody at the meeting to report what is said and to make it clear to the people of Stockport that their views are being put, whether by elected representatives as in the past or by the new appointees, so that they can exert an influence and, if necessary, political pressure to ensure that the people of the area have a fair deal from the water authority. Nothing will convince people unless they know that somebody can attend the meeting and actually hear the views put. That is extremely important. Of course, there will be many occasions on which local newspapers will not send reporters. Nevertheless, they should enjoy the right to do so if they wish.

    The Government's other argument is that water authorities should be treated like other nationalised industries, which do not have to put up with the press at their meetings.

    Many people believe in the importance of freedom of information. We should examine ways of opening up many nationalised industries to more public scrutiny and more, rather than less, public access to information.

    I am fully aware that some industries are competing with foreign competitors. There is the argument about trade secrets and the problem that public access would have with regard to foreign competition. However, apart from matters that may be confidential perhaps because they are of a personal type about an employee—which is already covered by existing legislation—there is no information involved in water authority meetings which is inappropriate for public debate.

    The only way to achieve proper and informed public debate is to ensure that meetings are reported in the media and that the issues are discussed. When I travel round my constituency, one of the bodies that comes in for most criticism is the North-West water authority. One reason is that my constituents know little about it. That has much to do with the way in which the authority was set up. The only way to break down that barrier is to encourage people to attend its meetings.

    The Government claim that the new procedure will be streamlined and that there is much more chance that the press will report the issues. As a result, the public will be better informed about the problems that face the water industry and they will be happier to pay their water rates if they know the money is being spent wisely and there is public discussion of the priorities. If water authorities' affairs are carried on behind closed doors, people will be more cynical about authorities and will increasingly demand that water authorities be democratically controlled. The sooner that happens the better, but meanwhile, there should be media access to all meetings.

    I agree with the hon. Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett) in one regard only—I support new clause 3. I disagree with him about the level of criticism of the North-West water authority. During the present Parliament I have received only two complaints from constituents about the activities of that authority. Both constituents are vocal and know where to find their Member of Parliament. That puts what the hon. Gentleman said into perspective.

    I should like to have pursued the points that the hon. Member for Gower (Mr. Wardell) raised about the accessibility of the Welsh water authority from the wilder parts of Brecon and Clydach. I congratulate him on making a lucid, cogent, competent and extensive Second Reading speech in a discussion on one amendment. I enjoyed his speech. I hope that he is always as successful as he was tonight.

    The Minister is smiling. I should not like to wipe the smile off his face. Perhaps he would like to intervene later to clear up a matter that was raised by the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson). I normally admire his speeches. However, he confused some of his arguments a little today. He confused those authorities such as gas, electricity and coal that charge for services with those that charge a rate.

    Carried to its logical conclusion, the argument of the hon. Member for Newbury is that it is not necessary for the press to attend water authority meetings because Members of Parliament will be able to safeguard their constituents' interests by asking the relevant Minister questions in the House. A logical development of that argument is that we might as well close down Hansard, the BBC's recording of the House and press coverage of the House. That is ridiculous. I read the Sunday newspapers to find out what is happening here. Nevertheless, what questions will I and other Members be able to ask the relevant Minister, whether he be from the Department of Trade, the Department of the Environment or the Welsh Office? What questions will hon. Members be able to get through the Table Office? What detailed questions will hon. Members be able to table about the day-to-day activities about roads, streets and sewerage charges? We will want to be able to ask more than merely who is the chairman or vice-chairman of an authority and what costs are involved. What questions will the relevant Minister and his colleagues be able to answer? If the Minister wants to take that point up now I shall gladly give way. I hope that he will answer that point before the end of the debate.

    The Minister will remember that, in Committee, we debated press access. With his usual charm, the Minister gave us a whole host of things about press access to consumer councils. We were talking not about press access to proposed consumer councils, but press access to water authority meetings. We had hoped that in the few weeks since then, some arrangements would have been made between the newspaper fraternity—the Guild of British Newspaper Editors—and the Ministry. That has clearly been rejected. A guild press release has already been referred to. It said of the proposals:
    "The Guild regards this as a shabby substitute for a legally established right of access."
    It continued:
    "In the view of the Guild the Government's admission that there might be circumstances in which the presence of the press might be justified shows that to exclude the press and public from the meetings of the rate levying authorities is a retrograde and dangerous precedent."
    Those are fairly powerful criticisms from a body that relies considerably on the good will of Government to perform its news collecting service.

    Who first suggested that the press should be excluded from the meetings of the new water authorities? Was it a ministerial idea? Did the proposal come from the water authorities? If so, from which authorities? It has always been assumed, although it has never been stated in debate, that the present proposal is being presented to the House by the water authorities through the Government. The unspoken suggestion is that the proposal is being made so that water authorities can get on with their business quietly and privately. It is intended that they will be able to slip measures through without anyone knowing about them. That conclusion may be incorrect, but any competent, effective and efficient water authority such as the one that we have in the north-west, in spite of occassional criticisms of it, should be more than willing for members of the press to attend their formal meetings. It should not be content merely with a face-saving press conference. Water authorities should be ready, able and willing to use the press to get the good news over. To deny access to the press is to deny water authorities a channel of communication that they should accept. I hope that the Minister will answer my questions even though his speech may have been prepared. Who suggested that the press be excluded—the Government or the authorities? If it was the water authorities, which ones did so? Secondly, what questions will hon. Members be able to ask in the House?

    Will the Minister examine the matter? Press access has done no harm and much good. The proposal places the new authorities under some doubt from the start. It clouds their initiative and their style. It is a handicap that they must overcome.

    There can be no doubt that the issue of press access has created the greatest degree of controversy during the passage of the Bill. The press has been effective in alerting hon. Members about its anxieties. However, we must note its absence from the Press Gallery—but perhaps it is only a paper tiger.

    The main issues in the debate stem in part from misunderstanding and in part from genuine concern. The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Howell) said that the Bill would result in the elimination of local authority representation on the new-style boards. That is not the case. There will be at least two representatives in each of the water authorities. The most significant part of the Bill is the substantial change in local authority representation, from being the majority in large organisations—boards of 62, 47 or 35—to two persons on a board of nine or 15.

    It is a question not of numbers, but of substance. The present local authority members are appointed by local authorities and, through them, have a degree of accountability to the ratepayers.

    I am pleased to see the Secretary of State in the Chamber. I offer him my congratulations on his preferment. I am sure that he will wish to appoint people with experience in local government, but they will not be accountable to local government. That is a substantial change.

    8.30 pm

    I take the right hon. Gentleman's point. On reflection, he must recognise that even under the existing regime the composition of a water authority does not include representatives from all local authorities within its region.

    The character of the new authorities is fundamentally different from the local authority majority structure that it will replace. That, above all else, is the most important reason why the review of press access resulted in the decision that it was no longer appropriate. We must bear in mind that the Bill will move the character of the authorities away from the local authority, open forum type meeting to an executive style.

    In whose opinion was press access not appropriate to the new authorities? Is that the Government's opinion, the opinion of the administrators or the Civil Service? What about the consumers whom we represent? Have they been consulted?

    It is the Government's opinion that that is the right decision to make, and it is for the House to determine whether that should be so. That is why we are debating the matter. I shall seek to justify that. The Monopolies and Mergers Commission recommended that there should be a fundamental restructuring of the authorities. It was critical of the scale of authorities, of the management structure within them—it examined the Severn-Trent authority—of the communication and control problems and of the large consumption of time in the administration of the committee system which, ultimately, produced a 47-man authority. An independent third party important investigation was carried out and the advice was that changes in structure should be considered. Hon. Members have not denied the general feeling on both sides of the House that water authorities have not earned the accolade of great achievement that we wish them to earn. Therefore, change is desirable.

