Mr. Deputy Speaker:
With this, it will be convenient to discuss also the following amendments: No. 259, in clause 33, page 28, line 44, at end add
'; and to have special regard to controlling the abstraction of water from rivers, watercourses and inland water.'.
No. 246, in schedule 22, page 309, line 18, at the end insert—
'(6A) A drought permit which—
shall not be issued without the consent of the Nature Conservancy Council for England (English Nature) with respect to SSSIs in England or the Countryside Council for Wales with respect to SSSIs in Wales.'.
The new clause would require the Environment Agency to carry out a systematic review of all water extraction licences, to give it an opportunity to remedy those that are damaging the environment. As a result of licences granted by way of right under the Water Resources Act 1963, there are many cases of over-extraction. Those licences were not granted with any consideration for the environmental impact. As a result, the licence system has caused great environmental damage.
According to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, for example, species and habitats in more than 100 sites of special scientific interest in 40 rivers are suffering as a result of over-extraction. It also creates difficulties in reallocating water between users, as the balance between demand and supply becomes more difficult.
The Environment Agency is given the duties to further nature conservation and to regulate abstraction licences, many of which have been granted with no consideration for their environmental impact. The difficulty is that conflict between the two duties is inevitable. Therefore, the amendment recommends that the agency be required to review all abstraction licences formally within five years of their being set up while taking into account its environmental duties. If the review shows that a licence is causing environmental damage, the licence will be revoked or varied.
The Government may argue that such an approach would cut across the system set up by the National Rivers Authority which requires the authority to inspect 2,000 highly critical licences and about 13,000 critical licences every year. But the system set up by the NRA is for abstraction enforcement, or to ensure that licence holders are not operating outside the conditions of the licence that has been granted. The amendment seeks to review the conditions and the form that the abstraction licence takes. That is a different matter, and relates to the environmental problems that I have described.
The NRA has reviewed just 207 out of a possible 48,000 licences in the five years of its existence, so it has not even touched on the problem. We need a more systematic approach to reviewing the environmental impact of abstraction licences, and the new clause gives the agency a duty to take such an approach.
Amendment No. 247 simply aims to ensure that statutory conservation agencies are consulted on drought orders. Drought permits allow water to be taken from water bodies that may supply sites of special scientific interest. That can be damaging, and the amendment seeks to ensure that English Nature and the Countryside Council for Wales are consulted, and consent to, the granting of drought permits which may cause damage to SSSIs.
SSSIs are identified only because they are of national importance—not individually, but collectively. In other words, it is not question of being able to spare one or two sites. They are all of importance, and to damage them in such a way without consulting English Nature or the CCW would be wrong. The bodies have expert knowledge of the SSSI involved and the importance of water to them. That knowledge is vital in ensuring that drought permits do not cause serious and permanent damage to such sites. The amendments are not far reaching and I hope that the Minister will accept them, given his stated commitment to the importance of SSSIs.
Much later today—I hope that we will get around to it before we are too tired—we will be talking about the new duties placed on the Environment Agency in terms of the conservation of water. I believe that the new clause is a helpful element of the duties, because the more that is known about the water industry, the more it becomes obvious that conservation must take place at every level in the water cycle. That applies whether we are talking about water from rivers, water leaking from pipes or water used for drinking and for gardens.
The new clause is a helpful way of giving the agency a systematic approach to its review of abstraction licences. There were serious problems in the River Darent about which considerable concern was expressed in Parliament, and at least 40 sites were identified by the NRA as having no flows. The new clause goes some way towards emphasising the precautionary principle that we have been stressing during debates on the Bill. It provides a means of checking abstraction licences regularly, and it may well be an operational system that the agency would welcome.
I wish to speak to amendment No. 259, which stands in my name. I wish also to concur with the arguments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Truro (Mr. Taylor) and the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mrs. Jackson), who spoke in support of the new clause.
The Minister will recognise that the problem does not just exist south of the border and that it is also a Scottish problem. I hope that, when he responds to the debate on this group, he will address some remarks to the problem that faces Scotland. Clause 33 sets out the general duties of the Scottish Environment Protection Agency with respect to water. Clause 33(1)(b) states that it shall be the duty of SEPA
to conserve so far as practicable the water resources of Scotland.
What is that supposed to mean?
The Minister may say that amendment No. 259 is unnecessary because the legal powers contained in those words enable, for example, the River Tweed purification board—or its successor as the regional board of the agency—to take a firm stance on water abstraction in the Tweed valley basin. If the right hon. Gentleman is able to give that assurance, I shall be content.
As somebody who, in a previous incarnation, was merely a simple provincial solicitor north of the border, I do not believe that the words in clause 33 would give me the confidence to expect that the successor body to the River Tweed purification board—whose members have carried out excellent work—will have the power to control abstraction to the extent that it would like.
