§ 5.51 p.m.
§ Lord Skelmersdale
My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into a Committee, and I believe it is right on this occasion to break the cardinal rule of public speaking: never begin with an apology! However, having studied the Official Report of yesterday's proceedings in your Lordships' House on the Water Bill, it is clear that the matter which was of greatest concern to your Lordships—indeed, the matter on which more than on anything else turned the decision which your Lordships eventually took—was the three-week interval between the Committee stage on 8th March and the Parliamentary Answer setting out the Government's position on Clause 7 which I gave to my noble friend Lady Trumpington.
As my noble friend Lord Bellwin pointed out yesterday, we wanted to consider carefully the point which my noble friend Lord Sandford had made on 8th March and also what other noble Lords said on that occasion. However, bearing in mind the importance of the issues, I must accept that three weeks was much too long a period if your Lordships were to have adequate time to prepare for the next stage of the Bill. I apologise unreservedly, and may I say that we are prepared for the full debate this afternoon which I know your Lordships will wish to have on these important matters.
Having said that, on behalf of my noble friend Lord Bellwin, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into a Committee on Clause 7 of the Bill.
§ Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into a Committee on Clause 7 of the Bill.—(Lord Skelmersdale.)
§ On Question, Motion agree to.
§ House in Commiottee accordingly.
§ [The EARL OF LISTOWEL in the Chair.]231
§ Clause 7 [Arrangements by water authorities for representation of consumers' interests]:
Lord Hemingford moved Amendment No. 1:
Page 5, line 26, at end insert ("and for enabling public discussion and review of all policy issues before the water authority makes decisions thereon.").
§ The noble Lord said: I beg to move the amendment standing in my name and the names of others more eminent than I am. The purpose of this amendment is to put into the Bill a clear obligation on the water authorities to make themselves amenable to public particpation in decision making. We are dealing here with legislation which I think may well be on the statute book for some time, and Governments of various hues may be administering it. We should not assume that it can be left to what might be cosy arrangements between the Secretary of State and the chairmen of the water authorities to determine whether the public is able to participate in the formulation of water policy.
§ In this process I believe the press, about which I shall declare an interest in a minute, would play an important part. It is hardly to be believed that the public would be aware of what water authorities intended unless the press, radio and television were conveying that to them. But we are not talking here about the narrow interests of the press, radio and television: we are talking about the ability of the citizen to argue before the event against some proposed course of action adopted by a body which has the power to tax. That is why, although I am happy to declare an interest as a member of the Guild of British Newspaper Editors and as someone who works for the Westminster Press, I do not think it is perhaps especially necessary in putting forward this particular amendment.
It is true that the draft guidelines formulated by the Secretary of State for regional water authorities provide that the authority is expected—and I quote—
to invite the CCC's advice on questions of a general character affecting some or all of their consumers in a particular area or more widely.
It is also true that the guidelines contain the following injunction:
Water authorities and companies should be obliged to inform a CCC of their general plans and arrangements and to provide such supporting information as is necessary for a CCC to discharge its functions, and should be obliged to consult CCCs before putting into effect proposals with significant implications for their consumers; for example, charges.
But none of this guarantees that there will be time between ventilation of the subject with the CCC and the decision-making meeting of the water authority for the public to have a say. The paragraphs which deal with the frequency and timing of meetings mean that in fact a CCC could be consulted on Monday and the water authority could make its decision on Tuesday, with no possibility of any public debate or intervention in the process. When people in authority wish to keep things dark, they are not always above manoeuvres of that kind, and I believe that we need to put into the statute something which will save them from the temptation.
§ The purpose of the CCCs must be to enable water policy to be publicly debated so that the views of the consumers can be taken into account. The CCCs, I am 232 sure, will be staffed by splendid people with their fingers accurately on the public pulse, but they are not themselves a substitute for public opinion generally, and it would be a mistake to think of them as such. In that case, there is every reason to prescribe what they do and how they do it, so as to avoid any possibility of their being hijacked at some future date by the authorities which they are meant to be scrutinising. The debate on this Bill has been punctuated by the wish of noble Lords to make its provisions more precise. I believe this is a case of writing into the Bill what are probably the intentions of the present Government, and I submit that there is everything to be said for committing future administrations to the same practice.
§ Lord Ardwick
This amendment fits very well into the following series of amendments under the name of the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, in that it endeavours to strengthen the purposes and the functions of the consumer councils; and anybody who heard the noble Baroness, Lady Burton, speaking in the last debate will, I think, feel that these are very necessary measures. At an earlier stage of the debates on this Bill all the sponsors of this amendment were sponsors of another one which provided for the admission of the press to meetings of the water authorities. That was rejected after the Minister had contended that the new boards were of a different nature—of a more executive nature—from the former boards, although making exactly the same kinds of decisions. I myself still think that the press should be there, but one cannot reopen that issue. What one can say is that the press would have been in attendance, not because they enjoyed a privilege: they would have enjoyed merely a facility which enabled them to be the eyes and ears of the public, and especially those members of the public who pay a very substantial water rate. In other words, the right of press access was the right of public access.
What some editors pointed out to us at the time was that what they thought was of enormous value—perhaps of even greater value than the presence of their reporters at the meetings—was the access that they had to the papers which were to be presented to future meetings of the board. By presenting those papers and those proposals to the public before the meeting, the newspapers could give public opinion the chance to consider and to make representations on controversial issues.
The intention is that the press should be present at these meetings of the consumer bodies, but it would be of little use if these bodies were merely told what the board had decided and why. This would not be participation; it would not even be consultation. It would be a mere public relations job—a justification of the decisions that the authority had taken or were on the point of taking. What the consumer bodies will need to know is what the board intend to do and the reasons for their decisions. Then the committees and the press together could bring public opinion to bear on the way in which public money is to be spent, if public opinion is not satisfied with what the board intend to do or the way the board intend to do it.
§ 6.2 p.m.
§ Baroness Trumpington
I opposed the amendment at the previous stage. I call this a rose by any other 233 name. It is exactly the same kind of amendment which we have here. In my view, it emasculates the role of the board. Furthermore, if you have newspapers of the ilk of The Londoner giving their opinion on the work of the water council, you will get a very one-sided view. There are several newspapers which would not give impartial views and I feel very strongly that this amendment should be resisted.
§ Lord Mottistone
I should very much like to support my noble friend Lady Trumpington. The key issue which we must not forget is that the object of this Bill is to give the water authorities a chance to work in a commercial way, so that they will have the ability to make their decisions sensibly, without all the troubles that happen when there are all sorts of other bodies looking over your shoulder which you have to bother about. I should have thought that this amendment was unnecessary—and I rather thought that in introducing it the noble Lord, Lord Hemingford, indicated that—because it is taken care of by the Government's own clause which we are talking about, and also by their thoughts on the guidelines which they will give, referred to in answer to a Parliamentary Question of my noble friend Lady Trumpington.
As for the question of making a decision on Monday and telling the consultative committee on Tuesday, which will be too late, I would say that if decisions are of any significance at all they cannot be put into effect in two days. That is the sort of myth that is created to justify the press being able to look over the poor chap's shoulders. No commercial company has press men looking over its shoulder, and I do not see why this body should
§ Baroness Birk
If I had been in any doubt at all about this amendment, or thought that it was unnecessary, the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, would immediately have brought me to my feet. Unfortunately, I was not here for the first day of the Committee stage, but I would certainly have given the strongest support to the original amendment. I must declare a sort of interest, since I am still a paid-up member of the NUJ, although work in this House seems to prevent me from putting it to much use. The noble Baroness spoke first about emasculating the role of the board, but it will be a pretty weak board if what is written in the press is going to emasculate it. She also mentioned a paper like The Londoner giving its opinion, and said that it would give a one-sided view which was not impartial. The noble Baroness's speech was against the freedom of the press generally. Of course, newspapers have partial views—
§ Baroness Trumpington
I must take issue with the noble Baroness over that. I said nothing of the kind. I pointed out that some members of the press are not impartial. I said nothing about—
§ Baroness Birk
I have been a reporter in my time and I wrote down exactly what the noble Baroness said. What I am saying is that it is not the business of individual periodicals, or of the press generally, to be impartial. That is what a free press is all about. There are different views put by different organs of the press. That is what we have at the moment. We have the 234 Daily Telegraph putting one view on a particular subject, the Daily Mirror putting another, and The Times putting yet another. That is why we feel that we have a free press in this country. So why should the role of the water authorities be any different from anything else, whether we are discussing economic theories, defence or anything else?
I should have thought that this amendment was one which even those who felt they could not support the original amendment would certainly support, because it is extremely diluted and all it says is:and for enabling public discussion and review of all policy issues before the water authority makes decisions thereon".It is giving an opportunity for the public to know and to understand. It is also widening the field of the consumer consultative committees. It is doing the correct job that it should be doing for the consumers, particularly now when we have these tremendous changes in this Bill, which alter the new water authorities very considerably from the old ones. If the noble Baroness feels that she was misrepresented, or feels on second thoughts that she did not really mean what she said, or that the words she used did not mean what she said, then I hope she will take the opportunity to retract, as we are back in Committee again, and support this amendment.
§ Lord Harris of Greenwich
If I may say a few words following the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, I always look forward to those occasions when the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, and I are allies. But I am bound to say that on this occasion I am in an extremely difficult position, because I wholly disagree with virtually everything she said in the short speech she made. With great respect to her, because I know that she is a person of considerable liberal sentiment, I do not think she wholly understood the point that she was making, because what she was saying to us was that, because Mr. Livingstone and his colleagues produce a journal which periodically says unattractive things—as undoubtedly it does—therefore the language of this statute should be framed in a different way.
I do not think that that makes any sense at all. The fact is—I regret to say this and I feel that the noble Baroness is about to become extremely indignant with me, so I apologise—that her language on this amendment is exactly the same as that of the Left-wing Labour majority on the Islington Borough Council, who, curiously enough, take almost exactly the same position as she does in relation to the weekly newspaper which is published in Islington and which periodically publishes articles which they do not find attractive.
Passing from what the noble Baroness said to what the noble Lord, Lord Mottistone, said, there is no conceivable comparison between a private company and a water authority. We are talking about organisations which have taxation powers, and it seems to me that the case for this moderate amendment has been made in remarkably clear-cut terms, both by the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, and by the noble Lord, Lord Mottistone.
§ Lord Cullen of Ashbourne
I should like to support my noble friend Lord Mottistone, in that I do not 235 believe that the amendment is necessary. I was lucky enough to discuss this amendment with the Wessex water authority and I learned that this is exactly what happens. These policies are usually discussed over a long period of time with the advisory bodies, which are very similar to the CCCs which we are now considering. Long discussions take place. The amendment provides that all policy issues have to await public discussion. One has only to imagine what would have happened during the water strike if all policy decisions had had to await public discussion.
§ Lord Howie of Troon
Before the noble Lord sits down, could he clarify a point which occurred to me during his comments? I thought I heard him say that this amendment is unnecessary. Does that mean that newspapers of the ilk of The Londoner could go into such meetings, to the horror and fear of the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, even if this amendment is not passed? I fear that that raises a terrible dilemma for the noble Baroness.
