I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
The Government are committed to sustainable development. In "Directing the Flow", published nearly a year ago, we set out our strategic vision for the future direction of water policy and firmly established the place of water among our broader sustainability objectives. The high level of importance that the Government attach to water sustainability is shown throughout the Bill.
I shall outline the three main aims of the Bill. First, it improves water resource management and conservation by building upon existing legislation. Secondly, it addresses the issue of better regulation of the water industry, strengthening the voice of consumers and putting their needs at the centre of the regulator's responsibilities, equal in standing with the companies. Thirdly, it provides an increased opportunity for competition, benefiting large non-domestic consumers in the first instance.
Part 1, along with elements of part 3, is about the long-term sustainable use of water resources. This objective is set against a background of increased water demand and the uncertainties of climate change, and it reflects a major aim of the water framework directive.
Sustainability is about striking a balance between these potentially conflicting demands. The Bill strikes such a balance. It starts by placing a direct duty on the Secretary of State to encourage water conservation and an enhanced duty on the water industry. It sets up essential tools to manage water resources to help balance the conflict between the availability of resources and increasing demand. Water resource management plans and drought plans that are detailed in part 3 will help water companies to forward plan, ultimately protecting their interests and those of consumers, while ensuring that any potential environmental damage is limited.
On the protection of consumers, in the House of Lords the Government set their face quite strongly against the rights of the new consumer council to make publicly available information that it felt was in the public interest. Why did the Government take that stance? Will there be an opportunity during the Bill's passage through this place to reconsider these matters and to reflect that consumers' interests would be greatly strengthened if consumer councils had the right to operate in accordance with, for example, freedom of information legislation?
I confirm that there will be an opportunity during the Bill's passage through this place to discuss such issues, both in Committee and on Report. As for the availability of information, I assure my hon. Friend that we want to ensure that the maximum amount of information is available to consumer bodies and is available to be put in the public domain. Water Voice will have the opportunity of appealing to the regulator if it feels that information is being unreasonably withheld. The argument is about just how far consumer bodies can go, and to ensure also that the way in which Water Voice is treated is consistent with the treatment of other consumer bodies that represent other utilities. That position was taken in the other place. There will be an opportunity to discuss the balance during the Bill's passage.
That strays beyond the Bill's remit, but I am happy to answer the question. With major developments, there are planning issues. In the case of the south-east, there is the Thames gateway, which is a significant potential development. A joint committee has been set up by the Government, so that there is discussion between my Department, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Department for Transport about the demands that a large-scale development in areas such as the south-east will produce. Water resource management is one of those issues. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we take such issues seriously. We are addressing them in terms of future strategic planning and housing developments in the south-east and in other areas.
Water undertakers already produce plans voluntarily, but the Bill makes them compulsory and enforceable. Greater accountability is the key to the Bill, enhancing Environment Agency powers to apply the "polluter pays" principle to water abstraction and increasing the level of information available to the public on water resources.
If we are serious about sustainability, we must not assume that things can carry on in the same way forever. It means making sure that we fully understand the levels of resources and demand, which is very much the point made by the hon. Gentleman.
We will limit activities where necessary, based on sound judgment and good reason. The Bill therefore brings some previously exempt abstractions into the licensing system. We are moving to a system where exemptions from licence control are linked to purpose—one where exemptions are linked to impact via the new threshold of 20 cu m a day, which can be varied as necessary. The control of all types of abstraction gives us the ability to manage and rebalance as necessary the allocation of water between various classes of abstracter and the environment.
The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the concern of quarry producers in my part of the country and elsewhere about the effect of the new abstraction arrangements on their activities, particularly below-water table abstractions. Can he enter into further dialogue with them, because I am sure that that their concerns can be met, and that we can have an adequate planning regime that deals with mineral permissions without a mismatch between the mineral permission on the one hand and the abstraction licence on the other?
I shall come soon to that very point.
However, mine dewatering has an impact on the environment and the water table. It is therefore perfectly legitimate to bring mine dewatering within the Bill's remit. Of course, I appreciate that there are issues relating to capital investment and long-term planning to which we are sensitive. We are adopting a reasonable position, and recognise both the needs of the industry and the need for proper resource management. There will be an opportunity to discuss that during proceedings on the Bill. It is a question of balance, and I believe that the balance set out in the Bill is about right.
I come now to dewatering, and if hon. Members wish to make points, I shall be happy to deal with them. Under the Bill, transfers for quarry dewatering are brought within the system. It is claimed in some quarters that quarry water is returned to the environment and is not consumed. However, dewatering has caused problems for other abstractors in the area who rely on water in the same strata, and it has caused damage to nature conservation sites. We need a safeguard for the activities but, of course, each activity should be treated on its merits.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that explanation. No one would deny that controls are needed on the quality of water returned to the environment by dewatering, but time limits and the effect on investment are causing the problem. Ministers in another place have give verbal assurances, but why is there an objection to including the possibility of exemptions in either the Bill or guidance?
As a general principle, the time limit is 12 years. Nevertheless, the Environment Agency in certain circumstances can provide longer time limits, depending on individual circumstances. It therefore comes back to the point that I made earlier—it very much depends on the circumstances of a particular application and the particular need. I fully expect the Environment Agency to be reasonable in the way in which it addresses that.
The hon. Gentleman knows that the Environment Agency already has powers to intervene where there are environmental difficulties. Would it not be more sensible, when allowing dewatering licences to be coterminous with the quarrying permit, to reinforce the powers of the Environment Agency to intervene in cases where there was a perceived environmental problem? That would get over the difficulties of investment and uncertainty.
I accept the point that the right hon. Gentleman is making, and it is not unreasonable. It is a question of balance. The problem is that some mineral extractors have permission that runs for a very long time, so the time limit for the abstraction licence has to be restricted. There is a presumption of renewal in the Bill and there is some flexibility for the Environment Agency, as the right hon. Gentleman rightly states. There is an argument about balance, but I think that the balance in the Bill is right.
The Minister is obviously aware that this is causing a great deal of concern throughout the industry. Will he take the issue away after today's debate and consider whether 12 years is the right length of time? There is a great argument—apparently, it has even been accepted by the Prime Minister—about the amount of extra bureaucracy put on to businesses. This is one more layer that they could do without.
It is true that there is a new restriction, but I repeat that I believe it is justified as it relates to extraction from the water table and can impact on other abstractors, their businesses and their needs, and can cause environmental damage. We are not taking a dogmatic position. It is a question of the balance between the needs of long-term investment in mineral extraction, and the needs of proper resource management. I believe that we have achieved the right balance, but that will be subject to the scrutiny of the House in Committee and on Report, and we will listen to the reasoned arguments put forward.
On a slightly wider point, if we consider business needs in relation to bottled water, such as at Ty Nant in my constituency, or mines water, the issue is investment decisions and how the licensing regime interacts with those. What can the Minister say about the new water services authority, and how much emphasis will be placed on business needs, sustainability, job creation and employment in the deliberations of the authority and of the Government on the Bill?
Those concerns are more than adequately addressed in the Bill. First, there is the presumption of renewal. Secondly, even where potential problems are identified, Environment Agency officials will sit down with the abstractor to discuss ways of resolving the problem. They will not go straight in and start taking people's licences off them without first trying to resolve the problem in a satisfactory way, recognising the needs of investment and social and business issues.
Those are all presumptions in the Bill. They are recognised. The Bill aims at proper resource management in a balanced way, taking into account the conflicting demands in a reasonable and legitimate way. The points that have been raised about long-term investment—in mineral water, for example—are understood and taken into account.
Many quarry owners are concerned because of the commitment of long-term investment. If the Environment Agency is to revoke a licence, there is no right of appeal under the Bill. In any other planning application where one loses the right to continue development, there is a right of appeal. It seems undemocratic that we are not allowing quarry owners the right of appeal once their licence has been revoked.
There is in the Bill a right of appeal to the Secretary of State, so that safeguard exists in relation to licences that are withdrawn.
Part 2 aims to provide a new and better regulatory environment for the water industry and its consumers. The new regulatory arrangements set out in the Bill reflect the need to balance consumer and industry interests highlighted in the 1998 White Paper "A Fair Deal for Consumers—Modernising the Framework for Utility Regulation". Water is unique among utilities. Environmental and public health issues mean that regulation of the water market needs the close involvement of environmental and drinking water regulators. There is also the ongoing need for large-scale and long-term capital investment.
The aim of the new regulatory framework is to improve quality of service by strengthening regulatory consistency and transparency and promoting consumer interests. The Bill replaces the existing director general of water services with a regulatory authority, as recommended by the Better Regulation Task Force. It places consumers at the heart of regulation with an independent consumer council for water, whose sole purpose is to promote the interests of consumers, undertakers and licensees. The new council will have the power to investigate complaints and to carry out investigations into consumer issues, public advice and information. To help it with these tasks, it has the power to demand information from the regulator and undertakers.
Both the new regulatory authority and the council will have a duty to contribute to sustainable development, ensuring that the economic needs of the industry are balanced against the social concerns of consumers and important environmental issues linked with a finite resource.
My hon. Friend spoke about the need for balance. Is he aware of the upcoming price review, and has he seen the indications of the demands of the water companies for a 12 or 13 per cent. a year increase in water prices? That is not real balance, is it?
My hon. Friend is trying to divert me from the subject of the Bill. What I can tell him is that I am well aware of the current price review, and that these are very early days.
Part 2 also deals with competition. The benefits of genuine open competition are well known and widely supported. In the case of water, however, the potential for more innovation and improved service must be balanced against public health, the environment and affordability. That is coupled with another wider Government objective—to safeguard consumers' interests by ensuring that the water industry continues to provide water efficiently and effectively for all.
Competition is the best way of guaranteeing better quality and better supply. Many businesses are being ripped off by the water industry monopolists at present: prices are high, there is no specification that they want, and there are not the necessary volumes. Will the Minister consider lowering the suggested limit from 50 to 10 megalitres to allow most businesses to benefit from competition, and also allowing competition to all domestic consumers, who will otherwise be ripped off in the way described by Mr. Tipping?
There are potential downsides to competition in the domestic water system. The Bill does introduce competition, but I think it right to adopt a cautious approach and, initially, to set a level that will benefit the very large consumers. Once experience of the competition has been gained and we are certain that it is not interfering with the environment, consumer protection and affordability, it will be possible to review the threshold in due course—I think a period of three years is being considered—to establish whether extending it can be justified. However, I feel that when we are dealing with something new that is as important as water supply, it is important to set an appropriate threshold.
The Bill gives new entrants opportunities for competition, allowing them to supply large commercial and industrial consumers that use more than 50 megalitres of water a year. That signals a new approach, and, although limited, the measure will give us a chance to assess how the extension of competition in the industry can best work. We would expect a review of the competition framework by the three regulators no more than three years after the provisions came into effect, which would include reconsideration of the 50-megalitre threshold. The Bill provides a power to alter the threshold if that is considered appropriate.
Although efficiency of use may encourage consumption, I do not think that encouraging competition and lower prices necessarily encourages increased consumption. It is obviously in the interests of large water users to establish that reduced consumption and therefore reduce their costs.
The Bill contains a number of miscellaneous provisions, including provisions helping to enhance the protection of people and property. They include amendments to the Reservoirs Act 1975 to improve reservoir safety, and measures to enable flood defence organisation and funding to be streamlined.
The issue in part 3 that is likely to attract the most attention is water fluoridation. Including fluoridation in the Bill will enable local communities to make decisions about it. The current law gives water companies discretion on whether to agree to applications from strategic health authorities to add fluoride to local water supplies. That places too much responsibility on water companies to decide on what is essentially a public health issue when they do not feel qualified to do so. The Bill would place responsibility firmly in the hands of strategic health authorities, which would engage in consultation with local communities.
I emphasise that we are not seeking to put in place a central, national fluoridation programme. On the contrary, we believe that the choice should be made locally and that people should have that choice.
I understand from talking to Members that there are strong opinions and feelings on both sides of the argument. Reflecting that, I make it clear to the House that there will be opportunities on Report to discuss the issue and to vote on it. I assure the House that because of the strongly held views it will be a free-vote issue. Members will be free to listen to the arguments both for and against and to make up their minds accordingly.
The Medical Research Council, York university and other countries have conducted a number of detailed studies on that issue. On Report, I will be joined by one of my hon. Friends from the Department of Health because this is a health issue. Hon. Members will have the opportunity to examine the evidence, put their arguments and listen to the arguments for and against. They can raise their questions at the appropriate time.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way, and I am very pleased that he has put it on the record that there will be a free vote. Some of us feel that it is inappropriate to discuss fluoridation in this Bill. If people are to vote on health authorities having the right to impose their will on water authorities, can he assure me that the reverse will also be true—that people who already have fluoridation will have the right to vote against fluoridating their water?
I am sure that all health authorities will listen carefully to the majority opinion in their areas. I speak as someone who lives in an area where the water is already fluoridated and has been for a very long time.
I can confirm that there will also be a free vote on the Liberal Democrat Benches. The Minister wants local communities to decide the issue, but the decision rests with the strategic health authority. Being strategic, the health authority is not a local body. Moreover, the health professions have, by and large, already declared themselves in favour of the measure. That is not an independent, neutral position. Surely he should involve elected local councillors, who already have scrutiny powers at county council level, if local communities are going to decide such matters.
Where strategic health authorities decide to consult, I am sure that the views of elected members and authorities will be taken into account along with other interests, which include the medical profession. The medical profession's views are important and should be heard. Many of its members are in favour because they have examined the evidence and considered the advantages and disadvantages of fluoridation.
An amendment was moved and carried in the other place. The issue will, of course, be considered in Committee. That might help those Members who wish to intervene. I do not want to go on for too long because many Members want to speak. There will an opportunity to debate the matter on Report, when Members can make their feelings known. I am also sure that there will be an opportunity for them to vote.
I am grateful to the Minister for the indication that he gave of the conduct of the later stages of the Bill. We hope that there will be time for a proper debate on that question on Report. Would not Government and therefore public money be better spent on NHS dentistry, not on mass fluoridation? In my constituency, there is a remarkable lack of NHS dental surgeries. I hope that the Government will concentrate on that issue between now and Report rather than on the policy behind clause 61.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be able to look at the figures on the effects on children's dental cavities in areas where water is fluoridated and in those where it is not; he can make his mind up accordingly.
As always, the Minister's generosity gets the better of him; I am grateful. Given that a draft Bill has been in existence for nearly three years, how, in all candour, does he explain or defend the concentrated ambiguity of clause 89 on the subject of consultation? Just to give us a taste, can he tell us whether he thinks that it will be similar to, or very different from, the sort of consultation that the Government recently announced on constitutional reform?
The hon. Gentleman has been around for long enough to know that a Bill that starts in another place is amendable. The Bill has been amended as part of the democratic process, and right hon. and hon. Members will consider it properly in this House. As for consultation, that is matter for strategic health authorities in partnership with their local communities. I am sure that that can be dealt with in further detail in due course.
The Bill received general support in another place. We considered points that were raised there in the course of its passage, and important changes were made in respect of several issues, including fluoridation. The Government accepted the Opposition's recommendation that water conservation should be promoted across the public sector; consequently, clause 85 now includes a new duty on public bodies to give consideration to that matter. It was also agreed that the Environment Agency's existing duty to ensure that our water resources are used efficiently should be made explicit through what is now clause 75.
It was agreed that the economic, social and environmental considerations of water services are central to consumer interests. Therefore, the remit of the consumer council for water, which is covered in clause 38, has been extended to include a duty for the achievement of sustainable development. It is envisaged that the new consumer council will have a key role in decision making on water issues, and the Government accepted an amendment to clause 46 placing a duty on the authority to consult the council in relation to the exercise of its functions where appropriate.
I am trying to make some progress because I do not want to delay hon. Members who wish to speak.
Clause 55 now imposes a duty to promote co-operation between regulators. That amendment encourages the exchange of information and the consistency of treatment of matters of common interest to regulators while having regard to protecting individual remits and the independence of each regulator.
Clause 57 now gives powers to the Competition Commission to decide on a fair allocation of the burden of costs of appeals between the customer and the shareholder. That is intended to ensure that companies with fewer customers do not pass on disproportionate costs to households and businesses in their water bills.
We did not make changes in response to all the points that were made. That was not because we were not prepared to listen, but because careful consideration of the arguments led us to conclude that amendments would not meet the need to balance the interests of all concerned, including the environment, consumers, water companies and other abstractors.
It is worth making it clear that the Bill is not intended to cover all areas of water policy. It builds on existing legislation with measures that deal with water conservation, water resources and the water and sewage industry. It is essential, however, that it fits in with the broader strategic vision set out in "Directing the Flow".