    The second problem is whether the proposals are a fundamental denial of the rights of the public, the water consumer, Members of Parliament and those who seek to scrutinise public bodies, which should be resisted à l'outrance—as, I suspect, the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) would have us do. Undoubtedly that would be the case were we proposing total exclusion while not seeking to offer any public scrutiny of water authorities or their activities.

    My hon. Friend specifically mentioned that Members of Parliament would not be allowed to ask the Minister specific questions in Parliament on all aspects of the water authority. Will he enlarge on that, as many hon. Members have mentioned that point?

    I shall reply to that point in a moment. Total exclusion of the press has been implied by many hon. Members. They have questioned how that relates to public scrutiny.

    The regional water authorities, will still be subject to an immense range of public scrutiny. The Monopolies and Mergers Commission has already been used and, under my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State's leadership, will continue to be used as a major vehicle of public examination.

    The report and accounts of the water authorities, laid before the House in the name of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, will be displayed to show every aspect of the water authorities' activities, performance aims, investment appraisal, manpower trends and all the other matters that one would wish a publicly accountable body to show in public.

    It will still be possible to ask a wide range of questions of Ministers who are accountable to the House for the ways in which the water authorities operate. The hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Ogden), my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson) and my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor and Maidenhead (Dr. Glyn) will be interested in the precise nature of those ways. As you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, know better than I, the policy for the acceptance of questions must be determined by the Chair. The decision that we have reached now will not be changed by the Bill's provisions. Presently, Ministers are prepared to answer questions on a wide range of matters, such as broad policy issues, charging policies, investment policies, manpower, and other matters relating to water authorities. Those are currently available for scrutiny through the parliamentary questions procedure. That will remain the case.

    If it is believed that this width of questioning is inadequate, I give an undertaking to the House, subject to the agreement of the Table Office, that we shall extend it. The House has a right to know what the water authorities are doing in relation to their reports.

    On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for the Minister of State to make such a statement?

    I have heard nothing out of order from the Minister.

    My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I accept that the House must be satisfied that the questioning of water authorities on the report and accounts laid—the information that is provided—is sufficient for my right hon. Friend and me fully to discharge our ministerial obligations.

    I appreciate that the Minister is trying to be helpful to the House, but if the Bill makes no changes in the areas in which Ministers are subject to parliamentary questioning, it follows that there can have been no change in the relationship of power between Ministers and the water authorities. Otherwise, there would have been implications for parliamentary questions. In what sense has the character of the water authorities changed? I do not mean their style or how many members they have, but their range of responsibilities. In what sense have they become executive bodies in a way that they were not previously?

    That will largely depend on how the authorities operate under the powers contained in the Bill. I remind the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) that under the Bill's provisions, every member of the water authority is appointed by the Minister concerned. There will be total ministerial responsibility for appointments, which is rather important.

    It is already known that the Government are involved in many aspects of water authority capital expenditure and external financing limits. We must then ask ourselves whether there will be sufficient access and opportunity for the media and for the public in the water authority areas.

    A point that we made in Committee about the availability of information to the press won considerable ill-will from both hon. Members and gentlemen of the press. It is not a shabby substitute to increase such information.

    The House must understand that the press is admitted by statute to about four, five or six water authority meetings a year. With the new proceedings, the fact that the boards are smaller should enable water authorities to meet more frequently and should certainly enable a substantial reduction in the committee structure that is so prevalent at the moment. At each meeting the press will be informed of the matters that are to be discussed and the water authorities will be available afterwards at a press conference to answer questions about the meeting. Press conferences are not usual in all water authorities, but the opportunity to question those who have taken decisions at meetings will be increased modestly.

    The second range of new access provisions—the code of practice—has been called a shabby substitute. The code of practice will be drawn up between the chairmen of the regional water authorities and the Guild of British Newspaper Editors. I hope that the guild will recognise that as an opportunity to determine, with the chairmen, the rules under which the press wishes to have access to water authority information. I hope that the press will take advantage of that proposal and that the chairmen and the guild can arrange a code of practice.

    The availability of information at consultative committee meetings will be substantial. I made it clear to the Committee, and I make it clear to the House now, that the guidelines will show that the consultative committees should have the opportunity to probe into anything that they consider appropriate. They will have information about charging policies before charges are made and they can ask questions about and discuss investment policy before investment decisions are made. It is important that they have access to information that is sufficient correctly to discharge their obligations. The guidelines must be drawn up with the fundamental objective of exposing the water authorities' activities to public and press scrutiny.

    I add to that the fact that the consultative committees will meet, for example, not in the head office at Warrington, which is many miles from Carlisle in the North-West regional water authority, but in every division of every regional water authority several times a year. Thus, an evening paper published in Lincoln need not send a representative to Huntingdon for meetings that occur five times a year, but can become involved in what affects the local services of the water authority in Lincoln. That is a substantial advantage to the public and the press. I will not accept, either from my hon. Friends or from Opposition Members, the allegation that we are shutting the book and preventing water authorities from offering their activities for scrutiny by the public and the press.

    Hon. Members could say "But they may not take advantage of it". They may say that the statutory right to attend five or six meetings a year, which the press currently enjoys, will cease. That statutory right will cease, just as local authority membership of water authorities—which at the moment is a majority in each authority—will also cease when the Bill is passed. The two factors ran hand in hand and were both part of local authority structure and of the fact that local authority meetings were open to the press. However, it is not sufficient to say that water authorities are only rate-levying or tax-levying bodies. It is true that they charge and that domestic charges are largely based on rateable values. I regret that fact in many respects.

    We have tried to increase the availability of metering. Had the hon. Member for Caernarvon (Mr. Wigley) been here, I should have told him that the shop that pays an £800 water bill would benefit from a metering system, if it is to be made available by the Welsh water authority. However, the main objective of the water authority is to discharge statutory functions and to ensure that the consumers of its services, whether domestic or commercial—commercial users account for nearly half the revenue of the water authorities—receive fair, full and effective service. That is what the new proposals in the Bill are designed to achieve. The press will have substantial access to the water authority. The public will have substantially more access to the water authority. This House will have as much access as it now has, and probably more, as Ministers will in a sense be more responsible through their appointments for the operation of water authorities and will seek to discharge those responsibilities to this House.

    The group of amendments consists of the new clause and a Government amendment. The Government wish to make it clear that the right of access under the 1960 legislation is indeed affected by the Bill. I commend that amendment to the House. The new clause should be resisted on the ground that I trust I have persuasively put forward.

    8.45 pm

    The Minister's reply has been the most insensitive reply that I have heard either in Committee or during this debate. I believe that the Government will regret their decision because it is unwise, insensitive and out of tune with the needs of the people. New clause 3 would entrench the existing position of the press. It would not increase that position but merely preserve it as it is now and help to preserve the rights of people as they are now. Amendment No. 31, which the Minister is supporting, is a denial of existing rights to the press and through it to the people of this country.

    It is significant that only one speech has been heard in support of the Government. I do not know whether the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson) wishes to change his point of view after hearing the Minister's reply on whether water authorities are becoming more answerable.

    The Minister said that the position had not been changed by the Bill. If that is the case, any hope we have of tabling parliamentary questions will be as hopeless in the future as it is now. Nothing will have been changed on that score. It is remarkable that the Government are pushing this amendment through. They have traditionally talked about open government. The speech of the Prime Minister has been quoted on so many occasions that I do not propose to repeat it, but bearing in mind what she said, I should have thought that Conservative Members would be voting with the Prime Minister and the Opposition for new clause 3 this evening.

