HC Deb 09 July 1996 vol 281 cc184-237
Madam Speaker

I have selected the amendment standing in the name of the Prime Minister.

3.59 pm
Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras)

I beg to move, That this House calls upon Her Majesty's Government to abandon its hidden agenda to force water metering on every household, which would prove expensive, unjust, dangerous to health and the least cost-effective way of protecting the environment. The Tory Government want to force every family in the land to install water meters. They will not put that proposal in their manifesto for the general election, but it is on their secret agenda. The water regulator the Government appointed is even worse. He is obsessed with promoting water metering for domestic customers. He seldom misses an opportunity to push water metering.

Yet the drive to force everyone in the country to have a meter flies in the face of common sense.

The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. John Gummer)

The hon. Gentleman has made an allegation which is entirely untrue. The Government do not wish to force people to have water meters. We are opposed to compulsory water metering. The Government have no intention of introducing it. Will he please withdraw the terms of his motion and the proposition that he has put forward, as it is entirely untrue?

Mr. Dobson

The answer to that is no, I will not.

Compulsory water metering cannot be justified, on economic, social or environmental grounds. That is why it is opposed by the Labour party.

Sir Anthony Grant (South-West Cambridgeshire)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Dobson

No. I think I am entitled to reach at least the second page of my speech, let alone the second paragraph.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Mid-Staffordshire)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. If someone unwittingly tells an untruth, is told that it is a lie and then refuses to withdraw it, is that not an outrage—

Madam Speaker

Order. It is part of the debate in a democratic society—the cut and thrust of debate. I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would understand that by now.

Mr. Dobson

Compulsory metering is opposed not only by the Labour party but by such diverse organisations as the Consumers Association, the British Medical Association and the Save the Children Fund. More important still, it is opposed by the vast majority of people in Britain, and how right they are.

Sir Anthony Grant

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Dobson

No, I shall not give way.

Everyone accepts the need to save water, to restrain the growth in demand and to make sure that our use of water is environmentally sustainable, but that does not mean that everyone should be forced to have a water meter. There are other ways of saving water and reducing demand. We believe that the alternatives to water metering would give better value for money, would have a quicker impact, would be more equitable, and would be less of a threat to public health.

Forcing everyone to have a water meter is a course that is being promoted by people who are so hooked on metering that they will not listen to reason. They do not seem to care about the expense and bother. They ignore the social consequences. They exaggerate the impact of metering on overall water consumption. They dismiss and cheaper ways of protecting the environment.

Let us start with the costs. Estimates of the costs of installing water meters vary. Actual costs of installing them also vary. They can be relatively cheap to install as part of a new house on a new estate. Installing them in existing houses can be very expensive. It is as well to remember that new houses form only a small addition to the housing stock each year, so most water meters would have to be installed in existing houses. Thus the process of installation would be more complex and expensive, and would take many years.

The latest official cost figures range from £165 to more than £200 per meter bought and installed. The total number of households which have a water meter at present is about 21.8 million, so the total initial cost to the nation could be as much as £4 billion or more to install water meters. It is hard to believe that the installation of meters is the best environmental use of that sort of money.

Mr. Gummer

But as I have said that I am opposed to the compulsory use of water metering, because it would be expensive and as we would not do it, why is the hon. Gentleman pretending that anyone would do it? Is it not the fact that he could think of nothing else to debate, so he decided to debate an entirely fictitious motion against a Government who have no intention whatever of doing what he says they want to do?

Mr. Dobson

The Secretary of State needs to bear it in mind that, for people living in new houses in some areas, water metering is compulsory. He has not stopped it. He has appointed as water regulator someone who says that he is in favour of compulsory water metering.

Sir Anthony Grant

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way.

If he is saying that no one wants the metering, will he explain why an independent market research exercise involving Anglian Water showed that no less than 80 per cent. of the people thought it was a good idea?

Mr. Dobson

We need to look in detail at some of the surveys carried out by those companies that favour water metering, as they have tended to adjust the outcome to suit their argument—not that that is unknown in the House of Commons.

Metering produces further costs. A metered system of water charging clearly costs much more to run than the present system. Estimates vary from £21 to £24 per meter per year, giving an extra running cost of about £500 million per year. Many people could think of better ways of spending £500 million of their money than having a more expensive system.

Mr. Jacques Arnold

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Dobson

No, I will not.

There are other extra costs. A water meter lasts only about 10 years on average, after which it needs to be replaced—once again, at enormous cost and disturbance to householders. All those costs could be avoided by using other methods of charging for water; the existing methods incur none of those expenses.

The promoters of metering claim that water meters give customers an incentive to save water. But they seldom give honest answers to common-sense questions such as whether meters provide an incentive to save water, whether poor families would be hardest hit by water metering, whether saving water might hurt some families and the elderly, and, above all, whether there is a cheaper, quicker and more just way of saving water.

I shall take each of those questions in turn. If meters are to provide customers with an incentive to save water, they must first be read by those customers; secondly, they must be readable; thirdly, they must affect people's use of water. But according to a recent survey by the Consumers Association, 60 per cent. of people with water meters never read them. National meter trials showed that meter failures, including inadequate measuring, range from 18 per cent. to 29 per cent. of all meters installed—equivalent to about 7 million families a year having an inaccurate meter, if every family is to be forced to have a meter.

The installation of metering in some parts of the country has led to less water being used, at least at the outset. But even the official report of the national metering trials makes it clear that that reduction may be partly caused by the publicity surrounding the trials, and partly by the recession. The Water Companies Association said yesterday that the current evidence to the Environment Select Committee had established that metering has only a short-term impact on conservation.

It appears from the figures that, in some parts of the country, the introduction of water meters has led to an increase in demand for water. According to Ofwat, 40 per cent. of households with a meter said that it had not caused them to reduce their consumption. The recent Consumers Association survey found that only one third of those surveyed had cut their consumption, and the others had increased theirs.

It is fair to say that a large permanent drop in consumption could not be guaranteed, even by spending £4 billion on water meters. That does not mean that no families would cut their use of water. The only objective of installing water meters is to get people to use less water. Like everything else, the families with the least money will be hit first and hit hardest—that is typical of the Government's policies.

Mr. Jacques Arnold

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Dobson

No, I will not.

According to the water regulator, people in houses with high rateable values, benefit—save money—through the introduction of water metering, but badly off families may be hit, and forced either to pay high bills or to reduce the water they use. The supporters of water metering want to put the squeeze on people—but not on comfortably off, professional people like themselves. Their favoured system puts the squeeze on poor people, particularly poor, large families—it does not contain a shred of justice.

The Save the Children Fund survey found that, on an estate in Essex, four out of five families on low incomes found it hard to pay their metered water bill, and were reducing the water that they used. One person affected said: You go round smelling … you can't afford a bath. I'd like a bath each day but can't. I'm frightened in case the bill comes in too high. Another said: When I work my money out, I just can't do it. Is it the bill or is it feeding my kids? Another said: Living with two kids you worry. I pay £7 per week for his nappies. It is either the water or him go without a nappy. Presumably Ofwat and Ministers regard those remarks as part of the success story of water metering. Most human beings would be more likely to agree with the Save the Children Fund's conclusion: As a society, for the past 150 years in the UK, we have made a priority of access to clean water for all our citizens. Historically, it has been seen as unacceptable for families not to be able to afford water. Why has this suddenly changed …? The Save the Children Fund is entitled to ask that question.

Mr. Gummer

It has not suddenly changed, and the Government are opposed to compulsory water metering. Why is it that the hon. Gentleman tables a motion that he knows to be untrue, and therefore implies that I have told a lie three times in the House? I have not so done. The Government are opposed to compulsory water metering. The hon. Gentleman should accept my word, as I would accept his word—and, given how silly many of his words are, he should at least be grateful when I say something sensible.

Mr. Dobson

It is not entirely by people's words that you judge them, Madam Speaker. In this country, at the moment, some families are forced to have water meters. The Minister has not lifted a finger to stop it. The water regulator, appointed by the Secretary of State or his predecessor, is in favour of compulsory water meters, and does nothing about it. Until he takes action to prevent the compulsory use of water meters, we will not believe him.

Mr. Jacques Arnold

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Dobson

No, I shall not.

The British Medical Association produced a thoughtful and authoritative report, which warned of the consequences if metering caused people to economise by reducing standards of personal and family hygiene. The report drew attention to the special needs of people who are incontinent or suffer from psoriasis or eczema, and to the extra water needed by families with babies and older children.

I point out to Conservative Members that, if one is incontinent, if one suffers from the diseases I mentioned, or if one is a baby, one needs the extra water, no matter how much money one has. We are trying to protect those who do not have the money. The supporters of water metering offer no solution to that problem.

Mr. Arnold

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Dobson

I will give way to the hon. Gentleman, but it will be the last time, if his intervention is as daft as they usually are.

Mr. Arnold

The hon. Gentleman has spent no less than 13 minutes saying that he opposes water metering. What form of water charging does he support?

Mr. Dobson

The hon. Gentleman had better listen to my speech.

Compulsory water metering, while costing billions of pounds, may not save much water, would hit poor people hardest, and might harm their health and well-being. My final question is: is there an alternative to the trouble, expense and injustice of water metering? Is there a better way of saving water? The answer is obvious: of course there are easier, cheaper and fairer ways.

First, we must stop the water companies wasting the millions of gallons that leak every day from their pipes.

Mr. David Jamieson (Plymouth, Devonport)

Water prices since privatisation are now two and a half times as much in the south-west. I visited a new estate in my constituency where water meters have been fitted. Many of the people living there are families, and I assure my hon. Friend that metering has made a difference to them: their bills are not two and a half times as much, but three times as much.

Mr. Dobson

I am sure that that is the case. The Secretary of State is not listening. I presume that that is because he does not want to hear evidence that people have been forced to have water meters.

As everybody knows, the real water wasters are not the customers but the water companies.

Sir Anthony Grant

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Dobson

No, I shall not.

When the Tory Government privatised the water industry, they gave it no less than £14 billion. Since then, the privatised companies have made £9.8 billion in profits and paid out dividends of more than £3 billion. Over that period, they have been a tax-free zone, paying no mainstream corporation tax, yet they have not invested in mending the leaks in their pipes. Every day, 855 million gallons of water, cleaned at the customer's expense before it leaks away, is wasted by the companies. That is more than half a million gallons a minute—four times the amount that leaks from customers' pipes.

It is therefore clear that the best way to protect the environment by saving water is for the companies to put their pipes in order rather than putting the squeeze on customers. It is not just the Labour party that says that. Last October's report, "Saving Water", issued by the National Rivers Authority, showed that cutting leaks was twice as useful as installing water meters, and that cutting leaks and installing more water-efficient household appliances are the most cost-effective ways of conserving water. It concluded that the water regulator was not doing enough to force the companies to reduce leaks from their pipes.

Mr. Fabricant

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Dobson

No, I shall not.

So cutting leaks was top priority, and the National Rivers Authority called for the introduction of mandatory leakage targets. Yet mandatory targets have still not been introduced, because the Government and the regulator do not like them. The long-term effects of compulsory metering would not encourage the water companies to mend their leaks—quite the reverse. The introduction of compulsory metering would reduce the pressure on the water companies to cut back on leaks in their pipes.

That is not the end of the story. To charge domestic customers according to the amount of water used would give the companies an incentive to promote the sale of water. Water company takings would be related directly to the amount of water they sold, and they would have a vested interest in encouraging consumers to consume more. As a result, the drive for water conservation would become as bedevilled by the profit motive as the drive for energy conservation has been hindered because it conflicts with the financial interests of the gas and electricity industries. That would be bad for the environment.

Mr. Robert Atkins (South Ribble)

I apologise for not being present at the beginning of the hon. Gentleman's speech, although I was listening to part of it upstairs. I was unavoidably detained. I shall try not to ask my question in a polemical way.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman understands that it is difficult to do much about leakage. One can go only so far in restraining leakage. In those circumstances, and faced with the problem that water is a diminishing resource as the climate becomes increasingly prone to drought, how does the Labour party suggest that we convince people that water as a resource must be conserved? If the hon. Gentleman does not approve of voluntary metering, what is the alternative?

Mr. Dobson

As I told the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold)—who, as usual, made an intervention and then left the Chamber—I shall come to that point in the course of my speech.

Compulsory water metering fails the economic, social and environmental tests, yet it has been heavily promoted by some—but not many—people in the water companies. It has been promoted most of all by the Government and the water regulator, who between them have gone to enormous lengths. In order to promote metering, they rigged water privatisation; they rigged the law; they rigged the price formula; they misled the House of Commons; they hindered the water companies, which wanted to consider other charging systems; and they played down water company leaks. At every turn, their first priority has been to promote metering.

Mr. Gummer

Will the hon. Gentleman cite a single occasion on which the Secretary of State for the Environment has promoted compulsory metering? Will he cite all the occasions on which I have said categorically that we are opposed to compulsory water metering?

Mr. Dobson

If the Secretary of State had listened to my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson), he would have heard that people have been forced to have water meters on an estate in Plymouth. That has occurred under the present law, under the present Tory Government and under the present Tory Secretary of State—and the Secretary of State has done nothing about it, because his secret agenda is to promote it.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

The Secretary of State for the Environment has intervened four times, and he has protested too much. We do not believe him when he says that he is not in favour of compulsory water metering. Why? Because, before the Tories were elected, they did not say that they would privatise rain, but when they got into power they did.

Mr. Dobson

My hon Friend makes a cogent point—[Interruption.] Dimmer I may be than the hon. Member for Mid-Staffordshire (Mr. Fabricant)—[Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)

Order. All hon. Members know my views on seated interventions. The highest standard of debate should prevail.

Mr. Dobson

I agree with you, Madam Deputy Speaker. Government Members should listen to what my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover said. The water industry has a bad reputation because people have an instinctive feeling that the water starts off free, goes through the pipes of the companies and ends up very expensive. If Government Members do not realise that, they will not understand the public mood in this regard.

Mr. David Hanson (Delyn)

I advise my hon. Friend of something that the Secretary of State said in answer to a parliamentary question from the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Dr. Goodson-Wickes): The Government believe that metering is in the long term the best basis for paying for water".[Official Report, 4 April 1995; Vol. 257, c. 1054.]

Mr. Dobson

My hon. Friend has made a cogent point.

I will explain why we believe that water metering is on the Government's agenda. To put pressure on the companies to introduce meters, the Government prohibited them from basing their charges on rateable value after 2000, or from using council tax bands in England and Wales. In Scotland, council tax bands have been used. This is all part of the Government's promotion of metering.

As far as we can see, the Government and Ofwat have not done much research into alternative ways of charging, and, worse than that, they have tried to prevent the water companies from doing research into alternatives. As a result, only one option is being promoted: metering. There is no choice for the companies or for the customers. The Government line is a paraphrase of Henry Ford: "You can have any system you like, so long as it's metering."

The Government started to rig the system in favour of metering right from the start of privatisation. They laid down a code of practice for leaks which did not mention leaks from company pipes but which gave the companies the power to force customers to repair leaks in their pipes, and to charge customers for repairing the leaks. Things got off to a bad start and, sadly, they got worse.

In 1991, the water regulator said: I encourage water companies to develop targeted programmes for compulsory metering of domestic supplies in those places where the benefits are likely to outweigh the costs … I would not regard the phased introduction of selective compulsory metering as involving undue discrimination or preference. The water regulator is in favour of pursuing compulsory metering.

Mrs. Elizabeth Peacock (Batley and Spen)

I have listened carefully to what the hon. Gentleman has said about the Director General of Ofwat. Many Conservatives do not agree with the Director General of Ofwat, particularly his comments about water metering.

Mr. Dobson

I agree with the hon. Lady, and I do not agree with the director general's comments, but the Secretary of State presumably does, because he does not say anything about them.