§ Baroness Elliot of Harwood
I must apologise to your Lordships for not being in my place at the beginning of this debate. It came on much earlier than I had expected, and as I had another engagement to fulfil I am afraid I did not hear the beginning of the debate. I agree completely with what the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, said. I am sure that I should also have agreed with every word that the noble Lord, Lord Ardwick, said. I have a great deal of experience of these matters. The reason we fought hard for the Access to Meetings Bill which related to committees run by authorities, particularly those which have a great deal of influence and which are very important for the ratepayers and voters in any given area, was because we wanted them to know what was happening. They could not participate because they were not members of county councils. But those who are interested can go to meetings, listen and express their views outside, if they want to do so. It is all done in public, for the reason that it is the public who are interested.
I did not hear what my noble friend had to say, but I am afraid I do not agree with him that it is unnecessary for these discussions to be held in public. The public should be able, if they wish, to attend these meetings. Nine times out of 10 they do not want to go to such meetings, but the fact is that they can go and that the press can also attend such meetings. In the case of the Bill which we passed in 1960, if private matters are to be discussed by a committee it can be put to the vote (if the committee agrees to such a course) that the press should be asked to leave. That is done only on special occasions when something of a private nature is under discussion. In normal circumstances, however, when it is a question of getting the points of view of people who are voters and ratepayers and who therefore are interested in these matters, I do not agree that it would be detrimental if these meetings were open to the public. If the meetings had been open to the public during the water strike it 236 is quite possible that there might not have been a strike; it might not have happened if people had known what was going on. That is, of course, speculation, with which your Lordships may or may not agree.
But I am not afraid of the public. I am not afraid of discussion of these matters. We are all ratepayers. We have the right to know what our money is being spent on. The fact that the water authorities are now separate from the ordinary rating authorities does not make any difference. We all have to pay the water rate. The fact is that these questions affect the public and they have the right to know what discussions take place.
During our last debate, the reason given for not wanting the public to be admitted was that those meetings would be very small. Instead of there being a big committee, as in the case of the county councils, there might be a committee of, say, eight, 10 or 12 people. That does not matter. It is all the more important for the public to be able to attend such meetings, otherwise fewer people will know what is being done than would be the case if the matter were discussed at a meeting where 20 or 30 people were present. The public should be allowed to know and should be able to discuss matters for which they are going to have to pay. It would be a thousand pities if this Bill were so retrograde as not to allow the press and the public to be present when these matters are being discussed. The amendment is not quite so strong as the one moved by the noble Lord, Lord Ardwick, the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, and me on the last occasion, but it is very much better than nothing. Therefore it would be a great pity if the Government did not accept it. It would go some way towards the principle by which we have always stood: that the press and the public should be allowed into these meetings when public information matters are being discussed.
§ 6.17 p.m.
§ Lord Sandford
I have to agree with my noble friend Lady Elliot of Harwood. It is pointless to compare the regional water authorities and their consumer consultative councils with commercial companies. Of course it would be inappropriate to have the press and public present at meetings of the board of a commercial company in a competitive situation—still less to reveal in advance their proposals to the press. But the bodies we are talking about are totally different. These are bodies which operate in the public sector. They are monopolies and they manage a commodity of vital importance to every single citizen of the country, day by day and hour by hour. The situation is totally different from that of a commercial company. We must not make the mistake of making these silly comparisons.
May I ask the noble Lord who is to reply what would be the effect of the amendment which the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, wanted to put forward on the Severn-Trent Bill? We were told by him—it is not everybody who reads Hansard—that the Severn-Trent Board on the Soar is to make a great improvement to the river for everybody concerned and that they will have their 237 flood water taken away. I happen to be at the other end of the Severn and am well up on a hill, but I represent quite a number of people who are very much affected by flood water. Will they have all the flood water of the Soar sent down to them on top of what they already get now? Is somebody in the Severn-Trent board going to spend a lot more money in order to pump it away? If the press are kept out of what goes on in the Severn-Trent board which is discussing the Soar, how will people in Gloucestershire know that such a prospect is in view?
I cannot believe that many press members will be specifically interested in this problem, but there may be a representative of the press who will get in touch with his colleague in Gloucester or Cheltenham whose reading public will be very much affected. Not just a few members of the NFU or just a few country landowners are affected. Everybody is affected every time a sewerage manhole cover comes up, caused by flooding. Surely such a desirable project as the proposal relating to the Soar which the noble Lord told us about and which your Lordships' Committee is going to look into through the courtesy of the Lord Chairman of Committees, should be known to the public. If that had not happened, how would those people know about this project? Should they not be able to ask the Severn-Trent board? Who is to protect their rights if the press cannot go into these meetings and report matters which are of very great public importance? I cannot see that in such a situation there will be any great scandal, or trouble, or libel cases. I do not see why the press should not listen-in to such very mundane matters—mundane although they have a very big effect on other people further down the river.
§ Lord Mottistone
Perhaps I might take up a point made by my noble friend Lord Sandford, because the fact is that when one talks about a commercial operation one is not always talking particularly about a private company but perhaps about other types of commercial operations operated by public companies, such as gas boards and electricity boards. They do not have the press hanging around their necks. I believe that there is a mistake—and I suggest this also to my noble friend Lady Elliot of Harwood—in perceiving water boards as an extension of the local authority, which they have been in the past. The whole picture is different now. They are not to be an extension of the local authority, but are to be like other public enterprises which have to operate as commercially as they can and other public enterprises which, equally—and I agree with my noble friend—are not competitive in the ordinary sense. Your Lordships might take the point that these other bodies do not have to admit the press, so why should the water boards?
§ Lord Melchett
If I may say so, the noble Lord, Lord Mottistone, is perpetuating the myth which the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, so effectively demolished. It is not true that water boards are in the same position as the gas or electricity boards, or the coal industry, or other major suppliers of that kind, because the water boards have the power to levy rates on individuals regardless of whether the commodity they supply is used or not. If the noble Lord will just stop to think about this for a moment, I hope he will accept that that 238 situation puts the water authorities in a totally different position from that of the gas or electricity boards, who make charges on the basis of the use made of their products. It may be that in some cases the consumer has very little choice, but, nevertheless, people are charged because they use the products of those industries. As the noble Lord will know, there are plenty of people who are charged water rates, which cover sewerage charges, when in fact they do not have any sewage of which to dispose.
While I am on my feet, perhaps I may answer the point made by the noble Earl, Lord Bathurst, on the question of the Severn-Trent, if the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, does not intend to do so. I believe that the noble Earl made a very good point. In a number of cases where these schemes have been carried out the removal of what has in effect been a sponge to soak up flood water from one part of the system has led to very severe flooding problems further downstream. The wet grazing marshes which will be affected by that particular scheme currently act in that way. If they are pump-drained and the water is put into the river system, then there seems little doubt that it will create severe problems for the people whom the noble Earl mentioned. That is a very good argument for saying that the more publicity there is about water authorities' plans the better.
§ Lord Skelmersdale
Not for the first time in your Lordships' Committee I have been feeling for the past few moments a little like a fish slice. The noble Lord, Lord Hemingford, who moved this amendment, has returned, as he and other noble Lords have done and acknowledged—including the noble Lord, Lord Ardwick, prompted by my noble friend Lady Trumpington—to the subject of publicity to be given to water authority meetings and discussions, and the rights of the press and public in this context. They returned to the subject, though at a different part of the Bill—and this is vitally important.
During the earlier debates on the press and public my noble friend emphasised the importance we attach to involving the press and public fully in the proceedings of the new consumer consultative committees which are to be established under Clause 7. These committees will be able to consider any water authority matters which affect the interests of people living in the area. As my noble friend previously pointed out, these will include fundamental questions such as charging, financial policies and overall investment planning—and, indeed, the kinds of matter to which my noble friend Lord Bathurst referred. They also include more detailed local issues and individual complaints where these are not satisfactorily dealt with by the water authority, or where they are not matters for the ombudsman.
This is a wide remit, and we have gone further still. We have said that the committees should be consulted about the plans of the water authority on major issues well in advance of any final decisions being taken. So it will not be the case, as was suggested by one noble Lord, that the decisions of the water authority taken on a Tuesday will be discussed by the consumer consultative committee on a Wednesday—or vice versa. We intend that there should be plenty of time for these full-scale discussions.
239 The committees will not be consulted on every matter, because there will always be matters too sensitive for public ventilation, such as staffing matters, in which the press and public would at present be excluded from a meeting of a water authority. It would be wrong for the consultative committees to debate such matters. However, I say again that on major policy questions we expect the committees to be consulted well in advance.
I feel that this covers the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Ardwick, and also by my noble friend Lord Bathurst, when he referred to the Instruction of the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, earlier today. In addition, we have said that the water authorities and water companies should provide whatever supporting information is necessary for a consumer consultative committee to discharge its functions in relation to major issues. This would certainly include the documentation on which the authorities' own decisions had been based: not every paper or document, because that would be very far-reaching indeed, but, nevertheless, the information that the committees need should be available.
In our view, these are matters which flow directly from the new Section 24A of the 1973 Act as it stands in Clause 7. The arrangements are to be arrangements:for the representation of the interests of consumers".We do not see what this means if it does not include public discussion of the main policy issues affecting consumers. If representation is effective, it must be wide-ranging and it must be public. We have already drawn attention to some of these points in the draft guidelines circulated last November, which no doubt we shall be discussing at great length when we reach Amendment No. 2. We shall be amending the guidelines to require compliance with some of the other points I have mentioned—in particular, the need for press and public access to meetings of the CCCs—when we re-issue the guidelines for further consultation shortly.
I do not see, however, that the amendment is necessary in the sense that what it proposes is to a large extent inherent in the clause as it stands. We could not, however, in any case, accept that all the policy issues debated by the water authorities are relevant to the CCCs. What is a policy issue is not always easy to define, but certainly I would not expect the committees to be involved in discussions, say, about retirement age policy for staff, or whether introducing a particular water valve would lead to any savings. The noble Lords may say that this is not what they have in mind in using the words "policy issues", but it illustrates the difficulty in referring to that particular phrase in legislation.
My noble friend Lord Mottistone went right to the core of the Bill when he said that what we intended in this legislation was the ability to make the water authorities work, and work well. In spite of the strictures of my noble friend Lord Sandford it is only fair to ask your Lordships whether you would feel able to invest money in a company which could not make decisions until they had been passed by the annual general or a special general meeting. Further to that, 240 whatever the comparison with a commercial company may or may not be, there may be a very straight comparison with nationalised industries. Their consumer councils are not all open to the public, but this one—ours—will be.
My noble friend Lady Elliot of Harwood, as one would expect with her great experience of the Public Bodies (Admission to Meetings) Act, in effect asked whether the provisions in regard to the exclusion of the press will apply. Following a Division at Committee stage on, I believe, Clause 1 of the Bill, to the water authorities themselves they will not, but that is totally irrelevant to these consultative committees. They will be consulted about the main policy issues, and the press and public will be admitted to every one of their meetings, in their entirety.
