LONDON — On May 19, the same day the new British government proposed a ban on advertising and sports sponsorships by tobacco companies, Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott stunned the nation's water companies, privatized in the 1980s, by ordering them to take urgent conservation measures - or face severe financial penalties.
Water utilities protested the government's tough actions. But if legislation is passed by Parliament, nothing short of a new law can reverse it. Statistics released by Ian Byatt, the government-appointed regulator of privatized water companies, show that most water utilities, while paying handsome dividends to shareholders and high executive salaries, have a dismal record in repairing leaks to water mains. In London, 38 percent of treated water is lost due to leaking pipes and reservoirs. Water companies have three weeks to come up with proposals to reduce water waste.
The previous week, Prime Minister Tony Blair ordered an immediate investigation into the increasingly widespread sale to teenagers and young children of fruit-flavored alcoholic drinks. Since so-called "alcopops" hit the market two years ago, parents and schools have reported that children as young as 10 have been purchasing them. The drinking age in Britain is 18, but it is not strictly enforced. In addition, the packaging of the alcopops resembles that of soft drinks and the fruit flavors mask the taste of the alcohol.
At the root of the new government's tough policies on big businesses is a conviction that during the Conservative Party's 18 years in power, commercial interests were allowed too much freedom.