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Tap tax campaign precedes legislation

Lords could embarrass Government: Trimble

By David Gordon and Mark Hookham

NIO Minister David Cairns was today due to unveil a public awareness campaign on water charges - before the tap tax legislation has passed through Parliament.

The order authorising the imposition of household water bills from next April cleared its first hurdle in the Commons yesterday.

But the Government has been warned that it could yet be "embarrassed" in the Lords.

Tonight a trade union campaign against water charges will be stepped up, with a Belfast City Hall meeting hosted by Lord Mayor Pat McCarthy.

The speaker will be John Corey, general secretary of the Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance, which favours a non-payment campaign

There was controversy yesterday over the arrangements for informing Parliament of a High Court "health warning" on the Government's failure to adequately consult the General Consumer Council on the legislation.

The water charges will be introduced on a phased basis. The average household bill is expected to be in the region of £100 next April, rising to around £300 by 2009.

An estimated 200,000 households will qualify for a reduced tariff. Some of these will pay as little as £30 next year.

The Water Service will become a Government-owned company (GoCo) next April but critics allege it will eventually be sold off to the private sector. NIO Ministers are equally adamant that they do not favour privatisation.

A review of private-sector involvement in the GoCo is planned by Government for 2008.

Private companies will undoubtedly have a role in the GoCo - for instance, in providing new infrastructure - but the Treasury is likely to insist on more radical options being explored, including a full or partial sell-off.

Former Ulster Unionist Party leader Lord Trimble has told the Belfast Telegraph that the water charges legislation could encounter problems in the upper house.

"With the background to this, particularly the court case, there is potential for the Government to be embarrassed," he said.

In Parliament yesterday, the Government was accused of "sticking its tongue out" at a High Court judge who recommended that a critical declaration be tagged on to the legislation.

Labour MP Andrew MacKinlay lambasted Mr Cairns after the MP for Thurrock discovered that a court declaration about a flawed Government consultation had not been widely distributed to backbench MPs.

In a judicial review decision issued last week, Mr Justice Weatherup ruled that the Department for Regional Development should have spent more time engaging with the General Consumer Council on the council's responses to legislation

introducing water charges.

A declaration to this effect was be appended to the draft Water and Sewerage Services Order when it appeared before a committee for Commons backing.

But it has emerged that the warning to MPs was not attached to the copies of the order handed out by the Commons vote office before the crucial debate.

The vote office is where all Government legislation, proposed laws, parliamentary orders, agendas and motions are issued and picked up by MPs attending debates.

The declaration was instead placed in the "home affairs section" of the Commons and Lords libraries. Only MPs who had heard about the judge's comments would have known to search for it in the library.

A furious Mr MacKinlay said he hoped Mr Justice Weatherup would be informed that his declaration had been ignored. Mr Cairns said: "I am advised by my advisers we offered to place it in the vote office but we were told by the journal office we should not do so and we should place it in the library. "

A clerk for the journal office confirmed to the Telegraph that High Court judgements could not be physically attached to legislation.

The order won the backing of MPs on the committee by 12 votes to four. Two Tories abstained.

Belfast Telegraph


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