The noble Baroness, Lady Birk, took issue with my noble friend Lady Trumpington, and I think they probably had a very good scrap between themselves without my intervention at this particular stage; but I was rather surprised to hear from the noble Baroness—I think I got the words down correctly—the Daily Telegraph putting one view, The Times another and the Daily Mirror yet another, because it has occurred to me over the past few months that I sometimes wonder whether the Opposition does not put all three at once.
We do consider that Lord Hemingford's objectives are largely met by the Bill and by the guidelines. We also consider that this amendment is defective in referring to "all policy issues", and that is a defect which I doubt could be corrected. I hope that my assurances will persuade the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.
§ Lord Hemingford
I find that I did not underestimate the Government altogether in that I believe that, in the noble Lord's word, "to a great extent" and "largely" they have put into the Bill what I am intending by this amendment. However, I do not believe that when it comes to writing statutes it is enough to reflect "to a great extent" or "largely" what one is trying to say. Therefore, I am afraid that I do not feel satisfied with what the noble Lord the Minister has said, and I wish to press the amendment.
§ 6.32 p.m.
§ On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 1) shall be agreed to?
§ Their Lordships divided: Contents, 69; Not-Contents, 74.241
|DIVISION NO. 1|
|Ailesbury, M.||Brooks of Tremorfa, L.|
|Amherst, E.||Burton of Coventry, B.|
|Ardwick, L.||Chitnis, L.|
|Balogh, L.||Cledwyn of Penrhos, L.|
|Banks, L.||Clifford of Chudleigh, L.|
|Bathurst, E.||Collison, L.|
|Beaumont of Whitley, L.||Craigavon, V.|
|Beswick, L.||Darcy (de Knayth), B.|
|Birk, B.||Diamond, L.|
|Bishopston, L.||Elliot of Harwood, B.|
|Blyton, L.||Elwyn-Jones, L.|
|Briginshaw, L.||Elystan-Morgan, L|
|Ewart-Biggs, B.||Napier and Ettrick, L.|
|Fisher of Rednal, B.||Northfield, L.|
|Gladwyn, L.||Ponsonby of Shulbrede, L.|
|Glenamara, L.||Rochester, L.|
|Gregson, L.||Ross of Marnock, L.|
|Hampton, L.||Seear, B.|
|Harris of Greenwich, L.||Serota, B.|
|Hemingford, L. [Teller.]||Shannon, E.|
|Howie of Troon, L.||Somers, L.|
|Hylton-Foster, B. [Teller.]||Stewart of Alvechurch, B.|
|Jeger, B.||Stewart of Fulham, L.|
|Jenkins of Putney, L.||Stone, L.|
|John-Mackie, L.||Strabolgi, L.|
|Kagan, L.||Taylor of Gryfe, L.|
|Kennet, L.||Taylor of Mansfield, L.|
|Kirkhill, L.||Underhill, L.|
|Lee of Newton, L.||Wallace of Coslany, L.|
|Listowel, E.||Wells-Pestell, L.|
|Lloyd of Kilgerran, L.||White, B.|
|Longford, E.||Wigoder, L.|
|Mackie of Benshie, L.||Wilson of Langside, L.|
|Melchett, L.||Winterbottom, L.|
|Avon, E.||Lucas of Chilworth, L.|
|Birdwood, L.||Lyell, L.|
|Brougham and Vaux, L.||Mackay of Clashfern, L.|
|Campbell of Alloway, L.||Mancroft, L.|
|Cathcart, E.||Margadale, L.|
|Colville of Culross, V.||Merrivale, L.|
|Cork and Orrery, E.||Mersey, V.|
|Cowley, E.||Milverton, L.|
|Cox, B.||Montgomery of Alamein, V.|
|Craigmyle, L.||Mottistone, L.|
|Crawshaw, L.||Mountgarret, V.|
|Cullen of Ashbourne, L.||Orkney, E.|
|Davidson, V.||Orr-Ewing, L.|
|De La Warr, E.||Plummer of St. Marylebone, L.|
|Denham, L. [Teller.]|
|Dilhorne, V.||Portland, D.|
|Drumalbyn, L.||Raglan, L.|
|Elphinstone, L.||Rankeillour, L.|
|Elton, L.||Rawlinson of Ewell, L.|
|Ferrers, E.||Rochdale, V.|
|Ferrier, L.||St. Aldwyn, E.|
|Fortescue, E.||St. Davids, V.|
|Fraser of Kilmorack, L.||St. John of Bletso, L.|
|Gardner of Parkes, B.||Saint Oswald, L.|
|Glanusk, L.||Sandys, L.|
|Glenarthur, L.||Selkirk, E.|
|Gowrie, E.||Sempill, Ly.|
|Gray, L.||Skelmersdale, L.|
|Harvington, L.||Stradbroke, E.|
|Hayter, L.||Swansea, L.|
|Hives, L.||Swinfen, L.|
|Hornsby-Smith, B.||Swinton, E. [Teller.]|
|Hunter of Newington, L.||Thomas of Swynnerton, L.|
|Ingrow, L.||Trefgarne, I.|
|Kinloss, Ly.||Trumpington, B.|
|Lindsey and Abingdon, E.||Vaux of Harrowden, L.|
|Long, V.||Vivian, L.|
§ Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.
§ 6.40 p.m.
§ Lord Sandford moved Amendment No. 2:
Page 5, line 26, at end insert—
("(2A) Arrangements under subsection (1) above shall require each water authority to establish Consumer Consultative Councils.
(2B) The number of Councils to be established shall be determined by each water authority after consultation with organisations appearing to it to represent consumer interests in their area including each relevant local authority whose area is wholly or partly in the area of the water authority.
(2C) The water authority shall provide in arrangements under subsection (1) above, as respects each Consumer Consultative Council, that:—
(2D) On submission of a report to the Secretary of State under subsection (1) above, a water authority shall publish in the London Gazette and in one or more newspapers circulating in every part of its area details of the arrangements it proposes to make and shall indicate that representations thereon may be made to the Secretary of State within a period of not less than 28 days from the date of publication.
(2E) In this section, "relevant local authority" means, in relation to a Consumer Consultative Council, the council of a London Borough or of a county or district as defined in relation to England in section 27(1) of the Local Government Act 1972 or of a county or district mentioned in section 20(3) of that Act (which relates to Wales) or the Common Council of the City of London of which the area or a substantial part of it is in each case included in the area of the Consumer Consultative Council.
(2F) Each water authority shall supply to a Consumer Consultative Council such information and documents relating to its functions as such Council may reasonably request.
(2G) In section 26(2) of the Local Government Act 1974 (which relates to the entertainment of complaints by a local commissioner) shall be inserted after the words "member of the authority, or any other authority concerned" the words "(including a member of a Consumer Consultative Council set up under section 7 of the Water Act 1983)".")
§ The noble Lord said: In moving this amendment, may I start by thanking the House for the support it gave yesterday to my Motion that we should recommit the Bill in respect of the clause we are now discussing? May I also thank my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale for his handsome apology and say that I think we can now regard our quarrels as patched up? As regards this amendment I have no intention today of pressing it to a Division. I hope that we can now address ourselves, as I believe we always try to do, to securing a Government amendment to the clause which reflects the wish of the House and which I believe, now that we have this opportunity of discussing the matter with Committee procedure, we can indicate quite clearly to the Government. I understand that we have this evening and we have until next Tuesday, when I believe there is to be a Report stage on this clause—I hope that my noble friend in answering to this amendment can confirm that—in order to achieve this. I believe that is much the better way of setting about it. But at least after this evening, with discussion on this amendment and on subsequent amendments, we shall know the Government's mind, they will know our mind, and between us we can do a decent job on this important part of the Bill.
§ The role of the consumer consultative councils is extremely important. These are now the sole agencies for this role within the structure of the regional water authorities, who are the sole suppliers of water to the entire country of England and Wales. The councils are the sole agents through which these vital bodies— 243 literally, vital bodies—are to be made accountable to the consumers. May I make the point that in this respect they fulfil the role of the consumer councils in the nationalised industries, and any of your Lordships who were listening to the previous debate will have been reminded that in very few cases are the consumer consultative councils in any of the nationalised industries, whatever their different structures and different purposes may be, causing any degree of satisfaction at the moment. None of them is satisfactory and that is why we must give so much attention to the matter on this particular accasion. We have the opportunity to get it right. As the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, said, it is far more vital in this field than in steel, coal, electricity, gas, airways, or whatever else. We are dealing with a most vital industry which is in the process of being nationalised by this Bill.
§ These consumer consultative councils play the role played in the private sector by the shareholders who, if they do not like what their companies are doing, can complain at the annual general meeting or take their money elsewhere. They play the role of the customers in the ordinary private sector who, if they do not like the goods, can go elsewhere. In respect of the regional water authorities, the consumer consultative councils are inheriting roles which previously were carried out by the majority of locally elected representatives on the boards, the role carried out by the ombudsman, the role carried out by the presence of the press and the role carried out by the supervision of the National Water Council. All those roles have still to be carried out, in so far as they affect accountability, and the CCCs are the only bodies to do it. They are, therefore, of vital importance. It is our job, as Parliament, to make sure this is done properly. All experience up to now shows that this is not a matter which can reliably be left either to the national industry or to the sponsoring department and, least of all, to a combination of the two. It must by done by Parliament or it will not be done at all.
§ That is just preliminary to the amendment. The amendment seeks to safeguard, by statute, the independence and the effectiveness of the consumer consultative councils that the Bill intends to set up through this clause. The purpose of the amendment is to ensure that the right selection of the arrangements—I am not saying that this is precisely the right selection, but it is the best I can do at the moment—is approved by Parliament for these bodies, to ensure that they are enshrined in legislation and that the interest of the consumers and their representative bodies are protected in the long term by legislation. There are other arrangements which it is perfectly appropriate to leave to guidelines but I believe, and I think a number of your Lordships believe, that the arrangements that have to go in legislation are more extensive than those which the Government are disposed to put into legislation at the moment. I am perfectly prepared to discuss and argue with the Government that not all the arrangements need go into legislation; that, of course, is true.
§ The provisions of this amendment follow to a great extent the intentions that the Government themselves set out in the guidelines which they published on 22nd November last. The amendment now seeks to reflect 244 the subsequent Written Answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, issued on 29th March by my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale. I think that on about six or seven matters, to which I shall come in detail shortly, the points covered in the amendment are substantially those that are now or were previously proposed by the Government, but only for administrative implementation. The discussion on those is whether they should or should not be in the Bill. There are a number of other points where this amendment covers gaps or goes beyond the Government's present intentions. I seek to justify those one by one as I come to them. Therefore, if I may now take a little time of the Committee, I shall go through the separate parts of the amendment and indicate to your Lordships how they reflect the Government's intentions, how they depart, and why, where they do depart.
§ Taking subsection (2A), the only change that I suggest to the Committee is that the term "consumer consultative councils" is better than "committees" because the term "committee" indicates that they might be committees of the main regional water authorities. We know from the Government that that is not their intention and that they should be independent, autonomous bodies, but in the case of the Welsh Water Authority, which was converted to this system a year ago, the consumer consultative bodies are actually committees of the water authority; and that is not now considered satisfactory by anybody. That is all I want to say about subsection (2A).
