HC Deb 05 August 1976 vol 916 cc2260-5

Again considered in Committee.

Mr. Page

I was dealing with Amendment No. 33, which seeks to remove subsection (4) from the Bill.

Under that subsection the Secretary of State may give directions to the water authority when carrying out powers which he may already have given it. Then having given it authority under subsection (4), he may direct the authority as to the manner in which it shall carry out that authority and the circumstances of so doing. That process could wholly nullify any order and put the Secretary of State in place of the water authority in deciding to carry out the prohibition or limit the use of water. I think that was the intention of the Minister as he expressed himself on Second Reading.

I appreciate the righ hon. Gentleman's reasons, but the action of the Secretary of State cannot be challenged in any court or indeed under parliamentary procedures. These are Draconian powers, and I question the necessity of these provisions having to be set out in this form, with no possibility of scrutiny of the order given by the Secretary of State to the water authority. If subsection (4) were omitted, Amendments Nos. 36 and 37 would follow. I need not deal with them specifically.

I turn to Amendments Nos. 34 and 35. As subsection (5) stands, the order given by the Secretary of State to water authorities will say, in effect "You, the water authority, may prohibit or limit the use of water in any way you wish.". Amendment No. 34 provides that the order must be specific in the powers which it grants. As the matter stands, the Secretary of State can give a completely blank cheque to the water authority to prohibit or limit the use of water in any way he chooses, and should specify in the order the ways in which he is authorised to exercise those powers.

The Minister for Planning and Local Government (Mr. John Silkin)

The right hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Page) is, as we know—and we are grateful for it—the watchdog of the House of Commons, but occasionally there are times when he does not want to bark when there is a crisis. The difference between Clause 1 and Clause 2 is that in Clause 2 we have reached a crisis whereas in Clause 1 we are in what may be termed the run-up to a crisis, although we hope that there will not be one. Clause 1 deals with a situation in which, in the opinion of the Secretary of State, there are a number of nonessential uses which the regional authority may deal with as it wishes. Clause 2 deals with blanket rationing powers, subject to ministerial direction.

If the right hon. Gentleman's amendments were accepted, an order made under the Bill would have to set out all the uses of water which the authority might want to control in an emergency. If any of them were left out, they would be exempt. The right hon. Gentleman, like myself, is a practitioner and he knows what would happen: every water authority would put in every conceivable possible use. There would as a result be a volume of paper, which I dislike as much as the right hon. Gentleman, and the public would not understand what it was about. It is therefore better to avoid this situation and to provide for an order which deals with the nature of the emergency. In other words, the water authority must be free to exercise its control flexibility. That applies equally to the ministerial power of direction.

The right hon. Members for Crosby and Ashford (Mr. Speed) and my hon. Friends know perfectly well how to deal with arrogant Ministers who exceed their powers. Although it would not do them much good to propose a reduction in my salary as I do not receive one, there are other means by which they could bring me or any other arrogant Minister to task. The point is that we are dealing with a crisis. We must therefore take crisis action. In the light of that, I hope that the right hon. Member for Crosby will ask for leave to withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Graham Page

To a great extent, I agree with what the Minister has said and I am grateful to him for putting it on the record. To that extent, the amendments were probing amendments. I should, however, like to press the right hon. Gentleman in respect of subsection (4) under which the directions can be given without any formality. They are not to be made by order. I presume that they could be made simply by letter or even by means of a telephone call to the water authority. The matter should be dealt with more formally and there should be some provision in the Bill setting out how the directions would be given.

If the Minister will give an undertaking that when he gives a direction to a water authority the public will know about it, I shall be happy.

Mr. John Silkin

I shall do what I can to meet the point made by the right hon. Gentleman. A crisis might arise when it was necessary to do something very quickly. The right hon. Gentleman will appreciate that a Minister might have to act with great speed and urgency and it might not be possible to do everything that one would wish to do. However, such assurance as I can give the right hon. Gentleman I heartily give him.

Amendment negatived.

Mr. Keith Speed (Ashford)

I beg to move Amendment No. 7, in page 4, line 29, after 'water', 'insert' supplied by that authority'.

This is a probing amendment, and it deals with quite a simple point. There could be a situation in which a consumer—I suppose,in extremis—might even have water imported. Someone on the North-East Coast, for example, might have a tanker of water imported from Norway, where I understand there is plenty of water, or consumers just across the border from Scotland, which also has plenty of water and which is not covered by the Bill, might be able to bring water from Scotland.