The Bill is consistent with the aims and objectives of the water framework directive. The Government remain of the view that it is appropriate to use the European Communities Act 1972, rather than the Bill, as the vehicle for transposing the directive. That is the approach that we took in the draft regulations, which were published for consultation last month.
The issues associated with existing private sewers are being covered by separate consultation. A public consultation exercise is under way, and we must await its outcome before considering what legislative changes, if any, are needed. We should not pre-empt the outcome in the Bill.
I note, of course, that the official Opposition have tabled an amendment. They clearly found very little in the Bill with which to disagree, however, because the amendment seems to be completely irrelevant to what we are discussing. It says that the Bill
"fails to provide the strategic framework to meet the challenges posed by the European Water Framework Directive and to ensure the long-term provision of safe, clean water across England and Wales".
I might point out that the application of EU directives under the European Communities Act was introduced by the Conservatives. Apparently, it was all right for them to use it in applying directives when they were in power, but now we are supposed to change that. Moreover, a great deal of consultation on the water framework directive remains to be done. The Bill plays an important part in introducing its measures, which we take very seriously, but it is not appropriate to introduce it fully at this stage.
We want sustainable development to be at the heart of our water policy and the water and sewage industry. We want an industry that provides a quality service that responds to consumers' needs. That is the intention of the Bill, and I believe that it gets that difficult balance right. We are, of course, prepared to listen to all Opposition Members when the Bill goes through Committee. It is an important measure, and it deserves better consideration than is allowed for by the amendment, which is at best irrelevant and at worst a bit of petty politicking that ignores the serious issue of proper, sustainable resource management. That is at the heart of the Bill, which is why I commend it to the House.
I beg to move, To leave out from "That" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:
"this House declines to give a Second Reading to the Water Bill [Lords] because it fails to provide the strategic framework to meet the challenges posed by the European Water Framework Directive and to ensure the long-term provision of safe, clean water across England and Wales;
does not make adequate provision for water resources in areas such as the south east of England where new housing is planned;
undermines current customer structures;
and fails to make proper provision for water conservation and flood prevention."
I suppose that I should first thank the Minister for introducing the Bill on Second Reading and remark that it is a pleasure to see him supporting and endorsing a Bill that takes as a given the fact that the water industry remains in the private sector. Although we cannot yet, perhaps, count him as an ardent disciple of my right hon. and learned Friend Mr. Howard or my right hon. Friend Mr. Redwood, at least he may be inching in our direction in this respect.
It is certainly true that the privatised water industry and the water regulators can point to considerable successes since privatisation. There have been marked improvements in water quality, fewer serious incidents of water pollution, better standards of drinking water, and about £50 billion of capital expenditure on environmental improvements. However, as the Minister said, the water industry faces important challenges. Demand for water is rising—it is up by some 40 per cent. over the past three decades—and the Government's recently announced housing plans will add dramatically to that demand, especially in the driest parts of this country. European Union figures show that the United Kingdom has the fourth lowest fresh water resources in the Community. Those are average figures that conceal big regional variations. In particular, southern and eastern England are relatively arid, with rainfall at about half the average of the UK as a whole, yet they are also the regions where the population is most densely settled and pressure on demand is greatest.
Climate change is likely to mean more extreme weather conditions in future, including the risk of more frequent floods and droughts. At the same time, public opinion and, perhaps above all, European legislation, demand still tougher environmental standards. However, improving those standards requires money for capital investment, and people who wish for environmental improvements also worry about the level of water charges that they face each year and each month. As the Bill passes through the House, we shall judge it in terms of how well we believe that it will help our country to tackle those important challenges.
If we examine the range of measures, we can welcome some of them. They include the exemption from licensing of small-scale abstractions, the provision in clause 89 to make it easier to return contaminated land to use and the new rules on lateral sewers. On other matters, we want to press the Government to explain in greater detail the course that they advocate. Much of part 2 falls into that category. I have no great ideological objection to replacing the director general of Ofwat with a regulatory authority but it is not obvious why three or more people, all appointed by the Secretary of State, should be more effective, impartial and independent of the Secretary of State than the current director general. To some extent, I agree with Tony Lloyd about councils' right to obtain and publish information. I hope that that can be explored later.
As with other measures, the Government are attempting to shoehorn a Bill through Parliament in a time that suits Ministers and are not prepared to provide adequate opportunity for full parliamentary challenge and scrutiny.
We are sceptical about some provisions, including the abolition of local flood defence committees and the power to revoke abstraction licences without compensation. Like the Select Committee, I question whether that will comply with the Human Rights Act 1998, which the Government introduced.
Conservative as well as Labour Members will have a free vote on fluoridation. I believe that it is wrong to give the state the power to insist on putting medicine in the public water supply. The arguments of some advocates of fluoridation, such as "Let the people drink Malvern", are unsatisfactory.
The hon. Gentleman asks me about legislation that was introduced some years before I became a Member of Parliament. I therefore accept no responsibility for it. I am stating my view of the Bill. It will guide my approach not only to the measure but to any other Bill on the subject in the time that I serve here.
Water consumers should decide whether they wish to have fluoride, which they can easily obtain through numerous toothpastes and other products. Consumers should have the right to make the decision.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is deeply ironic that the Government try to ban natural herbal supplements and limit the amount of vitamins that we can take yet want to put fluoride in our water?
My hon. Friend has been remarkably patient with the minority view in this country, which has been expressed too loudly in the House, that fluoride must be forced upon us. I am delighted that he is so robust. Many of us are with him and I urge Labour Members to join us if they do not want their view on the subject to be as unpopular as that on herbal medicines.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his intervention.
The Government's course entails some genuine practical difficulties. Little, if anything, in the Bill suggests how strategic health authorities are supposed to gauge public opinion. It is unclear what will happen if public opinion, having perhaps first favoured fluoride, were subsequently to switch, through, for example, the production of new scientific evidence. Would fluoridation be ended? Mr. Drew made that point earlier.
What happens if communities with different health authorities, but served by the same water company and therefore the same network of pipes, reach different conclusions about fluoridation? In those circumstances, it would be impractical for the water undertakers or suppliers to send fluoridated water to one set of customers and unfluoridated water to the other. They would have to choose which set of customers to disappoint.
The basic problem with the Bill is its failure to provide a coherent strategy to deal with the challenges that face the water industry and its customers. For all the slogans and spin about sustainable development and joined-up government, water policy is still too often decided in a disjointed or piecemeal fashion.
I agreed with the Minister's comment that we need to strike a balance between the interests of the environment and those of not only water companies but their industrial and domestic consumers.
No, I wish to make progress and I am conscious that many hon. Members wish to speak.
As the Minister acknowledged, the Government have recently signed up to the European water framework directive, which will be effected later this year. It has enormous financial and regulatory implications for the Government, the water industry and water users. Until the House of Lords defeated the Government over what is now clause 2, the directive was not mentioned in the Bill. Clause 2 does little more than state what the Secretary of State will be legally obliged to do under the directive.
The directive's requirements appear certain to affect the regulatory regime that the measure embodies. For example, let us consider water management. The directive requires water policy to be framed in river basin management plans, which are drawn up on a six-year cycle. However, the Government have given no clear account of how the six-year cycle will relate to the five-year cycle of periodic reviews that determine the investments that companies should make and how much they should be allowed to charge their customers. The Bill contains no proposal to synchronise those two timetables, yet without such synchronisation, it is difficult to understand how we can form a coherent policy for water management in the United Kingdom.
The directive is sure to require new investment. Water UK, to which Paddy Tipping, alluded, talks about expenditure of £20 million. Yet the Government's regulatory impact assessment, which was published last month, gave figures for costs of up to £4.2 billion for sewage companies. Paragraph D.141 of the same document states that the directive may lead to the imposition of stricter limits on abstraction and make it more expensive. I presume that if abstraction becomes more expensive, the extra expenses are likely to be passed on to water consumers.
Lord Whitty said on
I hope that we will not take primary legislation through this House to do one thing and then find that the rules have been changed by the back door as a result of regulations to implement a directive with which the Government had previously assured us their Bill was compliant. There may be the need under the directive for a draconian use of the controls applied by the Bill to meet the environmental standards that the directive requires.
As has been pointed out, the Bill does not tackle the total lack of co-ordination between planning policy and water and flood management. The Government are currently proposing—perhaps "instructing" would be a more accurate description—that half a million new houses should be built in the most arid parts of England. Yet the Deputy Prime Minister's policy document—laughably entitled "Sustainable Communities"—did not mention water. The Environment Agency told an inquiry by the relevant Select Committee into the Thames gateway project that it had not been consulted by the Deputy Prime Minister about the impact of his plans on water conservation, or on the risk of flooding. The Government appear to have woken up to this after they published their plans and issued their edicts to local authorities.
The Environment Agency may now find itself having to use ever tighter restrictions on abstraction—using the powers that the Bill proposes should be given to it—and doing so at a real cost to consumers to mitigate the harm being wrought by the Government's perverse housing policies.
We are worried also about the centralising direction of some of the measures in the Bill, which contains a host of additional powers for the Secretary of State and the Environment Agency, many of which we shall want to explore in greater detail in Committee and on Report. By contrast, powers are removed from local flood defence committees and from local authorities. For example, we see powers for the Secretary of State to insist on changes to water resources management and drought plans.
I am disappointed that the Government have thrown away the opportunity to consider and, perhaps, introduce pilot projects for economic measures that might work to bring about water conservation and better water management from the bottom up, rather than being wedded so much to a top-down approach. The Bill does not address the possibility of tradeable permits for discharges or differential charging for abstraction rights, even though the Environment Agency is reported be considering those issues and even though the Bill includes a mechanism for transferring discharge consents.
A market-led approach—piloting approaches based on differential pricing—might, for example, provide a greater incentive for worthwhile conservation measures such as trickle irrigation, giving them a market advantage over other methods of using water in agriculture and horticulture.
I want to deal briefly with the question of water bills, which are already a heavy burden on consumers, especially pensioners and others on low or fixed incomes. As the hon. Member for Sherwood pointed out, the industry says that it would need a £15 annual increase in bills to meet its obligations under the water framework directive. That £15 is an average figure; there would be wide variations in the increases proposed between different regions of the country. The Bill's proposals on abstraction could end up making the cost to consumers higher still.
The six or 12-year limits on abstraction licences that were debated in the House of Lords would mean those licences lasting for a much shorter period than the investments for which they were supposed to provide water. The costs would have to be recovered from consumers over a shorter period unless the investment programme was to be scrapped entirely. The logical consequence of that is that we will see even sharper increases in water charges as a result of the policy of time-limiting over the relatively short period that the Government are proposing.
During the Bill's future stages, I will want Parliament to explore further the opportunity that the Government rejected in the House of Lords at least to relate the time given to a particular licence to the lifetime and economic importance of the investment that that abstraction supports.
The Minister said that the 12 years was an adaptable period, but companies that have spoken to the Environment Agency have been told clearly that the 12 years will be a fixed period other than in very exceptional circumstances. To that extent, what the Minister said was slightly wide of the mark.
My hon. Friend's intervention reinforces the need for us to look more closely in Committee at the balance between industry and the environment.
Has my hon. Friend noticed that the Government's own regulatory impact assessment of the competition proposals in the Bill—together with the opinion of the water industry—is that this measure could lead to consumer prices going up even if prices for large companies go down?
I have read that assessment and it appears that the limited competition offered by the Bill will cut prices for a handful of very large industrial consumers of water, but seems unlikely to provide much benefit to other consumers. It is also being made clear by potential investors—companies such as Centrica—that the limited competition regime will not provide them with sufficient incentives to enter the business and offer alternative sources of water supply to the existing companies.
Clearly, geography and the design of the current infrastructure impose limits on how much competition is practical now but I am puzzled as to why the Government did not extend competition further than the 50 megalitre limit that they are currently proposing, allowing those business and domestic consumers who would be able, in practice, to take advantage of competition to do so.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way before he concludes. Will he clarify whether the views that he expressed on fluoridation were his personal views or the views of the Conservative party, whether he has consulted the shadow spokesman for health on the matter and whether the Whips will impose a three-line whip on his colleagues?
When the hon. Lady studies Hansard tomorrow, she will find that I opened my remarks on fluoridation by making it clear that there will be a completely free vote among Front-Bench and Back-Bench Conservative Members. I have talked to my hon. Friend Dr. Fox, the shadow Secretary of State for Health, about the matter. He knew what I was proposing to say. I know his view and he is perfectly capable of expressing it as robustly as ever. I very much look forward to him doing so.
Water bills are being kept unnaturally high by the increased level of bad debt that water undertakers have to carry. The Government decided to abolish the right of water companies to disconnect customers who consistently refused to pay their bills, and one understands their motive for making that decision. Now, however, nearly one fifth of households do not pay their bills.
No, I will not. I hope that the hon. Lady will get the opportunity to speak later.
Most hon. Members know, through their constituency correspondence from pensioners and others who struggle to pay the bills demanded of them, that those people find the current level of water payments difficult, and even oppressive. It is unfair on those people who are struggling to pay their bills that we should be prepared to tolerate deliberate—I stress that word—non-payment. Estimates were made during the debate in the House of Lords that an average of up to £9 is added to every household's water bill to cover the cost of those citizens who refuse to pay their bills. I regret the fact that the Bill has taken no steps to address those problems.
The Bill will not deliver all the benefits that the Minister and the Government claim for it. It fails to address many of the important problems now facing the water industry. Our amendment gives the House the opportunity tonight to register its dissatisfaction with legislation that is badly flawed, and I ask my right hon. and hon. Friends to express their scepticism about the Bill by joining me in voting for the amendment this evening.
It has been quite some time since I raised this issue in the House, but I have spent a great deal of time on it. I am very interested in water and where it goes, and I was very much against the privatisation of the water industry. When it went into private hands in Scotland, one of the reasons—
I was saying that the last time that I raised this issue was in Scotland, and that I was very concerned about it because there was a restriction on borrowing by local authorities. That is when all the peddlers moved in to get hold of the water, because it is a very profitable industry. They came in with their meters in the commercial sector, and now they are waiting to get full control so that they can meter domestic water, and I am very much against that. They have made millions by transferring the business from various companies all over the country.
One thing that really bothers me is the way in which the Government have introduced clause 61, in which they propose that health authorities should be given new powers regarding fluoridation. Obviously, some people think that they know better than others. When I first came across the issue of fluoridation of public water supplies, I wrote to people in various countries for two years before I took the matter up, because I wanted to know more about it. I then decided, 25 years ago, to entice one of my constituents to take the matter to the Court of Session, because the Strathclyde regional authority wanted to spend £75,000 on machines to help the chemical industry. It certainly was not going to help the people. We all know that we get fluoride anyway, from our tea and our bread and from the fresh air that we breathe. It is also very difficult to measure one part per million. We undertook that case from a moral aspect, as well as from a medical and a legal aspect. We won it on the legal aspect because it was outwith the remit of a medical engineer to treat the people who drank the water. It was his job to treat the water and to make it wholesome for drinking.
Ministers have obviously not done their homework on this issue. A committee was set up which could not reach a conclusion one way or another. It is claimed that fluorides are not a medicinal product, but section 130 of the Medicines Act 1968 states clearly what a medicinal product is. Fluorides are claimed to be a medicinal product under European Union legislation. The Medicines Act defines a medicinal product as a substance mixed with another and used to treat an animal or human being to cure a disease. Dental fluorosis is not a disease. I did not create the terms "skeletal fluorosis", "dental fluorosis" or "chronic fluoride poisoning"; they come from fluoride.
Fluorosilicates are banned in Europe, and fluoridation is a criminal act under the Poisons Act 1972. If the Minister looks up all these various Acts, he will find these measures. They even exist under legislation relating to the protection of children. The new measures target children. In Birmingham, which has had fluoridation for 25 years, there are more dentists than in any other part of the United Kingdom. I do not know how those children get mottled teeth, but this is certainly a breach of civil liberties so far as the people of Britain and other parts of the world are concerned. That is why I am against these proposals. The fluoride is not self-administered; this involves mass medication, which people are getting against their will.
The Government should accept and respect the decisions made in various other countries that have voted on this issue and decided against such measures. They should respect people such as Dr. Moolenburgh in Holland, who carried out double-blind tests by splitting the country into two, one part of which was fluoridated, the other not. He became a Member of Parliament, because the whole country was split over the issue of the mass medication of people.
This is a matter of individual choice. People can take fluoride in tablet form or in milk form, or in toothpaste. Even toothpaste manufacturers realise, however, that big claims could be made against them. Who would have the right to indemnify against such claims? Will this Government indemnify anybody if a case is brought against a pharmaceutical company? I do not think that they would, once the problem began, even though they say that they would.
