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Water Supply: Northern Ireland

Volume 725: debated on Wednesday 9 February 2011


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assistance they provided to the Northern Ireland authorities during their recent difficulties with water supplies.

My Lords, during the period of extreme cold weather, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland met the devolved Ministers with policy responsibility in this area and offered the Government’s assistance. He subsequently discussed the matter with the Secretary of State for the Environment and with Water UK, and helped to identify additional call-centre capacity to deal with the heavy volume of calls from customers in Northern Ireland who had suffered disruption.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for that reply. I am reassured to hear that there was additional call-centre capacity, but I wonder what additional water was supplied.

As far as water is concerned, there is no shortage of water in Northern Ireland. The good Lord makes good provision. The problem is getting the water to where it is needed. Extra water was pumped into the pipes but the problem was that some of that leaked out. However, the call centres were very important indeed and we must not forget that. An offer of assistance was made by the First Minister of Scotland—a sort of Christmas gift—and 160,000 litres of Scotland's water were taken across to Northern Ireland. I am sure that those in Northern Ireland were very pleased to have it. However, Northern Ireland's daily consumption of water is 625,000,000 litres. In other words, the gift from Scotland, welcome though it may have been, was 0.000256 per cent of a day’s water usage.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the people of Northern Ireland were greatly appreciative of the generous donation of Scottish water to Northern Ireland? Will he confirm that the Sinn Fein/IRA Minister, Conor Murphy, the Minister responsible for water in Northern Ireland, declined to ask for aid from a British Government or agency to the people of Northern Ireland in their hour of need?

I would not detract from the Scottish generosity to Northern Ireland. I am aware that the Minister in Northern Ireland was involved in discussions with my honourable friend. It is not clear to me whether he believed that there was a request that he ought to make. Assistance was offered to him in regard to the call centres. I would like people to understand that more than 400,000 people on one day tried to telephone Northern Ireland Water and only 4,000 of those calls were answered. Therefore, bringing in the call centres, which were available through Water UK, a UK and Northern Ireland-wide body, was a tremendous help to people who were seeking it.

Does my noble friend agree that successive Administrations, from the first Stormont through to the second Stormont, to both periods of direct rule and to the Stormont Assembly as now constituted, have totally neglected the refurbishment of water ducts and so on in Northern Ireland and it is now time that they addressed that?

Something like £2,000 million was invested in water in Northern Ireland in the 18 years up to 2006-07. Since then, a further £1 billion has been invested but it is quite clear that more money is required for investing in the infrastructure. However, acquiring help in the crisis is a different issue compared with long-term involvement in the infrastructure.

My Lords, given that the level of rainfall in Northern Ireland is probably not very different from that in the Republic of Ireland, why was there such a serious problem in Northern Ireland when there does not appear to have been one in the south?

I was there at the time, so I can tell the noble Lord that there was a bit of bother in the south as well. Incidentally, a piece of work was published yesterday by the Consumer Council for Northern Ireland showing that the biggest problems were people understanding what was going on, indicating that they had problems, wanting assistance and getting through to those who could help. That was the problem in Northern Ireland. If you look at the 60-page paper that was produced yesterday by the consumer council, you will see that it believes that Northern Ireland Water—these are the council’s views, not mine—was not prepared for an emergency of this type. It has been asking Northern Ireland Water whether it could see the advanced planning in case there is an emergency and it had not had it.

My Lords, my noble friend has sought to distinguish between the crisis and the long-term structural inadequacy that most people believe is the reality in Northern Ireland. I hope he will not mind me saying that the big problem that the Northern Ireland people had was not a lack of information so much as a lack of water. Does he believe that getting structural change in the hope that such a crisis will not happen again is more likely to take place if the water service is privatised?

My Lords, it does not matter what I think about whether it is privatised or not. It is not up to the Government either. This is a devolved matter. You cannot devolve something and then say, “We are going to make the decisions”. The water service in Northern Ireland is a devolved service and it is up to the people in Northern Ireland—I believe there will be an election there before too long—and to those who are elected to decide what sort of water service is required. Northern Ireland and Scotland have state water and in England we have a privatised service. It is their decision because it is a devolved matter; it is not our decision.