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Clause 1

Volume 35: debated on Tuesday 18 January 1983

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Constitution And Procedure Of Water Authorities

I beg to move amendment No. 3, in page 2, line 4, leave out from 'State' to 'authority' in line 6 and insert

'shall designate a member of each water authority as deputy chairman of that'.
This amendment meets the commitment given in Committee on 2 December to examine again the wording of clause 3(3), which would have conferred on the Secretary of State the power to designate one or more members of a water authority as a deputy chairman of the authority. As the hon. Member for Aberdare (Mr. Evans) said, that would have allowed the Secretary of State to designate no deputy chairman, one deputy chairman or more than one deputy chairman in different authorities. The amendment makes the position clear: the Secretary of State is to designate one, and only one, member as deputy chairman of each authority.

Amendment agreed to.

I beg to move amendment No. 4, in page 2, line 29, leave out subsection (2) and insert—

'(2) In Schedule 5 to the Local Government Act 1974 (matters not subject to investigation by Local Commissioner) the following paragraph is added at the end—
"6. Any action taken by a water authority (within the meaning of the Water Act 1973) otherwise than in connection with—
  • (a) any matter which is the subject of arrangements made with a local authority under section 15 of the Act of 1973 (arrangements for discharge of sewerage functions by other authorities); or
  • (b) those of their land drainage functions which are, by virtue of section 1 of the Land Drainage Act 1976, to be discharged by their regional land drainage committee."'
  • With this it will be convenient to take amendment No. 5, in page 2, line 29, leave out subsection (2), and Government amendments Nos. 29, 33, 35 and 36.

    These amendments arise out of the discussion in Committee about the role of the Commissioner for Local Administration—the local ombudsman.

    As I explained in Committee, the main provision of clause 1 alters the constitution of water authorities so fundamentally that it is necessary to make these changes. Whereas at present a majority of members is appointed by local authorities, in future all members will be appointed by the Secretary of State and, although there will be some local government members, they will be only a small component.

    I promised the Committee that we would ensure that the local ombudsman's remit would not be removed until the new consumer consultative committees were in operation. The amendment will enable the Secretary of State to implement the changes to the local ombudsman's remit whenever he chooses, and I assure the House that we shall not end that remit until the new committees are in being.

    Concern was expressed about cases where local authorities and water authorities were both engaged in the same area of business. The two cases are sewerage, where local authorities in most areas discharge the sewerage responsibilities of water authorities, and land drainage, for which both local authorities and water authorities have responsibilities. Concern was expressed that, whereas a local ombudsman might investigate a local authority's part in a particular sewerage or land drainage matter, under the Bill as it stands if he wished to continue his investigations into any part played by the water authority he would not be able to do so. We accepted that this was an anomaly and that the ombudsman should not find an investigation brought up short in this way but should be able to follow it through to a conclusion.

    I am pleased to tell the House that the amendments are designed to meet the point. Their effect is simply to allow the local ombudsman to investigate a water authority in respect of any sewerage matter arising where there is a sewerage agency which accounts for about 400 local authorities out of 450 in England. The amendments also allow him to investigate a water authority in respect of any land drainage matter. In short, the amendments represent a useful improvement to the Bill brought about by our discussions in Committee, and I commend them to the House.

    Although Government amendment No. 4 fulfils the undertaking given by the Minister in Committee, it does not meet the charge that the Bill materially reduces the rights of individuals, certainly as they were exercisable through the local government commissioner. Most Members who spoke in the Committee debate took the view that a whole range of water authority activities should remain subject to investigation by the ombudsman. Many people in this country have valued that right and if there are weaknesses in the ombudsman argument in that it relates only to maladministration, it would seem far more reasonable to improve and strengthen his role rather than to weaken it as the Bill does.

    Government amendment No. 4 means that certain matters that are the joint responsibility of water authorities and local authorities—sewerage and land drainage functions—will remain subject to investigation by the ombudsman, and we are grateful for that. Nevertheless, even with that amendment, the new subsection (2) still means that rights will be removed that individuals have enjoyed for many years. The right to put complaints to the ombudsman was given to water consumers by Parlaiment in 1974 and very few of us see any reason why it should be removed.

    The fact remains that water consumers frequently feel aggrieved by the activities of these large and sometimes remote organisations. In many cases the area covered is very large, so remoteness is a major factor, and very few ordinary members of the public are aware of the membership of water authorities. An individual's right to take a complaint of maladministration to the ombudsman is one that the House ought not to throw away lightly. The importance of the ombudsman is as an organisation or person to whom people can complain. It is an independent agency and not part of the water authority set-up. It has investigative powers and power to publish a report. That is a strong defence for the individual water consumer against the much larger and more powerful water authorities.

    The only defence that the Government have been able to advance is that that provision is no longer necessary with the wonderful consumer committees which will do the job that is now being done by the ombudsman. The consultative consumer committees are no replacement for the ombudsman. The independence and investigative powers of the ombudsman are its two main features. Nobody can argue that the committees have the same powers. Their independence is a myth. It depends on the water authorities. The staffing of the committees depends entirely on the water authorities. The details that their investigative powers require also depend on the water authorities. They are no replacement for the ombudsman.

    That is why we believe that the powers of the ombudsman should be retained. That is the purpose of our amendment. If the Government had any concern for the right of the individual to complain against the water authorities, they would not wish to remove those powers. Rather they would wish to increase them.

    Amendment agreed to.