The easiest way to get rid of one's wife, if one wanted to do so, would be to go to a city with fluoridated water, and boil a kettle two or three times a night. That would produce a film in the kettle because of the high concentration of fluoride. If one were to stir a spoonful of that substance into her tea, she would be dead within 10 seconds.
That is the danger. That is the problem.
Fluorosilicates gather in cast iron pipes, which have been neglected over the years; they have not been repaired, and that has made it very difficult for the consumer.
Why accept the medical profession's view on the matter when there is a split and a big question mark? Those who support water fluoridation should not think that they are right. During my time here, people have regularly written letters to me about fluoride—some against it and some for it. Those who are against do not want to accept that there is no real medical evidence. I hope that, when it comes to the vote, the people will vote against it.
I agree with the bulk of that contribution, although perhaps the suggested method of dealing with one's wife should not be given too much publicity outside the Chamber.
Water is a precious resource. It needs to be dealt with carefully and differently from other utilities and, indeed, from other aspects of life. It is worth remembering that more than 1.1 billion people globally do not have access to safe water. More than 2.4 billion people have no proper access to adequate sanitation, resulting in the yearly deaths of up to 3 million people, mostly children under five. By 2025, up to 3 billion people will live in countries that have less than 1,700 cu m of water per capita, the quantity below which people start to suffer from water stress. That is the problem that we have internationally, which will be worsened by climate change and the other factors that are affecting the world, such as the increase in population
We have those factors in this country—albeit, fortunately, to a lesser degree—but we have climate change, an increase in population and a concentration of population in the south-east, where the Deputy Prime Minister is keen to build lots of homes. Therefore, we have problems. We need to manage our water carefully and responsibly.
My colleagues and I welcome the Bill because it will, by and large, improve the management of water resources. It will, by and large, improve consumer representation. It will, by and large, improve a number of small problems that have been lingering for some time. The Minister referred to some of those in his contribution but, again, as with the Waste and Emissions Trading Bill, it is what is missing from the Bill that is a disappointment rather than what is in it. A range of things are missing, some of which are in the reasoned amendment tabled by the Conservatives.
I disagree with the Conservatives on one major point. The Bill is beneficial, although it may have lots of things missing. It is difficult to see why we should vote against a Bill that moves us in the right direction. It is a great pity that it does not move us further but, because it moves us in the right direction, I am recommending to my colleagues that we vote for it on Second Reading at least, although we will wish to table many amendments in Committee and on Report to try to fill the gaps and to improve the Bill.
The Bill is missing in many ways, which is a pity given how long it has been in gestation: it has been around for about three years. In many ways, it is simply a replication of measures that were pulled from the Utilities Bill. I was on the Utilities Bill Committee when suddenly, because of a disagreement between the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions and the Department of Trade and Industry—we were not told that that was the reason, though—the water measures in the Bill were withdrawn. Lo and behold, many of them appear unaltered in the Water Bill, so in the past three years it has simply sat on the shelf.
The Minister says that it is normal, but I refer him to a letter written by his predecessor on
"As we have been developing the draft Water Bill"— it has been a long time coming, has it not?—
"it has become increasingly clear that it makes more sense to tackle all the changes we want to see made to the regulatory framework for water in a single piece of new legislation."
The reason we were given for the water provisions being pulled out of the Utilities Bill, and for the fact that there was no Water Bill for three years, was that everything was coming together in a co-ordinated, joined-up fashion. If only that were true. It is not true and the water framework directive is not being dealt with in the Bill. It is mentioned in the Bill. That is thanks not to the Government but to my colleague in the Lords, Baroness Sue Miller, with support from the Conservatives, who arranged for it to be mentioned. Otherwise, it would not be mentioned at all.
It is a great pity that the opportunity has been missed to bring together in a coherent piece of legislation the provisions in this Bill and the water framework directive because they impinge on each other and relate to each other. It makes sense to deal with them in one piece of legislation.
We will come back to the water framework directive. I say in passing that, whatever the precedents have been, it is perhaps not satisfactory—let us put it no stronger than that—for a major piece of European Union environmental legislation to be dealt with by secondary legislation. We should debate it on the Floor of the Commons as part of primary legislation. It is a great pity that we are not doing so.
Also missing from the Bill are any proper references to what the consumer will pay for water and the charging regimes, and that was referred to in passing by Mr. Lidington. It is true that water prices are now increasing dramatically—the Minister says that the recommendations may not go through but they are there. It is also true that pressure will increase on the water companies, particularly in the south and south-east, because of shortage of supply, the requirement to build lots of new houses and the failure to consult the water companies and to take adequate notice of the problems that they have in supplying water not simply to all the new houses but to existing houses, when water consumption per head of population is increasing.
It is also true, sadly, that the building regulations that apply to new houses have not been altered to require best practice in new dwellings. We still have very poor building regulations for new dwellings, and sorting that out should be a priority for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. It is also true—it is perhaps a controversial point—that we should move to a water charging system that is clear, fair, understandable and has environmental benefits. I refer to water metering, for which the principle has been established.
The Conservative Government introduced water metering in the Water Act 1989. Initially, it was optional, but of course it is not optional for people who move into houses where meters are already in place: they have no option to remove them.
The Government are conniving with the introduction of water metering by stealth. Water metering is being introduced slowly, gradually, across the country and I have no doubt that we will see it in 20 or 30 years' time. I have no doubt that the Government think that we will get there. They simply do not want to have an argument about it in public now. They are happy for the water companies and individuals to move slowly along that path and hope that no one notices.
There are significant issues about water charging. It is becoming indefensible to have water charging for the majority of people based on the theoretical amount of money that a person could get from renting out their house in 1973, which is what the present arrangements are. It is difficult to justify a situation whereby people pay different amounts for water, some on what they consume and some on what they do not. It is also difficult to justify in terms of equity and environmental good practice when people can use as much water as they wish and pay no more for the privilege, even if they are profligate with that vital resource. We do not apply that to electricity and gas. People might leave their lights on all day if they paid no extra for the electricity. We charge them for what they use. I cannot see why water should be any different.
I understand that Norway and Ireland are the only two countries in Europe that do not have metered supplies, so we are very much in the minority in that arrangement. I think that the Government want metering, but they want it by stealth. They should come clean and introduce it as part of the Bill. It is central to the Bill, or should be, not simply in terms of fairness for the consumer—it would reduce consumption and benefit the consumer in that way—but in terms of environmental good practice. Less water would be used, which would mean less call on scarce natural resources, particularly in areas such as the south-east. If water consumption drops, and the water metering trials in the Isle of Wight and elsewhere demonstrated a 10 per cent. drop in water consumption, which has been maintained—I spoke to Southern Water only last week to check that fact—the need for major capital investment is obviated, which in turn keeps the price of water down.
Of course, I would not pretend that there are no problems with metering. We have to ensure that poor people with large families are properly protected. The vulnerable groups regulations are wholly inadequate and need to be significantly revised. It is important to have a realistic time scale, so that implementation can be done properly over 10 or 20 years. If we have metering, it must be done by rising tariffs, starting cheap and becoming more expensive, and vulnerable groups must be protected.
I gather that the hon. Gentleman is very much in favour of water metering, but he did not say how those poor and vulnerable members of society who might consider not using enough water for health and hygiene purposes are to be protected. I am thinking in particular of poor families and those caring for elderly people who might need to do a lot of laundry. He said a lot about the environment, but not about what should be done from the social angle.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to press that point. It is the key argument against metering and must be resolved before it is introduced.
The vulnerable groups regulations introduced by the Conservative Government offer reductions for people in exactly the circumstances that the hon. Lady described. It so happens that the regulations do not work properly—there is a terrible take-up rate, of about 1 per cent.—so they need to be wholly revised, but the principle that such people could have help with metered bills has been established in legislation.
Also missing from the Bill is how to deal with people who do not pay their water bills. The hon. Member for Aylesbury was right to point that out. The water companies tell us that there is a clear distinction between people who have genuine difficulties with their water bills—they must be protected from disconnection, and it would be completely improper to return to that practice, whatever the Conservative line on it may be—and those who know that no disconnections can be effected and take advantage of that situation. I frankly confess that I do not know the solution to that major problem.
"A large problem remains with those who can pay, but won't pay. This problem is increasing due to the ban on disconnection."
United Utilities said:
"sanctions are needed to deal with those who choose not to pay, and adequate must be given for those who cannot pay."
That has to be a sensible policy, although I do not know how it is to be translated into legislation that works. If we do not address the issue, more and more people will refuse to pay their bills simply because they know that they will not be disconnected.
The Bill says nothing much about leakages. The Minister may say that he thinks that they have been dealt with, and certainly the situation has improved dramatically over the past 10 years, but it has not improved for the section of pipe between the company supply at the stopcock and the householder's tap. Water UK says that a quarter of all leakage is in that section of pipe. The companies have dealt with their pipes, but the consumer, by and large, has not. People may be unaware that there is a leak, because the water is not metered, or they may not have the resources to deal with it. Whatever the reason, there is a major loss of water in that short piece of pipe. The Government must introduce measures to deal with that. Personally, I believe that ownership of the pipe should remain with the householder, but there should be an obligation on the water companies to make a significant contribution to dealing with such leaks. That would be better for the environment as well as making sense for the companies themselves in the longer run.
The Bill contains little on private sewer adopters. The Minister said that he intended to do something about that. It is a big issue that has been around for a long time. Why is it not part of the Bill?
Because the consultation is still going on. We take the issue seriously, which is why we commissioned a report by WS Atkins, which produced a number of options that have gone to consultation. When we have had the results, we will consider what is the best course of action.
I disagree not with the process that the Minister has outlined, but with the time scale. Why has it not been done already? The issue has been around for a very long time, yet the Government, who have been in power for six years, and the Tories before them, did nothing. Why are we only now told, with the Water Bill already before us, that a consultation exercise germane to that Bill is under way?
The Minister tries to hide behind consultation. Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the Minister's Department undertook a consultation in May 2000 in conjunction with the National Assembly for Wales on the provision of new drains and sewers for England and Wales, which recommended to Ofwat that
"consideration should be given to reforming and simplifying the current arrangement so that property owners' responsibilities for drains and sewers would be limited to those on their land only"?
That is not in the Bill, so we can see that nothing was done in the intervening three years.
I cannot mediate between the hon. Gentleman and the Minister.
I have spoken at length about what is not in the Bill—there is more not in it than there is in it—so let me now deal with what is in the Bill, and by and large offer it my support. The Government are right to grasp the nettle of abstraction licences. I well understand the issue about investment, which has been put to me by several industry bodies as well as individual companies. It is right that we should explore that.
Well, they have not been in touch with me, so I am grateful to learn that watercress is also grown in Wiltshire. I shall pay due attention to watercress in Committee.
It is right to deal with abstraction, but we must ensure that we do not have an unwelcome significant impact on certain industries, and it is right for hon. Members of all parties to raise issues of concern in that regard.
I pay tribute to the Government for introducing measures to improve consumer representation.
The issue of flood defence committees has been around for some time, and the Minister will know that, with my experience of floods in Lewes, it is of particular interest to me. What is proposed is an improvement, although it is not quite in line with river basins.
I want to mention fluoride—the dreaded word—and to remind everyone that this is the Water Bill, not the Fluoride Bill. Many important issues in the Bill have been hijacked by that one topic. I am not pretending that it is not important, but it is not the only thing in the Bill. I agree with Mr. Drew that this is not the appropriate place for the measure, but since it is here let me say that what the Bill contains relates to consultation, which no one can seriously object to. However, consultation must be meaningful and local, and people must have a right to say yes or no to fluoridation in their area—including, by the way, the right to have fluoridation removed where it exists.
The strategic health authorities are in no way representative of local views. As a body, they have already decided in favour of fluoridation, so they are hardly neutral. They are not local but strategic, and we do not know how they might consult local people. Presumably, they will send out a questionnaire, and will recommend fluoridation irrespective of the responses. That is not a satisfactory of dealing with a highly complex and controversial issue. If the Minister pursues that line, many people will vote against, irrespective of whether they are in favour of fluoridation. Local people must decide, but that is not what is proposed in the Bill as it stands.
That is a very difficult question. I am among the body of opinion who do not believe in fluoridation, and who think it wrong to inflict mass medication on the population at large. The purpose of adding fluoride to water is clearly to improve dental health—that is what everybody says. That is medication for health purposes.
Is the hon. Gentleman therefore against the chlorination of water, which is designed to improve its quality? Is he against fortification of flour because it is now impossible to buy bread without fortification? Is he against the fortification of margarine, which has undoubtedly saved many thousands of children from getting rickets since the last war? Is it Liberal Democrat policy to be against the fortification and improvement of all substances consumed by consumers?
I am not sure that those are very fair analogies. There is a difference between removing dangerous pathogens from a substance, for example, and adding something to derive a perceived health benefit. As with other substances, people have some choice as to which flour they buy, but they have no choice in the water coming out of their tap—not even in the light of the Bill's competition proposals—so the situation is entirely different. Of course, my colleagues will not necessarily be swayed by my arguments; there is a free vote and they will make up their own minds. Nevertheless, we are all united on the important point that there must be proper consultation.
The best thing that I can say about the Bill is that it is good as far as it goes and we support the measures in it, but what a pity that the Government have yet again failed to introduce environmental legislation in a coherent and proper manner. Yet again, they have failed to take an overall view; yet again, they have failed properly to incorporate EU directives into domestic legislation. That is a great pity, and yet again the Liberal Democrats—and doubtless the Conservatives as well, on this occasion—will try to remedy that in Committee to make the Bill rather better than it is.
Although the Bill is in part to be welcomed by the House, because in many cases a complete overhaul is needed, I am opposed to slipping in the fluoride issue on the basis of an amendment made in the Lords. This issue divides all parties in this House, and as someone who has passionately opposed fluoridation for many years, I want to make my contribution on the basis of some simple aspects of fluoridation.
In the 1970s, when I became chairman of a local health council, there was an enormous debate about the whole question of adding fluoride to the water supply. We rejected the idea, but because we were not democratically elected we passed the issue to the local councils to determine whether they thought it a good thing. The message came back loud and clear that they were opposed to the whole question of fluoridation.
Many arguments have been presented in respect of fluoride, but I have resisted any temptation to wander into the science arguments. I shall stick to the simple argument, which is based on the question of mass medication. I shall explain why I am opposed to mass medication. Problems may be engendered in Scotland by virtue of the declining population. Given that a diminishing number of people are staying in Scotland, who is to say that, in 10 years' time, if such things are allowed to enter the water supply in Scotland, we will not add a substance such as viagra? Who is to say that that option will not be open to us? [Interruption.] Perhaps there are those in this House who think that a great idea—I see that many are smiling—but that could be the basis for mass medication all over again. Similarly, in certain areas of the country where there was a population explosion and schools were overwhelmed, might not bromide be added to the water supply? Who is to say that such things are not possible, if we start talking about adding substances to the water supply that do not actually improve the quality of the water itself?
Reference was made in a previous intervention to certain substances that are added to the water supply, but which all improve the quality of the water. The difference between fluoride and any of those other substances is that fluoride does nothing to the quality of the water.
Does my hon. Friend not accept that the use of fluoride is being proposed to improve people's dental health? Its use is designed to improve the quality of life of children, who otherwise might suffer painful extractions and decaying teeth.
As I said earlier, I am not willing to go down the road of the sanctity argument. I am advancing the simple argument, which my hon. Friend cannot dispute, that fluoride is not added to the water supply to improve its quality. That is the case that I want to argue.
I shall move on because I am conscious of the time.
I intervened on the Minister to ask why the Bill makes no mention of local democracy playing its part; indeed, the Government have presented no arguments in that regard. The White Paper "Saving Lives: Our Healthier Nation", which was published on
"And to ensure that the extent and validity of that public support is beyond all doubt we envisage transferring from health authorities to local authorities the requirement to undertake public consultation on fluoridating the local water supply."
What has that proposal apparently been dropped? I want to know the answer to that question, because it is extremely important.
My hon. Friend is making an impassioned defence of the importance of democracy in such matters, but if we leave things as they are, these important decisions will be in the hands of plcs. What right do they have to decide whether a community such as Greater Manchester should or should not benefit from fluoridation? Surely such issues should be in the hands of the people, not of plcs. The status quo cannot be defended on any grounds.
Local authority representatives are democratically elected, and I charge them with this responsibility. I expect the Government, on the basis of the White Paper, to allow local authorities to be the agents that determine whether fluoride is added to the water supply. No one else should be given that job.
I cannot because I have little time and I am about to sum up.
I want to conclude by asking the Minister why a particular part of the Bill refers to Scottish Water. As you pointed out in an earlier ruling, Madam Deputy Speaker, it will not cover Scotland, so why does that provision refer to Scottish Water? I want the Minister to answer that question this evening, given that this legislation is not intended to impact on Scotland.
