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I beg to move,
That the Chairman do now report to the House that the Committee recommend that the Water Resources Bill ought to be read a Second time.
We have before us a very agreeable and relaxing morning, exploring some very interesting byways of a very complicated field of legislation. The story really goes back to the Water Resources Act, 1963, which laid down an entirely new machinery and a new code of licensing for controlling the abstraction of water. Section 27 of that Act, with which we are concerned in the Bill, relates to people applying to river authorities for a licence to abstract water and sets out the people entitled to obtain such a
licence. The one group of people with whom we are not immediately concerned in the Bill are licensees of right, who have certain existing rights to obtain a licence.
Apart from that group, all the people who apply for a licence must be in a position to use it. They must be either occupiers of contiguous land or, in the words of the Act, they must have or will have a right of access. The reason for that limitation is fairly clear. It was designed to stop licences going to people who had no bona fide interest in abstracting water, and to stop the development of a market, as it were—almost a black market—in licences, with speculators applying for licences and then trading them for their own advantage, when they had no real interest in obtaining water.
If the position were left like that the problem would arise of people who, although they did not have rights of occupation or of access, might have entered into negotiations for the acquisition of land. The problem with which we are concerned this morning arises from an assumption that, if a compulsory order was going to be made under the Water Act, 1945, to carry out works and acquire land compulsorily, that would be equivalent to negotiating for the acquisition of the land.
The difficulty really turns upon the meaning of the word "negotiating", and as to whether the threat of a compulsory order is negotiating. If an order is made or is threatened, does that amount to negotiation? It was assumed earlier that it did, but since then this problem has been raised. There has not been a court decision on it, but it was raised in a case in which the Tees Valley and Cleveland Water Board was involved. The discussion centred on other matters, but this is an issue on which some doubt was thrown.
The effect has been that, in order to protect themselves, river authorities and water boards, have tended to promote Private Bills, rather than use the machinery laid down in the Act. That does not seem to be in anybody's interest, except possibly the Parliamentary Bar, because the whole object of this kind of legislation is to cover the points and to prevent each case being subject to expense and delay, and also to prevent the taking up of Parliamentary time by Private Bills. But, as I said, the river authorities and water boards have felt they should have these Bills as an insurance and a protection.
This is our dilemma. One cannot get a licence unless the owner is prepared to negotiate, but it would be unconscionable to acquire land compulsorily before there was a certainty of getting a licence. That would mean that some land might be taken which there was really no case for taking, because there was no chance of getting a licence. If we do not do something about this position we shall prejudice the landowner, and it might well lead to unnecessary compulsory acquisition. Therefore, it is in no one's interest to leave the position as it is.
I direct the attention of the Committee to Clause 1(1,b) which says:
… the compulsory acquisition by that person of land of that description either has been authorised or can be authorised and has been initiated.
That brings in the possibility of having a locus to get a licence, even though one is still at the early stages of initiating compulsory proceedings. The Committee will probably want to know that, in general terms, this is not retrospective. But if the period for challenging the Order has expired, and there is therefore a de facto licence in existence, such a licence will continue.
Looked at as a whole, this is a reasonable proposal to make, and it is in everybody's interest. I do not know of any opposition in principle to what is contained in the Bill, but there have been suggestions that we should have launched on a much more comprehensive review of the 1963 Act while we were about it. That is a view which any outside person might reasonably be expected to take. But anyone who knows the workings of the House, not only in terms of Parliamentary time but in terms of that even rarer commodity, the time of skilled Parliamentary draftsmen, will know that once one departs from a very narrow point and starts on a general review of an Act one can go on and on without being able to stop.
The effect would have been that we would not have got this at all, because we should not have had the expert advice that we needed in order to get a Bill drafted. Therefore, we should have lost the opportunity for getting this Bill quickly, which is in everyone's interest. It would be a dog-in-the-manger attitude for the Committee to adopt—that because we would like a great deal more than is in this Bill we should therefore have nothing at all. This is the kind of Bill where a discussion in this sort of Committee is very valuable, as it enables us to examine the problems. This is a necessary piece of legislation and I hope that the Committee will support it.