Mr. Matthew Taylor (Truro)

Will the hon. Gentleman clarify whether he is opposed to compulsory metering for people with excessive, non-essential use of water, such as sprinklers or swimming pools? Some water companies are introducing such compulsory metering, and I wish to be clear about the hon. Gentleman's position.

Mr. Dobson

That is a different matter. There is a case for metering people who use excessive amounts of water on domestic premises, but the vast bulk of people do not. [HON. MEMBERS: "Ah."] It is no good Conservative Members saying, "Ah," as if they were at the doctor's trying to show him the bottoms of their deep throats.

Mr. Gummer


Mr. Dobson

Oh, for God's sake.

Mr. Gummer

Before the hon. Gentleman leaves his attacks on the independent head of Ofwat, will he confirm that he would sack the independent head of Ofwat if he disagreed with him, and if he were in a position to do so? Or does the hon. Gentleman agree that an independent figure should run Ofwat? If the hon. Gentleman thinks that the head of Ofwat should not be independent, the House should know that, were there a Labour Government, Ofwat would have no independence, and the hon. Gentleman would decide what it should do.

Mr. Dobson

We have made it clear that we do not approve of the present regulatory system, which leaves both the customers and the managers of industries victims of the quirky views held by individual regulators. In many cases, those views are damaging the interests of customers, and in some cases damaging the interests of companies at the same time. It is no good the Secretary of State acting like Pontius Pilate and claiming that that public official, who is in favour of compulsory meters, is nothing to do with the Government. That is unacceptable.

The Environment Act 1995, passed by the House last year, continued the disreputable tradition of putting the blame on the customers. It required each water company to promote the efficient use of water, but by its customers, not by the company itself. When my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mrs. Jackson) proposed that that requirement should also apply to the companies, her arguments were dismissed with the combination of effortless ignorance and arrogance that Environment Ministers have brought to the issue.

The regulator—the public official whom the Secretary of State apparently does not even dare to try to influence—wrote to water companies to warn them that he would monitor their promotion of metering as a way of discharging their new duties under the Environment Act 1995. He advised the companies to promote metering in press releases and in other dealings with the local media. He even suggested that the companies should try to use organisations representing elderly people as a front for installing meters, because—I quote the regulator— customers distrust the company's intentions if they are approached directly". He is not kidding about that.

This year, the regulator told three companies to improve what he called "their meter options" to comply with his interpretation of the law. One was the York Waterworks Company, which supplied water to people in the middle of Yorkshire when Yorkshire Water, which covers the area surrounding York, failed to do so, but the regulator did not chide Yorkshire Water about anything. As recently as June this year, the regulator obliged companies to consider—I ask the House to listen carefully—water restrictions on unmetered customers to avoid cuts in supplies to metered customers. It is part of his drive to force us to have meters.

The regulator has rigged the water price formula, beginning with the startling decision that the cost of installing meters should fall not upon the customers who get the meters, but upon those who do not have meters. He also came to the extraordinary conclusion that the fixed cost element of the charge to unmetered customers should be higher than that for metered customers. He said that it would be short-sighted to include in the fixed cost to metered customers items such as the cost of reservoirs, treatment plants, mains sewers and sewage treatment plants. Apparently that did not go far enough, so in March 1994, he ordered the companies to reduce further the standing charges for metered customers.

The regulator was still at it in May this year, saying that he would press for further reductions in the standing charges for metered customers—which would be met at the expense of unmetered customers. As a result, average water bills in England and Wales for customers on unmeasured supplies have risen by 39 per cent. in real terms since privatisation. In the same period, water bills for customers using water meters have fallen by 2 per cent. in real terms. In the words of the Consumers Association, it means that consumers who are still paying for their water by the old rateable value system are now effectively subsidising metered customers".

Sir Anthony Grant

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Dobson

No, I shall not.

The water regulator's promotion of metering at the expense of non-metered customers is so excessive that I believe that he may be breaking the law. In 1991, he said: charges must broadly reflect the costs of providing water and sewage services to particular customers". That is the reverse of his present policy of loading the cost of meters on to non-metered users. Case law in the electricity industry makes it clear that excessive action, even to achieve a legitimate aim, can be unlawful, and that it is lawful to require an occupier to contribute to the greater capital and maintenance costs incurred in serving his or her premises. Yet the costs incurred in serving the premises of metered customers are being loaded on everyone else.

It seems to me that, if it is lawful to load customers, it may be unlawful to unload them. Even if it is not unlawful, it is certainly unfair, and an abuse of the regulator's discretion. It cannot be right to charge unmetered customers but not metered customers for the cost of installing meters.

The water regulator is not alone in his obsessive pursuit of compulsory water metering: Ministers have been at it as well. They have tried to promote metering at every opportunity, no matter how far they strayed from the truth.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hillsborough has devoted much effort to explaining the shortcomings of compulsory metering. She knows a great deal about the subject, as she will demonstrate when she winds up tonight for the Opposition. She was duly denounced by the right hon. Member for South Ribble (Mr. Atkins)— I warned him that I intended to mention him—then an Environment Minister, on 15 February 1995. He said that she had conducted an obsessive campaign against water metering and delivered the following magisterial ministerial statement: I would like the House to know the facts. First, most of the water leakage comes from domestic pipes, not company pipes … the increased incidence of metering will help to solve the problems of leakage."—[Official Report, 15 February 1995; Vol. 254, c. 983.] The only problem with that magisterial statement is that it is the reverse of the truth. I do not know whether the Minister knew the truth—he certainly should have, as should the Secretary of State and his officials. The Secretary of State was sitting next to the Minister on the Front Bench, but he did not tap him on the shoulder and tell him that he was wrong. None of the officials passed notes to the Minister—I checked that when I watched the video earlier today.

No one corrected the Minister's statement, until February this year, when the Secretary of State finally admitted, in a written answer to me, that the answer had misled the House. He added later that it was no more than a slip. We all make slips—I am as guilty as anyone—but it was a very convenient one. It was such a large slip that it might be described as a slide. It furthered the promotion of water metering, and it went uncorrected for a whole year.

The official promotion of water metering did not end there. My hon. Friend the Member for Hillsborough promoted a private Member's Bill to set mandatory leakage targets for water companies. It had all-party support, and was also supported by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health. What happened? The water regulator, ever willing to take an opportunity to do down any other way of saving water and to promote metering, issued a press statement headed "Mandatory leakage targets will mean higher customer bills." That was designed to coincide with the Bill, and to discredit it.

The press release also included the claim, which was being peddled at the time by Ministers and water companies, that the companies were pledged to spend £4 billion on reducing leaks. That was, to say the least, a bit of an exaggeration. The real figure being spent that year on identifying and mending leaks was £65 million, just 1.6 per cent. of the total referred to so favourably by the regulator and the Government.

All those statements were, of course, made in pursuit of the holy grail of water metering. All that shows how water metering has been promoted by the Government and the regulator. It is also promoted by some in the water industry, but the Water Services Association went on record in September 1994 as saying that compulsory metering was an untenable option because of the cost, impracticality and effect on customers' bills". Despite all the efforts of the promoters of metering, who stick to their dubious economic theories in the face of all the evidence, we find that compulsory water metering has no good in it. It would be wildly expensive, costing as much as £4 billion to install, £500 million a year to run and further billions in replacement costs every decade. Surely the country has better things to do with that money.

On top of that, it is not at all clear that charging people for the amount of water they use would save much water. Badly off families, however, would find it hard to pay the bills and would start to reduce their water use, which could harm their health. Saving water by cutting company leaks would do much more for environmental sustainability, and would come into action more quickly.

Other measures could reduce domestic water consumption. More effort should be put into promoting more water-efficient household appliances, such as washing machines and dishwashers. The building regulations and water byelaws could be changed to reduce water wastage. That could have been done in the Housing Bill or the Housing Grants, Construction and Regeneration Bill which have recently gone through this House.

Was that opportunity taken? No, it was not. Little or no effort has gone into those sensible ideas. Everything has been subordinated to the drive to promote water metering. The water companies could also be required to provide domestic customers with a free service to detect and mend leaks on their premises, but that has been ruled out.

This Government are mad keen on tests, but they will not accept that compulsory metering fails the economic test, the social test and the environmental test. The Labour party is campaigning on this issue to expose the Government's secret agenda and to stop the metering madness. We shall be supported in that by all sorts of organisations, but above all, we shall be supported by the people of this country.

In 1991, the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys found that 54 per cent. of the public were opposed to compulsory metering. In 1992, a survey carried out for the regulator showed that 82 per cent. of water customers were satisfied with the existing method of charging. Half believed that the money they paid into the companies should be spent not on metering but on replacing old water mains and sewage pipes.

By the autumn of last year, opposition to metering had risen to 67 per cent., and 87 per cent. said that the companies should do more to cut the leaks. In March this year, a survey for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds found 69 per cent. saying that the best way in which to save water was to set mandatory targets to reduce leaks.

This month, the Consumers Association published a survey which stated that 87 per cent. believed that everyone should have equal access to water whatever their income, which is incompatible with compulsory metering. Perhaps that view was a result of the regulator's efforts to drive down the cost of water to the 8 per cent. minority who are meter users, at the expense of the 92 per cent. who are not.

I am confident that, as the months go by, more and more people will see the common sense of our opposition to compulsory water metering, because it is expensive, unfair, wasteful and harmful to the environment.

Mr. Jacques Arnold

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Dobson


The Secretary of State is welcome to promote his hidden agenda, but I cannot believe that many Tory Members will be happy to join him tonight. Opposition Members willingly vote against compulsory water metering, because it is expensive, unjust—

Mr. Arnold


Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. It is clear that the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) will not give way; the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold) must resume his seat.

Mr. Arnold

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) promised to answer my question, and tell us what alternative charges he would devise. He has not yet done so, and he has nearly finished his speech.

Madam Deputy Speaker

I am afraid that that is not a point of order for the Chair.

Mr. Dobson

If the hon. Gentleman had stayed in the Chamber, he might have been in a position to comment.

As I was saying, Opposition Members willingly vote against compulsory water metering, because it is expensive, unjust, ineffective and harmful to the environment. What we do will be right, proper and popular.

4.40 pm
The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. John Gummer)

I beg to move, to leave out from "House" to the end of the Question and to add instead thereof: 'notes that Her Majesty's Government is committed to sustainable development and recently published an assessment of global warming in the United Kingdom with its sharp reminder of the increasing pressure on water resources; further notes that the increasing demand for water therefore requires a long-term approach to the management of water resources and that an important part of that task is to discourage unnecessary wastage of water both by companies and by customers; therefore welcomes the new duty on water companies to promote the efficient use of water and, although the Government has never supported a policy of compulsory metering, notes that metering can also be effective in encouraging customers to use only the water that they need and that this helps to increase the sustainability of water use; and looks to the water companies to use the flexibility available to them to develop their own tariff structures and methods best suited to the needs of customers and to local circumstances.'. I have been wondering for some time why the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) put his name to a motion that says something that is untrue.

Mr. Mike Hall (Warrington, South)

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. The Secretary of State has said that the motion says something that is untrue. If it did, would it not be out of order?

Madam Deputy Speaker

The Chair is not responsible for the accuracy of points made in any motion.

Mr. Gummer

I have made it clear, not only today but on many other occasions, that the Government are not in favour of compulsory water metering, and that there is no hidden agenda for that. Therefore, the motion is both otiose and as near to misleading the House as is possible within the rules of order.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle)

Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Gummer

I will do so when I have finished the first paragraph of my speech. I want to suggest why it is that the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras has put his name to what would otherwise be an inconceivable motion. The reason is simple: he has been the leading Opposition spokesman on the environment for nearly two years, and throughout that period the Opposition have not taken the chance to debate their environmental policies or sought to focus attention on the great global issues that should concern us.

We have had no Supply day debate pressing us on global warming; no Opposition debate on the ozone layer, sustainable development or biodiversity. None of the matters that will really affect our children and grandchildren appear to have touched Opposition Members at all. In two years as Leader of the Opposition, the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) has managed to make hundreds of speeches, but only one concerned the environment. The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras put his name to the motion because he dare not debate the environment. He has nothing to say about the environment, and has said nothing about it for two whole years. There has been no debate; there have been no speeches and no commitment.

Mr. Dobson

Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Gummer

I am happy to do so.

Mr. Dobson

Do not the Government command the majority of business in the House? If the Secretary of State wants to debate the great environmental issues of the day, he has about 10 times as much opportunity as the Opposition to decide what is to be debated. I am sorry for the right hon. Gentleman: I am sorry that he cannot convince the Cabinet that such matters merit debate.

Mr. Gummer

The reason is that the Government lead Europe on the problems of climate change, the ozone layer, pollution and every other major environmental issue. We have moved to that position without any help or pressure from the Opposition. My only explanation for the Opposition's behaviour is that, in the face of a Government who are increasingly recognised to be leading Europe and the world in environmental matters, they dare not express their view. I am not complacent about the United Kingdom's record, or about the wider record of the European Union; but I can understand an Opposition view that recognises that the Government have already established so firm a footing on the environment that there is little scope for the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, or any of his hon. Friends, even to raise the issue.

What is incomprehensible is the way in which, in the face of huge environmental challenges, the Opposition turn their back on principle, ignore the dramatically serious world environment situation, throw the future to the winds and seek to win a few short-term votes by adopting fundamentally anti-environmental policies. Let me give an example.

Mr. Skinner

Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Gummer

I will after I have given my example, as the hon. Gentleman may wish to change his intervention as a result.

All over the country, the Labour party has dropped an appeal for funds through the letter boxes of decent people. It starts by praising itself for its attack on environmental taxation. It makes no positive suggestions in regard to how it would help to counter climate change; it merely makes a crude and undisguised appeal to people's immediate self-interest, with no concern about long-term environmental damage. No wonder that, in its approach to a manifesto last week, the Labour party managed no more than two paragraphs making glancing references to the environment.

When I pointed that out, the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras attempted to excuse it by saying that environmental concern was found in every area of policy. Today's debate, however, shows that environmental concern cannot even be found in the shadow Secretary of State for the Environment. Even in his shadow Department, he has no idea—so he advances the idea of a hidden agenda. A shadow Minister has proposed a hidden agenda. It is not, of course, a true agenda; it is contrary to the truth. That, no doubt, is why the hon. Gentleman will remain a shadow Minister dealing in hidden agendas and shadow views for the rest of his life.

The hon. Gentleman expresses his views; but, in a week that has produced the most detailed report on global warming and the effect of climate change on water resources in Britain, the Labour party can manage only a pathetic motion designed to grub up a few votes rather than grappling with the real issues. [Interruption.] As usual, the hon. Gentleman giggles at global warming, sustainable development and all the real issues of the environment. No wonder every environmental organisation in the country considers him a laughable figure, especially those who were formerly willing to support the Labour party. The hon. Gentleman does not realise that his giggle has become the symbol of Labour's anti-environmental policy, and its inability to come to terms with the real needs of our children and grandchildren.

Mr. Skinner

Why should anyone believe that the Secretary of State wants to do something about the environment throughout the world? This Government agree with market forces, and implement that philosophy to the nth degree. How on earth is it possible to patch up the hole in the ozone layer with a man, a bike, a ladder and an enterprise allowance? The truth is that that can be done only through co-operation among all nation states. Market forces cannot solve the problem; as a matter of fact, market forces created it.

Mr. Gummer

The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that this year, as Secretary of State for the Environment, I was given an award by the environmental organisations for being the Member of Parliament who had done most for international co-operation on the environment. The hon. Gentleman has, in fact, reminded us that this Government and this Secretary of State have done precisely what he wants us to do.

The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras must begin to be asked whether he and his party are yet ready for a proper debate on environmental policy as a whole, instead of on some narrow issue on which they detect there is short-term political gain to be had. In every other Parliament in Europe, the Government, whether they be Conservative or Labour, are under constant pressure from their Opposition on global warming and all the other major issues. This Opposition either have decided that the Government are so right on these issues that they cannot attack us, or are so confused on the issues that they dare not expose their policy.