I expect assurances. I want the Government to take on board all the arguments that many people have presented to me in the past few months. As vice-chairman of the all-party group on fluoridation, I have received dozens of requests from people that their voices be heard in this Chamber, which is why I am speaking today. I congratulate the Minister on allowing a free vote, and I am glad that he pointed that out in his statement. For that reason alone, I shall not vote against the Bill tonight, but I seek assurances that my concerns will be addressed in the Bill, and will become part of the Act.
It is a pleasure to follow Mr. Donohoe and his impassioned plea against fluoridation, but the Bill deals with much wider issues. As I feared, fluoridation has dominated the debate, but I believe that all sensible Members should avoid it. We all know that if we say one thing about fluoridation, we will receive a host of letters; if we say something else about it, we will receive a host of letters from elsewhere. I shall therefore avoid the issue in my brief remarks, except to say that in the north-east of England fluoride is found in water as a natural course. In Hartlepool, for instance, the natural supply of fluoride is equal to the amount recommended by the British Dental Association. That is probably why Mr. Mandelson has such good teeth.
Is my hon. Friend suggesting that because a substance occurs naturally in certain regions, even though it may be offensive in itself, it should be added to the water everywhere else?
I am adopting a very liberal position on the matter in not saying whether I am on one side or the other.
I want to return to the question on which the Minister earlier took interventions: the effect of the 12-year limit on transfer licences. It is a serious issue for the extractive industry, the mining industry, even—I learned only today—the watercress industry and perhaps the bottled water industry. There are nine quarries in my constituency, six of them substantial, making up a multi-million pound business, which provides many jobs—directly and indirectly—in the rural parts of Northumberland. It is a key industry. Open cast mining is another huge industry with enormous capital investment, but it is very difficult for companies to make the investment unless they are certain that they will receive a licence along with their planning consent.
The Minister said that it was all a question of balance. One quarry in my constituency, the Barrasford quarry, has recently been given a 30-year extension of its rights to extract winstone. The company has spent millions of pounds on a long new road, moving the infrastructure about, and on an enormous number of environmental improvements. It even voluntarily relinquished, because of environmental concerns, certain areas that it had permission to quarry. It is a multi-million pound investment, but the Environment Agency could, at a stroke, eliminate the business if it failed to extend the licence.
It is all very well saying that there should be a presumption for the Environment Agency to extend the licence, but I do not trust the Environment Agency or believe that multi-million pound investments should depend on its whim. During the foot and mouth disaster, which badly affected my constituency, the Environment Agency was one of the least co-operative bodies. We were faced with an enormous quantity of unburied, unburned animal carcases, but the Environment Agency said that action could not be taken because of the risk to the water supply. It caused a real headache by being over-zealous in administering that viewpoint. I therefore believe that it is wrong to ask large companies to trust the Environment Agency, and I urge the Minister to nail down the problem in Committee and on Report in order to give confidence to the large investors and make it clear to them that it is worth opening a coalmine or a quarry and worth investing in the infrastructure.
My constituency, too, contains numerous sizeable quarries. One company expressed to me its concerns about applications being wholly determined by an officer of the Environment Agency with no rights of appeal, no transparency and probably no compensation in the event of a refusal. Does the hon. Gentleman believe that the Bill can be amended to deal with those problems?
I certainly hope so and I urge the Minister to clarify the position and sort out the problem, which is important for the economies of many constituencies.
Clause 35 poses another intriguing issue. It is an obscure little clause, which deals with the rights to extract water that are given to armed forces visiting this country. It does not explain why the Government have taken Crown immunity away from British forces, which is implied in the clause. Nothing else in the Bill clarifies it, but it could have an effect on my constituency—for example, in respect of military training in the Otterburn or other training areas when the armed forces, particularly the RAF, need to extract water. They will now have to go through a licensing system in order to continue to do so.
I said that I would be brief, but the Bill is long and complicated, raising many difficult questions that will need to be debated at later stages. Yet there are no later stages, save for two weeks in Committee. I understand that the Bill will not have its Committee stage until next Tuesday—a week tomorrow—providing just four days and eight sittings for us to consider the whole Bill before the conference recess, after which a bit more time will be provided. That is a wholly inadequate time for debating the Bill. It is not particularly controversial, but it touches on all sorts of key issues, not least fluoridation. It is wrong to allot the Bill such a paltry time in Committee. Doing so adds to the Government's reputation for forcing through ill-considered and badly debated legislation.
First, I welcome the announcement of a free vote on fluoridation. Before that announcement, there were frankly ominous signs that Parliament was about to be bounced. The fluoridation proposal was not in the draft Bill put before the pre-legislative scrutiny Committee where expert witnesses could have examined it. A long time afterwards, the proposal was not in the Bill presented to the House of Lords for Second Reading. It was not in the Bill in Committee or even on Report in the other place. Rather, it went into the Bill through a special procedure of recommittal to Committee, coupled with a Third Reading. It was then bounced on the House of Lords, which had little or no time to consider it. One is bound to ask what on earth changed so dramatically that it became essential to dragoon the proposal before Parliament just five sitting days before we rose for the summer recess.
The Minister says that it is a public health issue. Yes, but that is to demean it, because it is not only a public health issue. More importantly, it is a matter of the fundamental individual rights of the citizen, and the House exists to protect those rights. It does not matter if the rights of only one citizen are being abused by the Executive; we are here to defend those rights. In this particular case, however, millions—not dozens or thousands—of people will be denied their right to refuse compulsory medication. They are going to be force-fed fluoride. Entire local populations will be compelled to take it irrespective of whether they want it or need it.
Does the right hon. Gentleman share my concern that in the Welsh context it is not just local populations that are affected? It is a decision for the National Assembly for Wales and a whole country will be either fluoridated or not fluoridated on the basis perhaps of a narrow vote, a 2 per cent. turnout in a referendum or whatever. Does he agree that that flies in the face of any democratic control over the health and medication of a population?
Would it have been any different if it were a Parliament? The same issue would have arisen.
What is so appalling is not only that it is being done by edict—the edict of Parliament is bad enough—but in a way that no individual can possibly avoid. It is being done through the water system. One cannot live or survive without water, or are Marie Antoinettes on either side of the House going to stand up to say, "Let them drink Perrier"? When something is in the water system, everyone has to take it whether they want to or not.
The justifications put forward for that are spurious, and I have heard some of them today. The British Medical Association, for example, likened fluoride to iron and calcium and said that we see fit to make up for deficiencies in iron and calcium, so fluoride should be treated in the same way. However, need for iron and calcium is decided by the individual doctor for the individual patient; iron and calcium are not pushed through the water system so that everyone has to take them whether they want to or not.
We have also been given the spurious example of chlorine. The Minister in the other House cited that example, but then he destroyed his case by saying that although chlorine was toxic, it was put in to disinfect the water. That is the important point. Chlorine is there to make the water drinkable and to remove a risk, not to add a possible risk that need never be there. That is the fact that my colleagues have to face.
I am sorry, but if I did I would be denying other people their opportunity to take part in the debate.
We are devolving to a quango the duty to carry out consultation—what the Minister in the House of Lords described as a consultation of the whole population within an area. When he was asked how that could be done, he could not tell us—but what he did say for certain was:
"The word 'referendum' never passed my lips".—[Hansard, House of Lords, 9 July 2003; Vol. 408, c. 651.]
As a Welshman, I well understand why it did not.
In this consultation, is there any guarantee of a level playing field in the presentation of a case? Perhaps the Minister will answer that question in his concluding speech. The Minister in the House of Lords admitted that public funds intended for the health service could be used by the health authority to conduct its campaign in favour of fluoridation. Money could be taken from a proper legitimate medical use and used improperly. Will similar moneys be available for those who oppose the idea? I very much doubt it.
On spurious grounds of interpretation of evidence—from the York committee, for example—the idea has been put forward that fluoridation is necessary and is no danger. That claim so infuriated Professor Trevor Sheldon, who was the chair of the advisory group for the review that he wrote:
"It is particularly worrying then that statements which mislead the public about the review's findings have been made in press releases and in briefings by the British Dental Association, British Medical Association, the National Alliance for Equity in Dental Health and the British Fluoridation Society."
He then dealt with the errors. He ends with this remark:
"there is a dearth of reliable evidence with which to inform policy. Until high quality studies are undertaken providing more definitive evidence, there will continue to be legitimate scientific controversy over the likely effects and costs of water fluoridation."
There are doubts about fluoridation in practical terms—and I do not think that there are any doubts about it at all in constitutional terms.
I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiments expressed on the vexed subject of fluoridation by Mr. Williams and by my hon. Friend Mr. Lidington. It seems to me that in the 21st century there has to be a more civilised way of dealing with the acknowledged problem of tooth decay in children than in force-feeding the many for the sake of the few. Some of the spin put on the issue both by the Department of Health and the British Dental Association has been deplorable. It is nonsense to claim that the York review conclusively proves that fluoridation is a good thing.
I would also like to add a word about something that I do not think that the Minister has looked into—but perhaps we shall hear about that later. We know that there is a huge debate about the impact of fluoridation on human health, but more work needs to be done on the effect on aquatic ecology of putting a registered poison into our water systems. No work has been done on that, and we are entitled to an impact assessment before any decisions are taken. To go ahead without that assessment would amount to negligence.
Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that toxicity is a factor not only of the substance itself but of the level? To suggest that a substance is a poison and so would be poisonous at any level is a gross distortion of reality.
That is not what I suggested. I am merely saying that we need an impact study of the likely level and the likely impact on aquatic ecosystems. Shamefully, that work has not been done, and it should be done before any final decisions are taken.
The Bill is a bit of a mixed bag. I fear that, as some of my hon. Friends have said, it is somewhat disappointing, even a little half-hearted. Nobody denies that in recent years good progress has been made in cleaning up the aquatic environment, but many sites are still threatened. The organisation Plantlife International, of which I should mention that I am a director, reckons that over half the species covered by species action plans are threatened by poor management, and 80 per cent. of lakes designated as sites of special scientific interest are currently polluted.
Those issues are to be dealt with under the water framework directive procedure, not under the Bill, and it is regrettable—although I understand the reasons for it—that the Government have not been able to dovetail those processes more completely.
I said that there was a strain of half-heartedness running through the Bill, and that is nowhere more evident than in the part dealing with competition. The Department's own regulatory impact assessment predicts that the maximum number of customers who could benefit from the measures is 2,000, which is a mere drop in the ocean—I am sorry about that unintended pun. The assessment also admits that the price for everybody else will rise. It is a strange piece of competition regulation that brings down the price for large companies but puts up the price for small consumers.
That raised another issue. I thought that we were supposed to be discouraging large-scale users of water from using so much, but if we bring down the price, we will inevitably remove the pressure to reduce consumption. The amount of water used by large corporations can be staggering. I came across some figures provided by the BBC, and I am going to use them—not that I intend to knock the BBC; all credit to it for providing the figures. It is interesting to note that last year every person who worked for the BBC used an average of 30 cu m of water. That is a total of 534 cu m—enough to fill 2.7 million baths—[Interruption.] They are a very clean lot at the BBC. Disturbingly, there had been a 20 per cent. increase in the water used since the previous year.
The BBC has owned up to the problem—perhaps we would expect an organisation run by a man call Dyke to take water seriously. It has even installed something called a waterless urinal, the details of which are unclear to me, but I gather that it suffers from technical problems, which I hope will be swiftly resolved.
It is not clear whether the BBC falls into the category defined in clause 85 as
"any other public body of any description".
Indeed, it is not clear either whether it matters if it does fall into that category, because clause 85 is woefully inaccurate. It is an example of the sort of inadequacy that spoils the environmental purposes of the Bill. It requires public authorities to
"take into account, where relevant, the desirability of conserving water".
How binding is that? Who decides the meaning of "where relevant"? Are public bodies not likely to be among the lucky 2,000 beneficiaries of the competition measures provided in the Bill? Will not the relevance of cheaper water be competing with the relevance of conserving it?
That is an issue of great importance, because water is a scarce resource.
My hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury touched on that issue. I was astonished to discover that parts of the south-east have less rainfall per head of population per year than Ethiopia or the Sudan. That is a staggering fact, yet the south-east is where the Deputy Prime Minister in his wisdom has decided to impose massive house building targets without reference to the Environment Agency or the water companies, which are being asked to provide the water supply. Where will that water come from, and where will it go? The addition of half a million new homes equates to an additional demand for 85 million litres of water a day. The water is just not there. Nothing in the Bill prepares the water companies or consumers for the consequences of unsustainable population growth in parts of the country where water resources are already stretched to the limit. In the unlikely event of the Deputy Prime Minister performing a successful rain dance, the consequence would be flooding, because there is nowhere for that water to go. Asphalt is not noted for its porous qualities.
The Bill does nothing to address these serious and fundamental problems. It acknowledges a problem, because it moves to tackle abstraction, which is important. I welcome those parts of the Bill that are designed to do that. However, I agree with English Nature that aspects of the regime as planned are not sufficiently robust. The Government should accept English Nature's advice that the gradual conversion of environmentally damaging licences towards 2012 should be accompanied by milestones and progress reports in 2006, 2008 and 2010, which would be in line with the habitats directive and with Government policy, and it would also bring certainty to those who currently own and operate licences.
We in this country should recognise that we have a great deal to be thankful for, as many millions of people in the world live in chronic drought conditions. Our usage of water has increased by 70 per cent. in the last 30 years. I fear that we are taking water for granted, and we do so at our peril and to the detriment of the natural environment on which we all depend. I am afraid that the Bill will do little to address these issues, and little therefore to tackle some of the underlying problems that we are storing up for our children.
I am pleased to take part in this debate. The Water Bill has been a long time coming, but it is worth waiting for as it deals with some important regulatory issues. It also delivers on the Government's aim to put customers at the heart of the regulatory process. I shall not discuss fluoridation, as I want to talk about water abstractions rather than dental abstractions.
It should also be said that the Bill does not deal with the big issue that affects many of those who elect us to this place, which is the size of the bills coming through letterboxes. I understand that that is a matter for the periodic review, but I regret that it is not in this legislation, because we cannot ignore the issue.
Last month, the water companies submitted their draft plans to the Office of Water Services as the periodic review was about to begin. In Cornwall, where people already have the largest water bills in the country, bills could rise £15 above inflation each year between 2004 and 2009. The average water bill will account for significantly more than 10 per cent. of a weekly pension. It is an unwelcome milestone, and it is fundamentally wrong. The Government should address the issue.
I am not blind to the successes of the industry in recent years. We now have cleaner rivers and beaches, and companies have improved their management and favour a sustainable approach. However, sustainability must be linked to affordability. We must be conscious of the situation of the most vulnerable—the large family who cannot benefit from metering or the many pensioners who face the problem of fuel poverty that the Government have done so much to address. In effect, they suffer water poverty.
The fact is that in the south-west, as every school child will tell you, 3 per cent. of the country's population pays for the management of 30 per cent. of our coastline, which many millions of people enjoy every year. We welcome those visitors, but the nation does not pay for those attractions, as it does for the national museums. It is local people in a low-wage area such as my constituency who pay.
We all agree that water is a precious resource, and environmental degradation of sites of special scientific interest and other beauty spots cannot be a good thing. Managing our water and the environment is the central thrust of this legislation. We should all welcome a Bill that updates the hopelessly anachronistic rules on abstraction. It is not unkind to say that the system of licences as it stands is a complete and utter shambles.
Some major abstractors currently hold licences as of right. Abstraction is estimated to affect several hundred sites that have been designated as SSSIs or are protected under European directives. The Bill is welcome in extending the use of time-limited licences from 2012, revoking licences of right when necessary and converting existing licences. It is an opportunity to deliver an efficient regulatory regime and to give the Environment Agency the power that it needs to manage our water properly.
Some of the debates about abstraction are incredibly technical. When the all-party water group, which I chair, held a meeting to discuss the Bill a few months ago, we entitled it "abstracting the truth", with an eye to the great weight of the technical clauses and the sizeable regulatory package. Amendments have been suggested about who is excluded and who is not. However, we should not confuse the important protection offered by licences by making exception after exception. Water is a precious resource and must be managed sensibly.
I hope that we will have the chance to debate these more technical questions in Committee, and that one issue does not dominate the whole Committee process. We should broadly welcome the approach set out in the Bill, and recognise that it is a long overdue revision of the system following the 1998 review.
Other regulatory changes are to be welcomed. The proposed changes at Ofwat and the creation of a regulatory board are sensible and bring the structure in line with that of other bodies. Ofwat is now overseeing the next periodic review. We all know how important that process is for all stakeholders, and the various pressures on and arguments that will be put to the regulator. Getting the structure right is vital.