§ Subsection (2B) provides for local consultation with organisations representing consumer interests. At subsection (2D) there is provision for publication of the proposed arrangements in the London Gazette and one or two local newspapers so that those who ought to have been consulted, but have not been, can see what is going on and will have the opportunity to make a case for representation to the Secretary of State. As at present drafted, Clause 7(8) of the Bill provides only for consultation with the statutory water authorities, and I do not think that that is enough.
§ I now turn to the provisions contained in subsection (2C). There is a whole sequence of them in the subsection, and the Written Answer given to the noble Baroness Lady Trumpington virtually corresponds to what is now incorporated in paragraph (a) of subsection (2C). As I say, this corresponds to the guidelines and to the Answer given to the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington. So the only argument with the Government in this respect is whether the provision ought to be in the Bill, and my strong contention is that it certainly should be.
§ The question of the chairmanship of the committees is no longer at issue between us as a matter of principle. It has been accepted by the Government, but it is sufficiently important, and will always be so, whatever the particular geographical circumstances, and, this, too, ought to be in the Bill. Paragraph (c) relates to the appointment of a secretary. I do not think that there is much difference between us on this. Paragraph 12 of the November guidelines makes provision for that. The appointment of a secretary is normal form in, for instance, a community health council, and if it is appropriate there, it is certainly appropriate in relation to a consumer consultative council. That certainly ought to be in the guidelines, 245 and there is no reason why it should not be standard practice.
§ I turn now to paragraph (d). If the finances of the consumer consultative council were not adequately met by the regional water authority, the council could be hamstrung and made ineffective. Therefore, it is important to make clear on the face of the Bill that the expenses of the council should be approved and paid. This is a point that is covered by the November guidelines, but not in my view quite fully enough. The guidelines provide only for the expenses of the members to be met—not the operating costs of the council. That is a matter for further consideration and discussion; but there is not very much between us.
§ Paragraph (e) provides that the number and place of meetings are to be at the discretion of the consumer consultative council. I should have thought that we would all be able to agree that that degree of independence is essential. The guidelines issued by the Government in November provide that the committee shall determine the frequency of meetings, but they do not say anything about the place. I consider that it should have as much discretion about the place, as about the frequency of the meetings, and that, too, ought to be on the face of the Bill.
§ I now turn to the question of the admission of the press and public. I am glad to say that, whatever may have happened in the previous debate, the fact that the press and public shall be entitled to be present at all the meetings of the CCCs is a matter to which the Government have agreed, and which they made clear in their Answer in March to the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington. We are grateful for that, but it is of vital importance that it must be on the face of the Bill.
§ I have already referred to subsection (2D). Subsection (2E) is necessary in order to ensure that local authorities with only a minor part of their area within the area of the RWA are not given a place on the CCCs and so make them unnecessarily unwieldly and unmanageable.
§ Subsection (2F) relates to the matter that we have just been discussing, and it is covered in the November guidelines. Clearly your Lordships are not entirely happy with it. Although so far your Lordships have not been able to persuade the Government to change their minds on it, I should have thought that there is scope for further discussion between the Government and your Lordships on the precise wording of subsection (2F).
§ Subsection (2G) is needed in order to give effect to another point which the Government have already accepted; namely, that the workings of the regional water authorities should be subject to the scrutiny and surveillance of the ombudsmen, and if that is so, clearly the CCCs must be appropriately empowered and involved in referring matters to them, since members of CCCs will be among the first people to hear of matters of maladministration.
§ So, as I say, there is not a great deal of difference between those of us who are behind the amendment and the Government. The main issue is how much of the wording in the amendment ought to be on the face of the Bill, and I look forward to hearing what my noble friend has to say about that.246
§ Much reliance is being placed by the Government—personally I should say too much—on guidelines. Therefore, I very much welcome Amendment No. 4, in the name of my noble friend Lord Drumalbyn. If we are to rely on guidelines, some, if not all of them, must be given some statutory force; that is to say, they must be introduced by way of statutory instrument, laid before Parliament, or handled in some other similar way. What we cannot have are guidelines which take one form now, and another form in a week's time, and which after the passage of the Bill can be completely scrapped and rewritten without further reference to Parliament; that we cannot have.
§ I am sorry to have taken up so much time. If I may say so, I very much like Amendment No. 3, in the name of my noble friend Lord Cullen of Ashbourne. If, as I hope, more is written into Clause 7, something along the lines of my noble friend's amendment, indicating at the beginning of the clause the whole purpose of the CCCs, might well be appropriate. I beg to move.
§ 6.57 p.m.
§ Baroness Fisher of Rednal
I rise to support the comments just made by the noble Lord, Lord Sandford. I am terribly disappointed that the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, is not present. Her Question and the Written Answer from the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, have caused us to reconsider this matter which, if time had allowed, might have been discussed at the earlier Committee stage. I had hoped that the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, would have been present. We know that she has a great interest in consumer affairs; otherwise she would not have tabled the Question. Had she been present we could have heard her comments and observations. We could have known whether she was satisfied with the Written Answer that she has received from the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale. We could have learned whether she thought that the Written Answer was sufficiently comprehensive. So, as I say, I am disappointed that she is not here to let us know whether she was satisfied with the Answer.
I should like follow on from what was stated in the Written Answer. The draft guidelines were issued on 22nd November, and the final date for comments was 31st March. That was stated in the Written Answer. It was of great concern to me and, I am sure, to all noble Lords to discover a paragraph in the Written Answer which states:In the light of comments received, and a number of commitments which have already been made, it is proposed to revise the draft guidelines and to reissue them for a further short consultation period."—[Official Report, 30/3/83, col. 1635.]There has already been three months of consultation, but the guidelines are nevertheless to be dished out again. I should like to know from the Minister how long everyone will have to examine the revised draft guidelines and submit their answers. Will there be another three-month consultation period and a further re-issuing of draft guidelines?
The important section of the Written Answer, after there has already been three months of consultation on 247 the guidelines, states:While it will not be possible to publish the revised draft before the House completes the remaining stages of the Bill, copies will be made available to the House on publication.We shall therefore have a Bill going through our House and returning to the other place without our knowing what the guidelines are to be. That is a most unsatisfactory process. It is bad enough to have government by guidelines, but to have government by guidelines after Acts of Parliament are on the statute book is a deplorable way of going on. If the consultation takes three months, the Bill will have become an Act. That is extremely serious. I hope that the noble Lord, in his reply, will say that there will only be a very short period for revision of the guidelines.
The noble Lord states in his Written Answer that copies of the new guidelines will be made available to the House on publication. Will the Minister say whether, again, this will be done through the form of a Written Answer, will it be done by a Statement, or will a copy be placed in the Library? It is important that we should know how we are to be made aware of the guidelines. We should also like to know whether they will be available for discussion by the House at a later stage.
We welcome, like Lord Sandford, the fact that the Written Answer states that meetings of consumer consultative committees should be open to the press and the public. It will be interesting to see the reaction when the press and the public receive from the water authority material of which they have not previously been aware, especially if the consumer consultative committees are in disagreement with the water authority on any issue. We accept that proposal. We accept also what Lord Sandford stated regarding the appointment of the chairman.
I am a little worried that the Written Answer to Lady Trumpington states:There should be separate arrangements under Clause 7 to appoint a committee at the regional level to bring together representatives of the water authority and the sporting, recreational, amenity and conservation interests in the area.I should be grateful if the noble Lord will say in his reply whether this is to be written onto the face of the Bill, or will it be the role of the consumer consultative committees to set up the regional bodies?
According to the Written Answer,a modified version of the proposals may be appropriate in particular areas; for instance, in the Wessex Water Authority area a system of consumer committees has been in existence for some time and it should be possible, under the Bill, to reflect such arrangements if they are widely supported".I hope the Minister will explain what that means. Wessex is one of the smallest water authorities. What might be applicable to a small water authority might not be applicable to a large water authority, such as Thames or Severn. I would be grateful for any information from the Minister. Will the new guidelines to be re-issued for consultation be much different from those which have already gone out for consultation? Will there be a complete revision, a part revision or just a tidying up procedure? Or will there be different proposals in the guidelines?
There is not much difference in what Lord Sandford proposes except his assertion that if nothing is written 248 into the Bill no one will know that this marvellous edifice of consumer consultative committees exists. The Secretary of State, if he wishes, will be able to alter the membership, or any of the guidelines. It is important that this matter should be written into the Bill.
I should like to remind the Committee of a remark by the noble Earl, Lord Swinton, on 15th March, at col. 598, when he was replying to a Question about moral education. The noble Earl stated:I was not here in 1944 and I was not responsible for the wording of the Act".He was referring to the Education Act 1944.Whatever the spirit of the Act—we have had this argument many times in relation to many measures in your Lordships' House when certain words are not included in an Act; the statute can be interpreted only in the way it is worded …".That comes from the noble Earl, Lord Swinton, who, one has to accept, is knowledgeable in these matters. He has stated clearly to the House that the statute can be interpreted only in the way it is worded. That is what we want. We want to be able to understand the statute. We want it to be worded so that it can be interpreted legally.
It might be necessary, as the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, says, to think again about those who serve on the consumer consultative committees. I have information showing that the West Wales division of the Welsh water authority put down all the names of members serving on the local committees. One sees that there are five councillors, two people representing amenity and conservation, two representing commercial interests, three domestics—I expect they are all women—three farming representatives, one representing fishing, two representing industrial interests and one representing recreational interests. In that authority, consumer interests are clearly defined. They are no doubt the people to be contacted if one is interested in fishing or industrial matters. This is information that the public should know. It is, after all, the consumer part of the Bill; it is what the Bill is all about. These executive bodies, consisting of six, eight, 10, 12 or 15 members, are the important business part. It is important that the organisation for the consumer element—which is everybody in the country—is known quite clearly. That is why we wish it to be on the face of the Bill.
For the interest of noble Lords, I must say that one has to admire the Severn-Trent River Authority, which has had its share of publicity in the House today. When sending out its water bills and details of how one can pay them it says on the back page:As you may know, the Government is planning to change the structure of water authorities and to set up local consumer councils".This is the punchline:If you would like to serve on one of these new councils—or simply wish to know more about them—write to us and we shall supply you with all the appropriate information".I sincerely hope that the Severn-Trent River Authority does not receive thousands of applications that it will have to go through, but I suppose one could say that that is a really democratic way of asking people to serve on a consumer consultative council. I beg to support the noble Lord, Lord Sandford.
§ Lord Clifford of Chudleigh
I would support anything that gave more local knowledge to these excessively large authorities which have become so out of touch over the years that local opinions and local representatives are absolutely neglected. May I quote a personal experience? In 1896—no, I was not alive then—my place laid on the water supply for a village called Kingsteignton, and it did so until about 10 years ago. The water authorities became larger and they did not like any local suppliers, and so, under the agreement, they asked me to turn it off and I did so. A couple of years later we had two years of drought. They were putting up standpipes in the villages, and so on, and during the whole time there was my supply going at full strength. But, oh no!, they would not swallow their pride. They would not come and say, "Would you turn it on again?" No, they let the inhabitants of Kingsteignton put up their standpipes.