There is no need for me to upset unduly the tranquility of these proceedings, and, as the Parliamentary Secretary has just said, it is a very pleasant morning. The only advantage in being in Opposition in this Parliament is that sitting on this side of the Committee I have the pleasure of watching the Thames flow by, rather than watching a blank wall. When one is considering water legislation, the fact that one can see the Thames flowing by tends to concentrate one's mind a little and rather relaxes the whole situation.
As I walked along the Embankment this morning I wondered why the Government had decided to bring in such a narrow Bill, dealing with only one specific point. The Parliamentary Secretary has told us that there is a shortage of Government time. That is the Government's fault, because they are neglecting what I call the bread-and-butter procedures of this House for the rather esoteric and ideological procedures which motivate the Party at present in power. I deprecate that very much. It is a very poor excuse.
The other excuse which the Parliamentary Secretary gave was that he lacked expert advice. Looking at the Members of this Committee and remembering the Members of the Committee which studied the Water Resources Bill when it went through Parliament in 1963, I find that I am the only veteran of that Bill who has been appointed to this Committee. I probably spoke more on that Bill as a backbencher than any other Member on either side of the Committee. As I walked along the Embankment this morning I said to myself "There must be some important reason why the Government have only dipped their little toes in water legislation". Incidentally, I understand that this is the first water legislation which this Government have brought before the House.
The Parliamentary Secretary, who gave a fair description of the Bill, did not mention the immense part which the present Secretary of State for Wales played in the proceedings on the Water Resources Bill, in 1963. If hon. Members care to look up the report of the Committee stage they will find that none other than their right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales queried Clause 27, and drew attention to the fact that that Clause—which is now Section 27 of the Water Resources Act—might be defective, and he pointed out the very point which the Government are now going to put right.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Anglesey (Mr. Cledwyn Hughes). It shows how valuable Oppositions can be. Sometimes Oppositions are right, as on this occasion was the right hon. Gentleman who is now Secretary of State for Wales. It is amazing how a success in Standing Committee can accelerate promotion, since he got promotion from the "effluent society"—a society into which I was put by my noble Friend, Lord Nugent—the then Member for Guildford. He promoted me to be a member of the "effluent society", for what he called my staunch work in water legislation.
During the passage of the 1963 legislation the Secretary of State for Wales put forward a rather controversial point. I believe that this is why the Government are not today legislating on a wider basis. This point will interest the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Michael Foot), who was not on that Committee but who no doubt has read the report of the proceedings of that Standing Committee. In Committee on the 1963 Bill the Secretary of State for Wales made a most important point. He said that there ought to be a Water Board for Wales.
I should like to know whether the Government have departed from the policy laid down in 1963 by the right hon. Member who is now Secretary of State for Wales. Perhaps the truth is that the Government dare not bring in a more extensive amending Bill because they are frightened that if they open the door in this way they will be pressed to agree to a Water Board for Wales, in which case the proposals that the present Government made when in Opposition would be extensively questioned, and the conclusion would be drawn that yet again there had been a volte face in their major policies.
I thank the Parliamentary Secretary for his careful explanation of the Bill. I have no cause to dissent from the explanation which he has given. I know from studying the Committee proceedings on Clause 27 of the 1963 Measure that the object of that Clause was to preclude frivolous or mischievous applications for a licence to abstract water.
I admit that my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucestershire, South (Mr. Corfield), who was Parliamentary Secretary at the time, was responsible for giving advice which, in the light of subsequent applications to the Court, proved erroneous. This highlights the difficulty of water legislation. It will be unfair to the Government if I do not accept a degree of liability in respect of what has proved to be a defective aspect of Section 27 of the Water Resources Act, which the Bill seeks to amend.
I want to give one short quotation from the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucestershire, South, in the Standing Committee, on 28th May, 1963. He said:
My advice is that the existence of an Order under the 1945 Act would definitely bring water undertakers into subsection (4) under the heading of negotiations having been started, even if the Order had not confirmed that the compulsory powers were available."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee F, 28th May, 1963, c. 380.]
My hon. Friend took advice on this matter from the experts in the Water Division, but at that time those experts were breaking fresh ground. The Parliamentary Secretary said that Parliament was bringing in an entirely new licensing procedure. That is quite true. What he did not say is that Parliament was also bringing in an entirely new charging procedure.