    As to the decision to refuse to allow the press to attend meetings of the water authority, did that suggestion emanate from Government quarters or from water authority quarters? The argument is that it has been necessary to do this because the character of the water authority is now fundamentally different. The only real difference is the size. The new water authorities will have to carry out exactly the same functions, and will have exactly the same powers, as the water authorities today. If size is an argument, it is surely a nonsensical argument when many organisations in this country are of the same or smaller size as the new water authorities that do in fact admit the press with no adverse effects upon their operations. In Welsh terms there is the Land Authority for Wales and there are regional health authorities in England and other health authorities.

    It has been argued that the new water authority may become more executive in character. As my right hon. Friend said at the beginning of this debate, many matters of considerable public importance will be dealt with by the new water authorities irrespective of their size, planning, prices, abuses or misuses of power, health, standards, wages and a wide range of other matters. The public has a right to the earliest knowledge about those matters. It has a right to know before the final decision is taken. It is no good holding a press conference after the decision has been taken. It is crucial that the press know so that they can inform the public before any decisions are taken.

    The Minister tried to sell us his new code of practice. Far from criticising him, I imagine that the Guild of British Newspaper Editors would have offered him its badge of honour. Does the Minister really believe that the Guild of British Newspaper Editors is so foolish, ignorant and dull that it does not appreciate this new extension of power which the Minister suggests he is offering? The truth is the very opposite. If we deny the press the right to attend water authority meetings where the crucial decisions are taken, it is no substitute to say, "But you can go to the consumer councils", because the councils are not decision-making bodies.

    The code of practice also suggests that the press may be invited to attend certain water authority meetings. Which? Will they be invited to any meeting that is likely to be embarrassing to the water authority? I do not believe so. The press will be invited only to those meetings that suit the purpose of the water authority, not the interests of the general public.

    Did my right hon. Friend note that the Minister refused to reply to the four questions put by the Guild of British Newspaper Editors about its relationship with the water authorities? Will he press the Minister, even now, to answer those important questions?

    The points contained in the letter of the Guild of British Newspaper Editors have been spelt out at considerable length. I have referred to some of them. In fact, the Minister's contention that amendment No. 31 increases the availability of information does not stand up to examination. The Bill will create 10 powerful super-quangos. If the public is to be protected against those organisations, we must ensure that press involvement is extended rather than diminished.

    This House has a long tradition of concern for democracy, but we cannot have an effective democracy unless at the same time we have a well-informed democracy. That is what this issue is all about. New clause 3, although dealing with the freedom of the press, deals equally with the rights of the individual. If we support the idea of a well-informed democracy, we must recognise that that cannot be achieved without a well-informed press.

    I hope that all hon. Members will vote for the new clause, including those Conservative Members who spoke against the Government's proposal. Above all else, if this House fails in its duty tonight, I hope that the other place will seek to correct the error of our ways.

    Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:—

    The House divided: Ayes 221, Noes 273.

    Division No. 42

    8.53 pm

    AYES

    Abse, LeoBrown, Ron (E'burgh, Leith)
    Adams, AllenBuchan, Norman
    Allaun, FrankCallaghan, Rt Hon J.
    Alton, DavidCampbell, Ian
    Anderson, DonaldCampbell-Savours, Dale
    Archer, Rt Hon PeterCanavan, Dennis
    Ashley, Rt Hon JackCant, R. B.
    Atkinson, N. (H'gey,)Carter-Jones, Lewis
    Barnett, Guy (Greenwich)Clark, Dr David (S Shields)
    Beith, A. J.Clarke, Thomas (C'b'dge, A'rie)
    Benn, Rt Hon TonyCohen, Stanley
    Bennett, Andrew (St'kp't N)Concannon, Rt Hon J. D.
    Booth, Rt Hon AlbertConlan, Bernard
    Bottomley, Rt Hon A. (M'b'ro)Cook, Robin F.
    Bray, Dr JeremyCowans, Harry
    Brocklebank-Fowler, C.Craigen, J. M. (G'gow, M'hill)
    Brown, Hugh D. (Provan)Crawshaw, Richard
    Brown, R. C. (N'castle W)Crowther, Stan

    Cryer, BobMcDonald, Dr Oonagh
    Cunliffe, LawrenceMcElhone, Mrs Helen
    Cunningham, Dr J. (W'h'n)McGuire, Michael (Ince)
    Davidson, ArthurMcKay, Allen (Penistone)
    Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (L'lli)McKelvey, William
    Davis, Clinton (Hackney C)MacKenzie, Rt Hon Gregor
    Davis, Terry (B'ham, Stechf'd)McWilliam, John
    Deakins, EricMarks, Kenneth
    Dean, Joseph (Leeds West)Marshall, D (G'gow S'ton)
    Dewar, DonaldMarshall, Jim (Leicester S)
    Dixon, DonaldMartin, M (G'gow S'burn)
    Dobson, FrankMason, Rt Hon Roy
    Dormand, JackMaxton, John
    Dunnett, JackMaxwell-Hyslop, Robin
    Dunwoody, Hon Mrs G.Maynard, Miss Joan
    Eastham, KenMeacher, Michael
    Edwards, R. (W'hampt'n S E)Mikardo, Ian
    Ellis, R. (NE D'bysh're)Millan, Rt Hon Bruce
    Ellis, Tom (Wrexham)Miller, Dr M. S. (E Kilbride)
    English, MichaelMitchell, Austin (Grimsby)
    Ennals, Rt Hon DavidMitchell, R. C. (Soton Itchen)
    Evans, Ioan (Aberdare)Morris, Rt Hon C. (O'shaw)
    Evans, John (Newton)Morris, Rt Hon J. (Aberavon)
    Ewing, HarryMoyle, Rt Hon Roland
    Faulds, AndrewMulley, Rt Hon Frederick
    Field, FrankNewens, Stanley
    Fitch, AlanOakes, Rt Hon Gordon
    Flannery, MartinOgden, Eric
    Foot, Rt Hon MichaelO'Halloran, Michael
    Ford, BenO'Neill, Martin
    Forrester, JohnOrme, Rt Hon Stanley
    Foster, DerekPalmer, Arthur
    Foulkes, GeorgePark, George
    Fraser, J. (Lamb'th, N'w'd)Parker, John
    Freeson, Rt Hon ReginaldParry, Robert
    Garrett, John (Norwich S)Pavitt, Laurie
    Garrett, W. E. (Wallsend)Pendry, Tom
    George, BrucePenhaligon, David
    Golding, JohnPitt, William Henry
    Gourlay, HarryPowell, Raymond (Ogmore)
    Graham, TedPrescott, John
    Grimond, Rt Hon J.Price, C. (Lewisham W)
    Hardy, PeterRace, Reg
    Harman, Harriet (Peckham)Radice, Giles
    Harrison, Rt Hon WalterRees, Rt Hon M (Leeds S)
    Haynes, FrankRichardson, Jo
    Heffer, Eric S.Roberts, Albert (Normanton)
    Hogg, N. (E Dunb't'nshire)Roberts, Allan (Bootle)
    Holland, S. (L'b'th, Vauxh'll)Roberts, Ernest (Hackney N)
    Home Robertson, JohnRoberts, Gwilym (Cannock)
    Homewood, WilliamRobertson, George
    Hooley, FrankRobinson, G. (Coventry NW)
    Howell, Rt Hon D.Rooker, J. W.
    Howells, GeraintRoper, John
    Hoyle, DouglasRoss, Ernest (Dundee West)
    Huckfield, LesRowlands, Ted
    Hughes, Mark (Durham)Ryman, John
    Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)Sandelson, Neville
    Hughes, Roy (Newport)Sever, John
    Janner, Hon GrevilleSheerman, Barry
    Jay, Rt Hon DouglasSheldon, Rt Hon R.
    Jenkins, Rt Hon Roy (Hillh'd)Short, Mrs Renée
    John, BrynmorSilkin, Rt Hon J. (Deptford)
    Johnson, James (Hull West)Silverman, Julius
    Johnson, Walter (Derby S)Skinner, Dennis
    Johnston, Russell (Inverness)Snape, Peter
    Jones, Rt Hon Alec (Rh'dda)Soley, Clive
    Kerr, RussellSpearing, Nigel
    Kilroy-Silk, RobertSpence, John
    Lambie, DavidSpriggs, Leslie
    Lamond, JamesStallard, A. W.
    Leadbitter, TedStoddart, David
    Leighton, RonaldStott, Roger
    Lewis, Arthur (N'ham NW)Strang, Gavin
    Lewis, Ron (Carlisle)Straw, Jack
    Litherland, RobertSummerskill, Hon Dr Shirley
    Lofthouse, GeoffreyTaylor, Mrs Ann (Bolton W)
    Lyon, Alexander (York)Thomas, Dafydd (Merioneth)
    Lyons, Edward (Bradf'd W)Thomas, Dr R. (Carmarthen)
    McCartney, HughThorne, Stan (Preston South)