The following year was my first year as President of the Devonshire Association of Parish Councils. I had great difficulty in getting over the complaints from villages throughout the county about why we did not make use of the potable water and why we did not do this or that. It was only by telling them that story of what happened to me that I was able to get on with any other business. The trouble with all these large Government authorities is that unless we have something similar to what I gather is proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, which can keep these super-bureaucrats in the local picture, we shall go on getting inadequate use of supplies—in this case of water—which are available but never used in an emergency.
§ Lord Sandford
They are not called "super-bureaucrats"; they are called "watercrats"—a term introduced by the noble Baroness, Lady Fisher, but misprinted by Hansard as "watercress".
§ Lord Mottistone
Before my noble friend speaks, I should like to say a few words on the amendment before us. My feeling is that there is a lot that is good in it but there is rather too much—certainly for a Bill. I should have thought that subsection (2C)(c), (d) and (e) were going into a minutiae of detail and that a lot of it was more suitable in guidelines. In my view, the best arrangement is the one the Government have put forward in Clause 7, particularly Section 24A(3), under which they will be able to have a look at it. But the best amendment before us is that of my noble friend Lord Drumalbyn—Amendment No. 4—which ensures that we can see what these guidelines look like. If we could be sure that we were going to see the guidelines, and at an appropriate stage before the Secretary of State started commenting on the reports, then we should have a chance to tell the Secretary of State where his guidelines were inadequate if they did not incorporate—as I gather they will—most of what is contained in the amendment of my noble friend, Lord Sandford.
§ 7.15 p.m.
§ Lord Cullen of Ashbourne
The noble Baroness, Lady Fisher, referred just now to the Wessex Water Authority and to the fact that it is one of the smaller authorities, and therefore might require different 250 arrangements from those of the larger ones. It may be interesting to the Committee to know that Wessex feels very strongly that there should be flexibility in adopting any membership and administrative structure that suits any particular region. They consider that the revised guidelines provide that flexibility. They are happy about the guidelines. There is only one point on which they disagree, not only with my noble friend Lord Sandford but also with the Government, and that concerns the chairmen of CCCs, who they think should be appointed by the water authority. That I know is a view with which probably many of your Lordships will not agree, but it is a view based on nine years' experience. When, after the 1973 Bill, Wessex set up advisory bodies very similar to the CCCs that we are discussing, they gave the members of those bodies the option of appointing a local authority representative on the water authority as their chairman, and in all cases they took that course. Furthermore, when recently discussing the new proposals for CCCs they all voted unanimously to retain, if possible, the system that had worked so well.
Under the revised guidelines it would be open to the members of CCCs to appoint as their chairman a member of the water authority, but I must mention to my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale that the guidelines do not require water authorities to be represented on each CCC. I suggest that this point should be considered during the consultation period before the final guidelines are issued. The experience of Wessex advisory bodies has been that, far from inhibiting their freedom, the dual links and allegiances of the chairmen have great advantages, for they provide a communications bridge, a hot line to authority thinking, and greatly facilitate a reciprocal exchange of opinions. Furthermore, when dissatisfaction is expressed at a local level about service or policy, the chairmen are able to ensure that it is dealt with in a rapid, authoritative and informed way. They have a regular slot in the authority agenda to report on advisory committee opinions and recommendations.
As I read the revised guidelines, there is nothing to prevent the Wessex Water Authority continuing with their present structure, although the advisory bodies will in future be CCCs. Perhaps the fact that their arrangements have been successful for nine years may lead other water authorities to follow their example. But I stress again that the vital issue is that water authorities should have flexibility to make arrangements suitable to their regions. We have many thoughts as to whether matters should be in the guidelines or should be in the Bill. Personally, I agree with the Government that we should use the guidelines as much as we possibly can in order to retain the flexibility which is necessary.
§ Baroness Serota
I do not wish unduly to prolong the debate on this amendment, which the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, has explained so clearly and in such detail, and which has been fully supported by my noble friend Lady Fisher of Rednal. However, following the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Mottistone, a few moments ago, I feel that I must stress the need to include subsection (2G) of the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, in legislation rather than in guidelines, because the extension of the ability to refer matters to the ombudsman and the members of 251 the proposed new CCCs would require an amendment in the form of an addendum to the Local Government Act 1974.
The new water authorities, with their much smaller memberships of somewhere between nine and 15 appointed members, will of course restrict the access of the individual citizen to the ombudsman, particularly as they will be covering such wide geographical areas. Therefore, I am in full support of subsection (2G) of Amendment No. 2, but suggest—and I hope that the Government will take full note of this—that this is not a matter for guidelines but must be written onto the face of the Bill.
§ Lord Drumalbyn
Before my noble friend replies, perhaps I might make one or two remarks. First, we are extremely grateful to my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale for having arranged for the Question to be answered on 30th March, as my noble friend, Lord Sandford, said. I do not mean that we are grateful for that date, but that we are grateful for his having done so. One thing has stood out very much from the very able speech of my noble friend Lord Sandford. It was the stress that he laid on including in the Bill the essential points that are now proposed to be included in the guidelines. Of course, it is not unknown for provision for guidelines to be made in Bills, but what is, I think, desirable is to get what is really essential into the Bill when it is at all possible rather than leave it to guidelines.
I do not completely know the reasons why it was decided to use guidelines rather than to put these matters into the Bill itself. No doubt one reason might be the desire for flexibility, but did my noble friend consider the possibility of putting these matters into the Bill and also putting into the Bill—and this is well precedented—the capability to amend the Bill itself in order to change provisions therein as is required? This is not unknown by any means and it would provide flexibility.
I suspect that the main reason for not having put these matters into the Bill is that there was not time to do it. I am sure that my noble friend would have arranged to have it in the Bill had it been possible. I would very much commend my noble friend to look up the precedents here, and I am sure he will find that this is so. It is not done very often but it is done. Then he could make the changes in the Bill by order. Therefore, I would suggest that he might deal with that point in the main part of the speech that he will no doubt make to us. I shall probably want to return to what my noble friend says in his speech after he has made it, and I think that the Committee is now ready to hear his speech.
§ Lord Skelmersdale
After such an opening as that, how could I possibly resist? As my noble friend Lord Sandford said in introducing the amendment, the main purpose of it is quite clear. It is to provide in legislation for the detail of consumer consultative arrangements which the Bill leaves to the guidelines to be issued by the Secretary of State. I can understand concern that what is not in legislation might disappear without trace. Nevertheless, we do not believe that there is any real need for this concern. In order to 252 demonstrate what I mean by this, we must go back to the roots of Clause 7 and consider it in its present from to see what it actually does.
It imposes a clear duty on the water authorities to prepare a report on arrangements to represent the interests of their consumers. Once that report is approved by the Secretary of State, the water authority must statutorily implement the arrangement. Arrangements must, therefore, be established or the water authority will be in breach of its statutory duty.
The arrangements must comply with guidelines and, as the House has heard us say on numerous previous occasions, a draft of the guidelines was published on 22nd November last year, my recent parliamentary Answer explained that we proposed to reissue the draft guidelines for a further short consultation period. The noble Baroness asked me what I meant by saying a "further short consultation period". This has not yet been decided upon, but it will certainly not be as long as the four months previously given for consultation, because, although this is a revision—and I enumerated the most important points in my Written Answer to my noble friend Lady Trumpington—it is not a complete recasting of the guidelines. So although I appreciate the time taken by various organisations to respond to such guidelines, it must surely take a shorter time when they do not have to come at a thing afresh. I hope that the noble Baroness will agree with me on that. I do not propose to reiterate all the points that I made in my Written Answer, but I should like to comment briefly on the main points in this amendment.
First, on the constitution of the committees, which is contained in subsection (2C)(a)—this is going to become terribly complicated so perhaps I may refer to these paragraphs simply as paragraphs (a), (b), (c), and so on—we have made it clear that the water authorities should appoint the nominees of the local authorities and other nominating bodies unless there are very strong reasons for not doing so, and that if, in these circumstances, agreement cannot be reached between the two parties—that is to say, the nominating body, whether it be a consumer organisation, a recreational organisation or whoever—the matter should be submitted to the Secretary of State for his determination. I think that this point also answers the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lord Stanley. I know that he is not present, but I understand that, in the event, his amendment may be moved by another Member of the Committee. The membership of the committees must be genuinely independent, and that is our firm intention.
On paragraph (b), we have agreed that the chairman shall be selected by the members of the committee, though we have added that where the chairman is not a member of the water authority, there will be a need for arrangements for the water authority to be formally represented at the committees. This is something which has been agreed during the passage of the Bill through Parliament up to this point and it is a point upon which the original list of organisations which received the draft guidelines have not yet commented. So it will be only fair to ask them their advice, but I shall return in a minute to this particular point about asking for their advice.
253 We remain of the view that the accommodation and secretariat should be provided by the water authority, which will be a more efficient and less costly arrangement than that proposed in this amendment. We are agreed that the expenses of consumer consultative committees must be paid and that meetings should be open to the press and public, as indeed I said on the last amendment. The number of meetings should be for the committees to decide. I have heard suggestions that there may be only one every six months, but in all fairness I should say that, with the revised guidelines, it is entirely up to the committees to make that choice. If they want to have one fortnightly, or monthly, it would be entirely up to them.
While I am talking about these two changes, my noble friend Lord Cullen mentioned the experience of the Wessex Water Authority over the last nine years. The position with Wessex is that the water authority will have to produce its report to the Secretary of State, and presumably, since all in the authority's area are agreed that the situation is working well, it will continue in exactly the same form. The one thing that could change, but by no means necessarily will change, is that the committee itself will have to have the opportunity to decide whether to re-elect its current chairman; in other words, whether the current chairman of that consultative committee who is currently a member of the water authority should remain in that position. I am obviously worrying the noble Baroness. She is frowning. Am I not making myself clear?
§ Baroness Fisher of Rednal
I thank the noble Lord for giving way. I was not sure whether he was talking about the future consultative councils—that is why I was frowning—or whether I had missed the point and he was talking as though there were some consumer consultative councils now. If he could clarify that he was talking about the future, I am with him.
§ Lord Skelmersdale
I was comparing the future with what is currently going on in the Wessex Water Authority where there is a consumer sub-committee of the water authority. I was comparing for my noble friend, and indeed the Wessex Water Authority themselves, what would be the difference between what is going on now and what will be going on in the future.
This is the only change that I would expect. The proof of the pudding, of course, will be in the eating. If the current chairman is a successful chairman, and the views of the authority and everybody else within the authority's area continue to prevail that he has been a successful chairman, I have no doubt that the water authority chairman on this sub-committee will be re-elected. The revised guidelines will not prevent that, but what we have said all the way through is that it should be up to the consumer consultative committee to decide.
§ Lord Drumalbyn
Would my noble friend forgive me? It seemed to me, reading over the previous proceedings at Committee stage, that we were always in danger of confusing a main committee with the divisional committees, which I understood are proposed in the present draft guidelines. I do not know 254 how many divisional committees there are, nor do I know how many local authorities will be on them. This is not at all clear. Is my noble friend now talking about the chairman of the authority being the chairman also of the consultative committee as it at present exists, or of all the divisional committees as well? Can we know exactly what he has in mind?