In passing, I want to make a brief reference to the charging procedure, which was not mentioned by the Parliamentary Secretary because it runs concurrently with the licensing procedure, which the Parliamentary Secretary did mention. The charging procedure is also under question at present. A charge is fixed for all abstractions, including abstraction for spray irrigation, and although the abatement procedure is operated in times of low rainfall, there is no provision for abating the charging of spray irrigators when their operations are held up. Unfortunately, they go on paying the same standing charges. This is another small matter which the Parliamentary Secretary may be able to put right by administrative rather than legislative means, but it is a matter which should not be slid over.
I have a modest knowledge of what went on in the formulation of the 1963 Act. It was breaking fresh ground, and I have more than degree of sympathy with the Parliamentary draftsmen. The Parliamentary draftsmen would probably have liked to bring in a much more comprehensive statute than that which was actually produced, but we, as Parliamentarians, understand the great difficulty of getting massive Bills through the House. We live in an era of very complicated, necessarily lengthy legislation, but there is a limit to lengthy legislation and even to non-controversial lengthy legislation such as water legislation. Therefore, I exempt the Water Division of the Ministry of Housing and Local Government—whose staff I happen to know well and whom I respect very much—from any charge in this matter. It was a natural error in a new departure.
Many other errors have become apparent in the working of the Water Resources Act, 1963. I was therefore surprised to hear that the Government, in a non-controversial matter, had decided that time was the governing factor in their decision not to put right other anomalies. The anomaly the Bill seeks to correct is a relatively pressing one. I would not put it much higher than that, since it can be got round by the use of the Private Bill procedure. No one wants that, and therefore we welcome the amendment to the principal Act which is proposed in the Bill.
But there is another amendment which should be made, and I cannot understand why it was not made in the Bill. This relates to Section 27, regarding abstractions of underground water. All the provisions relating to water legislation are somewhat complicated, and I shall shortly refer to the situation concerning the abstraction of underground water in connection with Section 27.
The Parliamentary Secretary explained, in a moderately brief but adequate manner, that he sought to bring about this alteration to Section 27. But there is an additional reason which makes amendment necessary, namely, the procedure envisaged, under directions by the Water Resources Board, for the transference of water between river authorities. Some people imagine that the Bill is designed to help the statutory water undertaker to initiate compulsory purchase proceedings and, at the same time, to be able to satisfy all the other interests concerned that at the end of the day they will have a licence to abstract water from a certain stretch of water.
This was what was called in question in the case of the intake order put forward by the Tees Valley and Cleveland Water Company. I understand that owing to defective legislation the intake proposed was shifted to another part of the river to avoid the Private Bill procedure. The intake now operates from a different part of the river. This action was taken because of a possible challenge in the courts, which the Minister was advised might succeed. It involved a statutory water undertaker who sought to place an intake in a river at a certain point.
There is a much broader point with regard to the transference of water between river authorities. It has always been anticipated that England and Wales would become a sort of water network and that river authorities in one part of the country would make water available to river authorities in another part of the country. It was not thought that a river authority would have any difficulty in getting a licence to abstract, possibly having begun compulsory purchase negotiations, but this would prove to be the case unless the Bill were accepted by Parliament.
So far as I can see the Bill is entirely acceptable. My only object is to point out certain additions which come within the Long Title and also to ask the Government why, when they were opening a chapter of water legislation, they did not put right a number of other known defects in the 1963 Act. I do not think that, in the nature of Parliamentary proceedings, these matters would become unduly protracted. We would offer the Government reasonable facilities for bringing forward amending legislation.
I turn now to the accepted defects in Section 27 which are not covered by the Bill. The Section relates to the abstraction of underground water. I should like to give an example which may help the Committee to understand the point. A large gravel pit or series of gravel pits may be in the ownership of an organisation specially interested in gravel. The pit may contain a good deal of water. The water in the gravel pit may come wholly or mainly from underground—which is normally where gravel pit water comes from. In those circumstances water undertakers or river boards may wish to abstract that water, but they would not wish to have—nor would the owners of the gravel pit desire them to have—an interest in the land covered by the water, namely, the gravel pit. They would merely require a right of access.
There is an extraordinary anomaly in Section 27. In the case of overground water right of access is all that is needed by the statutory water undertaker to take water out of a river. Many experts have considered this point, but nobody can understand why the Department differentiated between overground and underground water.