In such a situation, I am not clear whether consumers would be allowed to do that. We propose the insertion of these words to make it clear that drastic prohibitions in this way would apply to water supplied by an authority in an area to a consumer in that area.

This is not a dramatic point, but it is one which needs clarification, because I can see the nonsenses which would arise if there were impositions about this. I should be grateful for some assurance from the right hon. Gentleman about it.

Mr. John Silkin

I have a great deal of sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman has said, and I am with him in his intention. However, we find the drafting a little difficult. Since he was good enough to say that he would welcome an assurance from me, perhaps I might give him the assurance that in administrative terms the matter will be dealt with by including in the orders made under Clause 2 a provision specifically excluding water imported in the sense that his amendment suggests. If he is happy with that, I gladly give him that assurance.

Mr. Speed

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that assurance. In view of it, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. John Silkin

I beg to move Amendment No. 8, in page 4, line 32, leave out paragraph (b) and insert— '(b) the authority shall take such steps as they think appropriate for bringing the prohibition or limitation to the attention of the persons to whom the prohibition or limitation will apply, and, in particular, shall—

  1. (i) cause notice of the prohibition or limitation to be published in one or more local newspapers circulating within that part of the authority's area which would be affected by the provision of the order, or—
  2. (ii) send notice of the prohibition or limitation to the persons to whom the prohibition or limitation will apply,
as the authority think appropriate;'.

The Deputy Chairman

With this we may consider Amendment No. 9, in page 4, line 32, leave out from 'shall' to 'give' in line 35.

Mr. Silkin

The intention of the amendment is to strengthen the duty of the water authority by placing a general obligation upon it to bring to the attention of everyone likely to be affected any prohibition or limitation on water use, with the particular obligation either to publish notices in local papers or to send an individual notice to each of the persons affected.

We intend that this additional publicity requirement shall include radio and television broadcasts where appropriate, the basis being that everyone concerned will be fully aware of the proposed action of the water authority.

Mr. Speed

I am grateful to the Minister for this amendment. It meets a point that we had put to him. It does not go quite as far as our own amendment, but probably it goes as far as practicable.

I endorse what the hon. Gentleman said about the media. We in this House have been mesmerised by the local paper circulating and have not taken sufficient cognisance of the existence of local radio and television stations. If we wish to get across a message quickly, it might not be possible to do so with a local paper.

The words: as the authority think appropriate and "the authority shall" are stronger than the original provisions in the Bill in terms of giving notice of a prohibition or limitation to those to whom it will apply. Again, there are modern methods of transmitting notices which, for example, the energy industries have had to use from time to time. This is a welcome improvement.

10.15 p.m.

Mr. Graham Page

I want to raise one point. When the Secretary of State makes the order—in fact, before he makes the order—there will be all the procedure set out in the Schedule in respect of the notices of the application, and so on, of the water authority. At that stage it will be a general sort of order. No doubt, a general prohibition is being asked for or a general order of some sort. When the water authority operates Clause 2(5) it may specify a particular consumer. That is the point at which the crunch will come. The authority may perhaps use the first of the alternatives and merely put a notice in the newspaper without giving specific notice to the particular consumer who will be the victim, as it were, of the prohibition. It is that little word "or" between the sub-paragraphs of the Secretary of State's amendment to which I am drawing attention.

I would ask the right hon. Gentleman to call to the attention of the authorities, where they are making an order against a particular consumer, that they should make every endeavour to let that particular consumer know by direct notice.

Mr. John Silkin

That was what was intended but the right hon. Gentleman understands that one cannot make it conjunctive by this. I take his point and I shall do everything that I can to meet it.

Amendment agreed to.

Mr. John Silkin

I beg to move Amendment No. 10, in page 4, line 39, leave out '48' and insert '72'.

The Deputy Chairman

With this we may take Government Amendment No. 11.

Mr. Silkin

Amendment No. 11 is consequential on Amendment No. 10. Amendment No. 10 meets the point fairly made by hon. Gentlemen opposite who thought that 48 hours was too short a period to elapse between the publication by the water authority of a notice about prohibitions or limitations on water use and the time at which the prohibitions or limitations can take effect. I fully agree with them and I hope this additional safeguard will be considered appropriate in view of the possibly rather stringent restrictions which water authorities might have to impose.

Mr. Speed

I am obliged to the right hon. Gentleman. The amendment meets the point that we made to him and I am sure that it will improve the situation.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendment made: No. 11, in page 4, line 41, leave out 'given' and insert 'sent to the person in question'.—[Mr. John Silkin.]

Clause, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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