§ Lord Skelmersdale
I am afraid that without slightly longer notice than I have just had I cannot tell my noble friend how many divisions are involved. I can say, as in the original guidelines, divisions are the natural operating units of water authorities, and normally there should be one consumer consultative committee for each division.
We are agreed that some publicity should be given to the proposed arrangements before a report is submitted to the Secretary of State, and the water authorities will be required to submit a summary of the comments they receive when they forward their report. This is the Government's way of covering the points in my noble friend's Amendment (D) and the second part of (B).
The guidelines already require water authorities and companies to inform a committee of their general plans and arrangements,and to provide such supporting information as is necessary for a consumer consultative committee to discharge its function".To require the submission of such information and documents as may reasonably be requested is a far-reaching proposal, since it imposes very few limits and raises questions of what is a reasonable request. But it is clear, on the basis of what we have already agreed, that a considerable amount of documentation must be made available, and we feel that this goes far enough.
On (2G) we cannot accept that complaints to the local ombudsman should be routed through a member of the consumer consultative committees. This is the point brought up with her wise and great experience of this particular subject by the noble Baroness, Lady Serota. Complaints to the ombudsman, as she will know better than most of the rest of us, are always routed through members of the body complained about. Although I am conscious that there has been concern, and indeed still is concern, to widen this, the present Bill is not the place in which to raise this general question. We have accepted that the local ombudsman's jurisdiction remains intact, and it would be wrong to experiment on the lines proposed.
To summarise, we have agreed to much of what the amendment seeks, but as part of guidelines and not of the Bill. We do not agree with all the points in the amendment. Above all, we feel that times may change, ideas may change, but that legislation goes on for ever—or almost.
§ Lord Skelmersdale
In this connection I should like to emphasise the rigidity of the approach adopted by my noble friend in writing in the details of consumer arrangements as he proposes without any mechanism, short of legislation, to make any changes. By contrast the Government's position is one of total flexibility and openness to suggestion, not merely from your Lordships but also from those many interests outside 255 which are affected. That is why—and I would stress this—we propose to have a fresh round of consultations. We have already received a number of useful comments on the first consultation. We expect that many people will wish to comment on the revised draft. We should give them this chance, which my noble friend's amendment would not do.
There is another reason why we prefer this flexible approach. It is important that we retain scope for some variation to meet local circumstances. For instance, in the Wessex Water Authority a system of consultative committees has been in existence, as I mentioned, successfully for some time. We would not wish to undermine such arrangements, which are working well. However, to emphasise the importance we attach to the consumer arrangements as a whole, and to underline the statutory nature of the guidelines, I shall be proposing to your Lordships later tonight to accept in principle Amendment No. 4 in the name of my noble friend Lord Drumalbyn.
§ Lord Melchett
If the noble Lord is going to leave that point, may I ask him one question? Does he accept that the flexibility of which he has made a great deal cuts two ways? It gives people flexibility in the sense that they can comment on yet another draft of the guidelines and propose changes to them, but one of the worries on all sides of the Committee is that it gives a great deal of flexibility to the Government in that they can, once Parliament has finished dealing with the Bill, put into the guidelines what they will. That is why many Members from all sides of the Committee support writing into the Bill rather more detail than the Government seem to be willing to accept.
§ Lord Skelmersdale
The noble Lord, Lord Melchett, backs up his noble friend Lady Fisher on his own Front Bench, which one would expect. I am going to get to that point in a minute. When I was talking about the Government proposing to accept in principle my noble friend's Amendment No. 4, I was going on to say that I have some confidence that your Lordships will accept, in agreeing to do this, that we are taking a significant step in the direction noble Lords would like us to move.
The noble Baroness, Lady Fisher, asked how noble Lords would get the guidelines. The answer is that we propose to place them in the Library of the House and in the Printed Paper Office as soon as they are published. There will then be an opportunity for any noble Lord to make a comment in the usual way to the Department of the Environment, and that comment will be considered in exactly the same way as comments from, say, the CBI, recreational bodies or the Consumers' Association. I was not sure whether the noble Baroness was questioning me on point (e) or (d) of my Written Answer.
§ Lord Skelmersdale
There should be separate arrangements under Clause 7 to appoint a committee at the regional level to bring together representatives of the water authority and the sporting, recreational, amenity and conservation interests in the area. She 256 asked whether I would accept that on the face of the Bill, and my answer is that I shall be returning to the point when we consider the amendment standing in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Melchett. For the moment, it is only fair that I should say that the answer is No, for the reasons I shall then give.
The Government do not propose to have further discussions on the guidelines in Parliament, but the noble Baroness can, as can any Member of the House, raise the matter in any of the usual ways should she so wish. In other words, if any noble Lord, having considered the draft, feels that our final guidelines are totally unacceptable, then the Government, being always answerable in Parliament, would expect to be severely criticised and would be very surprised if that did not happen; it happens practically daily. Regional, recreational, amenity and conservation committees are totally separate from the CCCs about which we have been talking.
On the subject of Wessex, the noble Baroness made exactly the point I made earlier. Local variations may be desirable, dependent on the size of authority and other factors. That is why each water authority must put in its own report to the Secretary of State. I hope she will accept that. The one thought I must leave with noble Lords is that the commitments we have made mean some quite major changes. Various organisations and individuals who receive the original draft guidelines, and who will, of course, receive the revised draft guidelines, must have an opportunity to comment. That is the main reason why I am unable to accept my noble friend's amendment, at any rate in its present form.
§ Baroness Birk
I have one point to raise following the Minister's reply, which of course had to be quite long. I am extremely concerned because he said that he could not accept subsection (2G) referring to complaints to the ombudsman. I am sure that my noble friend Lady Serota will wish to comment on this. When the Bill was first before us, the whole question of reference to the ombudsman was left out. It is now in the Bill. To leave this matter to Government flexibility or guidelines—or whatever other step the Government may wish to take—seems completely wrong. If anything should be on the face of the Bill, it is subsection (2G).
§ Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran
I support the main theme of the amendment and, in doing so, I am pleased again to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, on the clarity of his speech, the flexibility in presenting his case and the sympathy he showed to the water industry—qualities he displayed when dealing with amendments of mine at an earlier stage. Reference has been made to the Wessex authority. I had the privilege of visiting that water authority in connection with my membership of the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology. It was clear to us that the Wessex authority was very enlightened, and there is no doubt that, in the circumstances appertaining at that time, their body, known as the local water advisory committee, was doing good work. However, the example of Wessex has, in my experience, not been repeated often with other kinds of authority.
257 There is little difference between the Government and the main theme of the amendment. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, that consultations with the Government are needed on what should be in the guidelines and what should be in the statute. Here the Government are wishing to set up committees. Like Lord Sandford, I prefer to call them councils, for the reasons he indicated. Then there is the desire of Lord Sandford to use his words, merely to safeguard by statute the independence and effectiveness of the consumer consultative bodies intended to be set up under Clause 7. The Government have praised the activities of enlightened authorities like Wessex in what they are doing with their consultative bodies. I suggest that that kind of body should be made statutory in the Bill. Adopting the main theme of the amendment would not affect the position of the Wessex authority in the basic way in which it is operating.
As the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, indicated, the amendment would ensure that the arrangements approved by Parliament for such bodies were enshrined in legislation so that the interests of consumers and their representative bodies were protected in the long term. The Minister indicated that there may be further consultations about the broad matters relating to Clause 7. I am sure that after further consideration the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, with his now increasing knowledge of the water industry and his sympathy with what it is doing, will be able to make a nearer approach to the main theme of the amendment.
§ Baroness Serota
I wish briefly to correct a misunderstanding. The noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, indicated that I and the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, through subsection (2G) of the amendment, were seeking to extend access to the ombudsman. If only that were so. I could make a persuasive case to the Committee to allow the individual citizen direct access to the ombudsman, as people have in all countries other than in the United Kingdom and France. I was seeking only to say in my earlier remarks that unless the amendment were included on the face of the Bill, the reorganisation of the water industry would restrict the access of the individual to the ombudsman because of the very few members who will remain on the new, appointed authorities, through whom the citizens can make their complaints.
§ Lord Skelmersdale
If I may deal with that specific point, I had obviously totally misunderstood the noble Baroness. I apologise for that. In the event, I shall have to reconsider (which I obviously cannot do today) what the noble Baroness has said. On the more general point, she may be interested to know that we cannot yet consider the whole question, but I have no doubt that it will be considered before any of us are very much older; I can go that far. This gives me the opportunity to say to my noble friend Lord Sandford something which I should have said on the first amendment. It is that the Report stage of this recommitted portion will take place, as I understand—it has almost been agreed between the usual channels, and I have no reason to suspect that it will be anything different—on Tuesday of next week.
§ Baroness Fisher of Rednal
I did not follow the answer which the noble Lord gave to my noble friend Lady Scrota. No doubt she understood it more than I, but it sounded like double-Dutch to me. No doubt, reading Hansard, one might get something out of it; but I think it is an important issue. The draft guidelines were issued in November. I will not go through all the numbers, but there was the basis of arrangements and the scope of the committees' activities. Are the guidelines going to be repeated for further consultation? That is what I want to know, because there are rights and obligations and frequency of meetings. Will they be sent out again, or will there be new consultations and documents going out?
§ Lord Skelmersdale
The original guidelines will be re-issued in draft form with the amendments that I have been speaking about. There will be one document to peruse, and one will not have to go back and forth between the old and the new ones.
§ Lord Drumalbyn
May I put a further question about membership of the consumer consultative committees? Following what the noble Baroness, Lady Serota, has said, would it not be normal for complaints from the public to be made to a member of the consultative committee? I am not quite certain what my noble friend replied to that; but I should have thought that this was the normal procedure, just as one makes a complaint to a member of a local authority or, in the case of parliamentary complaints, to a Member of Parliament.
Further to this, I should like to be a little clearer on the qualifications for membership of the consultative committees. I understood from the proceedings (I think on Second Reading) that the idea was to get people who knew the district for which they were going to be appointed and who had some knowledge and interest in the subject of water, who use it, what happens to it and how it is treated. Unless we are going to have large consultative committees in certain areas, the number of members of such committees representing local authorities in the broad sense, nominated by local authorities, will have to be kept fairly low. My noble friend Lord Sandford has spoken of one or more. One is the minimum; "or more" can be quite a few, as they say. Could he say something about that?
I hope I am right about the qualifications and the way in which they are expected to be nominated; that is, knowledgeable people who can really contribute. In particular, I hope that the whole concept which I understood from earlier stages was going to be carried out—namely, that what in days gone by appeared to be local authority domination will no longer apply, and that people will be there because in one way or another they are qualified to be there—will in fact be carried out.