The proposed consumer council for water offers a chance to reinvigorate the customers' voice in the process. It could be an effective advocate for the consumer. If we can get a duty of sustainability, that will enable it to approach the whole question of affordability in a measured way, as part of the broader debate that links profits, tariffs and the environment.
Other issues attract my attention. Surprisingly, clauses on contaminated water and water from coal mines have relevance to my constituency. In parts of Cornwall, people have to be careful where they walk, otherwise they may fall down a tin mine shaft. What about the discharge from former tin and copper mines that may cause pollution? I would hope to explore that issue in Committee.
We also need to ensure that new regulation is consistent with existing directives, especially the water framework directive, which must be enacted by the end of this year. Clarity and consistency of working could save much head-scratching, not to mention lawyers' fees, in the future. Various suggestions will be put to the Committee, and I hope that Ministers will listen carefully.
I hope that this issue is not used to confuse or delay this important legislation that, in one way or another, has had many delays already. Now that it is in the Commons we should welcome the chance to improve the management of a precious resource in the interests of all.
It would be churlish not to recognise some of the water industry's successes in recent years. However, with climate change, the need to meet the highest environmental standards and rising bills, many of the old debates have come back. Indeed, in the south-west they never went away. The Bill is a welcome chance to consider wider issues and specific changes, as we create a sustainable and affordable future for the industry and customers. 7.29 pm
I certainly want to speak about fluoridation, but first I shall deal with the central principles of the Bill, which tries to address the country's needs but falls short of doing so.
Surprising as it may seem, my county of Ceredigion has a water shortage. Wet Wales is short of water. Because we store only 2 per cent. of rainfall, we do not have a great ability to deal with periods of drought or climate change. As a result, the south of the county has a severe water shortage of about 1.7 million litres a day, which is equivalent to the usage of 2,800 households. By 2005, with the expected growth in the county which reflects that in south-east England—we have a similarly contentious housing plan, albeit on a smaller scale—we could have a shortage of 3.5 million litres a day. That, as I said, is in what is generally thought of as a wet country and a wet county.
I therefore welcome the Bill's underlying principles, which are that the abstraction and use of water need to be reconsidered in light of sustainable development, that we need to reform the licensing system and that we need to try to establish a level playing field for different users, rather than favouring one type of user over another. However, I feel that the Bill will not achieve those aims.
Wales has also experienced severe effects on special conservation areas similar to those mentioned by Ms Atherton, who referred to the effects on sites of special scientific interest. Extraction from an important river, the Afon Teifi, is affecting a habitat that Europe recognises as a candidate for special conservation area status. Conservation, water preservation and water use cannot be taken for granted. It is essential that the Bill gets things right for the long term, so that there can be investment to build a proper water industry and ensure affordability.
On a related issue, we must ask whether the Bill takes the right approach to the whole industry. It will penalise some water users more than others. Let us look at the bottled water industry in Wales, which is tremendously important. The House sells Brecon Carreg water, and Ty Nant, in my constituency, is the source of one of the most famous mineral waters in Wales. It comes in the famous blue bottle, and the company employs 35 staff. Like many other industries in Wales, the water industry cannot be moved abroad—companies depend on the water from the area. Although many of them are no longer locally owned, they provide local employment.
I shall use Ty Nant as an example of how companies may be affected by the Bill. The company recently increased its turnover by 20 per cent., thanks to the introduction of a new bottled water in a fully recyclable plastic bottle. It expects 50 per cent. growth next year, but that is the result of a one-off investment equivalent to 70 per cent. of its annual turnover. The company posed me a question that I want to ask the Minister: if a water bottling company has to invest 70 per cent. of its annual turnover over a 10 to 15-year pay-back period, how can a six or 12-year licensing framework give it, and the banks and the backers, the assurance that it needs to continue with that investment and employment?
We have to bear it in mind that the annual production of the whole of the UK bottled water industry is equivalent to the amount lost from mains leakage in nine hours. If we are trying to establish a level playing field, we must be careful not to break the back of some companies when the faults lie elsewhere. Treating bottled water companies the same as those that perform mains extraction would be like imposing the climate change levy on a scooter and lifting it from a power station.
Another issue that I want to tackle is private sewerage. I hope that there will be an opportunity to consider the matter in the Standing Committee, of which I hope to be lucky enough to be a member. Norman Baker made the important point that the Bill represents a missed opportunity to deal with private sewerage. I recognise that, as the Minister said in an intervention, there is some redress in the Bill for new private sewerage. However, in many estates in rural areas that were built in the 1970s, the 1980s and even the 1990s, sewerage has been installed to the minimum building standards. That is not good enough for adoption by water companies—they will not touch it. Only a couple of weeks ago, I visited Gelliwen in Llechryd in my constituency—a large estate that was built in the 1970s and has pitch pipes, which are not now suitable for adoption.
The question that the Bill must answer is whether it will be feasible or possible in future to build private housing estates with sewerage pipes that are not suitable for adoption. It would be ridiculous to pass an Act that allowed that situation to continue, and we would miss an opportunity to ensure that every sewerage pipe put in the ground after the Act was passed was of an adoptable standard and would be adopted straight away. If we do not take that opportunity, we will store up huge ecological, environmental and social problems for the future. Clauses 97 and 98 are not adequate, so I hope that we will have an opportunity to investigate the matter further in Committee.
Finally I turn to the contentious issue of fluoridation. I think that the measure is in the Bill because of the Prime Minister's words at the 1999 Labour party conference, when he said that everyone will have access to an NHS dentist. The Government's utter failure to ensure that that happens has allowed compulsory fluoridation to raise its ugly head again. I am opposed full stop to compulsory medication. I am opposed to putting folic acid in flour and to putting iodine in salt. If one goes to France, one can buy salt without iodine, and the French do not seem to be much more ill than we are; in fact, they live longer.
I am particularly opposed to compulsory medication in respect of which we cannot control the dosage. We cannot control how much water people drink from the tap or the way in which they use that water. We cannot control the dosage where naturally fluoridated water then has fluoride added. This is an excuse for a dental health policy, and this Bill is the wrong vehicle for it. Fluoridation is a cop-out and a tacit acknowledgement that our NHS dental provision is failing those who need it most.
The fluorides used are silicofluorides, which are not recognised by the Medicines Control Agency, which refused to classify them as a medicine product. We cannot buy them over the counter, but we are prepared to put them in our water. That is a crazy and unacceptable situation, and I very much hope that, on a free vote, the House will turn it down.
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this debate, especially on the question of water fluoridation. The most significant question is who should decide what our water supply contains, because therein lie extremely important issues about the addition of fluoride or indeed anything else that science might consider to be in the best interests of our health. For me, this is one of the most significant questions concerning freedom of choice.
At this point I am not concerned with whether fluoride is good for the health of the nation. It is not for me to prove that it is unsafe; it is for those who advocate its addition to demonstrate its safety absolutely beyond doubt. They have not done so, and in those circumstances the public are reluctant to put themselves in the hands of scientists and those who refer to themselves as medical professionals. The public are right, because to do so would be foolish in the extreme.
I shall not give way because there is not enough time.
The public should resist those who assume that they know what is good for us. Telling people, "This is in the public interest" is the starting point for every tin-pot dictator. Whether fluoride is good or bad for the health of our teeth is irrelevant. What is pertinent is that we should all be able to choose what we swallow. It is too easy to utilise the supply of what we drink to manage the population.
In Britain we take our water for granted—we just turn on the tap and it rushes out. Elsewhere in the world, water is life and death.
The public should therefore decide what may be artificially added to this vital resource, and every one of them should have their say.
I acknowledge that there are scientific arguments both for and against the benefits of fluoride. What I do not accept is that those in favour of fluoridation have a monopoly of scientific wisdom—nor do I accept that as soon as anyone mentions the health of poor children's teeth, we must all jump into line and support whatever the so-called experts tell us.
I know about poor children's teeth. I was a poor child, yet I still have a mouthful of my own teeth. That is not because I was forced to consume fluoride but because, although both of my parents worked extremely hard, we were still sufficiently poor not to be able to binge on sweets, chocolates and soft drinks at every opportunity.
I went to school after the second world war. The fact that sweets were still rationed may also have helped. However, I do not hear a cry from any hon. Member to the effect that we should bring back ration coupons for confectionery in the interests of children's teeth. I am irritated when I hear sanctimonious talk from members of the dental profession about the dental health of the poor. It makes me even more suspicious about fluoride. Dentists are not exactly known for their generosity. Too many of them are falling over themselves to get out of national health service dentistry in pursuit of wealthy private patients for them to be taken too seriously.
I believe that the people should decide. I mean that they should actually decide. They should not be consulted, listened to and then completely ignored because those who have the power to make a decision think they know better. The British people must be able to choose what their children drink. The prime responsibility for children's health lies with parents, and that includes poor parents—or to use a more politically correct description, the socially deprived. To treat the poor differently is patronising.
For a long time, the public have been kept on the edge of this debate. They have not had an opportunity to take a real part in it. As long as the decision whether to fluoridate is kept out of the public decision-making arena, the debate will rightly continue to be condemned as one conducted by powerful lobbies such as dentists, the British Medical Association, health authorities, water authorities, social workers, councillors and local government officers—everyone except those who write to me to say that they do not want fluoride in their water.
The only democratic way to come close to achieving a fair representation of public approval or disapproval on this issue must be by way of a referendum, and that itself is incredibly imperfect. However, if it is right that we need a referendum to decide what currency we have and on what money we spend, it must be equally right that the question of what we drink should be decided in a similar way.
To its credit, Bolton borough council made arrangements for just such a referendum in 1968. It was held on the question of adding fluoride to water supplies after the council had made a decision. When the results were announced, it was found that 27 per cent. had voted for fluoridation and 73 per cent. had voted against. Eighty-two per cent. of the electorate voted. There were 402 spoiled ballot papers. More than 100, 000 people took part in that referendum. Since I was elected in 1997, my mailbag has increased every time the issue has been raised. I have received hundreds of letters about fluoridation from my constituents over the years and only two letters in favour of it.
One of my constituents, a dentist, recently wrote to me making the point that children hardly ever drink tap water these days, and that there are other means such as the administration of a controlled amount of fluoride in tablet form as part of their diet, or added to appropriately labelled milk or other soft drinks, that would be much more effective. I believe that he is right. Compulsory medication—that is what this is—is bound to be controversial and emotive in any democratic society. It is—
I mind very much about water, about the use of water and about its disposal, and so do my constituents. My acquaintance with the River Avon, which flows through my constituency, started very early. In 1948, when I was three, I fell in. Surprising as it might seem, but all the best stories are the true ones, I was fished out of the river by the Bishop of Bombay. I digress. However, the river in my constituency has been important to me all my life. Over the past 20 years in particular, while serving in the House, I have seen a number of measures relating to water and I have been waiting for the big moment, for this sort of Bill to come along to address many of the outstanding issues. I am convinced that we continue to abuse our most vital national resource here.
We are not talking about a national ring main—some people advocate it—whereby the people of Manchester can generously give a lot of water to the people of the south-east. We are talking about piping water around, often in the wrong places. In my area of south Wiltshire, we are piping water from a low-rainfall chalk countryside to dense populations down in Yeovil and up in Chippenham. It is not for our own use. It is simply being transported. The impact on the river basin is huge in terms of low flows, a disturbed ecology and sewage flooding in the winter, as well as ordinary flooding, and water shortage in the summer.
I have no difficulty in supporting the Opposition amendment tabled in the names of my right hon. and hon. Friends, because it points out some of the deficiencies that have not been addressed in an otherwise sensible Bill.
It is argued that the water framework directive would normally be dealt with in another way by perhaps the European Scrutiny Committee or by means of a statutory instrument. I accept that, but the trouble is that we would have only a short debate on the European water framework directive. We might be allowed two and a half hours. There might be only a one-and-a-half hour debate. There would be no substantive votes on the issue. There would be some general patter, but we shall never have a proper debate on the water framework directive unless we can have it while discussing a Bill of this sort.
There are other areas where the Government should go much further. My hon. Friend Mr. Lidington was right to point out the impact of new housing and industry on abstraction and sewerage. The demand for water is unsustainable. The planning authority cannot say no on the ground that there is not enough water or not enough sewerage capacity. The water and sewage companies cannot say no on the grounds of sewage flooding or low flows. We are told, "This is not a planning Bill. Come on, that would have to be in a planning Bill." Motion 5 on the Order Paper is precisely a programme motion on the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill, but that Bill does not say anything about water and the water framework directive, nor about planning implications, and nor does the Bill that is before us. That is a frustrating situation.
I move on to the general water efficiency duty. When the Government produced their consultation paper entitled "Taking Water Responsibly" they stated at paragraph 9.27 that they would bring forward legislation when parliamentary time allowed
"to place all other abstractors under an enforceable duty to use water abstracted under authorisations in an efficient and effective manner."
That is not what is said in the Bill. I am delighted that my noble Friend Baroness Byford successfully introduced what is now clause 1. However, that does not really go far enough and I would wish to see that explored in Committee.
Then we have the water conservation duty for public bodies, to which my hon. Friend Mr. Ainsworth was right to draw attention. Clause 85, which deals with water conservation by public authorities, says:
"In exercising its functions and conducting its affairs, each public authority shall take into account, where relevant, the desirability of conserving water".
That should be a duty, not an option—the provision does not go far enough.
There are also problems, on a micro-scale if one likes, with water abstraction. In my constituency, people are concerned about the impact of the new regulatory proposals on what some call flooding and others warping—it simply means the old water meadows. Extraordinarily, DEFRA is giving grants of taxpayers' money for the restoration of our heritage of water meadows on the one hand but, on the other, says that it will charge for that. That is crazy, and I hope that we will sort it out in Committee.
Secrecy is also a problem. There have been moves towards disclosure, which I very much welcome, but it really will not do to go on pretending that this is all hugely commercially sensitive and we cannot tell the wider public how many litres are being extracted from which borehole. I do not even see why the Ministry of Defence should hide behind Crown immunity so that it does not have to tell us what is happening in water abstraction. I asked a parliamentary question on
"abstraction rate from individual boreholes has security implications and I am therefore withholding it under Exemption 1 of the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information."—[Hansard, 8 April 2003; Vol. 403, c. 145W.]
However, the hon. Gentleman generously told me that all the boreholes on Salisbury plain were taking an average total abstraction of 10,169 cu m. That is a sizeable river. It is secret, and it is absurd that it is.
Watercress growers were mentioned earlier, and they face a genuine problem. I received a letter from my constituent, Mr. K. D. Hitchings of Broadchalke, who wrote:
"I am the fourth generation to farm here at Broadchalke"—
I know that he is, as I have visited his farm, which is wonderful. He continued:
"I expected to have licence of right to the water for at least my generation as did my father, grandfather and great grandfather."
Mr. Hitchings wants me to try to persuade the Government, for the sake of his family's future and the future of the whole industry, to introduce a statutory code of conduct for the Environment Agency in its use of powers granted by the Bill so that businesses with long-lived assets of that type can rely on, for example, 24 years' warning of change.
That is a lot to reflect on. Some people argue that trickle irrigation is dangerous, but agriculture takes only 4 per cent. of the water in this country, which is not very much. There is a peak in demand at certain times of year, notably the summer, when flows are low. However, in our neck of the woods in Wiltshire, we have low rainfall in the winter months as well. Let us not blame farmers for irrigation when they are using only 4 per cent. of the water—what is really needed is a change in attitude by all of us.
Water is not free. We choke the atmosphere with carbon emissions, so we even affect the rainfall. We all have a responsibility in our homes not to waste water.
I very much welcome the Bill, which comes before the House at a time when the importance of the water supply throughout the world is increasingly understood by all of us. It is also timely because of climate change, which was referred to earlier. We must all learn to be far less wasteful with the precious resource of water.
The vital importance of conservation is clear in my own constituency. Before today's debate, I visited Brandon marsh with English Nature and the Warwickshire Wildlife Trust, where I learned an important lesson. That site fulfils a central role in raising the awareness of communities around Coventry and Warwickshire of the role that ecology plays in everyone's lives. Conservation is extremely important, but it must be considered alongside the needs of the extraction industries. Brandon marsh is an old quarry site and next to the marsh there is an active quarrying undertaking. The quarrying industry and the conservationists both appreciate the importance of each other. The Bill must ensure that a balance is struck between the needs of industry and the importance of wildlife conservation.
The Bill will reduce the impact of abstractions on such important wildlife sites, and provides an opportunity to achieve sustainable management of water resources across the country. The reforms in abstraction licensing are a huge step in the right direction, allowing for time-unlimited licences, many of which have existed for over 40 years, to be varied or revoked after 2012. Similarly, the new powers for the Environment Agency to enter into water resources management schemes with abstractors and issue enforcement notices, the duty to ensure that abstractors use water efficiently, and the corresponding duty on all public bodies to plan water conservation are welcome steps in conserving our water supply.