To that extent, amendment No. 259 would strengthen the Bill, and it would not cost the Government anything to allow it. Were the amendment to be made, it would give comfort to many people who are concerned with important water abstraction matters north of the border. The amendment would assure them that the powers available for the SEPA regional boards will flow from the agency, in order to control some of the problems in the future.
The excellent new clause moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Truro (Mr. Taylor) deals with the conditions applicable to water abstraction licences, and gives us an opportunity to deal with the specific legal anomaly which has caused difficulty to a number of people around the country and upon which I had an Adjournment debate some time ago.
The current state of the law is thus: if an abstraction licence is applied for as a result of a wholly negligent survey, as long as the abstractor abstracts the water on land that he owns, he is not liable to compensate any neighbour for any damage caused to any land or buildings affected as a result of the abstraction. A number of my constituents in a little hamlet called Fron near Welshpool have had the unhappy experience of seeing their houses crack and their gardens collapse and, in one field, a hole the size of two double-decker buses appear. Unfortunately, the abstraction was carried out on land owned by the water plc concerned. A study of both case and statutory law shows that the people affected would have great difficulty obtaining compensation through the courts and, at the very least, would therefore require a precedent to be overturned in the House of Lords. That cannot be right.
Surely we should not be giving water plcs a protection that was intended for publicly owned undertakings and that was created 80 or 90 years ago. Surely it is a matter of common sense and fair government that, if someone's garden is destroyed or house damaged as a result of water abstraction, that person should be compensated for his uninsured losses, at the very least.
The new clause provides the potential for imposing on every water abstraction licence the condition that, if damage is caused to land or buildings as a result of negligence, compensation should be payable.
As the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Taylor) is aware, the National Rivers Authority inspects annually more than a third of all abstraction licences as a matter of routine. In addition, a number of studies are being, or have been, carried out into potentially damaging abstractions and the number of licences involved. The NRA's approach to reviewing licences is based on a technical methodology that has been developed to screen and prioritise those licences in most urgent need of review. We consider that that approach is cost-effective and puts limited resources to the best use in solving environmental problems caused by licences of right.
It is important that the Minister makes the point that the general review to which he referred relates only to the enforcement of conditions. The second review, over five years, related to only 200 or so of the 48,000 licences. That suggests that the main cost-effectiveness of the NRA's approach lies in the fact that it hardly ever carries out the necessary checks.
Alternatively, it could be that, when the NRA checks, it finds that there are not many licences to worry about.
The new clause would be counter-productive, as it would draw resources away from those areas that are known to be at risk in order to review all licences of right, although the bulk of those are likely to remain unaffected as a result of such a review. In addition, any proposals to revoke or vary licences as suggested in the new clause would have significant compensation implications for the agency. The five-year review represents an uncosted programme that it may be impossible to deliver within acceptable budgets.
Amendment No. 246 would make it a condition that the NCC in England and the Countryside Council for Wales must give their consent before a drought permit can be issued that either abstracts from or suspends restrictions or compensatory discharge obligations from a source of water that may have a direct effect on an SSSI. That would be unnecessary, as the NRA already has environmental duties in respect of SSSIs under section 17 of the Water Resources Act 1991. Those duties should adequately safeguard the interests of the NCC and the Countryside Council for Wales and have regard to actions taken in an emergency, which could include drought conditions.
As regards amendment No. 259, our broad objective in the Bill is to transfer to SEPA the current powers of the river purification authorities to control abstractions of water used for irrigation for commercial agriculture and horticulture in areas of Scotland where it can be shown that water resources are at risk from pollution or depletion from over-abstraction.
The hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) asked a question about clause 33(1)(b), which re-enacts an existing duty on river purification authorities. As such, it would not extend SEPA powers in relation to water abstraction.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland announced on 1 November his intention to bring forward legislation to introduce enhanced, but still selective, abstraction controls in Scotland. New legislation will be brought forward in the light of progress with the European Commission's action programme on groundwater, on which proposals are nearing completion, to ensure compatibility. I trust that that answers the hon. Gentleman and that he will not press his new clause.
The problem with the Minister's comments is his suggestion that the programme in which the NRA is already involved means that the worst cases are identified. The NRA's general reviews relate only to the enforcement of conditions. The number of reviews that it undertakes relating to the problems that may arise within those conditions—because the environmental effects were not originally taken into account—is so small that it cannot possibly identify all the problem cases.
My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile) referred to problems in his constituency that have affected householders and landowners. It is important that a proper process of review is put in place to protect such people; otherwise, the Minister may find that the result of his comments will be that they are told, "The Government are not interested in your problem." That may make them angry, if they have not already disappeared down holes the size of double-decker buses—which may well be the Minister's solution.
I do not think that there is any purpose in pushing the new clause to a Division. However, I ask the Minister to reconsider. If he says that five years is too fast, perhaps 10 years might be more appropriate. A systematic review should be put in place so that people and the environment do not continue to suffer.
I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.