When he intervened on the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold) asked a simple question: what was the Labour party's policy? The hon. Gentleman promised, as he always does, that he would tell us what his policy was before the end of his speech. I did not leave the Chamber during his speech. I listened with rapt attention, but he still did not say what the Labour party policy was. He has never said what the Labour party's environmental policy is. Even in its manifesto, he did not point it out, apart from giving a few generalised words.

The issue that the hon. Gentleman has raised, however, is directly connected to the single most important matter that faces the world in environmental policy. At this moment, the parties to the United Nations framework convention on climate change, the very people that the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) suggests should be tackling these matters together, are meeting in Geneva, and I shall join them later, to consider the recent report of the intergovernmental panel on climate change. That report is unanimous that there is now a discernible human influence on global climate.

Last week I published a report on the consequent changes to our climate—changes that we know cannot be avoided or deferred. We can ask ourselves only how we can live sustainedly in the light of them. The United Kingdom has set ambitious targets for the reduction of pollution, targets which only two other countries in Europe have begun to meet, but which most of the other European countries are beginning to consider seriously. We have set our face in the clear determination to reduce the impact of climate change, but we have accepted that so much has been damaged that real change is inevitable, however successful our crusade may be.

The report points out that, in the next 50 years, south-east Britain will be hotter and drier, and the north-west of these islands wetter. Our country's most populous regions will have less water to use. At the same time, demand for water is growing and is likely to go on doing so. The major cause of the increase is changing life styles. As we grow wealthier as a society, which is happening, and have more leisure, we have more dish washers and power showers. Most important, we want to water the gardens in which we rightly take so much pride, but, on top of that, demand will increase simply because the climate is hotter and drier.

The Opposition's panacea is to cure leakage in the distribution system. Do that, says the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, and all will be well. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman was invited to give us a comprehensive policy statement. He did not do that and therefore I think I have every right to suggest that, overwhelmingly, his speech was concerned with the suggestion that we did not need to do a number of other things because the one thing that really mattered was leakage, which I will deal with later.

The hon. Gentleman suggested that we shall not need to have water meters or changes to tariff structures. He and the Consumers Association think that all we need to do is invent an alternative charging method that more or less replicates the old system of rateable values, and that we should turn our faces resolutely against payment by volume, even though the rest of the developed world concluded long ago that that is the only sensible basis on which to charge for water.

That is interesting from the hon. Gentleman's point of view because, yet again, he has used a well-known, but wholly unacceptable, rhetorical trick. He quotes about water metering and concludes about compulsory water metering, as if the two were the same. He quotes someone's support for water metering, quotes someone's antagonism to compulsory water metering and then says that that shows that the Government's policy, which is in support of voluntary water metering, is therefore wrong.

The hon. Gentleman was challenged, for example, by the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Taylor), the spokesman for the Liberal party. He will agree that I am not always entirely enthusiastic about the Liberal party's policies, but he asked an important question and it turned out that the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras was not opposed to metering in general—he was opposed to compulsory metering. That means that we agree—we are on the same side. So why is it that he should feel it proper to suggest that there is a hidden agenda, unless he wants to divert the public's attention from the fact that he has no agenda at all, hidden or exposed?

We are longing for an exposure of the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras. We need to know what he really believes about water, as we have not heard it.

Mr. Martlew

I served on the Standing Committee that created the privatised water industry. In that Committee, the Government put through a clause that said that all new houses had to have compulsory water meters. Is the Secretary of State telling us that there has been a change and that, from now on, people moving into new houses will have a choice between the old system, which they have in Scotland, and compulsory water meters, or are meters compulsory for those people?

Mr. Gummer

In those circumstances, almost everyone—and I use the word "almost" because one of the great advantages of having a privatised system is that different companies make their own decisions—already has an option. The meter is installed, but the company allows people to decide, either immediately or after a period, whether they want the rateable value alternative or the meter. Anglian Water, my own local water company, used to have a compulsory water metering system. It has retreated from that and offered everyone who was compulsorily metered the choice of continuing that or returning to the rateable value system. Almost no one has chosen to move. The majority of people have wanted to stay.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Mrs. Peacock), I clearly take the view that people should have the choice. I believe in choice, but I also believe that one should not set one's face against any sort of metering or make the farrago of allegations that the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras made, slipping from compulsory to voluntary water metering, which so disfigured his rather over-long speech.

Mr. Matthew Taylor

In making a point about the question that I asked the Opposition spokesman, the Secretary of State got things a little wrong. I asked how the hon. Gentleman felt about the compulsory metering of people who use water excessively, in relation, for instance, to swimming pools. He suggested that he might be in favour of compulsory metering in those circumstances. Could the Secretary of State tell us whether he is in favour of compulsory metering in those circumstances?

Mr. Gummer

Unlike the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, I am going to go through each area of water metering precisely, point by point, so that no one has any doubt where I stand, because it is the duty of anyone who believes in sustainable development to say clearly how to deal with that important issue. When I have gone through each of those points, I hope that, if the hon. Member for Truro feels that I have not been absolutely clear on each point, he will stand up and I will be happy to give way.

Mr. James Pawsey (Rugby and Kenilworth)

May I immediately say that I am an unpaid consultant to Severn Trent and advise my right hon. Friend that I took advantage of Severn Trent's scheme for providing free and voluntary water meters? Since the installation of a water meter in my home, our bills have been almost halved and we now have a positive incentive to reduce the amount of water that we consume. That is good for our pocket and for the environment.

Mr. Gummer

I shall come to the issue of incentives. Does not my hon. Friend find it rather odd that the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras said in reply to the Liberal Democrat spokesman that he favoured compulsory metering for non-essential uses because it would reduce consumption, although earlier he said that he was against metering for everything else because it had no effect on consumption? The hon. Gentleman cannot have it both ways, and I shall explain why he has got it wrong.

The problem with the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras is that he lives in the past and pretends that climate change will go away or need not concern us. I know that, because he made no public statement welcoming our report on climate change or encouraging people to take seriously the effect of that on the nation. His stance is in stark contrast to that of all Labour spokesmen in every other European country. They have been willing to use the climate change issue as one of the reasons for accepting cross-party agreements. The hon. Gentleman had not a word of support for the independent statement that was produced on the very best scientific advice. He made no attempt to make people in Britain recognise that there is much that we can do to avoid the worst effects of climatic change.

I hope that the current discussions in Geneva will produce agreements that will halt or reverse changes that are still to come. However, we must recognise that those which have already occurred will inevitably have their effect. We must put sustainable development and the "polluter pays" principle at the centre of water policy. That means relating the use of resources directly to their cost of provision and of avoiding unacceptable impacts.

One of the ways to manage water use sustainedly will be to create a link, where that is right, between what is used and the amount that is paid for it. My hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey) was right to point to that. In turning their backs on metering, the Opposition are ignoring a tool for achieving sustainable water use that virtually everyone else recognises as essential. That is one of the tools, but our approach should not be misrepresented.

We must dramatically reduce leakage and we must design and install water-using equipment that does its job without unnecessary waste. In some places we shall probably need, somehow or other, to provide additional water resources without damaging the environment. However, if we turn our backs on linking payment and consumption in almost all circumstances we shall make it harder to achieve the sustainable use of water and make inevitable the development of more new reservoirs, in some cases with attendant environmental damage.

The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras needs to understand those linkages better if he is to shape an environmental policy. I should like to encourage him to shape such a policy, because it is becoming a serious embarrassment to the United Kingdom that every Labour party abroad asks me why the British Labour party does not have an environmental policy. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman again giggles. He would not do that if he heard what the leaders of Labour parties in the rest of Europe say about his party and the environment. It is the only serious anti-environment party in Europe and that is worrying.

It is difficult to believe that the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras is truly committed to the principle of sustainable development because the words "sustainable development" and "biodiversity" do not appear in the recently published and much trumpeted Labour party manifesto. Most people cannot discuss the environment without referring to those core concepts, but those words are not part of the thinking of the modern Labour party. New Labour has no role for sustainable development or biodiversity in its statement of its view of the future of this country.

If the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras were interested in sustainable development, he would sign up to the principle—to which every country has signed—that, where possible, sensible and cost-effective, there must be a connection between the cost of using resources—whether water or any other resource—and the charge that is paid for those resources. That means we should sensibly move towards metering, because that enables the water company to measure the amount that has been used and charge the consumer accordingly. It provides consumption information for the company and the consumer can see how much water he is using.

But that must be done voluntarily: it must not be compulsory. By his constant attack on water metering, the hon. Gentleman discourages those for whom metering would be a good idea. In that sense he sets himself against every Labour spokesman in every country in the European Union.

Mr. Hall

The Secretary of State has suggested that the occupants of new houses with water meters who want to go back to the rating system have only to contact their local water authority. Will the Secretary of State place on record that that facility is available from United Utilities, which was formerly North West Water? I have a water meter but I have been given no such option, and I do not think that one is generally available.

Mr. Gummer

I should be happy to look into the hon. Gentleman's case. In many instances even more than that is offered. For example, right from the beginning Anglian Water customers are told about that choice; they do not have to approach the company to find out about it. Customers are asked to use the meter for a couple of bills to make a comparison, and the majority of customers want to retain water metering. If the hon. Gentleman knows of people who do not do as well as that, I shall be happy to propose to the water company concerned some forward-looking companies which offer that choice. I think that the majority offer it.

Metering is not the only answer; not the only way forward. I favour it as part of a progressive and sensible approach that will gradually extend the use of meters as appropriate. Some companies will wish to proceed more rapidly than others, and metering will be more cost-effective in some areas than in others. We have no hidden agenda for compulsion. It is a sensible agenda which says that water metering should play a part in any positive and sensible policy of sustainable development and the protection of our resources for future generations.

Mr. Brian David Jenkins (South-East Staffordshire)


Mr. Gummer

I shall give way in a moment after I have dealt with the current point.

In the long term, metering must be the best basis for paying for water in a range of circumstances. It is equitable in that it relates charges directly to the amount that has been used. As the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras has said, that method is also favoured by the Director General of Water Services and by many people who consider that payment in proportion to the volume that has been consumed is the fairest way of charging. The hon. Gentleman issued strictures on the director general. If instead of reappointing the director general I had sacked him and put someone else in his place, the hon. Gentleman would have said, "There you are: he can't stand the independence of Mr. Byatt. He is trying to fiddle the arrangements and not standing up for the independence that he has always claimed."

We know that Labour's hidden agenda is not to have an independent figure at all. Instead of what the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras called the "quirky views" of the independent regulator, we would have the quirky views of the hon. Gentleman, and we certainly know about those. They are about the quirkiest that hon. Members have heard and they do not contain any concept of sustainable development, a phrase that he did not manage to get his leader to put in the Labour document.

Mr. Matthew Taylor

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Gummer

I shall give way in a moment.

The House should ask about the position of the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras in the shadow Cabinet when he cannot get the words "sustainable development" and "biodiversity" in an innocuous paragraph, in a footnote, or even in half a sentence in Labour's manifesto for the future. It is called "Towards a Manifesto" but, of course, the party is checking to see whether everybody agrees with it and then it will take out anything that is controversial.

I noticed something very interesting. The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras said that his policies would not be decided on sustainable development, based on requests from the United Nations or designed to take the necessary actions on climate change, but they will be decided on the basis of what might be popular.

That is it. The Labour party says, "What we will do is a little public opinion poll and see if we can find a policy that will be popular." Even though it destroys the nation in the future and damages us and our children irrevocably, the policy of the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras can be stated as: "It was popular at the time, and I might have got a half a dozen votes in Holborn and St. Pancras."

That is new Labour, new danger. I shall tell the House of the new dangers. They are that new Labour would leave our children and grandchildren unprotected against global warming if it were unpopular to pass any necessary measures. The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras has shown us today that new Labour means new dangers for each new generation.

Mr. Brian David Jenkins

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Gummer

I give way to the hon. Member for South-East Staffordshire (Mr. Jenkins) in case he can give us an answer.

Mr. Jenkins

May I ask the Minister to explain something, please? I am little lost on what he said about the independent regulator. Are you telling me that you have no control at all over the regulator—no guidelines and no democratic accountability—but that that individual is simply a maverick out there running loose? As a Government, surely you must lay down the guidelines. You must—

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that he is addressing me.

Mr. Jenkins

I apologise, Madam Deputy Speaker. Surely the Secretary of State must give us some guidance on exactly what guidelines the Government have laid down for the regulator. He is assuring me and Opposition Members that he has no guidelines to lay down for the regulator.

Mr. Gummer

The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that guidelines are laid down as a result of decisions made in the House. That is the regulator's independence. The regulator is a statutory figure whose operation comes within the purview of what the House decides. If the Secretary of State could overrule him or push him about, he would not be an independent regulator.

The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras should realise that. I realise that he is preparing for what he hopes will be—it will not happen—a Labour Government, when the idea of independence will be as foreign to that relationship as the idea of Labour Members' independence now is to the leader of the Labour party. We all know about independence in the Labour party—it is having the right to say that one agrees with the leader. That is independence in the Labour party, and the regulator would be subject to that. He would have the independence to say that he has the right to agree with the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, which would make the field for competition for that job extremely small and extremely poor.

I remind the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras of what I said before. I think that it is an abuse of the House to make a proposition, which is absolutely and categorically denied, on three separate occasions in the debate and not be prepared to withdraw it. It is perfectly understandable if the hon. Gentleman has made a mistake or what he referred to as "a slip". It was interesting that he attacked my right hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Mr. Atkins) for making a slip in the House when responding to a question, but that he has not apologised for a slip in which he has tabled a motion making a statement that has been categorically denied by me.

In those circumstances, I should think that hon. Members would feel it incumbent on an hon. Member to withdraw such a statement. Clearly it is no place for the Speaker to intervene in the terms of a motion, and that is perfectly right. I would not for a moment suggest to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, that this is a role for you, and I would not have raised it as a point of order.

It is a matter for the conscience of the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras to decide whether it is proper to spend three hours of the time of the House debating a motion that he knows is not true. He knows that because hon. Members have given him their assurance that it is not true. It is a very sad fact that the House has reached such a position.

I should like to encourage companies and customers to consider switching to meters. I have no intention of demanding compulsory transfers to metering of existing domestic customers in existing premises or of water used for essential purposes. That is not the sensible way forward. However, I believe that companies should extend the availability of meters as far as is reasonable.

I support a selective approach to metering, and not universal or crash metering programmes. It is sensible to meter where it is cheap or economic to do so, such as in new properties, in commercial properties, in households that use large amounts of water for non-domestic or non-essential purpose—such as garden sprinklers or swimming pools—and where resources are limited.

In wishing to see a wider use of meters, we should not ignore three important aspects. I hope that the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras and the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mrs. Jackson)—for whom I have considerable respect—will listen carefully to these three statements. If the hon. Lady agrees with them, I hope that at least she will admit that this motion is less accurate than she would like it to be.

I think that the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras is giggling again. I have noticed that, when he is on weak ground, he giggles. I hope that Conservative Members will note that and, please, point it out when it occurs. He has giggled a lot during this debate, and the reason is that he has been on a great deal of very weak ground.

First, we should like systems to be developed that particularly take account of the needs of poorer families. There are a number of ways in which that might be done, and it is of course for the companies to develop appropriate charging structures, or to offer an alternative method of charging where necessary. I hope that, even when people are given the absolute choice whether they want meters, the companies will be sensitive to the needs of large low-income families, and particularly the needs of those with special medical conditions who require greater than average water consumption.

I should tell the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras that it is unacceptable to describe to Conservative Members why people who are incontinent or who have certain diseases require more water. For many years, many Conservative Members have looked after people in those circumstances. The concept that the hon. Gentleman is the only hon. Member who understands such matters is unacceptable and should not be given credence.

Some companies have already taken action by providing budget payment units where requested. What has the Opposition's reaction been, even though those units have been installed only on request, and will also be removed on request? They have said that they will ban the units. So much for customer choice. Even if someone wants a meter, he or she cannot have one because of the quirky views of the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras.

