Claims that Maori own water have no basis and will not hold up the Government's privatisation programme, says the Prime Minister.

The Waitangi Tribunal begins an urgent hearing on the Maori Council's water claim in Lower Hutt today.

The Maori Council applied to the Waitangi Tribunal to halt sales until it resolves who owns water in hydro and thermal power stations operated by the companies affected by the Government's partial asset sale programme.

Six buses of Maori leaders from Ngapuhi, Tainui, Tauranga Moana and Te Arawa travelled to Lower Hutt for the urgent hearing.


Prime Minister John Key told TVNZ's Breakfast this morning that concerns over water use were already being addressed by the Government.

"The Government addresses those genuine rights that Maori have through a variety of different mechanisms, but whether Mighty River Power is 100 per cent owned by the Government, or 51 per cent owned doesn't alter the 30-year water rights they may have.

"They have a legitimate right, they have always historically had a connection with the river and they care passionately about that and we work with them," he said.

"We don't believe anybody owns water. What we do accept is that people own water rights. We don't think the sale of 49 per cent of Mighty River Power in any way impinges on those water rights," he said.

But Maori Council co-chairman Maanu Paul told the programme Maori own the water.

"As far as my people are concerned we are the water and the water is us," he told Breakfast.

"It is controversial because in 1996 we had a claim decision that said we have proprietary rights akin to ownership - it's been 16 years, we've been waiting for Government to talk to us about our proprietary interests in water."

Mr Key said even if the Waitangi Tribunal found Maori hold interests in water the Government would not have to accept the decision.


"The Waitangi Tribunal's rulings are not binding on the Government, so we could choose to ignore what findings they might have - I'm not saying we would, but we could."

If the Government refused to act on the findings of the Waitangi Tribunal the Maori Council could take its case to the High Court.