However, I would welcome clarification from the Minister of the way in which the regulations will work in practice and can be strengthened if necessary. I hope that he will expand on that while the Bill is before the House. This is also a timely opportunity for him to confirm the Government's strategy to give permanent abstraction licences time-limited status. About 90 per cent. of all licences are permanent and, despite the policy of voluntary conversion since 1999, not one has been converted. The water framework directive requires the regular review of abstraction licences, and that is perhaps one of the most important areas in which the Government should set clear targets along with the mechanisms to achieve them. I am also concerned that the term "serious damage" is open to dispute by lawyers. That would make the process of revocation or modification after 2012 complex and lengthy. I hope that consideration will be given to using the term "significant damage" instead, which would ensure consistency with the habitat regulations.
I shall now move on to the adoption of sewers, an issue that has already been raised several times in our debate. The Bill begins to address that extremely important matter, which is of concern to many of my constituents and myself. I must declare an interest because, 25 years after moving into my house, I found out that the sewers were unadopted. If we carried out a survey in the Chamber, we would probably find that many Members and their families have been caught in the same trap. It is important that we begin to address that serious issue. It is a scandalous situation, and leaves people who have been unaware of their responsibility for up to 50 or 60 years liable for the costs of maintaining sewers.
The Minister rightly said that he has undertaken an important consultation, and W. S. Atkins has produced a report for consultation, which is due to end on
The provisions of the Bill in that regard are welcome, ensuring that lateral drains must be of adoptable standard to be connected to a public sewer and addressing the problem of properties built between the 1995 amendment of the Environment Bill and the publication of proper planning guidance in 1999. The Bill does not, however, make private sewers the responsibility of water and sewage companies, and the undertaker still has the final say on adoption of existing laterals and sewers.
We must take any opportunity to shift the balance in favour of the consumer. The Bill provides one opportunity to do that, in addition to the welcome provisions that it contains. Alternatively, the 2004 water price review, which is already likely to reflect the planned £21 billion investment by the industry, could take into account the additional costs of adoption and provide a timely opportunity to implement an acceptable solution. I very much hope that the Department's ongoing consultation will present its recommendations as soon as possible, so that we can finally take action to end a terrible problem for those affected.
Another aspect of close interest to all my constituents will be the proposed regulatory framework and how it will protect consumers. I welcome the creation of an independent consumer council for water, but we must ensure that it has adequate powers and resources to improve the representation of consumers in what will remain a monopoly for the supply of ordinary households.
Finally, I should like to address the issue of fluoridation. That is an issue—
The Bill represents an opportunity that was nearly lost. During its passage through the Lords, important amendments were made to the Bill, which has had a long gestation. Consultation could have taken place, and issues such as unadopted sewers and the European framework directive have not been incorporated into the Bill as we would have wished. There has been delay and, as has been pointed out, there will be an ungainly scamper to get the Bill through the House by the end of the Session. In Scotland, the Executive worked to take account of the European directive in a constructive way. It is difficult to see the logic of running the Bill in parallel with implementing the European directive.
The Bill is about getting the water that we need and getting rid of the water that we do not need. It is about ensuring that the environment is protected, which must be done in an affordable way. For some of us living in the London area where our water bills are among the lowest, it is sometimes hard to understand the problems of the people in the south-east where water bills are the highest, despite the fact that they have such low incomes. There is considerable injustice in the way that people are charged for water. I hope that in the debate and subsequently in Committee, we will start to see the answers to some of the problems that we face, but there are some questions that the Bill does not seem to answer.
Water is a precious commodity. My hon. Friend Norman Baker pointed out the problems that exist internationally, such as the shortage of water in other parts of the world—even in parts of Europe. When I was on holiday, I came across people who were sharing an apartment on a Greek island. The children left the tap on—English children, not knowing any better—and as a result the apartment was without water for three days, because water was delivered to the island by boat. We share the responsibility for tackling such problems.
We face the problems of climate change and droughts and the floods that often follow. There is an urgent need for environmental action. Our water systems have improved: the return of the otter to many parts of the country is widely welcomed. When I worked in the water industry many years ago, that was just a hope, but now it is being realised. But there is the problem of licensed over-abstraction. A licence may have allowed for too much abstraction, which damages the balance of watercourses, the chalk infrastructure and the winter bournes that rely on water rising and falling. We are losing species where the water does not return in the winter as expected. Animals such as the water vole are being lost. Careful management of abstraction and of river basins is vital if there are not to be further losses.
Sixteen out of 45 biodiversity action plan habitats in the UK are threatened by water abstraction. Again, close management is needed. I share the worries expressed by other hon. Members about the interrelationship between the European framework directive, the time scales that it envisages, and the fact that it deals with river basin management plans, whereas the regions manage flood defences. We should take a holistic view because the climate problems arise from increases in water in some areas and lack of water where it is needed.
We discussed earlier whether we should hold water in water meadows, and whether we do that to sustain species or as part of an integrated water management plan introduced in conjunction with DEFRA. Those important issues need to be considered as a piece, and I am worried about how the Government will integrate them.
Nothing is being done about licences for abstraction from navigation authority reserves. Navigation authorities have a part to play and, although there is a view that such areas are enclosed, they have an effect on watercourses. Canals feed into rivers, and rivers sometimes feed into canals. There are reservoirs associated with navigation systems that provide habitats for important species, and they need protection from damage caused by changes in the water level. We need to consider abstraction there, and the need for licences. Other lakes, ponds and reservoirs that fall under the description of discrete waters will be excluded, leaving several sites of special scientific interest without protection. We need to know how all the sites that require protection from the damage that unregulated abstraction can cause are to be included in the licensing system.
We support the Environment Agency as a competent body for flood defence, but it would be much more effective if that responsibility were handled by river basin management committees rather than regional committees. After all, water drains according to gravity, not bureaucracy.
On the vexed problem of housing in the south-east, the question on everybody's lips is where the water will come from. We are not hearing any answers, but we are getting a little more news. The information that we received today that a Joint Committee is looking at major developments, particularly the Thames gateway, is welcome, but it does not provide the answer. That development is in an area of water shortage and if the water is not produced locally, how will it reach the area? Occasionally we hear talk of a national grid for water, but these are not simple matters. They have been examined time and again over the years. I remember when I was working in the water industry and we discussed the problems of water shortages in Yorkshire. It would be easy if one could ship water up and down the country, but that is not simple.
Soft water being discharged into a hard water area causes major problems with species. In lead or other pipes where calcification has sealed joints, soft water erosion can cause leakages. There can be problems with turbidity and direction. Once the water has been through sewage treatment, it may be discharged into a river that is not compatible, which can cause difficulties. We need to consider what the planning guidelines provide for. There are many issues that we need to examine in Committee relating to the ability to pay and why people on limited incomes who struggle to pay effectively subsidise those who choose not to pay. There is no justice in that, but the Bill says nothing about it.
Various Opposition Members have tried to recruit the known water shortages in eastern and south-eastern Britain as an argument against the additional housing proposed by the Government. I assume that that means that the Opposition are happy to see house prices continue to rise in those areas, and for people such as my constituents to be increasingly priced out of the market.
In my area, Lord Rooker is convening a board involving a number of public bodies, including the Environment Agency, to consider the implications of the housing growth that is proposed in Milton Keynes and the south midlands, and to plan now to ensure that all the necessary infrastructure is there to support it. I applaud such positive action, as opposed to the negative search for any old reason to prevent housing that is needed so much.
I welcome the proposals to reform the system of abstraction licences. As many Members have pointed out, water is a scarce resource that needs to be used carefully. Both domestic and industrial users must begin to realise that although, obviously, it can be replaced by the rain, it is generally not replaced in the areas where it is consumed—and, in any case, the conversion of water into its purest form, for drinking and other purposes, uses energy. We should all be mindful of ways of reducing usage, conserving water and, where possible, reusing it.
I urge Ministers not to give in to the siren calls and special pleading for innumerable exceptions for various industries. Industries that use water must themselves devote energy into thinking of ways of minimising that use, and reusing and recycling water. If they are allowed to slide through the licensing process, they will have no incentive to use a scarce resource sensibly and efficiently. All industries that use water have a duty to the environment and the community not to place an undue burden on that scarce resource, and not to have an undue effect on lakes, rivers and wetlands.
The main subject that I want to discuss is fluoridation. It will come as no surprise that I am a strong supporter of it, for a number of reasons. The public health arguments in favour of it are irrefutable. There is evidence from areas where fluoride is naturally available, and from areas whose water supply has been fluoridated—such as Birmingham—that fluoridation reduces dental caries in children by a factor of about four. Water supply fluoridation is the easiest and safest way of delivering fluoride.
This is about health inequalities. Dental caries is already much more prevalent among children in lower-income families, and the levels among such children are highest in parts of the country where the water is not fluoridated either naturally or by addition. Members who run away from that argument are really saying that they do not care if those poor children continue to have bad dental health when there is an easy, safe way for society to ensure that they are protected.
I urge all parents to take care of their children's health, and to teach them proper dietary habits that will stand them in good stead and make their teeth less subject to caries, but I do not think it right for society to refuse to take responsibility for the teeth of children whose parents are feckless or fickle, and to say that the fecklessness of their parents is tough luck. Given that there is absolutely no danger from fluoridated water, it would be irresponsible of us to leave those children unprotected.
Why does the hon. Lady think fluoridation has been abandoned in Switzerland after 41 years, amidst evidence that dental decay was increasing in spite of it?
The hon. Gentleman is misusing science. Of course fluoridation cannot protect those whose diet is rich in sugar and who do not eat high-fibre foods. As he should know, children in fluoridated areas should be compared with others eating the same food and living in areas where there is no fluoride.
That brings me to the need for Members to understand how scientific research and methodology work. The balance of scientific and medical opinion is clearly in favour of the view that fluoride causes no demonstrable harm to public health, provided that it is at or below the recommended level. The World Health Organisation itself is certain that a level of 1.5 mg per litre poses no significant risk to consumers throughout their lives.
Of course it will always be possible to find a scientist who has expressed and will express a dissident view, but the key is to look at peer reviewed science, the balance of scientific opinion, and the evidence emerging from meta-studies—the accumulated data from a number of different studies. That evidence is clear. It is dangerous to pay too much attention to dissident scientists. We should bear in mind the damage done by Dr. Duisberg, who persisted in propagating the view that there was no connection between HIV and AIDS despite a clear majority of scientific opinion that he was wrong. It is a mistake to cite non-peer reviews or dissident scientists who say that fluoride is dangerous. It is not dangerous: 300 million people worldwide drink fluoridated water, and many communities have been drinking it for up to 50 years.
Opponents of fluoridation also keep describing it as mass medication. It is not; it would be if it were pharmaceutical, but it is supplementation. The analogy with added vitamins in bread flour and margarine and butter is entirely correct.
Those are the main arguments that I wanted to present. This is a public health issue, and I am proud that it has finally been included in a Water Bill. I hope that Members will take account of the balance of medical and scientific opinion and not be led astray by alarmist rumours put about by many people that are based on no scientific reality.
First, I accept the sincerity of Dr. Starkey in expressing her view. Secondly, I accept that dental caries are unacceptably common in certain deprived communities in this country and that something needs to be done about that.
As Mr. Crausby said in his powerful speech, however, there are ways of addressing the problem other than adding fluoride to the water supply. Fluoride treatments can be offered in ways other than through the water supply, and education is also important. I would not object to affected areas being given special subsidies to try to improve the dental health of the children concerned.
I accept the view of the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West on the scientific evidence. I went to the lengths of having my children's teeth fluoridated—one can get a special treatment privately—and buying them fluoride toothpaste. I do not deny—she suggested that some of us who are against fluoridation deny this—that there are benefits to fluoridation and that it is unlikely to be damaging. However, she accepted that there are alternative views. Indeed, some states in America are withdrawing fluoride because of the possibility of class actions.
There is a principle that must be upheld. I am shocked and appalled by the British medical profession's view because I had believed that its ethics were that medicines should not be given to members of the public without their informed consent. Such a practice also breaches the Council of Europe convention on human rights and biomedicine, which states:
"States may not medicate any individual contrary to their wishes except under . . . recognised public health emergencies. All medical interventions must be carried out under proper medical supervision, and in accordance with the patient's needs."
I am the only practising doctor in the House and the hon. Gentleman has attacked the medical profession, so it is right for me to mention the fact that we are talking not about medicating the population, but about a preventive supplement. Fluoridation is exactly the same idea as including vitamins A and D in margarine and folic acid in flour. Those things are included in the public interest and for the public good. Everyone in this country eats medicated flour and medicated margarine, and there is very little debate about it. Why should there be a huge difference between supplementing the foods that we eat and supplementing the water that we drink? The effects are the same—they are preventive measures.
Fluoride is a medicine, which is precisely why the hon. Gentleman is so keen on it and why it is being treated as a medicine. There are alternative medicines, but there are no alternatives to fluoride in the water supply. Although the Minister thinks that we can all go out and buy Perrier water, I am not sure that the poor, about whom he purports to be concerned, can afford to do so.
Fluoride is a poison under part II of the Poisons Act 1972, and fluoridation violates the Offences Against the Person Act 1861. The Government can, of course, get over that problem by designating fluoride as a medicine, but the use of an unregistered substance for medical purposes would breach EC codified pharmaceuticals directive 2001/83. They would have to register fluoride as a medicine and subject it to full clinical testing, but it has not been registered or clinically tested.
Unfortunately for the Government, fluoridation also breaches the European convention on human rights. That is a serious difficulty, as this country has adopted, either directly or indirectly, a body of legislation that the Bill would breach. If the Government insist on the measure, they must amend the relevant legislation. In some cases, they will need to obtain the consent of the European Community. Water fluoridation violates both articles 3 and 8 of the European convention on human rights.
Water fluoridation also breaches article 35 of the European charter of fundamental rights, which states that
"the right to health care includes the right to refuse health care, for whatever reason. It establishes the individual's right to receive particular drugs or treatments—or to prevent them from having such treatment administered against his/her wishes."
The Government are in breach of both those treaties, and the offer of indemnity is therefore illegal.
The Government cannot have it both ways. They could say that fluoride is a medicine and go through all the procedures to amend the legislation. The Minister is shaking his head because he wants to administer fluoride as a substance, but it is actually a poison. I must warn him that there is no doubt that judicial review will be sought if the Government persist with their approach.
The Minister should take cognisance of Ms Atherton, who said that this important Bill should not be hijacked by a completely different issue. Water fluoridation is an important issue that should be debated, and the legislative framework for it should also be properly debated.
As Alan Williams said, the Government introduced the clause under an extraordinary measure in the Lords, where there was not enough time for a proper debate. Indeed, there will not be enough time here for a proper debate. The issue is extremely important and concerns fundamental human rights. The Government are behaving in what I hope I can describe as an uncharacteristically authoritarian way, although authoritarianism seems to be creeping more and more into everything that they do.
The Government should withdraw the clause to allow proper discussion of the important issues contained in the rest of the Bill in Committee and on Report. If they persist with this perverse measure, they will prevent proper discussion and reasoned amendment of this important Bill. I praise them for introducing the Bill, although, as my hon. Friend Mr. Lidington said, it has defects. None the less, if they persist with the measure, they will face legal action.
I intend to deal with two measures in the Bill that affect Waters and Robson, a major employer in my constituency that bottles Abbey Well natural mineral water at source. My concern is based on the proposals for time-limited licences and a maximum period of 12 years. Although the Environment Agency would be minded to agree to further licensing periods, the Bill could still affect the future investment plans of companies that bottle water.
Bottled water is now a £1 billion-a-year industry. Many people prefer it to tap water because it is seen as pure and natural and people who take the Government's health advice and drink two litres of water per day probably drink it. Surprisingly, only 39 per cent. of the population drink bottled water. However, regular drinkers now drink 64 per cent. more bottled water than they did in 1992 and the market is predicted to grow year on year.
I should like bottled water to replace over-sweetened drinks in school vending machines. In fact, Waters and Robson has just developed a plastic bottle that will fit into vending machines that dispense cans.
Despite the rapid growth in bottled water in the UK, we drink much less of it than any other country in Europe. In 2001, the Italians drank most mineral water, consuming 167 litres of it per head per annum, followed by the French, who drank 143 litres per head. People in Belgium, Spain and Germany consume more than 100 litres each per annum. In the United Kingdom, people consume only 26 litres per annum.
Consumption in the UK is forecast to increase at a minimum of 10 per cent. year on year. The UK water bottling industry currently bottles about 1.4 billion litres of water per year, which sounds like a lot of water. However, to put that figure in perspective I shall repeat a statistic that was given earlier: it is equivalent to less than nine hours' leakage from the mains water system.