Secondly, we should recognise that, in some parts of the country and in some circumstances, metering may not be cost effective or appropriate. For example, there are some properties—older properties or blocks of flats—in which metering may be impractical. As I have already mentioned, there may be some customers with special needs who should be taken into account.

Thirdly, as a general rule, we should avoid the use of compulsion. We want to take people with us in this enterprise and to convince them about the benefits of metering. I believe that the vast majority of customers, once they get used to the idea of having a meter, become convinced of its advantages. That is not only what I believe but, according to recent tests, is a fact: when people have been asked whether they want to return to the old system, they stay with meters. That is particularly true in East Anglia.

Anglian Water is gradually installing meters in existing properties, but the existing customer has the option of continuing to be charged on a rateable value basis if he or she prefers. The customer can compare the rateable value based bill with what the metered charge would have been, and can then decide to switch to the meter at a later date.

Where customers have opted to have a meter installed in a property, 14 companies now allow them to revert to rateable value based charging if they wish. When people have gone to the company and said, "I want to have metering," they can still opt to go back.

I welcome that element of flexibility, which will make metering generally much more acceptable to consumers. Of course, that has had very little effect on the number of meters, because the vast majority of people want to go on—[Interruption.]

Mr. Hanson

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Gummer

No, I shall go on for a moment. I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman shortly.

The Opposition persist in putting all their emphasis on reducing leakage, as if that were the whole story—the be-all and end-all of water resource management. But that is only part of the story. The Opposition constantly say that recent legislation placed a requirement only on the customer to make the best use of water. That is because water companies already have that requirement. Section 37 of the 1991 Act places a duty on every water undertaker to develop and maintain an efficient and economical system of water supply within its area". We did not repeat that requirement, because we are always being told by Labour that we do not need to double the burden on companies or individuals. If something is in the law, we do not need to say it again. "Say it again, Sam" may well be the policy of the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, because most of his speeches repeat the ill-founded view that we have not provided water companies with the requirements.

The Government's approach is to use all the options available. That means selective metering and appropriate tariff structures, as well as utilising modern, water-efficient technology, particularly when supplying new properties.

Mr. Matthew Taylor


Mr. Gummer

I promise the hon. Gentleman that I shall go through all the options in detail, and he will not miss out.

If one is serious about global warming—as the Government are—it is necessary to use all the means at one's disposal. But, until today, Labour appeared—as the hon. Member for Truro will be aware—not to be prepared even to consider metering.

Mr. Dobson

The Secretary of State claims that the privatisation law makes it possible for the regulator or the Government to oblige the water companies to stop leaking water. Why have they not done so, as the companies are leaking more now than when they were privatised?

Mr. Gummer

Certain companies have not done well since privatisation on leakages, but others have done extremely well. We given every company a target. If a company does not reach it—or if it looks like the company is not doing enough to reach it—I will make the target mandatory and force the company to do what it has voluntarily agreed to.

By introducing a voluntary system, we were able to get the companies to agree to a speedier change than would have been possible if we had a general figure enforced by law. If one can get people to do something voluntarily, they will do it better and more effectively. The problem with Labour is that it is never prepared to do anything voluntarily. It wanted to jump immediately to mandatory levels, even though it did not know what those levels were and could get an idea only by discussing it with the companies. What company could operate satisfactorily when the Government is saying, "Give us the figures and we will hit you as hard as we can"? That is not a satisfactory way of getting the best figures or the best answers.

The Government should go to a company and say, "Look, this job has to be done properly. Let us look at these things together and get the toughest figure we think we can achieve. Frankly, we will screw it a bit further afterwards. If you do not reach that figure, we will have to use mandatory arrangements." That works more effectively, but I know that the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras has little experience of making anything work.

Mr. Hanson

I am interested in how the Secretary of State envisages the charging system after 31 March 2000. It will be illegal to use rateable value, and the Secretary of State has ruled out using council tax—leaving only water metering. What does he intend to do?

Mr. Gummer

I do not blame the hon. Gentleman for being out of date—his party's Front-Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, is out of date also. We announced 18 months ago that we will change the law so that the rateable value system can continue after 2000, and we have made that clear. The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras knows that, but chose to explain to the House that that was not so. If he did not know that, he was ignorant. If he, as the shadow Secretary of State for the Environment, is ignorant, he has no business moving any motion—particularly not the one we are debating.

Sir Anthony Grant

A classic example of my right hon. Friend's voluntary approach can be seen in Anglian, which has the lowest leakage rate in the country. That rate is continuing to fall on an entirely voluntary basis.

Mr. Gummer

My hon. Friend's area also has a succesful record in water metering and the most flexible system possible. A large number of people have opted for meters, and a large number who were given the opportunity not to have them decided that they wanted meters.

Using metering to help to reduce demand can provide a cheaper and more environmentally friendly alternative to costly capital schemes to develop new water resources, lessening the requirement for new reservoirs and further depletion of our rivers. Studies have shown that the installation of a meter in an unmeasured household can lead to an average reduction in per capita consumption of between 10 and 15 per cent., and a reduction in peak demand of up to 30 per cent. The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras should realise that peak demands impose peak costs, which must be paid by everybody—metered or not. Water has many uses—some essential for public health, and others optional, such as swimming pools and watering lawns.

The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras has not faced the fact that we need as widespread a metering system as is voluntarily acceptable and widely reasonable and a reduction in leakages. Only in that way can we start to use water responsibly. The fact is that the system works. In dry regions, companies that had extensive metering programmes in place during the summer of 1995 generally experienced lower peak demands and fewer supply difficulties than companies without such programmes—the very issue about which the hon. Gentleman made such a fuss.

Where water companies have a programme of meter installation, there is no installation charge. However, when a customer requests a meter under the meter option scheme, an installation charge is normally payable. I welcome the fact that companies are reducing this cost, and that the average cost of installing a meter has fallen by 51 per cent. since 1993. I am pleased that eight companies—Severn Trent, Wessex, Anglian, Folkestone and Dover, Mid Southern, South East, Sutton and East Surrey, and Wrexham—now offer free installation under their meter option scheme.

One of the best ways of testing our views is so see how our partners in Europe operate, in case we may learn from them. The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras must accept that he is the odd man out. Metering is widely used in Germany, Finland, Belgium, Greece, Italy, Austria, Portugal, Denmark, France, Sweden and Spain. The Labour parties in those countries would have been amazed by the hon. Gentleman's speech today. They would think that he had taken leave of his senses.

Is the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras suggesting that, in many cases, the socialists in those countries have supported compulsory water metering to do all the terrible things that he says it brings about? Did not socialist President Mitterrand compulsorily stop the system that previously obtained in much of France and turn it over to compulsory water metering? Does the hon. Gentleman think that that kind of socialism was designed to hurt the poorest families? Of course not-he is trying to make a party political point and gain a few votes by proposing a policy that is manifestly barmy and entirely opposed to anything proposed by any European Labour party.

Mr. Dobson

Does the Secretary of State realise that those European states that have had water metering for a long time will not incur the installation costs that we will face? As a result of the Government's policy, this country will be voluntarily taking on extra costs that other European states do not face, as they spent the money years ago.

Mr. Gummer

That is why I pointed out the approach of President Mitterrand, who totally changed the system in southern France and imposed new metering throughout that area, incurring, in the process, the costs to which the hon. Gentleman referred. But President Mitterrand was concerned with sustainable development, knew the meaning of biodiversity, had heard about the environment and would not have made the speech that the hon. Gentleman made today. He would have been laughed off the podium if he had even begun to do so. None of the European socialist parties would recognise the hon. Gentleman's argument.

Labour is the party that wants to give up the UK's veto, yet it is already entirely out of step with Europe on a mere matter of water. What would happen if Labour gave up the veto and the rest of Europe said, "Well, Mr. Dobson, we think by a majority that we ought to have water metering for all"? What would he do? The hon. Gentleman would be in some difficulty. All his socialist friends would favour it, but he would have given up the veto. Few hon. Members have a better claim than he to enthusiasm for our membership of the European Union, but the British Labour party would find it impossible to live with the Labour parties of the rest of Europe, because many of them have moved into the 20th century. To judge from his speech, he clearly has not.

There is no doubt that the Government, the Office of Water Services and the Environment Agency regard the reduction of leakage as an important element of sustainable development. We have made it clear that we expect water companies to reduce their leakage rates as rapidly as possible. All the water companies are answering that call. Last October, they committed themselves to reducing leakage to levels comparable with the best international practice. We compare ourselves with the rest of Europe rather than pretending that it has nothing to tell us.

The water companies have announced long-term targets. The Director General of Water Services has published each and every company's long-term leakage target and those for the next financial year. Some water companies are aiming for levels as low as 10 per cent. within the next four years, but if the director general judges that any company's proposals are inadequate by reference to achievements elsewhere, he will insist on more demanding targets.

Mr. Matthew Taylor

The Secretary of State has moved on from metering, but would he make it compulsory to take meters for people whose water use is excessive, such as those who use sprinklers? Some water companies are doing that and it is important to know whether he agrees with that practice. Given that the right hon. Gentleman accepts that some properties are unlikely ever to be metered because of their construction, for how long will it be acceptable to use the rateable values of 1974—into the next century, or the one after?

Mr. Gummer

Of course, some properties will probably be entirely unsuitable for metering for many years. That is why we have extended the use of rateable values. The Liberal party is keen on using council tax bands, but a third of people would be much worse off as a result, and many of them would be the poorest people.

Mr. Taylor

indicated dissent.

Mr. Gummer

I do not say that only because of our evidence; the Consumers Association has made that clear. The hon. Gentleman is in a minority. If the Liberal party wants that, I shall have to tell the people of the south-west how damaging it will be to the poorest people. He advocates it only by promising those who would benefit that they would do well and not telling those who would suffer that they would do badly. What is new about that for the Liberal party? That is the mechanism that they use for everything.

The recent speech of the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) on local government reform was a wonderful example. He told one ward that he was in favour of a unitary authority for Newbury, but he opposed them for the rest of Berkshire. The hon. Member for Truro follows in a long line of Liberal policy: one policy per ward; if that does not work, it is one policy per person on the doorstep. What are the principles of the Liberal party? "We've got many, just you choose between them." That is the fact of the Liberal party. As someone said to me, if God had been a Liberal, we would have had the ten suggestions.

The hon. Gentleman is spreading liberalism into the furthest corners in trying to explain his water policy. Come off it; when the Liberal party is prepared to tell the poorest that they are going to pay more under the council tax system, we will believe that it has a serious contribution to make to the water debate. I give way to a more serious figure.

Mr. Martlew

I thank the Secretary of State for that. Does he realise that we have had to listen to him for 52 minutes? When will he conclude?

Mr. Gummer

When I have finished answering the points raised by the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras. The hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) deserves at least one water policy this evening; he has not had one from his party.

Reducing the use of water through demand management makes sense. Since 1 February this year, all water companies have been under a new duty to promote the efficient use of water by their customers, which is the parallel to the duty that they have to use water efficiently themselves. The independent director general is empowered to enforce that duty. I have made it clear that all companies need to carry that through. He has written to them to explain what he expects from them, including the development of material to promote water conservation by the consumer and the consideration of more attractive meter option schemes. He has asked them to submit strategies in the form of water efficiency plans by 1 October.

The plans will be considered in the light of each company's circumstances and the views of other interested organisations. They will be published and, in tune with the Consumers Association's report, they will be available to the public so that they can see what their water company is doing. Companies will be required to submit annual reports on progress to the regulator.

We are also making sure that, when the water companies' byelaws for the prevention of contamination, waste, misuse and undue consumption of water expire next year, they will be replaced by regulations. I shall shortly announce the membership of the committee that will make recommendations on the technical provisions for inclusion in those regulations.

I am not going to do it in a quirky way, off the top of my head, as the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras would. I shall ensure that the people concerned with the matter and who have a wide understanding of the business produce the propositions. That will afford the opportunity for new requirements on water usage via fittings and appliances to be considered. It will include recommendations on WC flush volumes and the consumption of shower units. Again, the Consumers Association regards those matters as significant, and we are already tackling them.

Mr. Fabricant

On the use of flushing systems, will my right hon. Friend continue to resist moves by certain European sanitary ware companies to introduce non-siphonic systems? Dare I say that the system we have in the UK, which cannot leak, was invented by Mr. Thomas Crapper? More than 400 million gallons of water are wasted every year in France alone through non-siphonic systems.

Mr. Gummer

I thank my hon. Friend for his consistent and valuable pressure on the matter. I want to go further than merely ensuring that we do not have something worse than what we have got; I want something better. Thomas Crapper did a fine job in his time. I published his biography, which was a successful, widely sold book. It is to be found in most of the best smallest rooms in the house. I want lavatories that use less water but provide an equally efficient service.

The Opposition must find a way to advise the water companies on what they regard as the best method of charging. They do not appear to know. The hon. Member for Truro did us a favour by pressing the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras on compulsion for non-essential uses, which I favour. There are many circumstances in which that can be a sensible way to proceed. The only difficulty is that many of the mechanisms for so doing are as yet not properly developed. I would not like that to be an excuse for compulsory water metering where it would obviously be unsatisfactory. Clearly, people who use water to fill their swimming pools should pay for it differently from how they would pay for washing their hands or flushing the loo.

The Opposition failed to put forward any constructive suggestions. We know that they are against metering, but what proposals do they have? What do they favour? What does new Labour want to say? It says what it does not want but not what it wants. That is the danger with new Labour. We know that it must have a hidden agenda, or it would have no agenda at all. The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras has not explained whether his problem is that he does not have an agenda and so cannot tell us about it or whether he does have one but it is unacceptable and therefore he will not tell us about it.

We have heard about the Liberal Democrats and the council tax valuation bands. The Consumers Association states: Linking the finely defined rateable value of a property to its much broader council tax band would be difficult. Many low-income families could experience a considerable increase in their bills with this switch. We must ensure that everyone in the south-west, in Truro and the villages round about—one of the lowest income areas in the UK—knows that the hon. Member for Truro wants to push up the water bills of the poorest because of Liberal party dogma.

Companies should continue to provide a wide range of charging options so that they can suit the system to the circumstances. In addition to rateable values and metering, they can use a flat rate fee or a charge based on the number of occupants or the characteristics of the property. Some areas such as South Staffordshire are pursuing wholly different, innovative proposals, to which I hope the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras will listen. Nevertheless, in the long term the demands of sustainable development must make the increasing use of metering especially important.

It is sad that today the Opposition have used an Opposition Supply day not to discuss global warming, sustainable development or the issues that our children and grandchildren most need us to discuss, not to deal with the great issues, but to discuss a proposition which is entirely untrue. They have used it to oppose compulsory water metering when no one is proposing it. It is the oldest debating trick in the world: if one cannot answer the real arguments of one's opponents, one proposes a wholly fictitious argument which one can answer. It is knockdown for people who cannot even land a blow.

The trouble is that the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras has not won a single debate, a single Question Time or a single issue on the environment in the two years since he became environment spokesman—his anniversary is about now. The hon. Gentleman is the least environmentally friendly shadow Secretary of State for the Environment that the country has seen in 25 years. Given the Labour party's history on the environment, that is a pretty difficult thing to be.

The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras has been exposed today. His hidden agenda is something that we now know. It consists of no answers to no real questions, no future for our children, no answers to the problems of our grandchildren. He has proved again that new Labour means new dangers not just for this generation but for the next and succeeding generations.

5.41 pm
Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle)

I am sure that we have had some global warming tonight—we have just had 61 minutes of hot air. The last time I heard the Secretary of State speak in that way was when he told us, as Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, that there was no problem with bovine spongiform encephalopathy. He is as guilty as anyone in the House of causing the current problems with BSE. I fear for the environment while he is in charge.