    Tilley, JohnWigley, Dafydd
    Tinn, JamesWilley, Rt Hon Frederick
    Torney, TomWilliams, Rt Hon A. (S'sea W)
    Varley, Rt Hon Eric G.Wilson, Rt Hon Sir H. (H'ton)
    Wainwright, E. (Dearne V)Wilson, William (C'try SE)
    Wainwright, R. (Colne V)Winnick, David
    Walker, Rt Hon H. (D'caster)Woodall, Alec
    Wardell, GarethWoolmer, Kenneth
    Weetch, KenWright, Sheila
    Wellbeloved, JamesYoung, David (Bolton E)
    Welsh, Michael
    White, Frank R.Tellers for the Ayes:
    White, J. (G'gow Pollok)Mr. James Hamilton and
    Whitehead, PhillipMr. George Morton.
    Whitlock, William

    NOES

    Adley, RobertDunn, Robert (Dartford)
    Alexander, RichardDurant, Tony
    Alison, Rt Hon MichaelDykes, Hugh
    Ancram, MichaelEden, Rt Hon Sir John
    Arnold, TomEdwards, Rt Hon N. (P'broke)
    Aspinwall, JackEggar, Tim
    Atkins, Rt Hon H. (S'thorne)Elliott, Sir William
    Atkins, Robert (Preston N)Emery, Sir Peter
    Atkinson, David (B'm'th, E)Eyre, Reginald
    Baker, Kenneth (St.M'bone)Fairbairn, Nicholas
    Baker, Nicholas (N Dorset)Fairgrieve, Sir Russell
    Banks, RobertFaith, Mrs Sheila
    Beaumont-Dark, AnthonyFarr, John
    Bendall, VivianFell, Sir Anthony
    Bennett, Sir Frederic (T'bay)Fenner, Mrs Peggy
    Benyon, W. (Buckingham)Finsberg, Geoffrey
    Berry, Hon AnthonyFisher, Sir Nigel
    Best, KeithFletcher, A. (Ed'nb'gh N)
    Bevan, David GilroyFookes, Miss Janet
    Biffen, Rt Hon JohnFowler, Rt Hon Norman
    Biggs-Davison, Sir JohnFox, Marcus
    Blackburn, JohnGardiner, George (Reigate)
    Blaker, PeterGardner, Sir Edward
    Body, RichardGarel-Jones, Tristan
    Bonsor, Sir NicholasGlyn, Dr Alan
    Boscawen, Hon RobertGoodlad, Alastair
    Bottomley, Peter (W'wich W)Gow, Ian
    Boyson, Dr RhodesGrant, Sir Anthony
    Braine, Sir BernardGray, Rt Hon Hamish
    Bright, GrahamGreenway, Harry
    Brinton, TimGrieve, Percy
    Brittan, Rt. Hon. LeonGriffiths, E. (B'y St. Edm'ds)
    Brooke, Hon PeterGriffiths, Peter (Portsm'th N)
    Brotherton, MichaelGrist, Ian
    Brown, Michael (Brigg & Sc'n)Gummer, John Selwyn
    Browne, John (Winchester)Hamilton, Michael (Salisbury)
    Bruce-Gardyne, JohnHampson, Dr Keith
    Bryan, Sir PaulHannam, John
    Budgen, NickHaselhurst, Alan
    Bulmer, EsmondHastings, Stephen
    Butcher, JohnHavers, Rt Hon Sir Michael
    Carlisle, John (Luton West)Hawkins, Sir Paul
    Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)Hawksley, Warren
    Carlisle, Rt Hon M. (R'c'n)Hayhoe, Barney
    Chalker, Mrs. LyndaHeddle, John
    Channon, Rt. Hon. PaulHenderson, Barry
    Chapman, SydneyHeseltine, Rt Hon Michael
    Churchill, W. S.Higgins, Rt Hon Terence L.
    Clark, Hon A. (Plym'th, S'n)Hill, James
    Clark, Sir W. (Croydon S)Hogg, Hon Douglas (Gr'th'm)
    Clarke, Kenneth (Rushcliffe)Holland, Philip (Carlton)
    Clegg, Sir WalterHooson, Tom
    Cockeram, EricHordern, Peter
    Colvin, MichaelHowell, Rt Hon D. (G'ldf'd)
    Cope, JohnHowell, Ralph (N Norfolk)
    Cormack, PatrickHunt, John (Ravensbourne)
    Corrie, JohnIrvine, Rt Hon Bryant Godman
    Cranborne, ViscountIrving, Charles (Cheltenham)
    Critchley, JulianJessel, Toby
    Crouch, DavidJohnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey
    Dickens, GeoffreyJopling, Rt Hon Michael
    Dorrell, StephenJoseph, Rt Hon Sir Keith
    Douglas-Hamilton, Lord J.Kaberry, Sir Donald