I am Vice-President of the Association of River Authorities and have seen the correspondence between the Ministry and the Association. It would be fair to say that the Government accept that there is a defect in the provisions concerning the abstraction of water from underground. This is the first occasion on which the Parliamentary Secretary has had charge of a water Bill and I hope that it will be an encouraging experience for him. I hope that he will be able to confirm that the Department will produce an Amendment to cover the question of underground abstraction.
My advisers and I will have a shot at producing an Amendment in Committee. I know something of the Departmental mind, however, and realise that no matter how good a shot we have it will not be acceptable. The Government will make polite and probably helpful noises, and say that they will consider it and bring forward a more satisfactory Amendment on Report. I have no wish to protract the proceedings on the Bill, and therefore suggest that if the Government want to economise on time they should produce an Amendment themselves. I would be in a position to accept it, and we might thereby eliminate the Report stage. That is purely a suggestion, which I put to the Parliamentary Secretary in order to encourage him to get the Bill through quickly. We could have almost a nil Report stage.
There are other matters which should undoubtedly have been incorporated in any amending legislation to the 1963 Act. We are now considering a minimini Bill.
There are defects in Section 32 of the Act. My right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, South-East (Sir K. Joseph) speaking on behalf of the Government at the time, gave an undertaking on 18th July, 1963, that the Law Society would be consulted with regard to the regulations to be made under Clause 32(3). Those regulations would have been laid before Parliament. This may seem a long time ago, but I have no reason to suppose that the present Government have not assumed the responsibilities which my right hon. Friend gave up.
A long story is attached to these regulations. I have had the opportunity of consultations with the National Farmers' Union on the question of Section 32(2). The Parliamentary Secretary will doubtless agree that there is a defect in this subsection, which deals with successors to licences. These regulations have been delayed, because the Section is defective. This is a serious matter.
I have a copy of the draft regulations which the Minister wisely did not promulgate. They run to an enormous number of sheets of paper and are terribly complicated. They have been put into my hands by the Law Society, and the explanatory memorandum has inadvertently been filed upside down. Even if it were the right way up it would be almost as complicated as the regulations. I am not surprised that the Parliamentary Secretary, in one of his first essays into water legislation, did not particularly want to bring before the House the Water Resources (Succession to Licences) Regulations, 1966, a draft of which I have in my hands. If the Government would like to change the Long Title of the Bill, which they are entitled to do, and bring in amending legislation to Section 32, it will be given a fair wind by this side of the Committee because the successorsto-licences position is in a terrible mess. That is the responsibility of the Government. The only way they can get out of it is by amending the Long Title and bringing in the regulations. I would not like to have the task of dealing with these regulations in the proposed form if they ever come before Parliament.
I always like to tell the Parliamentary Secretary when he has a fair wind, and he has a fair wind on this Bill from the Association of Municipal Corporations, of which I also happen to be Vice-President. But he has a rather more dicey wind from the National Farmers' Union. Yesterday I had the good fortune to have a reasonably long consultation with its representative, a man for whom I have a high regard and who seems to be able to comprehend these extraordinarily complicated matters.
I want to draw attention to the effects of Section 56(5) which deals with the validity of licences and the right to extract surface water for spray irrigation. This matter was looked at carefully in the Year Book of the Association of River Authorities for 1966. Page 154 is entitled "Notes on Cases" and refers to the action between the Rugby Joint Water Board and Walters relating to the extraction of water for purposes of spray irrigation. The Parliamentary Secretary and other interested parties will be aware of the decision of the court, but they may not know that there is a proposal by the South Warwickshire Water Board to issue a series of writs which may or may not be successful.
If they were to be successful they would have an unfortunate effect on the rights, or presumed rights, of spray irrigators. This was not the intention of the Water Resources Act, 1963. Under Section 45 of that Act river authorities already have the power to ration abstractions in dry spells. The procedure under which a statutory water undertaker takes out writs was not envisaged. It was outside the mechanism proposed, and the concept of the principal Act. It is a matter which requires amending legislation.
Section 29(2) of the Act was gone into extremely closely in the Year Book of the Association, and an interesting explanatory article was written by Mr. J. E. Maher, Assistant Secretary to the Country Landowners' Association, dealing with the derogation of protected rights. He was very fair to Parliament. He said that
an Act of Parliament is not produced in a sort of Utopia where Solomon is the King.