I shall have to make a short speech because the Secretary of State took so long and hon. Members wish to get on. When the legislation to privatise the water industry was going through the House, many of us believed that we would move to a system of water rationing. That is what metering is about—rationing by price. The Government believe in rationing by price. There is no argument about it.

I always find that people who are in favour of compulsory water metering are mean in spirit and, therefore, tend by their very nature to vote Conservative. They are the sort of people who have had a large family and whose children have left home. They write to their Member of Parliament when they live on their own or as a couple, saying that there should be compulsory water metering. They forget that they benefited for many years from a system under which they paid less than they would have paid under compulsory water metering.

The point that I should like to bring home concerns pre-payment meters, which the Secretary of State touched on only for a sentence. He used plenty of time, but he skated over this one. The idea is put about that poor people would like a pre-payment system and want to use it. The only saving to poor people would be when they were disconnected.

I am proud to say that my local authority has joined the battle against North West Water, which is now United Utilities—that just means that the company can cut off our water and our electricity. My council, led by the mayor, who is a fine Labour member of the council and a fine mayor, has joined the campaign against pre-payment meters. However, not only Labour councillors, but Tory councillors in my constituency, along with other agencies such as housing associations and the British Medical Association, are opposed to pre-payment meters. They are against such a system because they realise that the water company could cut off poor people's supply without having to go through the courts. That is what it is all about. North West Water actually said so in last week's edition of the East Cumbrian Gazette. It was reported as saying of the pre-payment option: It will he aimed at low income customers, who may already be in debt to us". I bet it will be. Such people will cut themselves off because they cannot afford water.

It may sound dramatic, but I can envisage people who have no electricity using candles, a fire starting and there being no water to put it out. That is how serious the matter is. That is what we have come to in this country. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Mid-Staffordshire (Mr. Fabricant) dissents from a sedentary position, as he is prone to do—as you pointed out earlier, Madam Deputy Speaker. What I am saying is the reality for some people, and all we get is arrogance from Conservative Members.

Not only the Labour-controlled council is against pre-payment meters. Dalston parish council, which is not Labour, will come into my constituency, I am glad to say, following the boundary review. It has written to me, and perhaps to the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean), asking me to bring its objections to pre-payment meters to the attention of the House. It says that they would create a special problem for people who live in rural areas, where there is often no public transport, who will have to travel great distances to obtain pre-payment cards—or smart cards. The council does not think that such a system is in the interests of its parishioners. I do not think that it is in the interests of my constituents. I hope that the Government will reject it.

I hope that local authorities in the north-west will pursue their threat to apply legal pressure. I believe that pre-payment meters are illegal. All they are about is reducing the debt levels of United Utilities. There is great alarm in my constituency about the matter, and great anger. Nine miles to the north of my constituency is Scotland, where households cannot have their water cut off. Perhaps the Secretary of State does not know that, but that is the reality. Within nine miles of the border we will have a system under which people who cannot afford to buy smart cards will cut themselves off and have no water. They will have no redress through the courts. That is a situation the Government seem prepared not only to tolerate, but to encourage. The Secretary of State should come to the Dispatch Box and apologise to the people he will put in that position.

Mr. Fabricant

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that there are fewer disconnections of households with water meters than of those without? In any case, what is the hon. Gentleman suggesting? Is he committing his party to renationalising the water companies?

Mr. Martlew

As I said in the debates on the privatisation Bill, I believe that water is a matter of health and that therefore everyone is entitled to an adequate supply. The hon. Gentleman obviously does not think that. I am talking about pre-payment meters. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman understands. People who live in new houses, most of which have water meters, tend to be able to pay their bills. The hon. Gentleman may be able to figure that one out for himself.

Pre-payment meters will be installed for people who have difficulty paying their bills. They will cut themselves off. The hon. Gentleman seems to think that that is fine. I came into politics to oppose hon. Members like him and to stick up for the people who need to be protected.

Mr. Gummer

I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman agrees that a water meter is installed only if the customer requests it and agrees to it, and that it has to be taken out if the customer wishes. Does he agree that it is interesting that, when water was nationalised, there were twice as many disconnections as there were last year under privatised water? Will he consider the difference between the supply in Scotland during the difficult period in the winter and the supply in the privatised industry in England?

Mr. Martlew

The Minister has spoken for an hour, but insists on coming back to the Despatch Box. [HON. MEMBERS: "Answer the question."] I shall answer the question: first, a Conservative Government nationalised water. I was a member of the Carlisle water committee, and we did not cut people off. Secondly, people do not volunteer. We shall be arguing tomorrow about whether we have a salary of £34,000 or £43,000, but I bet that none of us will have a pre-payment water meter in our house. People are being forced, under threat of court order, to have meters in their houses. They are told that, if they do not install a meter, their water will be disconnected. The only saving they can make is if the water is cut off.

The meters would be fine if they did not have the disconnection valve. It is often easier for the poor to pay small amounts frequently. That would be fine, but if someone is poor, the fault of, and punishment inherent in, the system is the self-disconnection valve, which they will use to cut off their water supply. It is a disgrace, and the Government should ban it. I hope that a Labour Government will.

5.50 pm
Mrs. Elizabeth Peacock (Batley and Spen)

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this short debate. As vice-chairman of the all-party water group, I have spent quite a lot of time during the past year or so listening hard to what people have been saying. We have heard from everyone—consumers, providers and plumbers—and their views have given us all a much broader sense of reality. I wholeheartedly welcome the Government's decision not to introduce compulsory metering for domestic customers. I know that companies can continue to use rateable values into the next century—we do not yet know how long into the next century that provision will continue.

We have just heard the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) talking about pre-payment meters. Perhaps he is not old enough to remember when households had pre-payment meters for everything and people put shillings—

Mr. Martlew

Or pennies.

Mrs. Peacock

Yes—or pennies. That system helped many families with limited means to budget much more carefully. As the hon. Member for Carlisle rightly said, it enabled them to pay in cash for small amounts of whatever they were using rather than have to pay big bills. There is still a place for pre-payment water meters. I hear what the hon. Gentleman says about people cutting themselves off, but if the system helps them to budget better, I hope that that will not be an option—for many families, it will not be an option. Voluntary metering is an excellent idea for many households, particularly those with only one or two residents, to whom it is a great advantage.

I wonder what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and my hon. Friends on the Front Bench would have to say about my local Labour Member of the European Parliament, who is in the process of installing a swimming pool at his property, which is supposedly a farm worker's cottage, as he does not have time to go to the swimming baths. I hope that he has a meter when he starts to fill his pool, as it will take a lot of water.

The Government must be involved in all the discussions with companies about water metering and about exactly how the rateable value system will be replaced in the next century. A recent Office of Water Services survey showed that the majority of customers believe that pay-as-you-use is the fairest method of charging—it is for some people, but I cannot imagine where it carried out the survey or to whom it talked. Many people still believe that water is free and should never be charged for.

If people place water butts outside their houses, as people did for many years, water is free. It can be collected in the butt and, if people want to use it and dispose of it without a drain, that is free, but people must realise that there is a charge if they want someone to collect it for them and take it away after they have used it. It is not free. We also realise, particularly after last year, that water does not automatically fall from the sky to fill our reservoirs. We must all try to conserve water whenever we can. Last year's drought also showed that we need better water management.

We heard about the number of disconnections that now take place. That number has fallen dramatically since 1988–89, when there were more than 15,000; in 1995–96, there were 5,800. I appreciate that the figure may not include those who, as the hon. Member for Carlisle said, disconnected themselves through necessity. We should not become over-enthusiastic, but there is a move in the right direction.

There should be no disconnections—as we have heard, they are not allowed in Scotland. I know that Scotland has different laws in many areas of daily life, but why should we have disconnections in England? I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will respond to that point when he winds up the debate.

We have spent many years ensuring that all housing has running water. If the water supply is cut off, we shall return to the wording of the original housing legislation and have to declare accommodation unfit for human habitation because it does not have running water. We must strive to avoid that situation in the late 1990s.

When we are discussing changes in charging for water and water supply, we must also study leakage and what action the water companies are taking to reduce such wastage. It is impossible to eliminate leakage—we would never be able to find a small drip in the millions of kilometres of pipes that run to people's properties—but it must be possible to eliminate many of the leaks that we have heard about, and many companies could do better. I understand that North West Water aims to reduce leakage to 22 per cent. by 2000. Yorkshire Water aims to reduce it to 20 per cent. in the longer term—I am not sure what that is and shall ask the company about it soon.

While those targets have to be applauded, leakage is still a great concern and a great waste of water. Given the climatic changes about which we have been hearing this week, we should study carefully how all our precious water is used. For too long we have accepted that water is there as of right and falls from the sky to fill up our reservoirs. We think that we can all turn on our showers, dishwashers and washing machines—we do not all have swimming pools—as if there were an unlimited supply. In the past year or 18 months, we have learnt that the supply is not unlimited, and we must consider that carefully.

I shall consider what has happened and what the water companies have done, and give a little credit where it is due. Since 1989, the water companies have replaced or relined 18,000 km of pipe. During that same period, 8,000 km of new mains have been added. When we compare that figure with the total amount of piping, we realise that it is only a start, but nevertheless they are taking the right route. A great deal of investment will be needed to achieve the targets set by the water companies, and I trust that that investment will be made as soon as possible.

The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson), who I regret is not in his place, spoke about the increase in water use by those with meters, and said that meters did not help to reduce consumption. In fact, the Water Services Association paints a completely different picture. It says that, in all but one area—Severn Trent—there were reductions of 3.8 per cent. to 21.3 per cent. Severn Trent had a slight increase of 1.6 per cent. That stands on its head the figure that the hon. Gentleman gave.

It is important to note that the many people who do not have the opportunity to pay their water bills by direct debit are penalised when they want to pay them at the post office, where they have to pay an 80p charge. I checked with my local post office yesterday to see whether that charge had changed, but was told that it is still 80p. Many people cannot afford to pay that extra 80p. If there is no water company office, why should they pay it for the convenience of going to the post office? I urge, and my hon. Friend the Minister will urge, water companies to ensure that that charge is not passed on to the consumer; it is a deterrent to paying the bill. In Yorkshire, we do not like to part with any money we do not have to, and 80p every time we pay a bill is not on.

I mention last year's drought in any debate about water. I know that it is often said that, in 1995, there were only 60 drought orders—much fewer than in previous years—but my hon. Friend the Minister, who knows Yorkshire well, knows that West Yorkshire residents know all about drought orders and all the mismanagement last year. We had to have standpipes, we had to have our supplies interrupted and, unbelievably, our industry was told to relocate elsewhere.

Yorkshire Water's new management has started well by apologising for the mess and saying that it will set out to do better, but we all suffered and are still suffering. Today, I received a letter from a lady asking whether the rest of the world knows that we still have a hosepipe ban. I have written back to say that we do know, and the Minister knows.

I wish to draw attention to a paragraph in Ofwat's summary of its annual report of June 1996. It remarked: Companies worked hard to avoid water restrictions. They acted quickly and generally maintained domestic supplies, despite high peak demands during the drought which were attributed to garden watering. I am sure that companies did work hard, but in Yorkshire we were not enamoured of the way in which Yorkshire Water handled the crisis that we all suffered. As the company rightly says, it never cut off anyone's water, but the aggro of seeing the standpipes go up and of companies being told that they would have to close down every other day when most of them have continuous 24-hour processes, seven days a week, was difficult to put up with.

I thank my hon. Friend the Minister and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who is not now present, who have always been most helpful in discussions on water issues. I also thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Ribble, South (Mr. Atkins), who was very helpful when he was an Environment Minister.

As my hon. Friend the Minister realises, we need to visit the Department and communicate the comments, frustrations and anxieties of our constituents. If we do not, we are not doing our job property. Although we may sometimes get hot under the collar, we have always been received courteously, and I believe that we are listened to. In the past year or more, many people with varied interests in water have realised that, in our all-party water group, they have a powerful voice directly into Parliament and government.

6.2 pm

Mr. Matthew Taylor (Truro)

For many reasons, not least those connected with global warming, the way we use and pay for water is likely to become an increasingly important issue. The privatisation of the water industry, a natural monopoly, has inevitably brought problems for water users and the environment. Bills have soared, there are continuing water restrictions and a clean-up of our coastline and rivers is far from complete. Increasing demand and dry summers have also contributed to environmental problems as lakes and rivers have been drained to make up the shortfalls which too often have resulted from inefficient and short-sighted management. Obviously, supply and demand are out of synch.

The Labour motion argues that enforced compulsory water metering is wrong. If by that Labour means that metering would not of itself solve the problems, that is correct, so far as it goes. An attempt at universal metering would be expensive and unjust and would create a potential health hazard as more vulnerable families sought to save money by turning off the taps. Research carried out by Save the Children shows that 70 per cent. of low-income families with water meters attempt to use less water by sharing baths, washing clothes less often and even flushing the toilet less often. If the Labour party wishes to suggest that it constitutes a fit alternative to the Government, however, it must go beyond saying what it is against. Problems of water resources, the environmental and social impact of water use, pricing and financing mechanisms, all need imaginative solutions.

Privatisation of the water industry has coincided' with massive increases in water charges as the consumer has been forced to pay a large proportion of the costs of investment in infrastructure and environmental measures, not to mention profits. Since privatisation, water prices for domestic customers in England and Wales have increased by an average of 39 per cent. in real terms. In my constituency, and throughout the rest of the region served by South West Water, the price increase has been much greater. Since privatisation, average water bills have increased by more than 100 per cent. in the south-west.

We have also witnessed the development of huge regional variations in price. People living in some regions have been forced to pay an unfair share of maintaining what in my view is a national resource. Thus, in the south-west, the region that has suffered most from this privatisation, 3 per cent. of the country's population are being asked to pay for a clean-up of a third of the national coastline. Pensioners reliant on the state pension can be paying 10 per cent. or more of it on bills for which no extra help is available. It is no wonder that people are angry.

Labour must understand that the existing charging system is indefensible. New investment has been, and undoubtedly will continue to be, needed. However, company profits and dividends have increased drastically and the consumer carries too much of the financial burden of clean-up and other essential investment programmes. Since privatisation, the water companies' profits have increased on average by 167 per cent. Just yesterday, South West Water announced an increase in dividends which again exceeded its increase in profits. Senior managers have received huge bonuses and huge pay-offs.

There is strong evidence to support the argument that, while customers have borne much of the cost of investment, company shareholders have received most of the financial benefits. The Consumers Association concluded that more than 80 per cent. of the companies' investment has been funded by increases in domestic consumer bills, despite the fact that we were told that privatisation was intended to allow greater access to private funds through borrowing and equity raising.

Within and across regions, these huge increases in water bills have affected different sectors of the community in radically differing ways. Many single pensioners, who use little water, are discriminated against by the fixed charge elements of water bills. A person living alone in the south-west, surviving on the state pension, may spend on average one tenth of his or her income on water bills. Yet on the whole, amid the rising bills, the water companies have failed to secure sustainable future water resources or to invest adequately in water conservation and distribution.

Shockingly, water companies such as Yorkshire Water have admitted to boosting dividends to shareholders by using money earmarked by the water regulator for leakage reduction, which consequently did not take place.

The issues are not merely about bills. The unsustainable policies of successive Governments of both colours have degraded Britain's rivers, lakes, reservoirs and underground aquifers. In some parts of the country, existing water supplies cannot cope with demand throughout the year. Abstraction of water from rivers and underground supplies is already causing major environmental problems.

Increasing water demand will surely lead to demands for further development, but it is estimated that more than one third of the clean water produced by water companies never even reaches the consumer, due to leakage. Investing in new water resources is costly for the consumer and the environment, so we must insist on starting by making better use of the water that we already have.

Liberal Democrat policy on water is clear. We want to protect the water needs of future generations, fairly share the cost of investment in environmental standards, provide higher standards of consumer service and make companies more accountable to those consumers.

