Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Minutes of Evidence


Examination of witnesses (Questions 466-479)

TUESDAY 13 FEBRUARY 2001

THE RT HON MICHAEL MEACHER MP AND MR ALAN DAVIS

Mrs Dunwoody

  466. Good morning, Minister. It is always not only a pleasure but a frequent delight to have you before this Committee. May I ask you if you have any general remarks you wish to make? I think we can take it we know who you are.

  (Mr Meacher) Thank you very much indeed for that felicitous welcome. I have no general comments, particularly since I am aware that I am coming at the end of your questioning and I think it would be superfluous particularly on this occasion.

  467. May I say quite seriously this Committee values your contributions. You have come here before us on a range of subjects and every one of us appreciates not only the breadth and the intelligence of your involvement and understanding of the subject for which you are responsible but the fact that you are so open and helpful to us. If we work you over, it is done with affection and love.
  (Mr Meacher) I do not think I have ever heard such nice words said about me before.

  468. As I did say to the previous Chief Whip who is now in the House of Lords the other day, "You had better be careful; you are in danger of paying me the first compliment for 30 years." Does the government have a coherent view, dare one ask, of how it wishes the water sector to develop?
  (Mr Meacher) I hope so. That is your prerogative to make a judgment on. This is the second Water Bill that we have had under this administration. The purpose is to carry further the proposals that we committed ourselves to at the water summit which John Prescott initiated in the first three weeks when we came into office. Several of the items in this particular Bill reflect that ten point plan, the new statutory duty to conserve water. We have been consulting for a considerable time about the need for abstraction licensing changes because questionably there has been excess abstraction with damaging environmental consequences in the past. There is, as you know, considerable interest throughout the industry in restructuring which probably reflects the response to the last periodic review which was a tough periodic review but we think got the balance right; and there are the competition provisions which are not yet finalised but which we do intend to put into this Bill. We hope that, as a composite package, that is balancing the need to promote efficiency with at the same time the public interest to ensure equity and environmental protection.

  469. You will not be surprised if we have some lacunae to point out to you at the end of our sessions, will you?
  (Mr Meacher) I will not.

Mr Benn

  470. Will the new Consumer Council have to meet in public?
  (Mr Meacher) I think it is a matter for it to decide. I would strongly be in favour of that. All of these bodies should meet publicly unless there are overriding reasons why they should not. If they were handling commercially sensitive information and they could not do so, it would have to be a private session, but I think it is unlikely that that would be the case very often, if at all.

  471. In that case, should not the legislation make that absolutely clear: that they do meet in public unless they are dealing with items which are confidential like local authorities, for instance?
  (Mr Meacher) We could. I think it is unusual for legislation to specify that a body shall meet in public, but I am perfectly prepared to consider that.

  472. You will probably be aware that the Consumers' Association and the Ofwat National Customer Council have both expressed some concern about the way in which the Bill is currently drafted in relation to the Consumer Council's ability to publish information. They have expressed to us, including this morning, a fear that the Council might feel constrained by this requirement to have regard to whether the publication of information would seriously or prejudicially affect the interests of an individual body. Can you offer us any reassurance this morning that this will not act as a fetter on the Council's ability effectively to represent the interests of consumers?
  (Mr Meacher) I would like to do so. I believe that that constraint that you have spelt out is a reasonable one. I think we are talking about a very unusual situation. I do not think you would recommend that it should publish information which significantly or prejudicially affects the interests of other bodies. It is certainly not intended as a fetter. Again, I am happy to look at ways of wording the draft legislation in order to ensure that that is not the result. It is not meant to prevent the Consumer Council being open, transparent and providing all the information publicly which it believes it should.

  473. What if the Regulator were to say to the Consumer Council, "You have asked for this information but I am not going to give it to you"? How does that situation get dealt with?
  (Mr Meacher) The key point in this legislation is that for the first time the Consumer Council will be independent. There have been claims in the past that the Consumer Council was too dependent on the Regulator. We are making very clear that they are a sovereign body in their own right. They are not dependent on the Regulator and not appointed by him. They would have to take account of what he said. If they felt that he was seeking to restrict the provision of information that they properly needed, they could appeal to the Secretary of State. After all, it is the Secretary of State who appoints them, who is the guardian of their existence and the protector of their rights. I hope that situation will not arise but if it does he would be the person to consider their interests.

  474. You will probably be aware that both the bodies I referred to have suggested that in the event of a disagreement about the provision of information they might appeal to a third party other than the Secretary of State. The suggestion has been made of the Information Commissioner. Do you have a view, if there is going to be a third party right of appeal, as to where that might most properly go?
  (Mr Meacher) That is another option. Since I think we are always generally against appeals to the Secretary of State, if there were a better, more straightforward channel, and this is specifically in regard to the provision of information, that probably is a better option.

Christine Butler

  475. Could not the Bill give powers to the new Council so that it may receive all information within its remit directly from the water companies and it was truly independent of the Regulator? Would you be amenable to looking at that in the legislation?
  (Mr Meacher) The premise behind the question is that the water companies might be unwilling to provide certain information to the Consumer Council.

  Mrs Dunwoody: Of course, you cannot contemplate that, can you?

Christine Butler

  476. The Regulator has to have an awful lot of information from them. Why do we not give the same strength of powers—it may not be as much because they would not be covering such a wide field as the Regulator—but in as much as their remit exists why can they not have that information direct from the water companies? If it is a problem, then and only then may they have to appeal. I do not think that would be very often, under those circumstances.
  (Mr Meacher) The water companies are required to provide information to the Regulator, including commercially sensitive information, in order that he can carry out his proper function with regard to the pricing structure within the industry. There would be strong objection from the water companies in providing all information of whatsoever kind, including price sensitive information, to this independent Council. I am not sure that in order to carry out their proper functions they need such information.

  477. But do they not need a discretion? Surely, if you have an independent body, it needs to have its own discretionary powers and not to be told what is price sensitive, what is a commercial secret, do not do this, you can only speak about that by a Regulator from whom it is supposed to be completely independent.
  (Mr Meacher) I would expect water companies to provide information wherever they can to the Council. If they believed that there was a restraint on that information without due cause, just going back to the previous question from Mr Benn, they can either appeal to the Secretary of State or perhaps more appropriately to the Information Commissioner. That should ensure that they can get the information which they need properly to carry out their function.

  478. Therefore, would the duty be on the water companies to say what should be precluded from the public domain?
  (Mr Meacher) It would be the responsibility of the water companies when asked for information to justify why they are not prepared to provide it. They would have to give good reason. They certainly could not simply prohibit or refuse the provision of information without giving an explanation and justification. If the Council was not satisfied with that, they could take the matter up with whichever body might be the most appropriate.

Mrs Dunwoody

  479. It is not always easy to know what people are not telling you, Minister.
  (Mr Meacher) That is very true and a very good point. With regard to freedom of information, we have considered long and hard in the past at meetings and committees that I have attended as to how one gets over that. The only real answer is to have somebody like the Information Commissioner to whom the information is provided and it is for him or her to take a view as to whether or not that is properly covered under the category of commercial confidentiality.


 
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