Mr. Maher knew a great deal about Parliamentary procedure. He went on to excuse the Department for making certain errors of judgment at the time when the principal legislation went through. But that does not excuse the Department, when it is opening a chapter of amending legislation, for not taking the opportunity to go a little wider and
deal with these technical points. They need to be dealt with here and now.
I have a great deal to do with water and am very interested in all aspects of water legislation. I know many interests on all sides and find them an extremely adaptable, happy and helpful crowd. River authorities work with local authorities and the Ministry, and a very happy approach is always made to all water legislation. There is a determination to make the legislation work. Nobody looks for pitfalls, or sees whether he can make difficulties between various authorities. He tries to make the concept of the Parliamentary draftsmen work.
Later in his article Mr. Maher said:
I am unashamedly an empiricist but the weakness of the empirical approach is that the occasion inevitably arises when the bloody Act cannot be made to work and I suggest that Section 29(2) of the Water Resources Act which inhibits a river authority from granting a licence authorising abstraction so as to derogate from protected rights provides one of those occasions.
He was fairly forthright. I will make no more reference to his colourful language. It certainly was pretty colourful for a report of the Association of River Authorities. These rights cannot be made to work, and the Section requires amendment.
I think that he is right. His view is endorsed by the National Farmers' Union, and among experts in the field of water I have not met anyone who dissents from it. So from what the Parliamentary Secretary has said it looks as though it will be an inordinately long time before the Government get round to amending this defective legislation. It was the legislation of a Conservative Government, and we take responsibility for it. Mr. Maher made one other sensible suggestion. He said that
a close season entirely devoted to amending Acts passed three sessions before …
should be envisaged.
My goodness—we should need a terrifically long close season after some of the legislation which has been going through in the first three years of the present Government. We should need a close season of three years. But we should have a close season to deal with some of these points. If I raised all the points which have been brought to my notice I should have to speak for a long time. I am dealing merely with the highlights.
The last highlight which was brought to my attention by the National Farmers' Union concerns Section 24 of the principal Act. I have a marginal note to remind me what that Section is about. It is a long time since 1963, and one cannot tax one's memory too much. I do not claim equality with the Prime Minister in terms of an encyclopaedic memory.
Section 24 should be read in conjunction with Section 57(4), which concerns the power of the authority to make an abatement with regard to licences. I live in the countryside, although not in the hill country. It is the custom for hill farmers to draw their water from rivers and streams which are often a considerable distance above their own holdings. We have all walked through the hills at times and seen the intakes of water for farms in the valley below. In many cases the valley farmer does not own the land on the hill. By an extraordinary mistake in the Principal Act, if the owner has a prescriptive right—or "licence of right", which I think is the terminology of the Act—to abstract water, he is allowed to pay a licence fee at the rate of one-fifth of the licence fee he would have paid if the water had been on his own land.
The owner has always had this prescriptive right but, again due to the mistake in the legislation, the river authority is not allowed to make an abatement in the licence fee, because he is drawing the water from land which is not in his own ownership, although he has always drawn the water from it. Much as the river authorities would like to make this abatement, they are not allowed to do so. I am bringing this matter to the attention of the Government. I can do so in the Second Reading debate, whereas I cannot at later stages.
I have tried to draw aside the curtain concealing some of the defects of the 1963 Act. On the whole the Act is working well, because all concerned with water are determined to make it work well. No one would claim that it is a perfect statute, and certain defects in it are holding up proceedings.
I draw special attention to Section 32. concerning the successors to licences. That is a case where the Minister of the day promotes regulations. The regulations were drawn a couple of years ago, found to be impracticable, withdrawn by the Government, never saw the light of day again, and will not do so until Section 32 is amended.
I draw the attention of this Committee to these factors. The Association of River Authorities has a list of other extraneous factors. I do not want to depress the Parliamentary Secretary; I want to encourage him. He has a lot to do, but he also has a well qualified Water Division, which should be asked to get busy. I feel certain that legislation such as he would propose would be regarded as non-controversial and might well come to a Second Reading Committee such as we are having the privilege of attending this morning. The underlying idea behind Second Reading Committees is that they can cope with Bills that are necessary, but will not excite Parliament, and which, although not receiving any notice in the Press, will be useful throughout the country.