    Kellett-Bowman, Mrs ElaineRhys Williams, Sir Brandon
    Kershaw, Sir AnthonyRidley, Hon Nicholas
    King, Rt Hon TomRoberts, M. (Cardiff NW)
    Knight, Mrs JillRoberts, Wyn (Conway)
    Knox, DavidRossi, Hugh
    Lamont, NormanRost, Peter
    Lang, IanRumbold, Mrs A. C. R.
    Latham, MichaelSainsbury, Hon Timothy
    Lawrence, IvanSt. John-Stevas, Rt Hon N.
    Lawson, Rt Hon NigelShaw, Giles (Pudsey)
    Lee, JohnShaw, Sir Michael (Scarb')
    Le Marchant, SpencerShelton, William (Streatham)
    Lennox-Boyd, Hon MarkShepherd, Colin (Hereford)
    Lester, Jim (Beeston)Shepherd, Richard
    Lewis, Sir Kenneth (Rutland)Shersby, Michael
    Lloyd, Ian (Havant & W'loo)Silvester, Fred
    Lloyd, Peter (Fareham)Sims, Roger
    Loveridge, JohnSkeet, T. H. H.
    Lyell, NicholasSmith, Sir Dudley
    McCrindle, RobertSmith, Tim (Beaconsfield)
    Macfarlane, NeilSpeller, Tony
    MacGregor, JohnSpicer, Jim (West Dorset)
    MacKay, John (Argyll)Spicer, Michael (S Worcs)
    McNair-Wilson, M. (N'bury)Sproat, Iain
    McNair-Wilson, P. (New F'st)Squire, Robin
    McQuarrie, AlbertStainton, Keith
    Major, JohnStanbrook, Ivor
    Marland, PaulStanley, John
    Marten, Rt Hon NeilSteen, Anthony
    Mather, CarolStevens, Martin
    Maude, Rt Hon Sir AngusStewart, A. (E Renfrewshire)
    Mawby, RayStewart, Ian (Hitchin)
    Mawhinney, Dr BrianStokes, John
    Mayhew, PatrickStradling Thomas, J.
    Mellor, DavidTaylor, Teddy (S'end E)
    Meyer, Sir AnthonyTebbit, Rt Hon Norman
    Miller, Hal (B'grove)Temple-Morris, Peter
    Mills, Iain (Meriden)Thatcher, Rt Hon Mrs M.
    Mills, Sir Peter (West Devon)Thomas, Rt Hon Peter
    Miscampbell, NormanThompson, Donald
    Moate, RogerThorne, Neil (Ilford South)
    Monro, Sir HectorThornton, Malcolm
    Montgomery, FergusTownend, John (Bridlington)
    Moore, JohnTownsend, Cyril D, (B'heath)
    Morgan, GeraintTrippier, David
    Morrison, Hon P. (Chester)Trotter, Neville
    Murphy, Christophervan Straubenzee, Sir W.
    Myles, DavidVaughan, Dr Gerard
    Neale, GerrardViggers, Peter
    Nelson, AnthonyWaddington, David
    Neubert, MichaelWakeham, John
    Newton, TonyWaldegrave, Hon William
    Nott, Rt Hon Sir JohnWalker, Rt Hon P. (W'cester)
    Onslow, CranleyWalker, B. (Perth)
    Oppenheim, Rt Hon Mrs S.Walker-Smith, Rt Hon Sir D.
    Osborn, JohnWaller, Gary
    Page, Richard (SW Herts)Walters, Dennis
    Parkinson, Rt Hon CecilWard, John
    Parris, MatthewWarren, Kenneth
    Patten, John (Oxford)Watson, John
    Pattie, GeoffreyWells, Bowen
    Pawsey, JamesWells, John (Maidstone)
    Percival, Sir IanWheeler, John
    Peyton, Rt Hon JohnWhitelaw, Rt Hon William
    Pink, R. BonnerWhitney, Raymond
    Pollock, AlexanderWickenden, Keith
    Porter, BarryWilkinson, John
    Prentice, Rt Hon RegWilliams, D. (Montgomery)
    Price, Sir David (Eastleigh)Wolfson, Mark
    Proctor, K. HarveyYoung, Sir George (Acton)
    Pym, Rt Hon FrancisYounger, Rt Hon George
    Rathbone, Tim
    Rees, Peter (Dover and Deal)Tellers for the Noes:
    Rees-Davies, W. R.Mr. Archie Hamilton and
    Renton, TimMr. David Hunt.
    Rhodes James, Robert

    Question accordingly negatived.

    New Clause 10

    Agreements On Terms And Conditions Of Employment (No I)

    '(1) It shall be the duty of each water authority and other statutory water undertaker to seek, either in conjunction with every other such authority or undertaker or by means of such association or other person or organisation as may represent all of them for this purpose, consultation with any organisation appearing to them to be appropriate with a view to the conclusion between them and that organisation of such agreements as appear to the parties to be desirable with respect to the establishment and maintenance of machinery for the settlement by negotiation of terms and conditions of employment of persons employed by the water authorities, other statutory water undertakers and any person referred to in section 3(4) of this Act with provision for reference to arbitration in default of such settlements in such cases as may be determined by or under the agreements.

    (2) It shall be the duty of every water authority and all other statutory water undertakers and all employers coming into existence as a consequence of this Act to comply with any such agreement.

    (3) Copies of any such agreement and of any instrument varying the terms of any such agreement shall be sent to the Secretary of State.— [Mr. Denis Howell.]

    Brought up, and read the First time.

    With this, it will be convenient to take new clause 9—Agreements on terms and conditions of employment (No. 2)

  • '(1) It shall be the duty of each water authority and other statutory water undertaker to seek, either in conjunction with every other such authority or undertaker or by means of such association or other person or organisation as may represent all of them for this purpose, consultation with any organisation appearing to them to be appropriate with a view to the conclusion between them and that organisation of such agreements as appear to the parties to be desirable with respect to the establishment and maintenance of machinery for the settlement by negotiation of terms and conditions of employment of persons employed by the water authorities, other statutory water undertakers and any person referred to in section 3(4) of this Act with provision for reference to arbitration in default of such settlement in such cases as may be determined by or under the agreements.
  • (2) It shall be the duty of every water authority and all other statutory water undertakers and all employers coming into existence as a consequence of this Act to comply with any such agreement.
  • (3) Copies of any such agreement and of any instrument varying the terms of any such agreement shall be sent to the Secretary of State.
  • (4) The words "such agreement" in subsection (2) above shall include any agreement made pursuant to section 26(2) of the principal Act and in operation on the date of determination of the functions of the Council, as if the parties thereto had included all water authorities in place of the Council.'.
  • This debate is one of the most important this evening, because it involves the whole question of wage negotiations in the water industry and the maintenance of national wage negotiations. Clause 1 proposes to abolish the National Water Council and to replace it with 10 authorities. It will abolish one nationalised industry to replace it by 10 others. In the old days, the water industry's national wage negotiations were always conducted centrally under the collective responsibility of the local authorities and are presently conducted by the water authorities. What will happen now? New clause 10 calls for

    "the establishment and maintenance of machinery for the settlement by negotiation of terms and conditions of employment of persons employed by the water authorities … with provision for reference to arbitration in default of such settlement in such cases as may be determined by or under the agreements."
    There could not be a more appropriate time to discuss the water industry's wage negotiations. Only an hour ago, the trade union side informed me that it had left the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service after daylong discussions. Clearly, there is a grave threat of a national water strike for the first time in our history. It will affect the whole country. We debate such issues on the eve of what may well be the most damaging industrial dispute to be seen in this country for many a long year. It puts in perspective the importance of national joint negotiating machinery for the industry.

    If the dispute should unfortunately escalate—and we must all hope and pray that it does not and that it is somehow resolved—the effect would be calamitous. Burst water mains will go unrepaired unless the Government have sufficient troops to bring in from the British Army of the Rhine or other quarters, or they can utilise the services of small contractors. In part, that will be the Government's response. I doubt whether it will be adequate. What is certain is that we have a large number of water main bursts every day, because of the age of our water service and supply industry. Many of them will not be dealt with efficiently and promptly, as the householders have a right to expect.

    Many of the householders affected will be confronted with a serious problem. Before long the Secretary of State and other Ministers will have to advise householders that it will be their duty to boil every drop of water that comes from the taps because the quality of the water cannot be guaranteed or safeguarded.

    Probably even more difficult will be the problem of the untreated sewage that will confront the water authorities. As we know from experience, and as I know from having to deal with this problem, the filters will not be cleaned. That will mean that one cannot guarantee the quality of the water going out of the sewerage system and into our rivers.

    On previous occasions, members of the staff side of the water industry, NALGO members and others, have thought it their duty to clean the water filters and safeguard this aspect of the service. In the present dispute, NALGO has made it clear that it will not be prepared to offer that support to the water authorities. That is a new and difficult problem that will confront the authorities.