The bottled water market is very competitive. Imported brands have a strong presence, taking some 25 per cent. of the market. The best-selling and best-known brands in the United Kingdom are, sadly, French. British companies are determined to gain market share, but will need time and substantial investment in order to grow. Investment is needed for equipment, new bottling halls, warehouses and connected infrastructures. The payback on such capital investment is usually calculated at around 20 years. Investing in marketing, advertising and brand promotion is also crucial if UK bottlers are to compete with large continental brands. Marketing incurs a significant financial outlay, and returns are achieved over many years. Banks and other investors will be reluctant to invest in bottled water companies whose business might be curtailed by the length, loss or uncertainty of their abstraction licence.
As a result, English and Welsh businesses—for it appears that this legislation is not to be introduced in Scotland—will have difficulty in expanding to meet projected consumer demand, and imported products will take an even larger share of the UK market. That will lead to job losses, often in rural areas that already suffer above average levels of unemployment. That is precisely the case at Waters and Robson in my constituency. It wishes to expand, but is unable to secure the necessary investment because of the uncertainty of time-limited licences. I therefore urge the Minister to exempt the bottled water sector from time-limited licences—or, if that is not possible, at least to allow them a licence period of 20 years.
Although my first call was for a relaxation of regulation, my second call is for a tightening of regulations to protect existing natural mineral water sources in the form of boreholes. Let me explain a case, as yet unresolved, that could affect the Waters and Robson plant in Morpeth. The Northumbrian Water Authority Act 1981 granted an exemption on Environment Agency involvement in licensing to any extraction of less than 400 gallons per day or 1 million gallons per year. The Bill expands that concept nationwide in the equivalent of litres—namely, 20,000 litres per day. A new company has just agreed to set up a water bottling plant some 200 m from the site of the Abbey Well borehole. It has applied for planning permission to build a factory and to sink a borehole. As it proposes to extract less than 1 million gallons a year, it did not have to apply to the Environment Agency in order to drill—all it had to do was to seek planning permission from the local planning authority, which, as it freely admitted, had no expertise in this field. Permission to drill for a well that pumps fewer than 20,000 litres a day falls between two bodies—the local authority and the Environment Agency. The local authority sought the view of the Environment Agency, which replied stating that there was a possible risk to Waters and Robson's current extraction.
An important issue arose from the meeting between the planning authority and the Environment Agency's licensing officer: even if the proposed drilling had come under the agency's jurisdiction, it would not cover the protection for the specific requirements of natural mineral water. If the analysis of natural mineral water changes by more than 10 per cent. during one year, recognition could be withdrawn. So if a new drilling project introduces water of a different chemical make-up into a natural mineral water aquifer, thus causing a change in consistency, the mineral water brand extracted from that aquifer would lose its status and the company would effectively cease to exist as its brand would be dead. The Environment Agency has a responsibility only to prevent sources of water from being made unsuitable for drinking. It does not have a responsibility to concern itself with the specific make-up of the water.
In view of that, I ask the Minister to ensure that protection is given to existing extractions that have specific requirements, such as natural mineral water. Any proposed drilling within 1 km of a natural mineral water source must be investigated by the Environment Agency, irrespective of the volume of water to be extracted. Moreover, the special requirements of natural mineral water must be considered in respect of the mineral content remaining constant, not just the water remaining drinkable. I urge the Minister to amend the Bill to include those two protections.
The opportunity to update our laws on a broad range of water issues is timely, not least because water demand has increased by more than 40 per cent. since the 1970s and massive new house building is likely in the south-east, an area of relative water shortage.
Gravel quarrying, and therefore water extraction, is a significant industry in Huntingdonshire. I should like to disclose a non-registrable shareholding in Thames Water.
Recently, there seems to have been a significant change in the way in which the public view water—effectively, from its being a given right, to be used without thought, towards its being a relatively scarce resource or even a commodity. Public education has contributed to that, not least through the effects of drought and the loss of rivers.
Privatisation has played its part, because water is now given a monetary value against which use and investment can be measured. There have been improvements, not least in piping, which, helped by decent rainfall earlier in the year, has contributed to there being no hosepipe ban this summer, for which my garden will be eternally thankful.
I accept that large abstractions need to be controlled for the management of drought and flooding, for environmental reasons and to provide equality between abstractors. I note the Environment Agency's fair point that, in some areas where exempt abstractions operate, licensed operators have been unable to take their valid entitlement. Unsurprisingly, given its significant new powers, the agency has been supportive of the Bill, but it will be important to review how the powers work in practice, not least those in clause 27, which allows the agency to revoke or vary abstraction licences after July 2012 if they cause environmental damage.
However, what is now seen as environmental damage is very different from what it was, say, 10 years ago or what it may be by 2012. I recently visited the airbase at Molesworth and was proudly shown the thriving water colonies of great crested newts, which nowadays would prevent any development on that land. However, given that businesses frequently invest on a 25-year or more basis, how will the Government satisfy businesses on their real concerns about losing the ability to trade, possibly with no compensation?
The system of appeals to the Secretary of State seems weak. As my hon. Friend Mr. Key said earlier, the public sector itself is a large user of water. I ask the Minister whether the agency, which is an arm of Government, and the Secretary of State on appeal, are the right people to judge public sector licence applications. Does that not invite political interference, which the Government are rightly changing in their competition decisions?
Furthermore, I am not entirely satisfied with the accountability of the Environment Agency, which will take significant powers under the Bill, mainly from local government elected members. Decisions on licences will no longer be taken by a committee of elected members, but by an officer of the local agency. I have a good relationship with my local agency staff, but that is not the case everywhere, as hon. Members have said. What happens if the agency gets it wrong? Where is the accountability? I should be grateful if the Minister would address that point.
I have fears that the Bill represents yet another example of the Government's frequent desire for centralisation and of their lack of concern for local democracy. Flooding is a vital issue in my constituency, where all four market towns and 25 of the 50 villages are threatened by flooding annually. The issue, although of course requiring a strategic overview, normally comes down to dealing with the nitty gritty of flood defences village by village, if not street by street. Therefore, I fail to see how local concerns will be better served by the far-off distance of the new regional flood defence committees.
Many businesses, not least the quarries in my constituency, are concerned about the proposed maximum 12-year licences.
I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that the powers in the Bill are to create more regional flood defence committees. Although the local ones are to be abolished, there will be one tier. We recognise that there is an issue about local democracy and accountability. At the moment, there is a limit on the number of regional committees. We intend to remove that, so that we can have more committees to take that point into account.
I hear what the Minister says; this will be worth further review in Committee. If removing a level of government is the same as what the Government propose for regional government, I shall still have concerns.
Many businesses, not least quarries, are concerned about the 12-year licences. When that issue was debated in another place, the Minister noted that 12 years was the agency guideline, not a maximum written into the Bill. Indeed, this Minister repeated that today. Presumably, a guideline can be changed at any time, but that is little comfort for businesses that wish to have certainty to invest on a 30-year or more basis, particularly when the agency has been making it clear that the 12-year limit will not be extended.
For that reason, I support the view that licences should be issued for the same period as the planning permission. Not only would that provide certainty to the applicant, it would ensure that the local authority and the agency were forced to work together towards the same objectives. Importantly, it would ensure that a degree of local democracy—and, therefore, accountability—would be retained within the process.
The trading of water rights, as consulted on by the Government, would be environmentally friendly and would improve the efficient sharing of water rights. Will the Minister explain why the Bill does not introduce these measures? I know that many of the examples given by the Government as to how the new licences work do not concentrate on the cost of required environmental reports, which are expensive, quite apart from the costs of any conditions on which the agency would have the right to insist. The implications of those extra costs need to be considered more fully in Committee.
Finally, I wish to refer to fluoridation. Have we really advanced so little that the Government need again to tell us what we have to put in our tea? It is sad that, despite the potential for links with other diseases, the Government seem intent on permitting the indiscriminate mass medication of the country when they are, at best, unsure of the potential consequences. Clearly, tooth decay among children is a problem, but I suggest that the Government should worry more about public health campaigns for teeth and for balanced nutrition and against obesity—and that they sort out the lack of dentists in this country—rather than permitting the spiking of our children's Ribena.
Apart from the nanny state principle of mass medication, the clause is riddled with difficulties. There is not nearly enough explanation as to how it will work. How much power would a health authority have to compel a water company to include the chemicals? What penalty will the water company face if it refuses? How much local opposition to fluoridation would be sufficient for it to be considered unwanted? If the Bill passes, we can expect to see a raft of statutory instruments in the next few Sessions as this turns into a general debacle.
Fluoride apart, my view is that the Bill is generally good on direction but short on the fine-tuning. I hope that the Government will listen to the valid comments made during the passage of the Bill as much as they have listened to the Environment Agency during the drafting.
This important Bill has taken a long time to come to the Commons. During the Bill's somewhat chequered history, the Government have listened to views and reacted accordingly. I was delighted when my hon. Friend the Minister said in his opening remarks that he would listen to the comments made in Committee. Against that background, and in the light of the speech we have just heard, it is surprising that the official Opposition have chosen to vote against the Bill on Second Reading. It is also interesting to note that during our discussions this evening, the Bill has been criticised for what is not in it rather than what is. It is inevitable that we shall debate water issues again over the next few years.
We have talked about the need to invest in the water infrastructure where there is a legacy of neglect and liability that needs to be put right. The question is who should pay for it: the consumer or the company. The strident noises from some water companies in the run-up to the price review do not reflect a proper balance and it is important—I take comfort from what my hon. Friend the Minister said earlier—that the views of customers are heard during the debate.
The Bill is important in that, for the first time, it brings competition into the water sector. I am pleased that we are embarking on that in a cautious way, with a 50 megalitre limit to begin with. I hope that, during the three-year period, we will look at reducing that limit to perhaps 20 megalitres or even 10. For big companies, there is a case for competition.
In terms of household supply, and of the domestic customer, I would be far more cautious.
We shall also need to return to water issues during the discussion on the water framework directive. I do not particularly care whether we deal with that matter in primary or secondary legislation; I would simply say that this is a major piece of legislation that will change the way in which we look at water resources. It will mean that we shall have to look at water in a much more strategic way, in river basin management areas. It is, therefore, important that we have a debate and that we take people with us during that debate. The clock is already ticking. We have 15 years in which to implement this legislation and we are already into the discussion. It is important that we pull together all the players and have the debate about the water framework directive.
What attracts me about the Bill is that it reflects the need to change the regulations and the way in which we deal with water abstraction. In north Nottinghamshire, there has been a long-standing problem of over-abstraction from the Bunter sandstone. The Dover beck, for example, has run dry; people used to be able to swim in it. There have also been problems at Rainworth water. In conservation terms, it is important that we change the way in which we abstract water.
It is also important to listen to the needs of industry. Agriculture in Nottinghamshire is changing from a potato culture to one that produces other vegetables. That means more irrigation. Tony and Mark Strawson, who are big producers in north Nottinghamshire, recently won an award for water conservation. They do not dispute the need to change the legislation, but they know that they have to make capital investments.
The important thing about the Bill is that the Environment Agency will make the decisions. It will have to be transparent and honest, and have discussions with people to build a consensus on the way forward in various areas. That applies to the quarrying industry, too. There are problems there. The Minister said that the Environment Agency would be reasonable, and called for sensitivity. I call for further discussions on this issue.
I am delighted that the Coal Authority is to be given powers under the Bill. It has been operating on a wing and a prayer, but it will now have powers under the legislation. It will also need the resources to do the work. The problem of water discharge is a ticking time bomb. In 30 years, water could emerge out of Radford in central Nottingham. We must sort that out.
We must also sort out private sewers. To our knowledge, 1,440 people in Newark and Sherwood have private sewers. We are making progress: the Atkins report is available and the consultation is taking place. I hope that, in Committee, the Minister will look closely at any amendment that gives enabling powers to take the private sewers issue further. When private sewers go wrong, they cause real hardship for people.
Those are important issues in the Bill. I like the Bill, and I back it, but it is only a first step in relation to water conservation and resources, and we must go much further.
I am here this evening because I am appalled by the arrogance of those who believe that they have a right to require me, my family and my constituents to consume fluoride in water. I oppose that proposal, as did Mr. Donohoe, as a matter of absolute principle, because, however we play with semantics, this is a matter of compulsory medication. We can say that it is not medication but a supplement, but, however we play with the words, this measure is an attempt to affect the health of the population by requiring us to ingest a substance that may or may not be of our choosing.
It is important to look at the matter in context. My hon. Friend Mr. Butterfill spoke about the authoritarianism of the present Government. Let us look at some of the other things that have happened in recent years. There has been a debate about whether parents should be required to use the combined measles, mumps and rubella vaccination rather than separate vaccines. At least in that case it was argued that it was necessary and important to create herd immunity, because there was a danger to others.
Mr. Thomas spoke about the vitamin supplements directive. The argument on that appears to have moved on one stage: it seems to be that, even where people choose to take vitamins or supplements, the Government or agencies of the Government should be in a position to prevent them from so doing. This evening, we move from the sublime to the ridiculous because, having prevented people from taking supplements that they want to take, the Government are putting before us legislation that could require my constituents to take a supplement that they do not wish to take. All pretence has been dropped: the state knows better than my constituents.
Is it the role of the state, or the role of parents and families to look after the dental health of children? That issue was raised earlier in the House by the Secretary of State for Education and Skills when he unveiled the new proposals for protecting children. He spoke about the importance of improving support for parents and about the balance between the role of the state and the role of the family. Now we have to ask whether the Government are seeking to support parents, or to take the responsibility for children's dental health out of parents' hands and to put it into the hands of the state?
That is wrong not just because it is being done against people's wishes and because there are worries about the health implications—we could debate the science of fluoride for some time—but because, by the simple act of taking that responsibility away from people, yet another step is being taken towards creating a less responsible society, where parents feel that they can take less responsibility for the health and welfare of their children, where we all become more dependent on others and on the state.
Adding fluoride to water is potentially harmful. Even the British Dental Association accepts that fluorosis is a fact and that it is created by the addition of fluoride to water. Many other claims of adverse health effects are made. We have a fundamental right to the purest water that it is possible to supply. Few things could be more fundamental but, that said, there are even more basic rights and freedoms at stake here: the freedom to refuse medication; the freedom of us all to make our own decisions about our health and that of our families; the right of parents to make decisions for their children; and, crucially, the responsibility to make the right decisions.
The House is here first and foremost to protect the freedoms of our constituents, not to inflict things on them. I hope that, tonight and in further considerations of the Bill, the House will vote accordingly.
We have reached the stage in the Second Reading debate where we are involved in repetition, repetition and repetition. I am afraid that I will have to contribute to that repetition.
I welcome much in the Bill. However, my support for it is at risk due to the insertion of clause 61, which has been well debated this evening. It reintroduces the concept of mass medication to the people.
I refer obviously to the proposal to facilitate, largely against the wishes of the public, the corruption of the water supply with fluorosilicates. I shall return to that matter, because I want now to move to a positive note—the Minister will be glad to hear.
The new regulatory framework is not without merit. Short of bringing the water industry back into full public ownership, which is my preferred option, it none the less puts a positive gloss on the Bill. I am especially pleased that Ofwat is to be lined up for the chop, to be replaced by an independent consumer council. I am also attracted to the prospect of increasing the powers of the drinking water inspectorate to institute proceedings and impose penalties for the supply of unfit water or failure to supply information.
I am less than enamoured of the idea of introducing, in clause 59 and schedule 4, the concept of competition in the water industry. However, I will not press that matter, as I would not get very far. Instead, I shall return to my principal objection to the Bill, which is the easing of the way to mass medication of the people.
I object to the principle of adding fluorosilicates to the public water supply, and I object in particular to the way in which Ministers sneaked what is after all a public health measure into a non-health Bill. I hope that, even at this late stage, the measure will be withdrawn so that it can be considered in the framework of public health legislation in due course. My support for the Bill tonight depends on that.
I have listened with care as that argument has been repeated a few times today. Is it not a spurious one, because the power to fluoridate is already contained in the Water (Fluoridation) Act 1985, and the Water Industry Act 1991, which are water Acts? It may be a public health measure, but this is the right place to discuss it.
The 1991 Act has flaws, as water companies cannot be forced to fluoridate, even if the local health authorities want that to happen—so it is my hon. Friend's argument that is spurious, not mine.
The matter should be debated under a public health Bill and taken out of this essentially good Bill that has nothing to do with public health.
It was in a transport Bill, which is the right place for it. That really was a spurious argument.
The zealots for fluoridation might better employ their energies arguing for more direct health care, based on ways of improving the nation's oral health. There can hardly be a single Member of Parliament who is satisfied with NHS dental provision in his or her constituency. More and more dentists are declining to do NHS work, and it is almost impossible in some areas to gain access to NHS dentistry. For the many people who cannot afford private dentistry, fluoridation is like offering a drowning man swimming lessons. Should we not tackle that issue first?