We find this Bill entirely satisfactory in its extraordinarily limited way. I shall have to try to deal with the position of underground water if the Ministry does not pre-empt me. I hope very much that it will, because I do not want the proceedings on the Bill to be unduly protracted.
I thank the Parliamentary Secretary for an entirely satisfactory explanation. The limited provisions of the Bill will have our support in Committee, but we may put down one or two small Amendments.
As has been said, this is an uncontroversial Bill, deserving of the support of both sides of the Committee. It is for this reason that it has come to this Committee for Second Reading. As the hon. Member for the City of Chester (Mr. Temple) has said, this kind of Bill does not even receive a mention in the local Press, and I doubt whether many of my constituents or other people on Tees-side are aware of its existence. Yet it is typical of many such Bills in that it will have an important practical effect on the everyday lives of the very people who are completely unaware of its existence.
This fact can be illustrated briefly by reference to the water needs of Tees-side. These needs have presented a great problem to the Tees Valley and Cleveland Water Board for many years, and in this area we have experienced a growing shortage of water, arising partly because of the industrial character of Cleveland and Tees-side, which is based heavily on the steel and chemical industries, both of which are heavy industrial users of water. Despite every attempt at economy, and the use of estuarial water, their demand for clean water necessarily increases and is now very considerable.
Also, to meet employment requirements there has been a great expansion of industry in the area. The expansion, which raises a problem in respect of water requirements, is proceeding apace, thanks to the policy of the Government of encouraging such development in the development areas. On Tees-side, perhaps in contrast to other parts of the North, there is an expanding population, which necessarily increases the demand for water. In meeting these increasing demands over the years the Tees Valley and Cleveland Water Board has faced difficulties in the conservation of water.
I well remember the protracted proceedings on the Tees Valley and Cleveland Water Bill—or the Cow Green Bill. Even when that Bill got through Parliament the Board faced difficulties in the abstraction of water from the River Tees, and I gather that it is precisely to deal with this second kind of difficulty that the Bill has been introduced. For that reason I welcome it. As the hon. Member for the City of Chester has said, the Bill may be limited in extent, but because of the real urgency of the need for water, not only on Tees-side but elsewhere, and of the necessity to assist water authorities to obtain the water they are required to provide, I welcome the Bill and commend it to the Committee.
I want to ask the Parliamentary Secretary two questions. First, in how many cases have circumstances arisen which the Bill sets out to correct? Secondly, is the Bill designed to apply only to statutory undertakings? They would be the only people likely to be given compulsory purchase powers in circumstances where water was likely to be abstracted in the future. Is this correct?
I endorse the idea behind the Bill, which is to make a necessary correction to the original Act. I object not so much to what the Bill includes as to what it leaves out. Here we have a really splendid, ready-made opportunity for making further Amendments. I acknowledge that some of these may be highly complicated and difficult to draft but I do not see why the Amendment concerning the abstraction of underground water, mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for the City of Chester (Mr. Temple) should require complicated drafting, or much Parliamentary time.
I cannot see why the necessary Amendments which Government Departments and the Water Resources Board admit are needed in regard to spray irrigation rights—rights which have recently been challenged by a High Court decision, which was briefly mentioned by my hon. Friend—should take up much drafting energy or Paliamentary time. They could well be included in the Bill. All that needs to be done is to amend the Long Title and the necessary Clauses.
The defects in Sections 24, 29(2) and 32 of the original Act are rather more complicated, and I can certainly understand the Parliamentary Secretary's reluctance to venture as far as remedying them, but I urge him to be a little more courageous. As my hon. Friend has already said, hon. Members this side of the Committee will give him every assistance. We feel that while he is taking a bite at this cherry he might as well take into consideration the other very useful cherries growing on the same tree.
I cannot help sharing the view expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for the City of Chester (Mr. Temple), perhaps inspired by what can be seen from our window this morning if not by what we see on the face of the Parliamentary Secretary. I congratulate my hon. Friend on having so well expressed the fears of many of us on this side of the Committee in regard to the Bill. I would like the Parliamentary Secretary to consider one point of interpretation of Clause 1.