    The result of all that will undoubtedly be that before long, in many of our water authority areas, and particularly in the Thames water authority, raw sewerage will find its way quickly into the river system with devastating effects. That will be contrary to the statutory requirements of water authorities, under both British and European legislation, to maintain the quality of the river system. This will happen very rapidly in any national dispute. Before we get ourselves into a national dispute, I feel that it is right to spell out these facts so that everybody knows exactly what the consequences of this lamentable problem will be.

    Why has this dispute come about, and how have we got ourselves involved in this serious problem? It is a potentially most damaging problem, and it has come about as a direct result of Government interference in the wage negotiating machinery in the industry. The Government have to accept the full responsibility for having brought the position about.

    We discussed this at length in Committee, so I shall not go into too many details, but I reassert the position. I am glad to see the Secretary of State here, because when he was a Minister of State he was directly responsible for the water industry and felt it right to intervene directly in the negotiation procedures.

    The chairman of the National Water Council has made it clear that the Government intervened. As I have said on the Floor of the House and in Committee, the essential position is that the water chairmen were prepared to make an offer that they thought was negotiable and might be the basis of a settlement in this most essential of our industries. The offer was thought to be about 6 per cent., but on the day of the negotiation the Minister intervened by ringing up people involved in the negotiations and instructing them to offer 4 per cent. At the same moment, the Prime Minister was telling the House that the negotiators were completely free to reach their own decisions. That is now known not to have been the case. The Prime Minister had been sadly ill advised.

    9.15 pm

    The Government have got themselves into an absolutely hopeless situation. In recent months, there has been a total confusion of purpose and a total lack of principle in wage negotiations in the public sector. There has been a complete sense of expediency in the determination of judgments. If one follows this cycle—it is appropriate to use the word "cycle" when we are dealing with the water cycle as well as the wage cycle—we can see the impossible situation into which the Government have got themselves.

    The Government used to belabour the previous Labour Government—I am glad to see that my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Varley), responsible for employment matters, is present—when we had difficulties during that awful winter about the vital importance of free collective bargaining. When the Conservative Government took over, they made it a first principle of industrial relations that they would always maintain free collective bargaining. The Government are therefore not in any position to complain if many of those on the trade union side of industry believed that there was some common purpose between the free collective bargaining that the trade unions wanted and the free collective bargaining that the Government stated to be their policy.

    Very soon, as a result of the pursuit of the monetarist policy, which is the economic base on which they stand, the Government found that decisions and agreements reached by free collective bargaining were unacceptable and, indeed, embarrassing to them. When the Civil Service unions asked only last year that these matters should be resolved in a civilised manner and that they should be referred to arbitration, the Government, having first said that there was free collective bargaining and then having intervened, declared that there would be no arbitration for people in the public sector. Those events formed the backcloth to negotiations in the water industry. They were followed by blatant interference in free collective negotiations within the water industry which has brought about the present impasse.

    It is extraordinary, now we are on the edge of this precipice, that the water authorities are saying, no doubt with the support of the Government, that they want to go to arbitration. It is inconceivable that the water authorities would go to arbitration if they did not have the support or possibly the prompting of the Government. The issue has gone full circle. The Government are now meeting themselves coming back in wage negotiations. It is a dilemma that the Government face not only in the water industry but in other industries. It would, however, be out of order for me to discuss those other industries under the new clause.

    The message I have received from today's union meeting is that the way out of the dilemma is not the arbitration that has been proposed. The simple reason is that the unions will not go to arbitration until they have first enjoyed what they believe is access to free negotiations with the employers' side. They say that they have not yet had any negotiation. Perhaps the Minister would care to reply to that. I hope that he will. The unions are saying that they have not yet had access to free negotiation with the employers for the water authorities, and ask how therefore they can consider entering into negotiation or anything of that nature until they can exercise the right of negotiation.

    That brings us to the question how the Government propose to get out of the impasse that has been created. It is a matter of vital importance to the House and the country, as well as to the industry. Will the negotiators now be completely free to negotiate? As I understand the position, ACAS is going back to see the employers tomorrow, having spent all today with the trade union side. From my discussions with the trade union side, I have no doubt that ACAS will now ask "Are you in a position freely to negotiate? Is this a meaningful negotiation, if we get both sides together again?" I beg Ministers to understand that that is what the Opposition want. Wherever the political advantages lie, those of us who have been responsible for the industry, as I was for five years, know how horrible would be the effect of a prolonged strike. It would impose intolerable burdens on women with young babies, on old people, and on others. It is the duty of every right hon. and hon. Member and of the Government to try to prevent that. I am glad that the Secretary of State, the Under-Secretary and I are in agreement on that. It would be an abhorrent situation.

    We must allow both sides of the industry to solve the matter freely by negotiation in a responsible manner. There is no industry in the country which, throughout its long history, has had more responsible negotiators conducting its wages settlements than those in the water industry. Indeed, some of the difficulties that have now arisen about comparability with workers in gas, electricity, and so on, have arisen because of the sense of responsibility of the negotiators. So the question is: what settlement is open to the employers' representatives to negotiate with the trade union side? If the Government can make it clear today that there is completely free negotiation, and that the instruction to stand firm on a wholly unrealistic 4 per cent. has gone, we may at last begin to make the progress that we all want.

    In case that does not prove possible, I take this opportunity to ask the Government what contingency plans they are making in the event of this catastrophe hitting the country. How do they intend, for example, to maintain the wholesome supply of clean water, which is their statutory duty under law? The statutory duty of the water authority is to supply people with a wholesome supply of clean water, and we want to know whether the Government intend to maintain that obligation. How do the Government intend to deal with the questions that I have raised involving a serious burst of a water main, the quality of the water in the taps and in the rivers, and the effect of untreated sewage, as well as flooding, drainage, and many other questions that I have not raised in detail.

    I raise these matters because they all arise directly from the national joint industrial council. In dealing with new clauses 9 and 10, I hope that the Government will say something helpful about national joint industrial councils.

    Will it be convenient if I intervene at some stage on the first issue that the right hon. Gentleman has raised? I am not sure whether this will be for the convenience of the House. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will reply to the general argument that the right hon. Gentleman is advancing in moving the new clause. I shall be happy to intervene if that is convenient.

    I seek your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I think that I can speak only once and I am about half way through my speech. I shall be happy to give way to the Secretary of State, who rightly discerns that I am moving on to the general principle.

    If it is for the convenience of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall seek to catch your eye when the right hon. Gentleman has completed his remarks.

    I am pleased to hear that. I cannot give the right hon. Gentleman any encouragement by suggesting that I shall be quicker in the knowledge that he wishes to intervene. I take note of the fact that he is trying helpfully to intervene.

    I move on from the immediate issue, which I think it was right to raise. Indeed, it would have been a dereliction of duty if I had not raised it. I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to Mr. Speaker, for allowing me some latitude.

    The general issue that the new clause raises is the abolition of national negotiating machinery. This will be the inevitable consequence of destroying the National Water Council. In future, under the Bill we shall have 10 nationalised industries instead of one. That will mean that we shall have 10 pieces of negotiating machinery. There will be nine for the English regions and one for Wales instead of the present one.

    We were told in Committee that these matters were being discussed by the chairmen and that they would come to a conclusion. I presume that their decision and the Government's decision will be reported to the House. In my judgment any decision to replace the central joint negotiating machinery in the water industry will be disastrous for the nation. It is inconceivable that anyone can believe that 10 separate water authorities should even consider holding 10 separate series of wage negotiations. The undermining of the national authority of the unions in those circumstances would be extremely embarrassing.

