Dobson pours scorn on troubled water

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Greed, sleaze and incompetence. Yesterday the target of Frank Dobson's general purpose oratorical bludgeon was the senior management of the privatised water industry.

"The public have seen the new water bosses line their pockets at the expense of the customers," Labour's environment spokesman said as he opened a debate on water supplies, calling for mandatory targets on reducing leaks and a moratorium on industry takeovers.

For water companies to maintain supplies this summer would require the goodwill of customers. "But because of the greed, sleaze and incompetence that has characterised the privatised water industry, the co-operation that people used to give will have to be earned all over again."

In an equally belligerent response, John Gummer, Secretary of State for the Environment, said the two most trivial contributions to the water debate this week had been Severn Trent's advice to customers to concrete over their lawns and Mr Dobson's speech.

The summer of 1976 had showed beyond doubt that the municipal and nationalised system had failed. Some 40,000 properties had to be turned off completely.

Last year, no one had to go to a standpipe and there were no rota cuts, Mr Gummer said. Even if there was another dry summer, the Environment Agency believed no such measures would be needed.

Today is Europe Day - but to the pleasure of the Tory right the European Union's flag will not be flying over public buildings in Britain. Ingratiating himself with the Euro-sceptics, the Foreign Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind,endorsed the stand of Michael Forsyth, Secretary of State for Scotland, in refusing to fly the circle of stars to commemorate the 46th anniversary of the community. Mr Forsyth was ostensibly making a protest at the EU ban on British beef exports, but according to the Foreign Secretary he was simply following government policy.

The flag was raised at Question Time by Nicholas Winterton, Tory MP for Macclesfield, who denounced the anniversary as "pathetic and expensive propaganda". Mr Forsyth had been right to fly the Union Jack and "not to peddle this pathetic, multi-starred yellow flag", he said.

Mr Rifkind replied: "It has, in fact, been the policy throughout the UK not to fly the EU flag from public buildings. Therefore the policy enunciated by Mr Forsyth was fully consistent with policy pursued by many years."

With pro-European Tories finding new voice, Tim Devlin, MP for Stockton South, said there was a large community of nations queuing up to join the EU and "who look forward to the pleasure of flying a blue flag with golden stars on it".

Repeatedly challenged by Labour to make clear whether the Cabinet agreed with the sceptic or the pro-European wing of the Conservative Party, Mr Rifkind hit back: "The Government's view on the EU is consistent with the views of the British public."

Labour MPs jeered, but the Foreign Secretary's sharp response was appreciated on both sides of the House. Not so the insult dished out by his Minister of State, David Davis, to the Labour spokesman Robin Cook. Rejecting a charge that the Conservatives face two ways on Europe, Mr Davis replied: "...looking at the honourable member for Livingston, if he had two faces, he wouldn't use the one he's got."

Mr Cook may be a bit Puckish, but the personal jibe and the groans which greeted it only confirmed Mr Davis's reputation as an occasionally inept Commons performer.