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Water: Policy On Ec Standard Regulations

Volume 504: debated on Wednesday 22 February 1989

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3.7 p.m.

What is their policy about bringing drinking water up to the quality demanded by EC water standard regulations before the water industry is privatised.

My Lords, most supplies already comply with the provisions of the EC Drinking Water Directive; others will be brought into compliance before privatisation. Programmes will be agreed before privatisation for bringing the remaining supplies into compliance and the privatised water companies will be under a statutory obligation to fulfill those programmes by definite dates.

My Lords, does that Answer from the Minister indicate that the cost of bringing water supplies up to EC standards will fall on consumers? Is that the reason why private water companies are now greatly increasing their prices? Has the Minister read the comments made two weeks ago by Mr. Michael Swallow, the director of the Water Companies Association? In explanation of the increase in charges before privatisation he had this to say:

"At the moment we operate under profit control, which puts the customer first. This very simple form of regulation goes back to the middle of the last century and it has been very effective"—

: 

"The Government's proposals will put the companies under price control, which puts the shareholders first".
Is that a fair comment on the policy of the Government in bringing in privatisation of the water supplies of this country?

My Lords, it would not be appropriate to answer one part of the question because the noble Lord, Lord Molloy, has a Question down for tomorrow which concerns pricing and the statutory water authorities. That part of the question is not concerned with today's Question on the Order Paper and it would therefore be right if I answered that point tomorrow. As regards the standards that the EC and the consumer require—at a future date there may be changes in those standards—at some point the consumer is going to pay for the quality he requires. To achieve quality attracts costs.

My Lords, does the response that the Minister gave to my noble friend indicate that the Government are in full agreement with the European Commissioner for the Environment, Signor Carlo Ripa de Meana, as regards the ability or otherwise of this Government to derogate from European drinking water standards? Is the Minister confident that the Government's existing policy is in accordance with EC directives?

My Lords, we have been discussing several aspects of the Water Bill with the Commission, and that will come as no surprise to the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh. We have managed to allay its concerns as regards the implementation of the EC environmental directives, but with one exception. That concerns the legal provision of Clause 19(5)(b), protecting water companies from enforcement or prosecution action for breaching the EC drinking water directive so long as they have agreed an improvement programme with the department. We are discussing this aspect of the Bill with the Commission.

My Lords, can the Minister say whether the department and the Department of Health are fully staffed to inspect and to provide expert advice on these problems of contamination of drinking water? Has the Minister noted that in north Cornwall there has been a recent scandal in which the Department of Health is accused of sitting on a problem of contaminated water with bad effects on local health? This situation has continued for about six months. The excuse given was that this was in some way due to advice from government departments and that there were to be no long-term effects from the contamination. Are we fully staffed with experts and inspectors to make sure that this kind of event does not happen again?

My Lords, my department will establish a team of inspectors to ensure that water undertakers are complying with the standards.

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that these islands of ours have produced statistically the healthiest population that this world has ever seen? It is a population that has lived on the abundant water supply that flows under the fields of our islands and which is discovered and made useful by water diviners, of whom I happen to be one. Is the Minister going to allow Europe to jump in and interfere with this wonderful and traditional supply to our islands?

My Lords, I am certain that the proposed Water Bill does not interfere with the activities of water diviners, but I am not sure whether the EC has any plans. I shall write to the noble Lord to confirm or deny that position.

My Lords, I do not understand why the Minister could not answer the second part of my supplementary question. In his first Answer he indicated that this process will cost a great deal of money. Is it not the case that the British Government have been trying to avoid the EC regulations that should have been put into effect as regards water two years ago? Is it not now the case that either the Government introduce their present Bill which will then be declared illegal by the EC or the cost to the consumer of water is going to be very greatly increased as a result of privatisation?

My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Hatch, is aware that for five years the British Government proceeded on a basis without correction from the EC. The EC then disagreed with the method of implementation that we had continued for five years. That is the reason we are having discussions in order to proceed to the desired standards that it wishes and that we can comply with. We have acted in good faith throughout. We shall achieve a satisfactory outcome, which is a quality product going to a satisfied consumer.

My Lords, is it not the case that whether the consumer pays through taxes or through consumption, he will pay in the end? I do not understand what worries the noble Lord opposite.