    The action of leapfrogging is well known and is an obvious danger which one would have thought the Government could understand. The most important consequence that will flow from not having national negotiating machinery is that the position of the central negotiators, who have been so responsible over the years in their negotiations, will be undermined. Is that what is wanted? I think sometimes that it is what some Ministers want. I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield is listening to the debate. Having read some of the proposals by the Secretary of State for Employment for the Labour party, I came to the conclusion, as an ex-president of a trade union, that he was seeking to undermine the influence of the moderates within the trade union and labour movement. Irrespective of whether he wants to do that, that will be the inevitable consequence of his proposals. This is another example of people moving into areas that they do not understand and in which they will inflict enormous harm on the very causes and policies that they are seeking to espouse.

    My right hon. Friend, who has served on a local authority, will understand that the Government's proposals will take us back to the bad old days of the immediate post-war years. During that period I well recall authorities in the north-east fighting for what were then known as sanitary inspectors, who are now described as health inspectors. They offered salaries that were over the odds and sanitary inspectors moved from authority to authority to receive £5 and £10 increases. The local authorities were literally falling over one another to get the staff that they required. this is what will happen in the water industry. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is nonsensical to set man against man and area against area with people climbing over one another?

    9.30 pm

    I entirely agree with all those considerations. However, transcending those considerations, which are personal and therefore vital to the people concerned, is the national interest. If we do away with national negotiation we shall undermine the national interest throughout the water industry.

    There has been a period of comparative silence on the matter from the Government. We tried to deal with it in Committee. It was right to table the new clauses because it is essential that the Government have the opportunity to tell us their conclusions and what they are doing. One of the signs that the Government might not be acting in the best interests of the industry is the fact that although they propose to abolish the National Water Council and have nothing to say in the Bill about national joint industrial negotiations, none of the people involved was consulted by the Government about their proposals in the Bill. That resulted in a terrible loss of morale and undermining of confidence.

    I hope that the Under-Secretary or the Secretary of State will be able to satisfy us on questions that I have been asked to raise by the staff side. Those questions are important to the National Water Council. Will the staff be offered alternative jobs? What are their prospects? Will their pension rights be protected? What about their redundancy payments? Those are all the usual questions. The replies are essential to those individuals, who are entitled to ask the questions.

    One of the other aspects of national joint negotiations that is of great concern is the training programme in the water industry. My hon. Friend the Member for Dunbartonshire, West (Mr. Campbell) has a special interest in that matter and talked about it on Second Reading. We have not been told what will happen to the training schemes on the industry, which are of the highest quality and are a great credit to it. They have served us well. Is it suggested that the overall training scheme for the industry should be broken up and replaced by ten separate training schemes? I know that some of the regional water authorities would like to do that, but it would not be in the best interests of the country.

    I am conscious that many hon. Members want to speak. I have probably spoken for too long. I hope that I shall be excused for that in view of the gravity of the questions that have been raised. We are concerned about the matter. I am glad that the Secretary of State will respond immediately about the strike in the water industry. I hope that the Under-Secretary will assure us that the national joint industrial councils will be maintained with the responsibility for wages, negotiation and training, which the situation demands.

    It might be for the convenience of the House if I intervene briefly to respond to the comments made by the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Howell) in his fair preamble to the new clause about the future negotiating procedures for the water authorities. I hope that the House will be agreeable if I leave it to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to reply specifically on the future arrangements and to respond to the new clause. I shall confine myself to commenting on the right hon. Gentleman's earlier remarks about the current situation, which is germane to negotiating arrangements. I entirely endorse his comments about the gravity of the situation. He is familiar from his own experience with the effects that limited industrial action had in certain parts of the country at the time of the Labour Government.

    As the House knows, the unions concerned have now given notice of certain forms of industrial action immediately, with effect from tonight, with overtime bans and refusal of co-operation, and of a national strike with effect from midnight on Sunday. As the right hon. Gentleman fairly said, both sides are having discussions with ACAS, and I wish to say nothing from the Dispatch Box today that might in any way impede, interfere with or confuse those very important discussions. I am grateful that the right hon. Gentleman, too, chose his words carefully. I intend to say nothing more about those matters now as they are the subject of direct discussions.

    There are procedures in the water industry for settling disputes and I hope that they can be observed. In view of the gravity of the matters that might otherwise be involved, I think that the country is entitled to expect that those procedures are observed. I hope very much that the Opposition will feel able to lend their support to encouraging the observance of agreed procedures. No one in the House needs any further emphasis of the gravity of what might happen if serious industrial action took place.

    The right hon. Gentleman raised the important question of contingency plans. As soon as we received notice of the decisions taken by the unions at their meeting yesterday, announcing the immediate industrial action that they proposed to take and the fact that from next Sunday they would propose a national strike, the Government took immediate steps to put contingency arrangements in hand. I can inform the House that contingency arrangements, which I imagine are very similar to those that the Labour Government had in place for such situations, were immediately put in hand and troops are on notice of standby to be available. I should say at once that it is my very earnest hope that they will not be required and that the matter will be sensibly resolved without any need for their involvement, but I think that the House will agree that in a situation of this kind the Government have a responsibility and that we should have been totally failing in that responsibility if we had not taken precautionary steps.

    As the right hon. Gentleman, who knows as much about these matters as I, will recognise, it is unclear how far such contingency measures can go to meet the situations that might arise. The honest truth is that no one is quite clear what types of situation may arise, their scale and frequency, the work load and the problems that may be posed. The contingency arrangements are not a solution to the problem, but they are the best response that the Government can make in terms of taking precautions at this stage in view of the serious consequences that could arise.

    It is important to make it clear that we face serious disagreements. The water industry and the national joint industrial council have recognised in the past that they could face serious disagreements in their negotiations and discussions and there are procedures for seeking to resolve such disagreements. I hope very much that those procedures will be successful and I trust that it is the hope of the whole House that ACAS will be able to find some basis on which the matter can be resolved sensibly.

    I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way. He has said twice that there are procedures within the industry for the settlement of disputes. The prerequisite of the settlement of the threatened dispute is the freedom for employers and employees to negotiate freely. Can the Secretary of State assure us that the Government are prepared to back off and stop leaning on the employers by insisting on the 4 per cent.?

    The trap that the hon. Member is trying to lead me into is a discussion of the merits of the arguments that are being deployed before ACAS. The issue has a long history, as the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Small Heath said when he referred to comparability.

    I shall not go any further into the subject. It has a long history. Many meetings have taken place. There is a substantial divide. That is no secret between the bodies concerned. I may have misheard the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, West (Mr. Brown), but I wish to correct a factual point. The offer of arbitration as an alternative was made at the first meeting between the employers and the unions. It has not emerged more recently. That is part of the procedures in the industry. The House will understand that I do not wish to press any further on the subject today.

    The hon. Gentleman fairly asked me about contingency arrangements. It was proper for him to ask, in view of the gravity of the problem. I hope that I have made it clear that those contingency measures have been taken and have now been put in hand. I am sure that that is the assurance that the hon. Gentleman would wish to have.

    I am grateful to the Secretary of State for speaking but I am left with a profound sense of disappointment. I appreciate his reply to the contingency planning point. The fact that he spoke about it in isolation, apart from any constructive discussion of how we may get out of the negotiation impasse, will lead people to fear the worst.

    The point that my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, West (Mr. Brown) made is crucial. I hope that the Secretary of State will deal with it. I accept that arbitration may have been offered on the first day of negotiations. In practice, that means that when the trade unions met the employers, they were told that they must accept 4 per cent. or go to arbitration. What is more, the 4 per cent. was offered on the instruction of the Government. In no sense is that free negotiation. That is what has brought us to the present extraordinary circumstances.