There is obviously much to be done. The Government appear to have recognised some of the problems that their rash privatisation of this industry has caused, albeit belatedly and only after their by now ritual period of denial. They cannot fail to have noticed the theory that consumers appear to be paying more and more for less and less. It is difficult to tell people who face rising bills that they should use less water, let alone pay for water that they do not even receive.

We must strive for a fairer charging system and ensure that such a system encourages water conservation and promotes the efficient use of what is, ultimately, a scarce resource. To combine the two aims of promoting water efficiency and ensuring that an adequate supply of clean water is available to all at a price that all consumers can afford is not easy. The present charging system clearly does neither. It is outdated, unfair and unpopular. Nobody argues that the system does not need changing. I dispute, however, whether the Government's sole response—water metering—is likely to be an overall answer. On the contrary, it creates as many problems as it attempts to solve. The only worse answer is the one that the Secretary of State gave: the indefinite use of the existing water rates system for properties that cannot be metered. That makes no sense.

For how long can valuations conducted in 1974, which by the early 1980s were regarded as outdated and unfair for local government taxation, be continued as the basis for water charging? That is why the Liberal Democrats seek a new basis of charging that is fairer and more up to date than rateable values. At the same time, we want to ease the unfair burden of the present system, coupled with rising water charges, which is placed on vulnerable members of the community.

An alternative charging basis is needed. At present, more than nine out of 10 customers' water bills are based on rateable values. That method is clearly unfair as it bears little relationship to consumers' ability to pay. It is also increasingly anomalous, given that rateable values are based on information collected in the 1970s. Although the council tax is far from perfect as a means of raising local taxation, it is at least based on a recent assessment of property values and recognises situations in which one adult lives alone. That system would enable vulnerable households to be targeted by providing extra support through the social fund in cases of genuine need.

As we heard from the Secretary of State again today, the Government try to argue that some low-income groups may be adversely affected by such a measure. That problem can be tackled by phasing the changes in and designing the charging structure to ensure that such a move does not impact on middle or low-income groups. It would depend on the charging structure used, which is not an inevitable outcome of using the council tax band. That would merely provide the basis for the structure, not the level of tiering to be applied.

That system, however, will not solve the problem of water shortages, which is why I support the introduction of stricter controls on the water companies to reduce leakage. Rising consumption, diminishing returns and the threat of global warming mean that leakage control alone can be only a short-term solution. It can reverse the current problem, but it cannot continue to meet rising demand indefinitely for the future. Leakage control can be only one component of a comprehensive demand management strategy. Even taken with tighter building standards and water byelaws, in the long run the problem of water demand exceeding supply will return.

In addition, targeted domestic metering will undoubtedly be another component of such a demand management strategy. Metering makes clear to consumers the value of the resource being used and provides an incentive to conserve water and prevent leaks. But for both economic and social reasons, the Liberal Democrats do not support the introduction of universal compulsory metering. It would be staggeringly expensive, and the money could be better spent on improving water efficiency elsewhere. The best way forward is to combine a system based on council tax bands with compulsory water metering only for those who consume excessive amounts of water for non-essential uses, such as swimming pools and garden sprinklers, or in circumstances where water supplies are under stress.

Under present charging arrangements, the costs of meeting peak demand, including for such non-essential uses as garden sprinklers and swimming pools, are averaged across all users. It is only right that those who use a great deal of water for non-essential purposes such as those should pay for the privilege. On a hot, dry summer's day, garden sprinklers can use more water than the whole industrial demand in some regions, so metering should be targeted on those non-essential uses.

In areas where there is plenty of water, universal compulsory metering would simply impose extra costs. But in areas where water supplies are under stress, general metering might be considered, provided that certain conditions are met. Where metering is introduced, particularly on a compulsory basis, the needs of vulnerable members of the community must be protected by reforming the tariff structure—for example, through a rising block tariff. We want a progressive tariff structure to meet essential water needs at low cost, the abolition of standing charges and assistance to introduce water conservation measures. In cases where special needs can be shown, help would need to be given with the payment of bills.

For people who are not heavy consumers of water for non-essential uses and whom we would not require to install a meter, additional reforms to the current system are needed if it is to be made fairer. The regulatory regime must be toughened and reformed. We aim to share the costs and benefits of investment more fairly between companies and their shareholders and customers. The creation of long-term capital assets should not be financed so heavily from current earnings. The regulator should require each company to finance a higher proportion of investment through borrowing. The level should be set for each company individually, taking its circumstances into account, including the economic life of the assets being financed.

The lower price cap that Ofwat has now implemented will have some effect in that respect, combined with the new EC directive. In the past, many companies have made higher profits than Ofwat anticipated. Some companies have chosen to share their efficiency savings with their customers through customer rebates and discretionary investment. Welsh Water announced a rebate of £9 a year for the next five years, and South West Water has just set a rebate of £10. There is no reason why the regulator cannot force all water companies to redistribute higher-than-expected profits when, through efficiency gains or other reasons, they achieve higher returns than those on which Ofwat based its pricing figures. The companies and their shareholders should naturally be rewarded for their success and encouraged to continue it, but so should other stakeholders in the enterprise: their customers.

Furthermore, unreasonable costs should not be imposed on regions with high infrastructure costs and major environmental challenges. I have already mentioned the problem in my area. The chairman of the South West Water consumers committee believes that the average bill will rise a further £150 per year if the problem is not dealt with. The problem exists not just in the south-west. The cost of meeting the urban waste water directive will soon fall on the customers of North West Water, Wessex Water and Yorkshire Water. Lead will be a major concern in the north-west and nitrates will have an impact on areas such as that covered by Anglian Water.

Under the current system, all those problems are likely to lead to increasing regional differentials and bills at various times, as the cost of cleaning up regional problems falls virtually exclusively on consumers. To help reduce such differing regional water charges, a new independent water services trust should be established, funded by a 2 per cent. levy on water profits. It should be used to subsidise water projects of national environmental importance. That should be in addition to the benefits that I have already mentioned of requiring more to be funded from borrowing and equity raising.

That is a more sensible approach than Labour's one-off windfall tax which, incidentally, might raise water prices. It would also directly benefit water customers. The water services trust could also take on the role of a water efficiency promoter, assisting households and small and medium-sized enterprises with water efficiency measures. That would also help to drive down bills.

Much could be done to ensure that the cost of providing clean water is decided more equitably. There is clearly still more to do. Compulsory water metering is not the answer. To that limited extent, Labour is right. But it is time to stop concentrating on the problems, which are well known to hon. Members on both sides of the House. We must now strive for solutions. Our amendment suggests such solutions. In this debate, the Labour party has been entirely vacuous in failing to deal with the real problems that the industry and consumers face.

6.18 pm
Mr. Michael Fabricant (Mid-Staffordshire)

This debate has been not only vacuous but specious. The Labour party attacked the Government's policy of enforcing compulsory water metering, yet it has been said time and again in this debate that there is no Government policy of compulsory water metering. Watch my lips: no compulsory water metering.

What is so astonishing about compulsory water meters? They have them in Belgium, Greece, Italy, Austria, Portugal, Denmark, France, Sweden and Spain—and that is just in western Europe. Norway is the only country in western Europe, other than the United Kingdom, that does not have compulsory water meters.

Labour Members are particularly blinkered in relation to water meters. They have no ideas about how we can improve the water delivery infrastructure, reduce water leakage or reduce water loss in the home. This week, a number of magazines, including Nature, have said that there will be a growing water shortage in the United Kingdom and in the whole of northern Europe in the years to come.

Labour Members have referred to the cost of water metering. However, the statistics do not bear this out. In 1995–96, the average water bill was £267 metered or £211 unmetered. In the coming years, however, the figures will be reversed and homes with water meters will have smaller bills.

Labour Members have not addressed the issue of water wastage in the home. It has been shown that, where there are meters, there is a saving of water of between 10 and 15 per cent. It is not because people do not flush the loo, as the alarmists on the Labour Benches have suggested—it is because people do not use half-loaded dishwashers and half-loaded washing machines; they use water sensibly. That has to be one answer to the nation's water shortage.

I was pleased that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment was able to give me and a company in my constituency, Armitage Shanks, an assurance that we would not bow to pressure from the Europeans who would have us introduce their system of toilet flushing. In France alone, 500 million gallons of water are lost every year because of its sub-standard toilets.

I congratulate two water companies in my constituency—Severn Trent is one of eight companies that have introduced water meters free of charge and the South Staffordshire Water Company is looking at a new charging method based on property characteristics, which the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Taylor) would welcome.

I have often spoken about the need for us to look at a whole new approach to the way in which we conserve water and transport water in the United Kingdom. It is a dream of mine—as I suspect the hon. Member for South-East Staffordshire (Mr. Jenkins) knows—to see a canal opened up in Lichfield. A canal would bring joy to the people of Lichfield and it would be a cheap means of transporting water from north to south.

This whole debate is specious because it is based on a false premise. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State told the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) that his accusation that it is the Government's policy to have compulsory water metering is a lie, but the hon. Gentleman would not withdraw his accusation. I was shocked.

Has new Labour attacked the heart of Conservative party policy? No, because compulsory water metering is not the Government's policy. Has new Labour addressed the problems of water wastage in the home? No, it has put forward no new ideas in the debate. Has new Labour acknowledged the impact of a changing climate, with increasing droughts? No, it does not have a commitment to the future.

Has new Labour, through its Front-Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, shown some integrity tonight? Did the hon. Gentleman withdraw his accusations about Government policy? No, instead he ploughed through his poorly written brief and accepted very few interventions. Has new Labour, despite criticising the water companies for being privatised, said that it will commit to nationalising them? No, it recognises the past underinvestment in the water infrastructure by the old-fashioned nationalised industry and it wants the same thing.

We have heard nothing but empty rhetoric from Labour Members. They have empty minds and an empty future. New Labour has no vision for our future. New Labour with tired old bearded faces. New Labour: the new danger facing our environment.

6.24 pm
Mr. David Hanson (Delyn)

The hon. Member for Mid-Staffordshire (Mr. Fabricant) cannot have been at the same debate as me—in fact, I do not recall seeing him. He has missed the point completely about the Labour party's proposals. We are concerned about the prospect of compulsory water metering. In the short time available to me, I shall cite evidence that the Labour party's premises are not false.

For example, in April last year, the Secretary of State for the Environment answered a question from the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Dr. Goodson-Wickes), and made it clear that he had a preference for water metering. He said: The Government believe that metering is in the long term the best basis for paying for water … It is fair and equitable in that it relates charges directly to the amount of water used. It gives customers some control over their bills."—[Official Report, 4 April 1995; Vol. 257, c. 1054.] The Secretary of State ruled out the possibility of allowing council tax to be used as a method of payment for water-based bills. The motion in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) is clear. If the Government believe that water metering is in the best interests of consumers, ultimately they will reach a situation in which water metering occurs on a voluntary, and later on a compulsory, basis. Water metering will be the way in which water companies will get people to pay their bills.

Water metering is not an acceptable way forward. It ignores a number of key points. First, the cost of implementing water metering has been avoided. In my area of Welsh Water, it will cost some £125 to install each water meter. As my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras said, some £4 billion will be spent on capital expenditure to introduce water metering.

Secondly, water metering will be socially regressive. Regardless of what Government Members say, water metering is socially divisive, is a regressive way of paying, and will not benefit the poorer members of our community, who will find themselves rationing water and rationing their money to pay for their water.

For example, the British Medical Association has found that families with an income of £100 to £125 per week spend 4 per cent. of their weekly budget on water, while the national average is only 1 per cent. The Save the Children Fund has said that it fears that water metering will result in poorer sanitary conditions, less cleaning and a poorer quality of life for people on low incomes.

Mr. Fabricant

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hanson

No, not in the short time available to me, because the hon. Gentleman has already spoken.

The cost of implementing and operating water metering will be about £500 million a year. The Government will move towards water metering, and that is not acceptable. I would rather see a much stricter control of water, such as the control of leakage. In Welsh Water, 64 million gallons of water are lost every day of the week as a result of leakage—that is 45,000 gallons every minute. Almost 30 per cent. of the water distributed by Welsh Water is lost daily through leakage.

My hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras has made a number of suggestions, including universal domestic recycling, better improvements in relation to shower installation, lower-volume shower heads, and efficient washing machines. There are fair and equitable ways for us to save water, and they do not include water metering.

Water metering is unfair and unjust, but the Government are edging slowly towards it. After 2000, despite the assurances that have been given, the Government will—if the Conservatives remain in government, which they will not—continue to force unwelcome water metering on the British public.

6.29 pm
Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)

In the five minutes for which I intend to detain the House, I start by saying that this debate has been based on a false premise, and, from the remarks by the hon. Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson), we now understand what that is. The hon. Gentleman said that the Government have a preference—I think that was the word he used—for seeing water charging done by metering, but it is not true that that preference also entails a hidden agenda to make metering compulsory.

To be fair, I can understand the hon. Gentleman's suspicion, but the Secretary of State has said, over and over again, that there is no hidden agenda. Despite what a cynical public sometimes say, Members of Parliament, on both sides of the House, do not lie. I cannot remember a time in my 13 years in the House when such a categorical assurance from the Secretary of State at the Dispatch Box has been rejected by his opposite number. I hope I have not raised the temperature unduly, but I found that rejection surprising and saddening, and it did not do much for the reputation of the House or the quality of debate.

The principal problem is that there is no ideal way to charge for water. The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) suggested that some water companies seem to think that they can charge for the privilege of sending water down their pipes, but in a complex society, the water companies cannot take water out of the sky. It must be processed, and if sewage was not removed from properties, people would have problems. The distribution of clean, wholesome, potable water and the disposal of sewage are complex and expensive operations.

However the charges are made, whether by ratable values, by subvention in the social security system or by metering, the solution will not be easy or popular. For that reason, the water companies bear a high responsibility to gain the confidence of the people they serve. It is asking a bit much for companies that appear to charge for one of the essentials of life to make themselves popular, but they can be respected, and they can ensure, by the service that they deliver to customers, that they have a reputation for competence and fairness, so that people understand that water has to be paid for. The companies may have to sell a difficult concept, such as water metering, and the public will accept it only if their local water company is conducting its business in a wholesome and potable way.

I have the disadvantage of coming from the south-west and having my water supplied by South West Water. It would take far more than the three minutes I have left to begin to explain the horrors of South West Water. By any measurement, it is a remarkable company, which has shown a stunning disregard for the sentiments and feelings of the people it is supposed to serve.

Its activities include little things such as pouring inappropriate chemicals into reservoirs and allowing cryptosporidium to break out in parts of the water supply earlier this year, so that large sums of compensation had to be paid by South West Water to the 100,000 households affected. At the height of the drought last year, people telephoned me to say that no water was coming through their taps. We know why now—because South West Water had emptied billions of gallons from a reservoir into the sea. Against such a background, people do not develop much confidence in the mechanisms that the company might use for charging for water.

Only yesterday, we discovered that the managing director of South West Water, who resigned shortly after the cryptosporidium problem—a prosecution is now pending, so I shall say no more—has been given a severance deal totalling £800,000. That mind-boggling deal is made up of £226,000 of basic severance, extra pension contributions of £100,000, non-cash benefits of £10,000, a full salary of £109,000 and a performance-related bonus of £9,000.

Not many issues unite the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras and me, but misery acquaints a man with strange, bearded bedfellows. Best of all the payments in that package is the £50,000 paid to the managing director for making his services and expertise available to win foreign customers. That is money well spent, because if the company gives him £50,000, he may not feel the need to go abroad.

What on earth can be said about a water company that can treat people in the way they have been treated in the south-west? The company did everything in its considerable power to appeal against the water charges that had been efficiently pegged by the water regulator. I simply do not have the words at my command in the next 60 seconds to tell the House about the outrage, disgust, anger and sheer fury of people in the west country. They are paying the highest combined water and sewerage charges in the country, at the same time as somebody is paid £800,000 for being a lamentable failure.