§ Lord Skelmersdale
This is the case in the water authorities themselves, but it is not yet the case in the consultative committees. Paragraph 7 of the guidelines says:The members of each consumer consultative committee will be appointed by the water authority on the nomination of other bodies. They should list every county council and district council wholly or partially within the CCC's area which would have the right to 259 nominate a member. They should also list the other bodies which would be asked to nominate a member. These other bodies will be representative of domestic consumers, industry, farming, commerce, recreation and amenity.".Then follows what I think is an important point:Total membership should be so balanced that if possible no one group of members outweighs the rest.".There is a safeguard in this, in that this must be in the report which goes to the Secretary of State. Therefore, if it appears to the Secretary of State that the water authority has left out one of the organisations which should be appointed to such a committee, he will not agree to the report and will send it back to the water authority for a re-think. So I believe that the position is well covered.
§ Lord Drumalbyn
I understand that. Would my noble friend, between now and the Report stage, look at what that will mean in terms of the number of members of the consumer consultative committees per division? I ask that because it looks as though some of these divisions will have very large numbers.
§ Lord Sandford
I am grateful to the Committee for a thorough debate of this amendment. I think we are now making some worthwhile progress. The first point that I want to accept from both my noble friend Lord Cullen and my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale is the fact that in all this we have to provide for a considerable amount of flexibility. We are not setting up a single consultative committee for a single industry: we are setting up divisional consumer consultative committees spread all over England and Wales in a network, amounting to seven or eight in the case of Severn-Trent, in each of 10 authorities.
Of course, they must have flexibility to provide for the needs of the citizens of Manchester, in one case, and for the needs of one, two, three of four divisions in the Wessex authority in another case, and so on. Of course, we must have variations and flexibility to allow for the differences in geography which are dictated for us, and also flexibility to allow for the wishes of the consumers themselves who are on these committees. I have already appreciated, as this discussion has gone on, that if the members of the CCC wanted to elect a part-time member of one of the water authorities my paragraph (b) of subsection (2C) would need to be amended. That requires them to elect from among their own number. I can see that that is unnecessarily restrictive.
I think that my noble friend on the Front Bench will have appreciated by now that, while making full allowance for the need for all this flexibility, the view of the Committee as a whole clearly is that more than is already in the Bill must be put into it, and that our job between now and Tuesday is to have sensible consultations with the Government and decide what those essentials are.
I may say that my noble friend has made matters much easier for himself by indicating already that he is prepared to accept Amendment No. 4 in the name of my noble friend Lord Drumalbyn. It will, of course, make it far easier for us to reduce what we regard as 260 being the essential items to go into the Bill if we know in advance that the Government are prepared to accept the proposition that in future any guidelines to be issued will be laid before Parliament by statutory instrument and be open to debate. That safeguards the situation admirably and makes the whole job much easier.
For my own part, I would agree that there will be certain proposals, which might perhaps be specified, for which it will not be necessary to make statutory provision, and it would be very useful if we could put into the Bill something which defines this. But, as I have said before, I do not think that the problem before us is all that formidable. We have reached a large measure of agreement on what needs to be covered in setting out the characteristics of these councils. Those matters which must go into the Bill and those which can go into the guidelines if they are statutory will be much easier to resolve if we know that the Government are prepared for the guidelines to be subject to the scrutiny of Parliament. With that, and with some reasonable assurance that we shall be able to reach an accommodation before Tuesday, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Lord Underhill
Before the noble Lord sits down, may I draw attention to the fact that Amendment No. 4, which we shall be debating shortly, does not say that the guidelines will be laid before Parliament for approval before being issued; it says:lay before each House of Parliament a copy of any guidelines issued by him".Therefore, that would seem that they are not to be available for discussion before being issued.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Lord Cullen of Ashbourne had given notice of his intention to move Amendment No. 3:
Page 5, line 29, at end insert ("and such guidelines shall be drawn up by the Secretary of State in order to promote constructive dialogue and effective co-operation between each Water Authority and its Consumer Consultative Committees, through overlapping membership and other organisational means.").
§ Lord Mottistone
My noble friend Lord Cullen has had to go and has asked me to apologise to the Committee for his absence. He spoke on this amendment earlier in connection with Amendment No. 2. This amendment will not be moved.
§ [Amendment No. 3 not moved.]
§ 8.4 p.m.
Lord Drumalbyn moved Amendment No. 4:
Page 5, line 29, at end insert ("It shall be the duty of the Secretary of State to lay before each House of Parliament a copy of any guidelines issued by him under this subsection".)
§ The noble Lord said: I beg to move this Amendment. My noble friend has been good enough to say that he is prepared to accept the substance of it although not necessarily the words, and therefore I can be reasonably brief in dealing with it. The guidelines, as I understand it, will remain the basis on which the consultative machinery is founded, but it is left to each water authority to work out for themselves the application of those guidelines to their own area. It is desired to keep this flexible, and that means that the 261 proposals put forward will not necessarily be identical but they will have the same foundation. They are subject to the approval of the Secretary of State. Of course, he can modify them at the request of the authority after they have come into operation, but presumably they can only be modified in line with the guidelines. That is not said in words, but presumably that is what happens. It is therefore important that the consumers and those who are supplying the water to them—in other words, the water authorities—should know what the guidelines contain. They should be able to refer to them and to study them so that they can see how the water authorities are adapting them to their own needs.
§ It is also desirable that Parliament should have the guidelines on record and should have ready access to them. My noble friend said that when the guidelines are completed—presumably at the same time as they are being sent out to the water authorities—they will be laid in the Library of the House. I presume that the Secretary of State will be able to vary the guidelines from time to time. Indeed there are only two reasons, as I indicated earlier, why the Government should have preferred not to put the guidelines into the Bill. One was to give themselves more latitude—I have already referred to this and commend my suggestion to my noble friend—and the second was because they were not going to be able to get them ready in time for the Bill to be passed through Parliament.
§ That being so, what is the best way of ensuring that the guidelines are made permanently available to the public? I do not think I can deal with the point made by the noble Lord opposite. I have taken the line that it should be sufficient to lay the guidelines before Parliament. The reason is a very good one: it will enable Parliament, if it chooses, to debate the guidelines, and I am sure that the normal channels will provide time for that to be done.
§ It would be equally easy, of course, to provide that the guidelines could be made in such a way that they could be debated through either the negative or the affirmative procedure; but as it is obviously going to be possible to debate them in any case, I would not press that aspect on my noble friend although I should be grateful if he were to change his mind on that and make it possible to have them approved by order in one form or another. I do not think I really need to add anything to what I have already said. I have proposed that they should be laid before Parliament. If my noble friend has a better proposal, then we shall listen to it and be glad to agree to it if it has very much the same effect. With that, I would commend the amendment to your Lordships and I beg to move.
§ Lord Sandford
As I have said already, I should like to welcome this amendment and, in response to what the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, said earlier, I would strongly recommend to my noble friend on the Front Bench that if he accepts the idea behind this amendment and incorporates in any Government amendment to it the suggestion that the guidelines should be laid before Parliament by a formal statutory instrument, this would enable us to place more reliance on them and make it less necessary to insist on all the other essentials which otherwise would have to 262 go on the face of the Bill. I recommend the amendment to my noble friend.
§ Lord Skelmersdale
There seems to be a little confusion about exactly what I am accepting in principle; so perhaps I should say at the beginning that I am pleased to be able to reiterate my assurance to my noble friend that the Government accept the principle underlying the amendment. We believe there would be advantage in providing formally for the guidelines to be laid before Parliament, as his amendment proposes. This underlines the statutory significance of the guidelines. As I have already indicated, we attach importance to doing this and I am grateful to my noble friend for providing us with this opportunity. There are one or two minor points in the drafting of the amendment and its location within Clause 7 which we should like to improve. I would therefore ask my noble friend to withdraw the amendment, on my commitment to introduce a Government amendment to the same effect on Third Reading.
On the point of how these guidelines should be laid before Parliament, this is something which I shall have to consider slightly. As I understand it, when this phrase "laid before Parliament", or something like it, is used in legislation, it means ordered to be laid on the Table and would be in the green Minute which we all receive. I believe that this is my noble friend's intention. If not, I shall have to do a dramatic re-think. Perhaps he will tell me.
§ Lord Harris of Greenwich
May I ask a question of the noble Lord at this point? Is the House able to pray against them? Is it the negative procedure?
§ Lord Skelmersdale
No. In that case no resolution is involved, which I think is the point that the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, was making. But, of course, the point of having such Act papers, as they are called, in the green Minute is to advertise their existence to individual Members of your Lordships' House. It is then up to your Lordships to call attention to them by way, maybe, of the recently much-maligned Question for Written Answer, a debate in your Lordships' House, an Unstarred Question or whatever course whichever of your Lordships who are involved considers appropriate at the time.
§ Lord Drumalbyn
If I recall correctly, we dealt a short time ago with the Data Protection Bill, which provided for all three ways of doing this—by affirmative resolution, by negative resolution, or by laying an order before Parliament. I did not at that time understand that that meant simply tucking it away in the proceedings. The main point is to get a complete document before your Lordships. I do not think you can rely on all members of Parliament picking up fairly obscure references in the proceedings of the Orders of the Day. My intention was that the very least that would happen would be that the document was in a complete form laid somewhere or another, and I would prefer it to be laid before Members of Parliament, rather than simply in the Library.
§ Lord Skelmersdale
Yes, but the point is that when it gets on to the Minutes of Proceedings, it is then 263 automatically available in the Printed Paper Office of your Lordships' House. This is how any of us read reports of, for example, the nationalised industries, which are frequently debated in the House—and I hope that they will long go on being so.
§ Lord Underhill
I am glad that my intervention has clarified the position, but not about the way in which it has been clarified, because it really means that we are giving parliamentary backing by a document being laid on the Table, without any discussion about it. Yet I am certain that, when the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, accepted with gratitude what the Government said on his previous amendment, he was under the impression that that meant there would be parliamentary discussion on it. Obviously there will not be, in the light of the Minister's reply, for which I am grateful, unless somebody tables a subsequent Question or resolution, and that is not what the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, wants. I hope that the Government will take another look at this, because it seems to be the general view that we should have a parliamentary discussion of some kind on the guidelines, before they are actually issued.
§ Lord Drumalbyn
May I clarify a little further? The mere fact of introducing an order on a negative basis does not ensure that there is any discussion. It occurs only if somebody objects to the order. The affirmative resolution is different, because it gives a much stronger possibility of automatic discussion on request. What I am wanting to ensure is that there can be the possibility of a debate, if anybody wants it. It seems almost certain that people will want it, and that can be done on the basis of an order that is laid before Parliament, because it is there and anyone can ask for a debate on it.
§ Lord Skelmersdale
Obviously there is an element of confusion about this whole matter. In view of the lateness of the hour, it might be appropriate if my noble friend and I, together with other members of the Committee who would like to be in on such a discussion, could thrash this out afterwards. I do not feel that there is a great deal between us, but I believe that there is a certain amount of explaining to be done on both sides which would only take up the time of the Committee.
§ Baroness White
Perhaps I may speak as I raised this question at a much earlier stage of this Bill, because I complained about Government by guideline, and the fact that if one goes to the Library all one gets is a very awkard photostat copy of a departmental document. If one wants to discuss it, then one surely must consider, if we are to have Government by guideline, whether we could have draft guidelines, which I think is really at the back of the mind of my noble friend. I think I would be correct in saying that this would have an element of innovation about it, but, after all, one must keep up with the times and, if the Government are to govern by guideline, we should have draft guidelines.
