HC Deb 30 January 1996 vol 270 cc768-9
8. Mr. Canavan

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will arrange to meet the chairmen of the water companies to discuss the quality and reliability of water supply. [10375]

Mr. Gummer

I met leading figures in the water industry earlier this month to discuss how they are seeking to safeguard supplies in the summer in the case of a repetition of last year's weather. I press the importance of those matters on them at every opportunity.

Mr. Canavan

How can the water companies possibly justify raking in more than £3,700 in profits every minute, while allowing more than half a million gallons of water to leak away every minute—largely because they have cut capital investment by £282 million since privatisation? Is it any wonder that, in the Strathclyde referendum, 97 per cent. of people voted against the quangoisation of Scottish Water, which they suspect is merely paving the way for the privatisation that has been an unmitigated disaster south of the border?

Mr. Gummer

If privatisation is such a bad thing, why does the hon. Gentleman not ask the hon. Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Mr. Dobson), Labour's spokesman on water, why the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers made such a sizeable investment in Thames Water? If the hon. Member for Holborn and St Pancras says that he does not know, it will be very surprising, because he is a sponsored member of the RMT. What is more, it appears that Thames Water dividends pay for his agent and pay his expenses. Here is another example of "say one thing and do another"; it is hypocrisy from Labour.

Mr. Batiste

Does my right hon. Friend recognise that many of us in Yorkshire look for a much improved service from Yorkshire Water in the years ahead, and for sweeping boardroom changes in the company as the best way of achieving it? Is it not clear that, given the existing drought, but for privatisation and the substantial investment made with it, many of us in Yorkshire would have been on standpipes long since?

Mr. Gummer

My hon. Friend is right. In 1976, when the weather was nothing like as extreme, more than 1 million people depended on standpipes or on rota cuts: in the recent weather, no one was so dependent. There are questions to be asked about Yorkshire Water, but it is now possible to ask them, whereas when it was nationalised there was no chance of gaining redress.

Ms Ruddock

Is the Secretary of State aware that pre-payment meters such as Waterkey, which are being trialled in the poorest households, result in higher charges to the consumer and can and do lead to self-disconnection? Is he further aware that, by providing the means for self-disconnection, water companies' powers contradict local authorities' power to intervene in disconnections on behalf of the most vulnerable people? Will he raise that issue, and its consequences for the poor, when he next meets the people who have become very rich by selling water?

Mr. Gummer

On no occasion when the hon. Lady or other Labour Members have raised these matters have I been unwilling to look into them, and I shall certainly do so, but I hope that she will respect me for displaying characteristic restraint, because I failed to mention the fact that the RMT also has shares in Cable and Wireless, British Gas and electricity companies. When she attacks such people, she is attacking the RMT, nearly 20 per cent. of whose investment is in privatised utilities.

Mr. David Martin

If my right hon. Friend spoke to the chairman of Portsmouth Water Company he would hear that there has been no hosepipe ban since 1976, that it is top of the water quality league and that its water leakage level and water supply charges are the lowest in the country.

Mr. Gummer

There has been no ban since the last Labour Government. Water companies in the privatised world are subject to tough controls. When the water industry was nationalised, there were no independent controls, so the consumer benefits enormously from privatisation, and the Labour party invests in privatised companies.