We have had a short debate, and I do not expect my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to respond to my points tonight. I hope it will be an encouragement and threat to my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Department of the Environment if I say that I shall write to them to suggest certain initiatives that might be taken to deal with the situation. I do not expect a reply tonight, but my letter will not be late.

6.37 pm
Mrs. Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

It is interesting that two of the three Conservative Back Benchers who have participated in the debate have been driven to do so by exasperation at their experience of their local water companies. That gives the lie to the wealth of rhetoric, rather than considered argument, that we had from the Secretary of State earlier.

Today we have focused on one aspect of the water industry—the charging, or rather, the overcharging, of its domestic customers. What do we pay for when we pay our water bills? After all, we expect a lot from the water industry, including clean water; safe sewerage; enough water to cultivate land; unpolluted river systems, for fish and flowers; water-based leisure activities; security from flood and drought; and efficient road drainage. That is quite a list. It flies in the face of economic reason, and the costings, to think that the most effective way to pay for the overall management of the water environment is according to the amount of water that comes out of domestic taps.

The cost of drinking water is less than half the overall cost of the whole industry. The fixed costs of supplying drinking water are four times greater than the costs related to supplying the volume of drinking water; and, as Which? said in a publication this week, basing water charges solely on the volume of water used does not make sense. Ofwat has published a little leaflet that puts a cost on each use of water in the home, but it would do better if it published some facts about what we actually pay for when we pay the bills from the water industry.

The Environment Select Committee is considering water conservation at the moment. It is becoming clear that there is total confusion between the need to measure for the purposes of good management and the need to measure to charge, and the Secretary of State made that point again today. The two are quite different.

The industry should, of course, measure what goes where, if only to discover where the leaks are. Nobody suggests that, because health services are available to everyone who needs them, doctors should not record how many patients come to them with what problems; but that does not mean that each patient has to pay extra every time he sees a doctor—at least, not yet. Careful district metering is the key to careful leakage detection, as the Environment Committee has discovered.

We have heard much today about water metering and conservation, but the Government have said nothing about the most cost-effective way of achieving those aims—and they have put cost-benefit analyses into every line of every piece of environment legislation. The contributions from the hon. Members for Truro (Mr. Taylor) and for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) show just how costs affect customer attitudes to the water industry.

As my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson) pointed out, water metering is very expensive. Leaving aside the cost of installation—about £200—and the cost of replacement every seven years and of repair every time the meters get grit in them, the extra costs of maintenance, reading and billing are estimated at £27 per year.

My figures show that, through metering, it costs £1.95 to save 1 cu m a year. According to the National Rivers Authority, if one compares metering with other methods of water conservation, it is seven times more expensive than saving the same amount of water through leakage reduction, and four times the cost of saving the same amount of water using water-efficient devices in the home. That does not take into account the minimal cost of common-sense measures such as installing water butts in every garden to catch the run-off from roofs and gutters.

A specialist in the water industry—I will not embarrass him by naming him—told me: I have no time for those"— such as the Secretary of State— who advocate looking at demand management from an economic viewpoint, and then ignore the messages which do not suit their agenda. It is a sign of the regulator's obsession with metering that last year's enormous peak demand for water for gardens was met by calls to meter everything. He did not question whether we should pour gallons of drinking water on to grass.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cirencester and Tewkesbury)

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Jackson

No, because the hon. Gentleman has just come into the Chamber.

The same obsession with metering has led the Government and the regulator to fail to take action on every other water conservation front. As hon. Members have pointed out, water leakage is worse now than at the time of privatisation. The Secretary of State mentioned the revision of the water byelaws, which could be used to upgrade standards of water efficiency and improve the design of water appliances in the home. They have been awaiting upgrading since 1992. This afternoon, the Secretary of State said that he will announce the members of the Committee that will consider the byelaws. He has been promising to do that for four years.

Research into water-saving toilet devices by the Building Research Establishment was well under way, but it was shelved by the Government in 1982, because it placed greater emphasis on other ways of conserving water—such as metering. My hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras detailed the way in which the water conservation legislation, which was supported by every member of the all-party parliamentary group—I pay tribute to hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Mrs. Peacock) for her contribution to that group-was rubbished by those on the Government Front Bench. Only yesterday, the Government had an opportunity in the housing grants legislation to introduce a grant aid scheme for water efficiency in the home, but again they failed to act.

Is water metering is fair? The Secretary of State again parroted the phrase, "You pay for what you use"—the old poll tax argument. However, that approach is distinctly unfair when we are talking about essentials.

Some months ago, the parliamentary group decided to explore which charging system reflects most fairly people's ability to pay. We asked Ofwat and the water companies what research they had conducted in that area, and for their comparative range of billing on rateable value and metered charges. We immediately discovered how little work had been done in that area.

Ofwat conducted its only study in 1992, and that is now out of date. In its recent document issued to water companies about efficiency action, Ofwat does not refer once to the social impact of proposed efficiency measures. Even Anglian Water—a company that has embarked on more systematic work—admits: Income was not one of the criteria used in setting up the programme". It was left to the Save the Children Fund, the British Medical Association, the National Federation of Housing Associations and the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux to point out what water metering means for poor families, who must try to cut down on water usage in the home by not flushing the toilet so often, sharing baths or not allowing the children to play with water.

Our exercise has shown that both billing systems—metering and property value—have a correlation with household incomes, but for different reasons. The property value link with income is well understood. With a metered supply, those with higher incomes have higher bills, as they are less likely to cut down on water usage. Poorer families have lower bills, because they must cut down on their water usage as they do not have the money to pay. Pensioners—among whom water meters are popular—try particularly hard to economise around the home. They worry even if extra water usage is essential for their health care regime. That concerns Labour Members.

Two classes of customers stand out as exceptions: first, large, poorer families who have low incomes and high bills; secondly, single wealthy individuals or couples, perhaps with more than one house, who have low bills and high incomes. At the top of the rateable value scale, the folk with large houses and gardens make a killing if they switch to a meter—even if they run their sprinklers all day in the summer, that amounts to a mere 4 per cent. of usage when spread over the year. Savings for some must be paid for by others.

Conservative Members have congratulated water companies on installing free meters, but those costs must be met by someone—by the 92 per cent. of customers who are paying for water in the usual way. The public should be warned about the regulator's latest attempt to alter the rateable value charge. In his recent tariff reform document, he states: the overall revenue from unmeasured customers remains the same, but the range between the highest and lowest bills is reduced". In everyday language, it means that the poor will pay more, and the rich will get another handout.

Nobody wants water metering. By last autumn, only 20 households in Scotland took up the metering option. Ralph Symons, an eminent pensioner from Huddersfield, has collected 47,000 signatures from people protesting at Ofwat's failure to introduce proper water conservation measures. It makes no mention of metering. Has there ever been a petition in favour of metering?

The fact is that water should not have been privatised in the way it was. The obsession of the Secretary of State and of the regulator with water metering is both misguided and anti-social. It is driven by a dogmatic desire to make us view water as simply another commodity: like a pint of milk or a pound of butter. It is an irresponsible attempt to justify irresponsible legislation.

When it comes to water and sewerage, there is no freedom to choose, and there can be no competitive market. We desperately need a new approach to the industry that puts the public first; recognises the social and environmental obligations; understands the uniqueness of water and sewerage as a utility; and, above all, brings fairness back to the industry's financial management. Universal compulsory metering has no part to play in that approach.

6.48 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. James Clappison)

It would be churlish of me not to begin by welcoming the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mrs. Jackson) to the Opposition Front Bench—at least on this occasion. Her great interest in the subject is well known.

I congratulate her on the good judgment she displayed this evening in choosing not to pick up any of the specious arguments advanced by the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) in opening the debate. The hon. Gentleman's argument that there is some sort of secret agenda to enforce compulsory water metering was not sustained by Labour Front Benchers or Back Benchers during the debate.

The hon. Gentleman said at one stage that we were embarking on a quest for the holy grail in seeking water metering. The longer I listened to the hon. Gentleman, the more I thought that he was embarking on a quest for the holy grail—not that I see him in terms of Arthurian legend.

The hon. Member for Hillsborough has been given the accolade of queen of water by her hon. Friends; she would no doubt make a comely Queen Guinevere. However, I do not see the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras as a King Arthur, or even as a Sir Galahad or a Sir Lancelot. In his performance this evening, he more closely resembled one of those mediaeval abbots who suddenly discovered the remains of King Arthur when there was a need for funds to pay for rebuilding the monastery. That is the status of the hon. Gentleman's points about compulsory water metering.

Let me make the position absolutely clear. We believe that water metering is a matter for the water companies. We believe that there are advantages in water metering, but that it is a matter for the companies. There is no secret agenda to enforce compulsory water metering.

As the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras should know, we have allowed water companies to continue to use rateable values after 2000. If there was a secret agenda, that decision would be wholly inconsistent with it. The hon. Gentleman did not seem to know that we had taken that decision. If he had known, he might have taken a different view, and he might not have embarked on the ridiculous charade of his speech.

Mr. Dobson

As far as I can recall, I welcomed the statement by the Secretary of State a year or more ago that rateable values could be used. However, the Opposition look forward to changing the law as he promised to do, because he has not changed it yet.

Mr. Clappison

I find that an interesting remark, because, as Hansard will clearly show, the hon. Gentleman used what he described as the proscription on the use of rateable values from 2000 as an argument in support of his contention that there was a secret agenda to impose compulsory water metering. Apparently he knew all along that that was not the case, and that rateable values could be used after 2000.

Mrs. Helen Jackson

Is it sufficient that the Secretary of State has made a speech in the House, or is there a need for legislation? That is my understanding.

Mr. Clappison

Indeed, that is the case. My right hon. Friend made his announcement in April 1995, and he made it clear that rateable values could be used after 2000. The hon. Lady will be unable to rescue the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras on this occasion, because we have yet to hear from him or her what Labour's policy will be on water charging. They have asked us questions, but we have heard nothing from them. We heard repeated challenges from the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, but we heard nothing about what his policy would be.

We had some interesting contributions by other hon. Members, who plainly did not follow the line of argument of the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras. The hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) was concerned about budget pre-payment units, but, as he was rightly told by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, they are a matter of choice. Consumers can choose to have them, and they can later be removed. [Laughter.] Hon. Members may laugh, but it is entirely a matter for consumers.

The hon. Gentleman may know that the Ofwat National Consumer Council has endorsed budget pre-payments, and that surveys show that 80 or 90 per cent. of customers are in favour of them.

Mr. Martlew

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Clappison

I will not give way, because time is getting on. The hon. Gentleman had plenty of time, and I wish to reply to other hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Mrs. Peacock), another hon. Member who is very interested in water issues.

She battles hard on behalf of her constituents, and I note her comments about the drought. She is particularly concerned about low-income families, and she wanted a specific response on disconnections. She will be pleased to know that disconnections are on a downward trend. However, there is still a need for disconnection to be available to deal with those who can pay but refuse to do so.

My hon. Friend will know that low-income families are dealt with under special provisions by the Department of Social Security, and that there is a provision in each company's water licence that the supply of water to domestic premises should not be disconnected if the person liable to pay the charges informs the company that he or she is applying for help from the Department of Social Security. I hope that that allays my hon. Friend's concerns.

The hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Taylor) mentioned the south-west, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls), in his usual robust terms. The hon. Member for Truro referred to the clear-up in the south-west. I hope that he welcomes the fact—I know that he is interested in environmental statistics and information—that statistics have been released which show a marked improvement in bathing water quality and river water quality, and the high standard of drinking water quality. He will know of the connection between that and the programme of investment that is being carried out.

The hon. Member for Truro is concerned about price increases in the south-west. I hope that he will join me in welcoming the fact that prices in the south-west, as elsewhere, will be limited. In the case of the south-west, prices up to 2000 will be limited to 1 per cent. in real terms, and after 2000 there will be no increase in real terms. I hope that the hon. Gentleman welcomes that limit. The hon. Gentleman knows the problems in his proposal for using council tax bands. He is at least putting forward a proposal, which distinguishes him from Labour Members, but it is, unfortunately, a bad proposal. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made clear—the hon. Gentleman himself said that he was particularly concerned about poorer families—the Liberal Democrats' policy would lead to arbitrary changes, especially for people in the lower band. As the Consumers Association said: Many low-income families could experience a considerable increase in their bills with this switch. That is why the hon. Gentleman's policy is a bad idea.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Staffordshire (Mr. Fabricant) helpfully mentioned the extent of metering throughout Europe and in many other countries, including countries with socialist Governments—a point that seems to have eluded the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras. My hon. Friend battled for manufacturers in his constituency, such as Armitage Shanks and GEC Alsthom. They and many others will be interested in the current review of water byelaws. Clearly there is some scope for improving efficiency and reducing waste, contamination and the like.

The hon. Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson) was concerned about poorer families. I remind him of what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said in his opening remarks. It is important that lower-income families should be taken account of, and it is important that water companies should choose tariff structures that are adapted to the needs of lower-income families. That is an important point.

My hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge made a valuable contribution in his own way. He too emphasised that there is no hidden agenda; it is as plain as a pikestaff that there is not. What is clear is that the Labour party has no agenda at all. One only has to look at the recently released outline Labour manifesto to see the extent of Labour's disregard for the environment. The environment is not mentioned in the introduction, it does not have a chapter to itself, and it does not even have a heading within a chapter. It is buried away in a few short sentences in one paragraph. The manifesto does not mention the importance of sustainable development.

I know that the hon. Member for Hillsborough, who is so interested in water, will be disappointed by the fact that there is no mention of water in the outline manifesto. If the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras was present when these matters were being discussed, he must have bitten his tongue. I am sure that the hon. Lady cannot have been there, because she certainly would have wanted to say something about water, and she would have been foaming if the subject had been missed out.

The hon. Lady and other Labour Members who are water enthusiasts can take some consolation from the fact that they are not alone in their plight. There is no mention of water and the importance of water conservation for the environment, sustainable development, air quality, climate change or biodiversity. The only mention I could find of biodiversity was a promise of a free vote when enacting legislation to ban hunting with hounds, which is rather different from our idea of biodiversity.

Mrs. Helen Jackson

The point about the environment is that it would be part of every Department's policy under a Labour Government.

Mr. Clappison

Judging by the efforts in the manifesto, the environment will have to struggle to become part of the policy of a Labour Department of the Environment. It is clear that Labour has no interest in the subject.

That is the problem with the Labour party. That is the real risk and danger it presents: that the environment will be neglected and will fall behind in the list of priorities, as it did in terms of investment when Labour was last in power. Let me remind Labour Members that the last Labour Government cut investment in the water industry. They slashed it almost in half in the second part of the 1970s, and, in 1976, they were forced to impose a six-month moratorium on water authority capital expenditure.

The water industry is now spending far more than it did then—some two or three times more a year. That investment will provide higher standards: better drinking water, better river water—river water quality is improving according to any standard—better bathing water and, indeed, better quality all round. That real improvement results from a successful quality. Opposition Members will have to think again, and come up with something a bit more convincing than the policies that they have advocated.

As we made clear in our amendment, we believe that water conservation is an important issue. We are committed to the environment; we are committed to the single issue of water conservation, just as we are committed on all the other great international and national issues. It seems, however, that the Labour party has no interest in, and no policy on, climate change, biodiversity, air quality, forestry or any of the other important national and international obligations that we have taken on and are fulfilling.

The longer the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras spoke, the plainer it became that he had no ideas. He refused to say at any stage how he would charge for water: he had no idea whatsoever. He refused to say anything about that, even when intervened on by my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold)—who, had he remained in the Chamber for the whole of the hon. Gentleman's speech, would not have heard a word about water charging.

It is obvious from what the hon. Gentleman said that the Labour party is bankrupt in regard to the environment. This fictitious, ridiculous motion, based on a charade, is plain evidence that Labour neglects the environment, does not know what sustainable development is, and has not the commitment that the Conservative party has.

Question put, That the original words stand part of the Question:

The House divided: Ayes 269, Noes 288.