As far as I can see from the Water Resources Act, 1963, a river authority is the only authority which has power to acquire land compulsorily under Section 65(2). Section 23 of the Act also gives a river authority power to grant licences to abstract. If we make a simple analysis of the position we appreciate the strange position in which a river authority, which is the only authority with power compulsorily to acquire land, can apply to itself, or to another river authority, for a licence to extract water from land, inasmuch as the licence to abstract has to be given by the river authority also.
If this small Bill goes through the House unamended it would mean that a river authority, on receiving a licence to abstract, could commence abstraction before the Minister's consent to its application for compulsory purchase had come through.
I am not suggesting that in 99 cases out of 100 ministerial consent would not be forthcoming as a matter of right—but what would happen if, by virtue of this small Bill, a water authority granted a licence and commenced to extract water—knowing full well that it had applied to the Minister for confirmation of a compulsory purchase order—after which the Minister, looking further afield and seeing wider horizons, decided for reasons best known to himself not to grant the compulsory order?
Surely there is an anomaly here. It would mean that the extracting authority would have to cease extracting water, since the compulsory purchase had not been confirmed, and presumably the original owner of the land would be entitled to compensation.
Apart from asking the Minister to clear up that point, I generally welcome the Bill. As my hon. Friend the Member for the City of Chester (Mr. Temple) has said, hon. Members on this side of the Committee believe that its provisions are necessary, but we also believe that the Minister has missed a golden opportunity to make other changes and slight Amendments to the 1963 Act which some of us regard as just as important, perhaps not to river authorities but to those who work on and are connected with the land.
My hon. Friend the Member for the City of Chester detailed some points which we would like to see provided for in the Bill. I will not endeavour to repeat what he said, because he covered them so well and so completely. If hon. Members on this side give the Bill an unopposed Second Reading I am sure that the Minister, in his charity, will help us to get through our Amendments, and one or two new Clauses in Committee.
Perhaps, by leave of the Committee, I might refer to the points that have been raised. The debate has shown the Government's wisdom in narrowing the field of operations, because a number of complicated and difficult points have been raised. The hon. Member for the City of Chester (Mr. Temple) rather suggested that I was virginal in matters of water, but he may remember that one of the most harrowing and gruelling experiences in the early stages of my tenure of office in the present Ministry was being launched into a whole series of Orders arising out of this Act—Orders which seemed to get more complicated and more controversial as they rolled off.
Certainly the 1963 Act is a complicated one, which is proving difficult to administer, though there has not yet been time for acute problems to be thrown up because some of the provisions, such as those relating to charges, have not yet begun to bite. Therefore, a comprehensive review of legislation would be inopportune at the moment. The hon. Member said that we ought to have taken time to clean up the legislative mess, but he will realise that a dynamic, progressive, forward-looking Government like this one is desperately short of Parliamentary time. We cannot spend all our time cleaning up messes left by the previous Government—and the hon. Gentleman fairly said the 1963 legislation was a mess.
The peculiar thing about this is that this was a definite assurance given by my predecessor, who is not only a distinguished lawyer but a man of great authority and prestige. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales showed incredible prescience of all the difficulties in putting his finger on the point—the assurance given to river authorities and water boards that there would be action. We are under an obligation to clear that up.
I do not see any way in which, under the Bill, we are likely to reorganise the government of Wales. The hon. Member for the City of Chester, who may feel that Chester is the capital of Wales, need not feel that his territorial ambitions will be affected one way or the other. We are likely to include the Isle of Wight in the Bill, and we hope to put down Amendments extending the scope of the Bill in that way.
We want to make provision to deal with the question of underground extraction and gravel pits. I believe that this can be done under Section 27 of the 1963 Act. If we can we shall certainly endeavour to do so, but again I must point out that the shortage is not in relation to expertise and experience but in the skill of Parliamentary draftsmen. If we do not get it right we shall get into muddles and difficulties of the kind that we are dealing with here. We must be quite sure that we produce something which will stand up.