§ Lord Skelmersdale
I am not sure whether the noble Baroness was here when I made the point, but I most firmly stated that the draft guidelines would be in the 264 Printed Paper Office and the Library of your Lordships' House, until such time as they stopped being "draft". They would then no longer be draft guidelines, and would be the guidelines which, as I understand it, will be laid on the Table of the House under my noble friend's amendment. This, in effect, means that the real guidelines will then go into the Printed Paper Office for anybody to consult, read and take away as appropriate.
§ Baroness White
Would they appear on the pink paper which is circulated to us, because that is what most Members read?
§ Lord Harris of Greenwich
May I put in one point? I think that the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, is right in saying that there is not an enormous amount between us on this question. But, with great respect, I do not think that he has wholly satisfied the Committee and I hope that before Report stage, and certainly well before Third Reading, there can be some discussion of the kind he has suggested, because I do not believe that a document in the Vote Office meets the point of those who have spoken during this debate. I just do not think that that is at all satisfactory. If it is in the Vote Office, all that can be done is to put a Question on the Order Paper or, presumably, an Unstarred Question. We want something far more satisfactory than that. The noble Lord has offered to look again at this matter, and I very much hope that he will discuss it with his advisers, because at the moment I do not think his proposal wholly meets the point that has been made.
§ Lord Sandford
I do not think there is much confusion. I think the Committee is quite clear that, when these guidelines are laid before Parliament, they must be laid by statutory instrument. The only matter for debate—and we can return to this at another stage—is whether that should be by the negative procedure, in which case they can be prayed against, or by the affirmative procedure, in which case there has to be a debate. There is no question that any other less formal arrangement will meet the case. It will not meet the case. If my noble friend will accept this, then he will help himself, help me and help all of us in having to be less scrupulous about the essentials that go into the Bill itself. Anything less than that will not have the slightest effect.
§ Lord Skelmersdale
Before my noble friend decides what he will do on this amendment, may I tell the noble Baroness, Lady White, that such papers are in the pink paper, so there will be a double opportunity to be reminded of their existence.
§ Lord Drumalbyn
I am very grateful to my noble friend. I think that he has dealt with this amendment very fairly and competently. He knows that we are all at one in the Committee about getting a sensible way of making the House aware not only of the existence of the document but of the document itself. That is what we aim to achieve; and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ [Amendment No. 5 not moved.]265
§ 8.20 p.m.
§ Lord Melchett moved Amendment No. 6:
Page 6, line 35, at end insert—
("(10) Each water authority shall appoint two committees at regional level, the first of which shall bring together representatives of the water authority and the sporting, recreational and amenity interests in the area and the second of which shall bring together representatives of the water authority and the conservation interests in the area.").
§ The noble Lord said: I beg to move Amendment No. 6, which deals with a different matter, although one that was also covered by the Written Answer given to the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, just before the Easter Recess on 30th March. My amendment deals not with the local consumer consultative committees but with the regional committee which is going to be appointed by water authorities as a result of the contents of the guidelines and as a result of commitments given by the Government in another place that there should be a regional committee covering the whole of a water authority area to deal with sporting, recreational and amenity and conservation interests.
§ We went through this in considerable detail during the Committee stage when I made the point to the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, that this arrangement—which I think was suggested by a member of another place in good faith as being a useful proposal, as indeed in principle it is—was unfortunately, in one important respect, going to cause enormous problems and that it was causing great concern to nature conservation interests. That is because, as I said at the Committee stage, there are already consultative arrangements at regional level between water authorities and nature conservation interests.
§ In this respect the nature conservation interests consist of the Government's statutory advisers—the Nature Conservancy Council—the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Royal Society for Nature Conservation, which co-ordinates the activities of local nature conservation trusts. It is therefore a combination of the statutory body—the Nature Conservancy Council—and the two Royal Societies representing voluntary organisations. As I said at some length at the Committee stage, the Government have recognised the value of these consultative arrangements—how well they are working and how useful they are—and have endorsed them in another set of guidelines not connected with the Water Bill but issued as a result of the Wildlife and Countryside Act. Those guidelines quite clearly say that these consultative arrangements are good. They go into some detail about what should be covered, and so on.
§ The concern is that the commitment given in another place, and repeated in the Written Answer in this House, in effect jeopardises the existing consultative arrangements endorsed by the Government's guidelines following the Wildlife and Countryside Act. That concern arises because there is a fear, first, that if a regional committee is set up which is different from the existing consultative arrangements for nature conservation and brings in a range of other interests—amenity and recreational interests—the existing consultative arrangements will be dropped by the water authorities.266
§ The noble Lord said at the Committee stage that the existing arrangements would continue, but there is still great concern that it is simply impracticable to suggest to both sides—the water authority staff and the nature conservation interests—that they should be expected to go through two sets of more or less identical consultative arrangements: the existing informal arrangements and the new regional committee. The regional water authority staff are not likely to thank anybody for being put through a consultative hoop with the same people twice. It would place a great burden on the staff of the voluntary organisations which, as the noble Lord knows, are hard pressed enough already—to say nothing of the staff of the Nature Conservancy Council, which we understand Sir Derek Rayner's review team, no less, has recognised as being understaffed. So that does not seem to be a sensible option, and obviously we ought to try to avoid, if we can, duplicating existing arrangements in a new committee.
§ The answer seems to me to be the one proposed in my amendment, and I am quite happy for it to go in the guidelines, so long as I get an absolutely clear and unequivocal assurance that that is what will happen. If the Government are going to set up a regional committee for the recreational, sporting and amenity interests, which I know would welcome this, they should set up clearly separate arrangements for the conservation interests which could then be simply what is happening already: the existing consultative arrangements for conservation interests. That would end confusion, sort matters out and remove a great deal of the concern which is being expressed at the moment. Furthermore, it would remove one problem about this set of guidelines from the Government's back, which I should have thought they would welcome. I have had confirmed to me today that both the RSPB and the RSNC are of this view, and I think that the noble Lord will be able to confirm that his own statutory advisers, the Nature Conservancy Council, take exactly the same view, too. With that explanation, I beg to move Amendment No. 6.
§ Lord Skelmersdale
I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, for giving me this opportunity to clarify our intentions towards conservation under Clause 7. I am sorry that the noble Lord should consider my recent parliamentary Answer to have caused concern—I think those were his words over the matter. When we debated this subject in Committee the noble Lord asked me for a categorical undertaking that the existing arrangements between the conservation bodies and the water authorities would continue. These arrangements for consultation were referred to in the guidance notes issued last October on procedures under Section 22 of the Water Act 1973, as amended by Section 48 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. I understand that in some cases arrangements bringing together the water authorities and the conservation organisations have existed for much longer than that. In fact, the noble Lord himself has told me privately that in many cases this has been built up over a period of some 10 years. My understanding, like that of the noble Lord, is that these arrangements are working well.
267 I was then able to give the noble Lord an assurance that these existing arrangements would continue, and I am glad to reiterate that assurance this evening. When we reissue in draft form the guidelines under Clause 7 for a further period of consultation we will make clear that these existing conservation arrangements are to remain in being. I am aware that the noble Lord would like us to go further than this and to establish that the new regional level committees dealing with recreation and amenity should have no remit to consider conservation matters. That indeed is the purpose of his amendment, which seeks to establish that there should be two separate committees, one on recreation and amenity and the other on conservation—the latter subsuming the existing local arrangements. I am not, however, yet in a position to give the noble Lord that assurance.
When this issue was debated in another place, and subsequently, we maintained that the regional committees should deal with conservation matters. I do not think it would be right to suggest severing this link without giving those concerned a further opportunity to comment. When we issue our revised draft guidelines, therefore, we will point out the view of the conservation bodies, as expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, this evening, that this linkage with recreation and amenity at regional level would be unhelpful, bearing in mind the separate existence of conservation arrangements. If that view is generally agreed in the response we receive, then we will provide, in the final version of the guidelines, that the regional committee for recreation and amenity shall have no concern with conservation. This is what the noble Lord probably wanted to hear. It will be left to be dealt with as hitherto, whether brigaded under a single committee or otherwise, depending on the present arrangements and the views of those participating. I can assure the noble Lord that all those with an interest will have an opportunity to comment on the revised draft.
There is absolutely no question of the water authorities dismantling the existing arrangements. Whatever the results of our consultation, the conservationists cannot lose. In the light of these very full assurances, I trust that the noble Lord will see fit to withdraw his amendment.
§ Lord Melchett
I am grateful to the noble Lord for his answer. It goes a great way down the road which I hoped the noble Lord would travel. However, I think it would have been simpler for the Government to go the whole way. The noble Lord knows as well as I that only three organisations are involved, because there are only three nature conservation bodies with a regional structure where there are staff or members who can take part in these consultations. The view as to what should happen has been expressed quite clearly by the statutory advisers.
I cannot really believe that this Government, if they are thinking with their political hat on rather than simply sticking with what they have already got in the guidelines (which seems to me to be the case) would want to have duplicate committees: one committee under the existing arrangements—and I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving an assurance that they will 268 continue—duplicated by another committee running alongside. To me, that does not seem to be the kind of message which the Government are generally trying to give about streamlining, efficiency, bureaucracy and so on. I do not think it is a message that noble Lords on any side of the House would be very keen to give. Nevertheless, the noble Lord has gone a very long way and has given us a cast iron assurance that the existing arrangements will continue. That is certainly what I wanted to hear and I am very grateful.
I must say to the noble Lord that the response over this matter has reinforced my support for the views of the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, expressed on the other parts of the guidelines. These are important matters and will concern various interests very considerably. They are still very open. As the noble Lord has said a number of times, the Government have been very flexible. As I have said to him, this has the disadvantage of leaving a very great deal undecided when this Bill leaves Parliament; it leaves many matters of great importance undecided. I shall certainly be urging noble Lords who take an interest in the consumer consultative committees to continue in their efforts to have the guidelines debated by Parliament in one form or another—by either negative or affirmative resolution procedure—before the Government finally issue them. The response on this point reaffirms the importance of doing that. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Baroness Fisher of Rednal
I should like to make one quick comment. One must be pleased with the reply which the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, has just given to my noble friend Lord Melchett. This was a matter which we discussed at great length in Committee. As my noble friend said, a considerable number of people representing sporting, recreational and environmental interests are concerned. We are all sympathetic to the difficulties in which the noble Lord finds himself when he comes to answering our questions. But if the Government had done their homework correctly; if consultation documents had gone out; if the Government had set down their guidelines when they had the results of the consultation documents; and if the Government had then brought forward their Bills, we would have saved a lot of time. Noble Lords have had to find out the answers, and in many instances in Committee the guidelines became mixed up; they became almost like Waterloo Station. We shall now be at Report stage without any guidelines. This Bill will become an Act of Parliament before we have the guidelines and before the consultation document has been returned.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Clause 7 agreed to.
§ House resumed: Clause 7 reported without amendment.