The DWI was established in 1989 when the water industry was privatised. It is not named specifically in the Water Industry Act 1991, which instead empowers the Secretary of State to appoint "technical assessors" to assist him in discharging his powers and duties in relation to drinking water quality.
The changes promised by Mr Yeo will place the DWI on a statutory footing. In addition, the DWI will itself take responsibility for prosecuting water undertakers who supply water "unfit for human consumption". Under section 70(4) of the 1991 Act, only the Secretary of State or the Director of Public Prosecutions may at present initiate legal proceedings.
Despite a number of well publicised incidents, particularly involving contamination of drinking water supplies with cryptosoridium, no proceedings have been taken against water undertakers for supplying water unfit for human consumption since 1989. The DWI has never recommended a prosecution to the Secretary of State, and no such cases are understood to be pending at present.
It remains to be seen whether the forthcoming changes in the DWI's status will make a difference, although they will clearly make it more likely that it will be seen to be independent.
The changes promised by Mr Yeo will require primary legislation. Although the DWI will not be incorporated into the Environment Agency, the much-delayed Bill to establish the Agency is likely to provide the necessary vehicle.