    It is essential that the Government do not go into the merits of the negotiations—it would be ludicrous for me to suggest that—but when ACAS goes back to the employers' side tomorrow, it must be able to ask whether they can settle and negotiate freely. That is the only question that a trade union organiser worth his salt is interested in.

    If the Secretary of State does not take this opportunity to clarify that point, his statement will not have helped but will have made a real solution more difficult to achieve. He should have taken this opportunity to say that the negotiators are free to negotiate to the best of their judgment the most sensible settlement that they can achieve for the industry. If he cannot tell us that the negotiators are free to settle—free, that is, from Government interference—I regret that the problem will be even more difficult tomorrow than I thought it would be.

    The right hon. Gentleman has invited me to advance some ideas as to how the dispute might be resolved. I wish to make it clear that, because these matters are currently being considered by ACAS, I have no intention of intervening. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will understand that I cannot comment further. ACAS is holding discussions with each party concerned and it would be irresponsible to comment further.

    The right hon. Gentleman asked a specific question. He understands the position very well, and also why it would not be wise for me to comment further.

    If the hon. Gentleman listened, he would understand why I shall not give way.

    9.45 pm

    I declare an interest as Secretary of the General, Municipal, Boilermakers and Allied Trades Union group of Members of Parliament. I wish to express my deep concern. We are on the brink of a national stoppage that could result in far worse consequences than have resulted from any other stoppage experienced in Britain. I refer to a stoppage in the water supply and sewage industry. I was encouraged when the Secretary of State intervened, but disappointed with his statement. If anything, he has worsened the position. I hoped that he would say something to give hope for believing that the needless stoppage would not take place.

    I have a letter from Mr. Eddie Newall, the secretary of the national joint industrial council for the industry. He is a national industrial officer in my union. Two-thirds of the 29,000 workers in the industry are organised by the union. He says in his letter:
    "The combined memberships have voted by 4 to 1 to reject the Employers' offer and to authorise strike action in the Industry. The Executive Councils have considered the ballot result and given authority for strike action to secure a satisfactory settlement. Contacts with the Employers since then have made it clear that the Government has, in effect, taken over the decision making in the negotiations and that the Employers have no freedom whatsoever to respond to the desire of the Trade Union Side for a negotiated settlement."
    That is a serious statement, which a responsible individual such as Eddie Newall would not put on paper if it had not been absolutely true, chapter and verse. The letter continued:
    "I should point out that whilst the unions are determined to safeguard public health and safety it is inevitable that if troops are used our members will walk out completely. They have made this clear on several occasions."
    I sincerely hope that the Government take on hoard the seriousness of the nature of the dispute if troops are involved. I must warn the Government that, without the assistance of the professional engineers in the industry, the troops cannot do the job. I was Army Minister for five years, and can claim a little knowledge of the capacity of the technical corps of the British Army. I can say without fear of contradiction that there is no way in which the Army, Navy and Air Force combined can provide the technical know-how to avoid an absolute catastrophe if the dispute goes ahead.

    Mr. Newall continued:
    "The Government seen determined on enforcing a rigid 'pay policy', and denying the Employers the freedom to negotiate a settlement which deals with the specific problems of our industry. It would seem that they are prepared to face up to a major industrial conflict with a group of workers who have never before taken strike action on a National scale, and who have a history of reaching negotiated settlements."
    That shows the serious nature of the issue. Those workers are not a set of industrial hotheads who down tools at the drop of a hat three or four times a year. They are an extremely responsible work force who, in the past, have responded at all times to negotiations and who would do so on this occasion if they were given the opportunity.

    If the strike comes off, there can be no doubt where the responsibility will lie—firmly at the door of the Government. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Howell) said, at the general election many trade unionists voted for the Government on the basis of a commitment to free collective bargaining. The water workers are denied the right to negotiate with their employers, the National Water Council. To talk about arbitration at the opening meeting of national negotiations, to make one offer and then to say that it must be arbitration or nothing, makes complete and arrant nonsense of the negotiating procedures in the industry. Arbitration is a long-stop, something that is used when the employers and employees have been locked together in endless hours of negotiation and can make no headway. At that point, they say "We must go to arbitration". They do not say that on the first day of the first meeting.

    It is an open secret that the water employers were prepared to go to that first meeting and to make an offer of about 6 per cent. If that had happened I am convinced that, two or three meetings later, the negotiations would have been completed and a settlement reached. There would have been no talk of strike action whatever. However, it goes without saying that the employers were instructed by the Government because the Prime Minister is obsessed with the 4 per cent norm in the public sector. That obsession exists despite the fact that she besmirched herself by the commitment to free collective bargaining that she gave during the 1979 election campaign.

    We all know about the unceremonious way in which the chairman of the National Water Council, Sir Robert Marshall, was bundled out of office, sacked or given the boot. Why? He was not prepared to remain as chairman and to see his industry bedevilled by the Government. The threatened strike could be avoided within hours—I am extremely disappointed with the Secretary of State's statement and the fact that he has now left the debate—if the Government were prepared to return to sanity and to announce tonight that the National Water Council and the NJIC for the industry could get back round the table and recommence, or commence—"recommence" was the wrong word to use—meaningful negotiations. It is scandalous that at this late stage the Government have not sought the permission of Mr. Speaker to make a statement on such a grave threatened dispute.

    I need not describe the scenario of the disaster that will befall the British public if the strike goes ahead. The idea of sewage flowing down Downing Street and Whitehall does not appeal to me, but the idea of sewage flowing down the streets of West Newcastle appeals to me even less. I hope that it will not happen, but it could happen if we reach a precipitous position.

    It angers and worries me that this has happened despite the fact that the water workers are eminently reasonable people. The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Sir W. Elliott) is chairman of the Newcastle and Gateshead water company and he knows how reasonable his employees are. The hon. Gentleman nods his head in agreement. If the Minister could have said from the Dispatch Box tonight that the Government are prepared to allow the National Water Council and the NJIC to enter into meaningful negotiations without the Government insisting on the 4 per cent.—

    Does my hon. Friend accept that the dispute turns the Government's policy on its head? Previously, when public sector workers were in dispute they asked to go to arbitration and were refused by the Government. Now the Government are saying that the water workers must go to arbitration immediately without negotiation. During the National Health Service strike the Government said "Get back round the table". That is exactly what my hon. Friend is asking for the water workers, but the Government have taken an entirely opposite attitude towards them.

    My hon. Friend is correct to say that in this case the negotiations had not started when the Government said that there must be arbitration, whereas in other public service disputes there were endless hours of negotiaion and arbitration was refused.

    Although the water workers are eminently reasonable, attitudes will harden if a strike starts. I am sure that after two or three meetings between the employers and the employees a reasonable solution could have been agreed without any strike threat. Now we have that threat, but it is still possible to avoid the strike. It is imperative that we do so, because once the strike starts and attitudes harden, the individual who might have said "8½ per cent. to 9 per cent. is enough for me", if he has lost a week or two weeks' wages, will say "To yon place with the Government. They will pay for this now. I want my 15 per cent."

    Finally, the leading article of today's edition in Newcastle of The Journal, states:
    "This is a major challenge to the Government's policy on public sector pay—and since we have never lived through a water workers' strike before, it is difficult to calculate what the precise effects will be.
    "Potentially, of course, the consequences for the health of the nation could be very serious indeed—and it must be said that the Government are so far losing the propaganda battle over the four per cent. offer."
    The British people are certainly not behind the Government on the 4 per cent. offer. The editor of the journal concludes by saying:
    "The danger is that the public may now become the victims as the watermen test their determination against the Government's resolve.….unless the new Environment Secretary, Mr. Tom King, can be persuaded to make an eleventh hour intervention."

    It being Ten o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.