The hon. Member for the City of Chester referred to the abstraction of water for spray irrigation, and to complaints from the National Farmers' Union that something should be done to protect the rights of spray irrigators. I remind the Committee of what the hon. Member said about this, because it is very important. Those who know him will not be surprised to know that in Committee in 1963 he moved his Amendment for the Association of Municipal Corporations, the Rural District Councils Association and the River Boards Association. Now he has told us that he is speaking on behalf of the Law Society—although I do not think that he is vice-president of that Society. He said:
In recent times there has been a large increase in the number of owners of land taking waters from rivers and streams for purpose of spray irrigation. Accordingly, I regard it as disturbing that this Clause will enable new abstractions to take place for an undefined period. There is little doubt that people will be inclined to stake a claim, and I have seen advertisements in farming journals encouraging people who might be interested in spray irrigation to buy this equipment swiftly in order that they will get in under the aegis of a licence of right".—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee F, 28th May, 1963, c. 440.]
Since he was speaking from great knowledge I believe that this illustrates the problem presented by the technical development of agriculture and the need for water in the form of spray irrigation. The Regulations are presenting difficulties, and if the interested parties can say what they want to see in the Regulations—and we are having discussions with them—that is something into which we could certainly look.
The hon. and gallant Member for Wells (Lieut.-Commander Maydon) asked two questions which I shall be very happy to try to answer. First, he asked whether this would apply only to statutory undertakers. The answer is "Yes," and it is drawn wide enough to extend beyond water bodies, to apply to other public bodies which have a demand for water.
He asked how many such cases we know of. My hon. Friend the Member for Cleveland (Mr. Tinn) mentioned the problem of Croft. I believe that Essex has had some difficulties, and a number of authorities have schemes where this difficulty might arise. Some may feel that they should go for Private Bill legislation which, while it would mean that they might not be caught by this, would be an expensive way round our difficulties. In Committee we can see what can be done to improve Section 27, but I do not believe that it would be wise for us to launch into a much wider review of the working of the Act. It is a complicated and difficult one. Many of the problems are likely to be appreciated only as the Act gathers momentum, and if we can deal with this point it will be a considerable help to the working of the Act.
If I may speak again, by leave of the Committee, I thank the Parliamentary Secretary for responding, and for clearing up a number of points which have been raised. I thank him particularly for his offer further to consider the Regulations on Section 32. The Law Society will be extraordinarily gratified, though I do not claim any right to speak for that Society. Occasionally I get clients other than those enumerated by the hon. Gentleman, for whom I speak frequently.
I omitted to mention one point which I would like to get on to the record, con- cerning successors to licences. To give the background to the situation, I understand that a successor to a licence has to give notice of his succession to that licence within one month. It is rather difficult for the person taking on the property of a deceased agricultural owner or property owner to realise within one month that he has a licence to abstract water. Water has probably been abstracted for hundreds of years from the same source, but if on change of ownership the successor to the licence does not apply for a renewal the licence lapses.
This is another minor defect in the principal legislation which can cause unfortunate results if a farmer dies and his widow takes over. It may be that probate is not obtained for a long time, and they do not know exactly who is the successor in title to the land or property. It could be somebody overseas. In those circumstances it seems unreasonable that the successor to this important licence has to give notice within one month that he is the successor in title. It is a smallish point but, nevertheless, it is worth considering when the Parliamentary Secretary is considering all the other matters.
Perhaps I did the Parliamentary Secretary a slight injustice. I said that the Government had not promoted any water legislation. I did not mean that the hon. Gentleman had no experience of water legislation. He has brought in a number of Orders, some of which are almost as bad as the legislation. I always regard the Parliamentary Secretary as one of the most painstaking Members, and I should like to pay tribute to him for the painstaking manner in which he deals with these very complicated and difficult matters.
He said that will consider the question of underground water. I ask him to bring forward his own Amendment in order to save the time of the Committee at a subsequent stage. I had no idea that the principal legislation did not extend in all respects to the Isle of Wight, because the Isle of Wight has a river authority—albeit probably the smallest one in the country. It came as a bombshell to me to hear that we had specially to include the Isle of Wight in the Bill; I thought that it was automatically within the purview of everything connected with the Water Resources Act.
I thank by hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Wells (Lieut.-Commander Maydon) and my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr), and I also thank my other hon. Friends for joining the Committee this morning. This has not been an earth-shaking morning, or a water-rippling morning—nor will it cause any major waves in Parliament—but it has been quite an important occasion. I am glad that the Government have given a sort of undertaking to bring forward amending legislation, as the difficulties—I describe them only as difficulties—continue to crop up in respect of the principal legislation. No one is