Division No. 181] [7.01 pm
Ainsworth, Peter (East Surrey) Baker, Nicholas (North Dorset)
Aitken, Rt Hon Jonathan Baldry, Tony
Alexander, Richard Banks, Matthew (Southport)
Alison, Rt Hon Michael (Selby) Banks, Robert (Harrogate)
Allason, Rupert (Torbay) Bates, Michael
Amess, David Batiste, Spencer
Arbuthnot, James Bellingham, Henry
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham) Bendall, Vivian
Ashby, David Beresford, Sir Paul
Atkins, Rt Hon Robert Biffen, Rt Hon John
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham) Body, Sir Richard
Baker, Rt Hon Kenneth (Mole V) Bonsor, Sir Nicholas
Booth, Hartley Gillan, Cheryl
Boswell, Tim Goodlad, Rt Hon Alastair
Bottomley, Peter (Eltham) Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles
Bottomley, Rt Hon Virginia Gorman, Mrs Teresa
Bowden, Sir Andrew Gorst, Sir John
Bowis, John Grant, Sir A (SW Cambs)
Boyson, Rt Hon Sir Rhodes Greenway, Harry (Ealing N)
Brandreth, Gyles Greenway, John (Ryedale)
Brazier, Julian Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth, N)
Bright, Sir Graham Gummer, Rt Hon John Selwyn
Brooke, Rt Hon Peter Hamilton, Rt Hon Sir Archibald
Brown, M (Brigg & Cl'thorpes) Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)
Browning, Mrs Angela Hampson, Dr Keith
Bruce, Ian (South Dorset) Hannam, Sir John
Budgen, Nicholas Hargreaves, Andrew
Burt, Alistair Haselhurst, Sir Alan
Butcher, John Hawkins, Nick
Butler, Peter Hawksley, Warren
Carlisle, John (Luton North) Hayes, Jerry
Carrington, Matthew Heald, Oliver
Carttiss, Michael Heathcoat-Amory, Rt Hon David
Cash, William Hendry, Charles
Channon, Rt Hon Paul Heseltine, Rt Hon Michael
Chapman, Sir Sydney Hicks, Sir Robert
Churchill, Mr Higgins, Rt Hon Sir Terence
Clappison, James Hill, Sir James (Southampton Test)
Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford) Hogg, Rt Hon Douglas (G'tham)
Clarke, Rt Hon Kenneth (Ru'clif) Horam, John
Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey Hordern, Rt Hon Sir Peter
Coe, Sebastian Howard, Rt Hon Michael
Colvin, Michael Howell, Rt Hon David (G'dford)
Congdon, David Howell, Sir Ralph (N Norfolk)
Conway, Derek Hughes, Robert G (Harrow W)
Coombs, Anthony (Wyre For'st) Hunt, Rt Hon David (Wirral W)
Coombs, Simon (Swindon) Hunt, Sir John (Ravensbourne)
Cope, Rt Hon Sir John Hunter, Andrew
Cormack, Sir Patrick Jack, Michael
Couchman, James Jenkin, Bernard
Cran, James Jessel, Toby
Currie, Mrs Edwina (S D'by'ire) Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)
Curry, David (Skipton & Ripon) Jones, Robert B (W Hertfdshr)
Davies, Quentin (Stamford) Keen, Alan
Davis, David (Boothferry) Kennedy, Charles (Ross,C&S)
Day, Stephen Kennedy, Jane (L'pool Br'dg'n)
Deva, Nirj Joseph Khabra, Piara S
Devlin, Tim Kirkwood, Archy
Dorrell, Rt Hon Stephen Lestor, Joan (Eccles)
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James Lewis, Terry
Dover, Den Liddell, Mrs Helen
Duncan, Alan Litherland, Robert
Duncan Smith, Iain Livingstone, Ken
Dunn, Bob Lloyd, Tony (Stretford)
Dykes, Hugh Llwyd, Elfyn
Eggar, Rt Hon Tim Loyden, Eddie
Elletson, Harold Lynne, Ms Liz
Evans, David (Welwyn Hatfield) McAllion, John
Evans, Jonathan (Brecon) McAvoy, Thomas
Evans, Nigel (Ribble Valley) McCartney, Ian
Evans, Roger (Monmouth) McCartney, Robert
Evennett, David Macdonald, Calum
Faber, David McFall, John
Fabricant, Michael McKelvey, William
Fenner, Dame Peggy Mackinlay, Andrew
Field, Barry (Isle of Wight) McLeish, Henry
Fishburn, Dudley Maclennan, Robert
Forman, Nigel McNamara, Kevin
Forsyth, Rt Hon Michael (Stirling) MacShane, Denis
Forth, Eric McWilliam, John
Fowler, Rt Hon Sir Norman Madden, Max
Fox, Rt Hon Sir Marcus (Shipley) Maddock, Diana
French, Douglas Mahon, Alice
Fry, Sir Peter Mandelson, Peter
Gale, Roger Marek, Dr John
Gallie, Phil Marshall, David (Shettleston)
Gardiner, Sir George Marshall, Jim (Leicester, S)
Gamier, Edward Martin, Michael J (Springburn)
Martlew, Eric Shore, Rt Hon Peter
Meacher, Michael Short, Clare
Meale, Alan Simpson, Alan
Michael, Alun Skinner, Dennis
Michie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley) Smith, Andrew (Oxford E)
Michie, Mrs Ray (Argyll & Bute) Smith, Chris (Isl'ton S & F'sbury)
Milburn, Alan Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)
Miller, Andrew Smyth, The Reverend Martin
Mitchell, Austin (Gt Grimsby) Snape, Peter
Morgan, Rhodri Soley, Clive
Morley, Elliot Spearing, Nigel
Morris, Estelle (B'ham Yardley) Spellar, John
Morris, Rt Hon John (Aberavon) Squire, Rachel (Dunfermline W)
Mudie, George Steinberg, Gerry
Mullin, Chris Stevenson, George
Murphy, Paul Stott, Roger
Oakes, Rt Hon Gordon Strang, Dr. Gavin
O'Brien, William (Normanton) Straw, Jack
O'Hara, Edward Sutcliffe, Gerry
Olner, Bill Taylor, Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
O'Neill, Martin Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Orme, Rt Hon Stanley Timms, Stephen
Paisley, The Reverend Ian Tipping, Paddy
Parry, Robert Touhig, Don
Pearson, Ian Trickett, Jon
Pickthall, Colin Turner, Dennis
Pike, Peter L Tyler, Paul
Powell, Sir Ray (Ogmore) Vaz, Keith
Prentice, Gordon (Pendle) Walker, Rt Hon Sir Harold
Prescott, Rt Hon John Wallace, James
Primarolo, Dawn Walley, Joan
Purchase, Ken Wardell, Gareth (Gower)
Quin, Ms Joyce Wareing, Robert N
Radics, Giles Watson, Mike
Randall, Stuart Welsh, Andrew
Raynsford, Nick Wicks, Malcolm
Reid, Dr John Wigley, Dafydd
Rendel, David Williams, Rt Hon Alan (Sw'n W)
Robertson, George (Hamilton) Williams, Alan W (Carmarthen)
Robinson, Geoffrey (Co'try NW) Wilson, Brian
Robinson, Peter (Belfast E) Winnick, David
Roche, Mrs Barbara Wise, Audrey
Rogers, Allan Worthington, Tony
Rooney, Terry Wray, Jimmy
Ross, Ernie (Dundee W) Wright, Dr Tony
Rowlands, Ted Young, David (Bolton SE)
Salmond, Alex
Sedgemore, Brian Tellers for the Ayes:
Sheerman, Barry Mr. David Clelland and Mr. Greg Pope.
Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert
Abbott, Ms Diane Bradley, Keith
Adams, Mrs Irene Bray, Dr Jeremy
Ainger, Nick Brown, Gordon (Dunfermline E)
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE) Brown, N (N'c'tle upon Tyne E)
Allen, Graham Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon)
Alton, David Byers, Stephen
Anderson, Donald (Swansea E) Callaghan, Jim
Anderson, Ms Janet (Ros'dale) Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge)
Ashton, Joe Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)
Austin-Walker, John Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V)
Banks, Tony (Newham NW) Campbell-Savours, D N
Barron, Kevin Canavan, Dennis
Battle, John Cann, Jamie
Bayley, Hugh Chidgey, David
Beckett, Rt Hon Margaret Chisholm, Malcolm
Bell, Stuart Church, Judith
Bennett, Andrew F Clapham, Michael
Benton, Joe Clark, Dr David (South Shields)
Bermingham, Gerald Clarke, Eric (Midlothian)
Berry, Roger Clarke, Tom (Monklands W)
Betts, Clive Clwyd, Mrs Ann
Blair, Rt Hon Tony Coffey, Ann
Blunkett, David Cohen, Harry
Boateng, Paul Connarty, Michael
Cook, Robin (Livingston) Hutton, John
Corbett, Robin Illsley, Eric
Corbyn, Jeremy Ingram, Adam
Corston, Jean Jackson, Glenda (H'stead)
Cousins, Jim Jackson, Helen (Shef'ld, H)
Cummings, John Jamieson, David
Cunliffe, Lawrence Janner, Greville
Cunningham, Jim (Covy SE) Jenkins, Brian (SE Staff)
Cunningham, Roseanna Jones, Ieuan Wyn (Ynys Môn)
Dalyell, Tam Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C)
Davidson, Ian Jones, Lynne (B'ham S O)
Davies, Chris (L'Boro & S'worth) Jones, Martyn (Clwyd, SW)
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli) Jones, Nigel (Cheltenham)
Davies, Ron (Caerphilly) Jowell, Tessa
Davis, Terry (B'ham, H'dge H'I) Kellett-Bowman, Dame Elaine
Denham, John Key, Robert
Dewar, Donald King, Rt Hon Tom
Dixon, Don Kirkhope, Timothy
Dobson, Frank Knapman, Roger
Donohoe, Brian H Knight, Mrs Angela (Erewash)
Dowd, Jim Knight Rt Hon Greg (Derby N)
Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth Knight Dame Jill (Bir'm E'st'n)
Eagle, Ms Angela Knox, Sir David
Eastham, Ken Kynoch, George (Kincardine)
Etherington, Bill Lait, Mrs Jacqui
Evans, John (St Helens N) Lament, Rt Hon Norman
Ewing, Mrs Margaret Lang, Rt Hon Ian
Fatchett, Derek Lawrence, Sir Ivan
Faulds, Andrew Legg, Barry
Field, Frank (Birkenhead) Leigh, Edward
Fisher, Mark Lennox-Boyd, Sir Mark
Flynn, Paul Lidington, David
Forsythe, Clifford (S Antrim) Lilley, Rt Hon Peter
Foster, Rt Hon Derek Lloyd, Rt Hon Sir Peter (Fareham)
Foster, Don (Bath) Lord, Michael
Foulkes, George Luff, Peter
Fraser, John Lyell, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas
Fyfe, Maria MacKay, Andrew
Galbraith, Sam Maclean, Rt Hon David
Galloway, George McLoughlin, Patrick
Gapes, Mike McNair-Wilson, Sir Patrick
Garrett, John Madel, Sir David
Gerrard, Neil Maitland, Lady Olga
Gilbert, Rt Hon Dr John Malone, Gerald
Godman, Dr Norman A Mans, Keith
Godsiff, Roger Marland, Paul
Golding, Mrs Llin Marlow, Tony
Gordon, Mildred Marshall, John (Hendon S)
Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S) Martin, David (Portsmouth S)
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend) Mates, Michael
Grocott, Bruce Mawhinney, Rt Hon Dr Brian
Gunnell, John Mellor, Rt Hon David
Hain, Peter Merchant, Piers
Hall, Mike Mills, Iain
Hanson, David Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling)
Hardy, Peter Mitchell, Sir David (NW Hants)
Harman, Ms Harriet Moate, Sir Roger
Harvey, Nick Monro, Rt Hon Sir Hector
Hattersley, Rt Hon Roy Montgomery, Sir Fergus
Henderson, Doug Needham, Rt Hon Richard
Heppell, John Neubert, Sir Michael
Hill, Keith (Streatham) Newton, Rt Hon Tony
Hinchliffe, David Nicholls, Patrick
Hodge, Margaret Nicholson, David (Taunton)
Hoey, Kate Norris, Steve
Hogg, Norman (Cumbernauld) Oppenheim, Phillip
Home Robertson, John Ottaway, Richard
Hood, Jimmy Page, Richard
Hoon, Geoffrey Paice, James
Howarth, George (Knowsley North) Patnick, Sir Irvine
Howells, Dr Kim (Pontypridd) Patten, Rt Hon John
Hoyle, Doug Pattie, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey
Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N) Pawsey, James
Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N) Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth
Hughes, Roy (Newport E) Pickles, Eric
Hughes, Simon (Southwark) Porter, Barry (Wirral S)
Porter, David (Waveney) Tapsell, Sir Peter
Portillo, Rt Hon Michael Taylor, Ian (Esher)
Powell, William (Corby) Taylor, John M (Solihull)
Rathbone, Tim Taylor, Sir Teddy (Southend, E)
Redwood, Rt Hon John Temple-Morris, Peter
Renton, Rt Hon Tim Thomason, Roy
Richards, Rod Thompson, Sir Donald (C'er V)
Riddick, Graham Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)
Robathan, Andrew Thornton, Sir Malcolm
Roberts, Rt Hon Sir Wyn Thurnham, Peter
Robertson, Raymond (Ab'd'n S) Townend, John (Bridlington)
Robinson, Mark (Somerton) Townsend, Cyril D (Bexl'yh'th)
Roe, Mrs Marion (Broxbourne) Tracey, Richard
Rowe, Andrew (Mid Kent) Tredinnick, David
Rumbold, Rt Hon Dame Angela Trend, Michael
Ryder, Rt Hon Richard Trotter, Neville
Sackville, Tom Twinn, Dr Ian
Sainsbury, Rt Hon Sir Timothy Vaughan, Sir Gerard
Scott, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas Viggers, Peter
Shaw, David (Dover) Waldegrave, Rt Hon William
Shaw, Sir Giles (Pudsey) Walden, George
Shephard, Rt Hon Gillian Walker, Bill (N Tayside)
Waller, Gary
Shepherd, Sir Colin (Hereford) Ward, John
Shepherd, Richard (Aldridge) Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)
Shersby, Sir Michael Waterson, Nigel
Sims, Sir Roger Watts, John
Skeet, Sir Trevor Wells, Bowen
Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield) Whitney, Ray
Speed, Sir Keith Whittingdale, John
Spencer, Sir Derek Widdecombe, Ann
Spicer, Sir Michael (S Worcs) Wiggin, Sir Jerry
Spink, Dr Robert Wilkinson, John
Spring, Richard Willetts, David
Sproat, Iain Wilshire, David
Squire, Robin (Hornchurch) Winterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)
Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John Winterton, Nicholas (Macc'f'ld)
Steen, Anthony Wolfson, Mark
Stephen, Michael Wood, Timothy
Stern, Michael Yeo, Tim
Stewart, Allan Young, Rt Hon Sir George
Streeter, Gary
Sumberg, David Tellers for the Noes:
Sweeney, Walter Mr. Simon Burns and Dr. Liam Fox.
Sykes, John

Question accordingly negatived.

Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 30 (Questions on amendments) and agreed to.

MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.


That this House notes that Her Majesty's Government is committed to sustainable development and recently published an assessment of global warming in the United Kingdom with its sharp reminder of the increasing pressure on water resources; further notes that the increasing demand for water therefore requires a long-term approach to the management of water resources and that an important part of that task is to discourage unnecessary wastage of water both by companies and by customers; therefore welcomes the new duty on water companies to promote the efficient use of water and, although the Government has never supported a policy of compulsory metering, notes that metering can also be effective in encouraging customers to use only the water that they need and that this helps to increase the sustainability of water use; and looks to the water companies to use the flexibility available to them to develop their own tariff structures and methods best suited to the needs of customers and to local circumstances.