Clause 32 - Enforcement notices, and related procedures and offences
Water Bill [Lords]
4:45 pm

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Mr Norman Baker (Lewes, Liberal Democrat)

I beg to move amendment No. 206, in

clause 32, page 36, line 15, leave out 'significant'.

I wanted to explore with the Minister the meaning of the word ''significant'' in the phrase

''significant damage to the environment''.

I am a little concerned that it may be an unreasonably high test for the Environment Agency to meet before enforcement action is taken. I accept that deleting the word might make it a low test that could lead to unjustified enforcement action. I could not think of anything between significant and an absence of significance, but that was the aim of the amendment. I do not want a situation to arise in which damage of a worrying nature is caused that does not trigger enforcement action.

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Mr Elliot Morley (Minister of State (Environment and Agri-Environment), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; Scunthorpe, Labour)

Yes, I think that I can help the hon. Gentleman. We need to have a phrase such as ''significant environmental damage''. We have been discussing the worries of current licence holders, and I have tried to assure them that the agency's attitude to the tests will be reasonable and that people's legitimate interests will be taken into account. That is important because our debate will be listened to by people outside the Committee.

We do not want a power that triggers the removal of licences for small issues. The issue has to be significant. Significant damage relates to a wide range of environmental harms, including illegal activity and activities that are unlicensed or go beyond the terms of the licence. It is a test of the character of harm.

We have asked English Nature and the Environment Agency to consult and to issue guidance on how those tests will be applied. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be interested in that.

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Mr Norman Baker (Lewes, Liberal Democrat)

I am grateful for that useful reply. I hope that I can be copied into that consultation process. Trusting that the Minister will note that, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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Mr Norman Baker (Lewes, Liberal Democrat)

I beg to move amendment No. 207, in

clause 32, page 37, line 30, leave out '£20,000' and insert '£50,000'.

It is a serious matter if significant or even serious damage has been caused because people have failed to adhere to enforcement notices. It could sometimes lead

to long-standing or even permanent environmental damage. Under those circumstances, it is appropriate that people who know the rules but have not complied should face serious penalties—especially water companies or big firms. To some of them, although not all, £20,000 would be a drop in the ocean. I am sure that the circumstances of small independent abstractors could be taken into account, but £20,000 is not a large sum to the big companies. Indeed, a higher sum would be more appropriate.

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Mr Elliot Morley (Minister of State (Environment and Agri-Environment), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; Scunthorpe, Labour)

I have some sympathy with the amendment. Again, I reassure the hon. Gentleman that £20,000 is consistent with the increased fines for abstraction and impounding offences under clause 63 and those for the control of pollution under the Environmental Protection Act 1990. The penalty is in line with the other penalties that can be imposed. However, for more serious breaches, there is no limit on the fine.

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Mr Norman Baker (Lewes, Liberal Democrat)

I will come back to the Minister privately on that. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 32 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 34 to 36 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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Mr Bill Wiggin (Leominster, Conservative)

I would like to see new clause 1 stand part of the Bill, although I know there is not much time left. It would be a tremendous addition.

This is an important part of the Bill. It would be greatly improved by the new clause, because it seeks to protect the quarrying industry. The industry needs protection because of the Bill's drafting. However, bearing in mind the obvious environmental damage that could be caused—but which will not be caused because the industry is responsible—

5:00 pm
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Mr Bill O'Brien (Normanton, Labour)

Order. It is now 5 o'clock, and according to the Order of 16 September, the Committee must adjourn.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That further consideration be now adjourned.—[Mr. Ainger.]

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Mr Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire, Conservative)

On a point of order, Mr. O'Brien. As my hon. Friend has moved new clause 1, is it not required by the order of proceedings that we decide on new clause 1 before we next meet?

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Mr Bill O'Brien (Normanton, Labour)

The procedural motion before the Committee that business should terminate at 5 pm was agreed.

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Mr Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire, Conservative)

Further to that point of order, Mr. O'Brien. We are required to dispose of proceedings at 5 pm. The proceedings are that new clause 1 has been moved; it seems that it cannot be disposed of without being withdrawn or voted on. As I understand them, Standing Orders say that it cannot be withdrawn once the knife comes down.

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Mr Bill O'Brien (Normanton, Labour)

I draw attention to the fact that I did not have the opportunity to propose the Question to the Committee. The proceedings therefore closed when we reached the appointed time. That procedure was agreed. I cannot change it. If the hon. Gentleman

wants it to be changed, he will have to go back to the House.

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Mr Norman Baker (Lewes, Liberal Democrat)

Further to that point of order, Mr. O'Brien. I am not an expert on Standing Orders, but in other Committees of which I have been a member, it has been the practice on reaching the guillotine that votes are taken on Government amendments and on whatever was under discussion at the time. I appreciate that we cannot sort it out now, but if that interpretation is correct I wonder whether it would be in order to bring new clause 1 back at the next sitting.

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Mr Bill O'Brien (Normanton, Labour)

If I had had the opportunity to propose the Question from the Chair, we could have voted on it. However, by virtue of the agreement that was reached on 16 September, there was no time for me to propose it. The business therefore closes in accordance with the agreed Order.

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Mr Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire, Conservative)

Further to that point of order, Mr. O'Brien. In the quick exchange that we had, my understanding is that my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster moved new clause 1 formally, you put the question, and my hon. Friend chose to speak again.

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Mr Bill O'Brien (Normanton, Labour)

I wanted to do that, but the Clerk drew my attention to the fact that the new clause had to be read the first time, and that I had to read the proposal that it be read a Second time. I did not have the chance to do that because of the time.

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Mr Norman Baker (Lewes, Liberal Democrat)

Further to that point of order, Mr. O'Brien. With respect, you must have done, because the hon. Gentleman started speaking to it.

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Mr Bill O'Brien (Normanton, Labour)

I invited the hon. Member for Leominster to speak, but I did not have the opportunity to propose the Question that the new clause be read a Second time. I can do that only after the motion has been moved. On this occasion, it was not moved. The knife came down, and I had to draw attention to the agreement that was reached on 16 September. If hon. Members wish to challenge that, it can be taken up with the Speaker.

In view of the resolution before the Committee, my duty now is to put the Question that business stand adjourned till 4.30 pm on 14 October.

Question put:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 11, Noes 6.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Adjourned at six minutes past Five o'clock till Tuesday 14 October at half-past Four o'clock.