Eagle eye on issues as anger of consumers shifts to water firms

New shadow environment secretary Maria Eagle
New shadow environment secretary Maria Eagle
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IT is a reflection of the modern-day Labour Party that despite the Shadow Cabinet being dominated by Yorkshire MPs, hardly a single one is native to God’s own county.

Ed Miliband, Ed Balls, Yvette Cooper, Hilary Benn, Caroline Flint, Rachel Reeves and Mary Creagh are all Shadow Cabinet big-hitters who represent constituencies in Yorkshire. All hail from the south of England.

So Maria Eagle, the new Shadow Environment Secretary, is something of a rare breed around the Shadow Cabinet table. Both she and twin sister Angela – Labour’s Shadow Leader of the House – were born in Bridlington, before moving to Merseyside as children.

“I’m a Yorkshire lass!” she grins. “All my relatives were Yorkshire-based, so I spent a lot of time going back to Yorkshire in my childhood – to Sheffield, mainly.”

Ms Eagle has fond memories of being taken by her father to football matches at Bramall Lane as a child in the early 1970s.

“I remember one season in particular when we used to go to all the home games,” she says.

“Sheffield United had Tony Currie at centre forward, and they were top of the First Division – it was a great time to be going.

“But it was at that time football crowds started to get a bit rough, and my dad started to get a bit worried about taking two girls who were only ten or 11 – and we’re not exactly tall – to stand on the terrace. We stopped going.”

She remains a keen sports fan – although as a Merseyside MP, Liverpool are her team these days.

Indeed, it was as a campaigner on behalf of the Liverpool supporters who lost their lives in the Hillsborough Disaster that Ms Eagle first made her name as a new Labour MP in the late 1990s, with outspoken attacks on South Yorkshire Police and their former officer Norman Bettison – by then the chief constable of Merseyside.

At the time she was viewed as outspoken. Today, much of what she said is accepted as the truth.

Did she ever believe we would get to where we are today?

“No,” she says. “I thought once the families’ private prosecutions (of the two most senior police officers involved) had failed, there didn’t seem to be any other avenue. I didn’t see any way through. It just seemed like a dead end.”

The publication of the Hillsborough Independent Panel report marked a watershed moment, with David Cameron immediately apologising on behalf of the Government. The Prime Minister’s performance before a hushed Commons last September even drew admiration from Ms Eagle.

“He has had two fine moments during his time as Prime Minister, in my view – and I am a critic of his,” she says. “One was following on from the Bloody Sunday inquiry, when he also apologised, and this was the second. I think he instinctively realised you can’t stand up and defend that.”

She has no such kind words for Sir John Major, however, who apologised last month for failing to listen to the families during his years as Prime Minister.

“If they had properly taken it seriously at the time instead of automatically believing what they were told, this would not have gone so wrong,” she says. “He was right to apologise – it’s a shame he didn’t get it right the first time.”

Now 52, Ms Eagle is established as one of the shadow cabinet’s more experienced voices, having served in Ministerial roles under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

She brought a tough approach to the shadow transport brief under Ed Miliband’s leadership, repeatedly attacking the train operators and demanding lower fares.

Ironically, however, it was her vocal support for the high-speed rail link between London and the North which apparently cost her her job. Despite HS2 having been drawn up by Labour and included in the party’s 2010 manifesto, it seems Ms Eagle overstepped the mark with her unwavering backing for the project as Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls considered withdrawing his own support.

Within days of Mr Balls’s U-turn, Ms Eagle found herself shunted across to the environment brief.

Today, though, she is confident Mr Miliband has decided to give the project his firm backing – and is dismissive of Mr Balls’s stance.

“It’s all back on track,” she says. “There’s been some leaves on the line, I think, that Ed Miliband has cleared away. Our position now is very clear... we’re going to deliver this North-South railway line.”

She is philosophical about her own sudden change of role.

“It’s inherent in being a Minister or Shadow Minister that the leader moves people around,” she says. “I enjoyed transport. I’m proud of the directions I sent us in. Now I’ve got some big challenges in the new brief which I’m looking forward to tackling.”

The first of these will be taking on the “vested interests” of the water companies, amid mounting concern that many are enjoying huge profits while hiking bills and avoiding corporation tax.

“It’s a big issue when people’s cost of living is being squeezed, to see and accept this kind of market failure,” she says. “That is not something I want to do.”

She highlights Yorkshire Water’s finances as being of particular concern, and makes clear a major policy announcement can be expected in the coming months.

“I think we’ve got to look at having a new deal with the water companies,” she says. “I will be developing this over the next period of time. It’s got to have something to say about tax – you routinely have them avoiding corporation tax on the profits they generate.

“There’s got to be an issue about whether Ofwat have enough powers to deal with these companies robustly. And there has to be a national affordability scheme (offering lower bills for poorer households) that is compulsory for companies to operate.”

She is dismissive of the Government’s “pathetic” approach and insists Labour are best placed to deliver a better deal on utilities.

“I want to be a champion for consumers, standing up to vested interests, making sure these companies don’t get away with the murder they are getting away with so far,” she says firmly.

Water, it seems, may be destined to become Westminster’s next big political battleground.