It is argued that record numbers of young children suffer from tooth decay and that it is they who will benefit most from fluoridation. The question for me is, how much fluoridated water is needed to prevent tooth decay? I do not know. It could be very little.
My second recommendation to the mass medication lobby is that we should educate parents to stop feeding their kids on sugary soft drinks and other tooth-rotting convenience goodies. Manufacturers of such items should be prevailed on by Government to reduce the amount of tooth-rot that they encourage youngsters to digest.
I am passionate about this argument. My own teeth, although not very pretty, are a full set and are about 64 years old. I attribute that to the fact that my childhood spanned the war years, when soft drinks and sweets were not part of people's diet—a factor referred to by my hon. Friend Mr. Crausby. I also recall that annual dental checks were carried out in schools by visiting dentists. All this with a war on. And now, the best that the fourth largest economy in the world can come up with is to mass medicate everybody cheaply, with the unproven benefit of reaching a minority.
Finally, I turn to the public consultation promised in the Bill. I must ask Ministers to be open and transparent about their intentions; it will not be good enough to leave this matter to the strategic health authorities. Any meaningful test of public opinion must be carried out through the medium of local referendums. I hope and anticipate that when the Minister winds up, he will give grounds for comfort on this issue.
When I saw that the Government had added clause 61 to the Bill, I approached the issue with an open mind. I was born and brought up in Birmingham, where water is fluoridated. I experienced no adverse reaction, nor did I know of anyone who did. On the other hand, I instinctively feel anxious about adding something to the water supply, given that those who do not want it have no choice in the matter. So I found myself torn, and approached the issue with an open mind.
I decided to consult my own constituents, in the spirit of clause 61, to discover how they felt about the issue. I sent e-mails to some 1,200 constituents, and sent text messages to dozens of others. I then pointed out in the local press that I was seeking letters from those who were either for or against fluoridation. My e-mails provided links to websites presenting the case for fluoridation—such as the Department's own website and that of the British Dental Association—and to websites presenting the case against, such as that of the National Pure Water Association.
I invited my constituents to make up their own minds on the basis of the evidence before them, but I had little idea what the outcome would be. In fact, they were split down the middle almost exactly. The argument of those who were in favour of fluoridation was based predominantly on two reasons. First, they said that it was a question of democracy, and that the majority should have what they want. That is obviously a very important principle, but it is clear that restrictions are needed on the principle of the rule of the majority. For me, one such restriction is that the majority should be constrained from imposing something on the minority if, for example, there is another way of delivering what they want, or if the minority are thereby being denied a choice that they might reasonably expect. I accept that local democracy is important, but it should not be unconstrained.
The second reason given by those of my constituents who were in favour was either that they came from a fluoridated area and had good teeth, or that they had given fluoride tablets to their children, who also had good teeth. Such anecdotal evidence, which is all that many people have to go on, suggests that fluoridation is beneficial, but the strongest arguments came from those who were opposed to fluoridation. Indeed, they gave me reasons for their opposition. Lack of choice, which has been mentioned throughout this debate, was central: people who want fluoride can have it now, but those who do not cannot opt out.
As an academic and a social scientist, I thought it important that I look at the scientific evidence. The Government themselves asked York university to review the evidence. I was struck by how the university's conclusions were then spun by everybody who examined them, such that Professor Sheldon—he has already been quoted during today's debate—felt moved to say that he was astonished at the poor quality and quantity of the research, and that there was "legitimate scientific controversy". I fully accept that some of the protagonists in this debate use rather lurid and extreme language and adopt an approach that is not very analytical. But if an eminent professor who has looked into the issue says that there is "legitimate scientific controversy", surely that is not a sufficient basis for adding something to the water supply; rather, it is a very weak basis.
Hon. Members will have been sent copies of the British Dental Association's rather gruesome league table of the number of dental cavities in the teeth of children in their constituencies. Naturally, I looked up the figures for my own constituency and for West Bromwich, East—the constituency in which I was brought up—which has fluoridation. In West Bromwich, East, the average five-year-old has 0.94 decayed, missing or filled teeth; in my own constituency, which is not fluoridated, the figure is 0.9. The fact that the figure for cavities in my constituency, where water is not fluoridated, is lower than that for the midlands, where water is fluoridated, does not mean that I am going to infer that fluoridation does not work. But equally, I object to the argument—made by Members in the media and elsewhere—that because more cavities occur in Manchester, for example, than in Birmingham, fluoridation therefore works.
Those figures prove that a whole variety of explanatory factors—access to dental care, dietary habits, what appears in water naturally, and a raft of other issues—are relevant. If scientists are acknowledging "legitimate scientific controversy" about the issue, how can it be right to impose it on people? Even if a majority in a local community are in favour, a significant minority will not want fluoridation, and they do not have the option of opting out.
The hon. Gentleman well knows—it is one of the more dreadful sub-texts to the arguments against fluoridation, which has gone unspoken so far—that if the measure were passed, his local strategic health authority would, if his cavity figures are right, not ask for it to happen. It will not affect the hon. Gentleman's constituency, but it will affect parts of the country such as Manchester, Glasgow and other inner city areas. The hon. Gentleman is denying the benefits of public dental health to other parts of the country in the knowledge that he does not need it.
The children in my constituency as much as anywhere else need good dental health. In fact, if the Government were serious about the problem, they would do much more on the front of NHS dentistry to deal with it. That is where the serious issue about children being denied proper dental health care lies.
Much depends in the Government's approach on how the consultation is undertaken. We know that very powerful lobbies will be in favour and that important organisations are putting one side of the case. If they are resourced far more significantly than the other side, we may well get majorities in favour in my constituency. The resourcing of each side of the argument is relevant. I believe that in this case my role is to stand up for a minority who do not want something imposed on them.
Another interesting aspect of my constituents' replies is how sceptical they are about Government assurances—not only the present Government's assurances—about science. My constituents simply do not trust Governments when they say that something is all right, good for them and safe. Mr. Butterfill made a compelling point that fluoridation amounts to medicine, but it will not be regulated as medicine, so clinical trials will not be undertaken. We simply do not have the safeguards in place. The scientific experts have acknowledged that fluoridation is a matter of legitimate controversy, which provides an insufficient basis for imposing something on people who do not want it. We are currently debating one clause, so I shall reserve my opposition for the separate free vote later in our proceedings. I shall certainly oppose the relevant clause then.
With permission, I shall also focus my remarks on clause 61.
We may not like it, but Britain is an unequal country—unequal in respect of the spread of opportunity and wealth and consequently of public health. One of the most graphic illustrations of that fact is dental health. Tooth decay is a class issue: the highest levels are found in the most deprived communities and among those on the lowest incomes. Despite general gains in the overall health of the population, the country's dental health divide stubbornly refuses to narrow. Last week, the British Dental Association said that levels of dental disease in some communities were unacceptably high.
The one thing about dental decay that makes it distinct from other diseases is that it is almost entirely preventable. It is not often that we get the chance to pass law to narrow this country's health divide and gain early results, but the Bill provides precisely that. If we fail to take it, we fail millions of children living in our most deprived communities.
It is approaching 20 years since the House passed the Water Fluoridation Bill 1985 under the Conservative Government, endorsing it in principle as a safe and cost-effective means of improving the nation's dental health. I pay tribute to Mr. Clarke for bringing that legislation through. However, one offending word—a "may" rather than a "shall"—created a technical loophole, confirmed by judicial review, that thwarted the Bill's intentions. Since then, about 60 requests from health authorities for fluoridation have been rejected. Any attempt to correct the problem is seized on by opponents of fluoridation to open up the whole debate on fluoridation per se. We are witnessing precisely that today, but the fact is that the opponents lost the argument long ago. The will of the House was to give communities the power to choose water fluoridation, but that will is still being thwarted. If nothing else, basic democracy demands that the loophole be closed.
Earlier this year I tabled an early-day motion calling on the Government to use this Bill to do just that, and to require water companies to fluoridate where health authorities requested it on the back of local support. One hundred and forty-nine Members on both sides of the House signed that motion, and it is to the great credit of both the Secretary of State and the Minister that they listened to the arguments, gauged the strength of support and introduced clause 61. As well as giving the country better teeth, that could achieve another huge leap, and restore some faith in the point of early-day motions.
When given the chance to vote, Members of the other place weighed the evidence and came down overwhelmingly in favour of expanding water fluoridation where local communities wanted it. Those in doubt should look no further than the contrast between the west midlands and Greater Manchester. Those are conurbations with a similar social profile, and that is the factor that Mr. Webb missed. We must compare places with a similar social profile.
On average, as the hon. Gentleman said, five-year-olds in Birmingham have less than one missing, filled or decayed tooth, but in Greater Manchester the average is three. In other words, children unlucky enough to have dental decay can have as many as six, seven, eight, nine or 10 decayed teeth. What explains the differences? The simple fact that water supplies in the west midlands have been fluoridated for 40 years. Is there any evidence of health problems resulting from that? Not a scrap.
I have twice visited the Manchester dental school to witness tooth extraction under general anaesthetic. It does 1,500 such operations each year, and more than 2,000 are done in Greater Manchester as a whole. I saw one three-year old having 10 teeth removed under general anaesthetic, and it was both upsetting and shocking.
Professor Anthony Blinkhorn, professor of oral health in the Central Manchester and Manchester Children's University Hospitals NHS trust, oversees those family traumas that happen week after week. He tells how children suffer the pain of tooth decay, then the trauma of the operation, then living with missing teeth, and finally the likely damage to permanent adult teeth caused by the operation—and all that is avoidable. As he told The Guardian last week:
"When a little boy comes into hospital, he has a smile. When he comes out, it is without one."
When I consider that similar general anaesthetic sessions are simply not happening in Birmingham, because there is no need for them, it makes me wonder what right those who oppose fluoridation, and do not live in Greater Manchester, have to prevent communities there from adopting it. What are their objections? The first is about adverse health effects, and in that context, I shall quote from a note sent by the chief medical officer to peers in advance of the vote in the other place:
"Fluoride prevents tooth decay, which remains a significant public health problem in parts of England. From a public health perspective, fluoridation is the delivery method of choice to bring about population improvements in dental health, and should be considered locally when it is desired to reduce inequalities in levels of dental decay."
That is good enough for me, and I would like to hear from any Member of the House who can give evidence to gainsay that professional opinion.
Opponents of fluoridation bandy about health concerns to create a smokescreen, because their real concern, the civil liberties argument, is not strong enough to stand on its own two feet. Yes, there may be a small cost to civil liberties in adding a negligible amount of fluoride to water, but if the resulting benefit is improved dental health for a whole local population, most people conclude that it is well worth it.
A national opinion poll survey published today by the British Fluoridation Society shows that 67 per cent. of people in Britain think that fluoride should be added to water if it can reduce decay—[Interruption.] People may laugh, but that was a totally independent survey carried out by—
I will not, because other people want to speak.
People talk about choice, but what about the choice of a majority, especially in inner-city communities, to opt for fluoridation? It is time to set aside the bogus science and the scare stories and look at the facts. All the evidence from around the world says that fluoridation is safe and can improve the quality of life for all.
I wish that we lived in a country in which, as hon. Members have described, all parents could afford to give their children a healthy diet, and ensure that they brush their teeth twice a day, but we do not. It is time to stop the vocal minority blocking a progressive change that will benefit millions of people, particularly children, in our most deprived communities. When we know of a safe method of reducing children's suffering, it is morally wrong for us in the House not to give local communities the power to choose it for themselves.
I want to refer to three issues: abstraction licences, the competition provisions and flood defence.
First, in my constituency, a good example of the reason why the reform of abstraction licences is welcome is the Fowlmere Nature Reserve run by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. It is an important wildlife site, and an area of open water and chalk grasslands. It is a designated site of special scientific interest, but it is being damaged by public water supply abstraction. I was there four years ago, when we had not had some of the more recent heavy rainfall. The society was contemplating the long-term absence of the spring-fed waters for the Fowlmere site, and it was having to think about bringing water in from south Norfolk to meet the needs of the site. It is not at that level of difficulty at the moment, but even now after the rainfall we have had in the past couple of years one of its most prominent springs is about to dry up.
I was at the reserve a couple of weeks ago. Reform is necessary, but interestingly, about three miles up the road, chalk is quarried by Barrington Rugby Cement. Alongside the wildlife sites that we must protect, there are also the economic purposes for the abstraction of water. That is precisely the balance to which the Minister rightly referred. I share the view that has been expressed. Instead of a presumption in favour of renewal, if the abstraction of water is essential for the economic purposes in question and there is a long-term consent, such as a planning consent, there should be a presumption for a longer term for the licence. It will remain the case that if there is serious environmental damage, there is scope for a modification or revocation of a licence.
Under those circumstances, either there has to be proper compensation or, preferably, before the point at which it becomes a distress purchase, the relevant economic activity has to have the opportunity, through trading of water rights, on which I hope the Environment Agency will make further progress relatively soon, to acquire the capacity that it requires. I hope that we can give those economic processes that depend for their livelihood on abstraction some confidence that they will not be abandoned without an opportunity to remedy their situation.
Secondly, competition must be introduced at a level and to an extent that allows its dynamic effects to work. The issue is not only the threshold but the pricing regime. The threshold has been set. I am not an expert on the extent of water competition—not many people are, because we have seen too little of it. I suspect that the number of customers who will be brought into the marketplace will make it intensely difficult to get the dynamic effects of competition to apply. As my hon. Friend Mr. Ainsworth observed, the modelling for the regulatory impact assessment seems to imply that prices will go up for domestic consumers. I think that it will not work quite like that.
As I understand schedule 4, the introduction of the cost regime and the cost principles will apply within a rate-of-return regulatory structure. The decrease in the return to a water undertaking as a result of the loss of some large users would have to be compensated for by an increase to domestic consumers. Under the cost principles in schedule 4, the water undertakers will get from the licensed water suppliers who come into the marketplace precisely the level of return on their assets that they were anticipating. Perhaps I am missing something, but that arrangement seems to me to be designed not to allow competition to work in the industry. There must be a lower threshold, and it must be based on a flexible regime that allows the regulator to impose the cost structures that make sense in relation to the industry as it develops, and arguably as it moves away from the retail sector and from a rate-of-return system of regulation to one that is more flexible to competitive situations.
I want briefly to turn to flood defence. The Minister of State has patiently listened to me on the subject on more than one occasion, and I will not go on. However, I want to mention two points. First, the Bill tackles the reorganisation of regional flood defence committees, and I am happy for that to happen, as long as they are based, in East Anglia, on rivers and catchment areas. The issue, as everybody knows, is what resources the committees will have to undertake the necessary flood prevention and defence schemes.
We have this Water Bill, and the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill is in Committee, but neither, as far as I am aware, tells us what the development connection charge will be and how it will provide resources to the committees. As I understand it, some of the resources on which they will rely from April 2004 depend on that connection charge. I want the charge to be applied locally.
Secondly, we have spoken briefly this evening about new flood storage areas—creating new wetlands of water meadows and the like. Everybody seems to agree that that is right, and the Minister himself has said so. We are giving the Environment Agency new responsibilities. Can DEFRA now set out how a simple scheme for relatively small projects would work? I have at least two, maybe three, in my constituency. We should be able to go to the agency with a worked-up project, and although it probably would not qualify for a big budget, the mechanism to which I am referring would allow us to access agency money. That would probably be agricultural money, because there would be a win-win situation, not only for flood defence but for environmental purposes in agriculture. That money would subsidise the farmer who would probably have to set aside his land for new wet plain purposes and, as a corollary, for flood defence. Such a mechanism does not yet exist, and I hope that we will see one soon.
I am very pleased to be able to say a few words in this debate. I was giving up hope. You may have noticed, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that earlier time stood still for quite a while on the Annunicator.
An awful lot has been said tonight about fluoridation, and in many respects I am sorry that I have to continue that debate. This is a very interesting Bill, and if it was not for clause 61, I would have no hesitation in supporting it, but I am afraid that the issue of fluoride is very near and dear to me. I have to admit that some years ago I was in favour of fluoridation. I thought that if dentists said that it was right, that must be the case. I then started to read a little about the matter, and one or two people pointed things out to me, and I changed my mind. For the last 10 or 11 years I have been vehemently anti-fluoridation.
I have to declare an interest in that I am secretary of the all-party group against fluoridation of domestic water. I am pleased that there has been so much support tonight for the case against fluoride, because over the years I had gained the impression that the pro-fluoride group was an unstoppable juggernaut. I wondered why, but of course when the pro-fluoride lobby is given state funding, that gives it a tremendous advantage over those who are trying to oppose fluoride.
There are three issues involved here, and we must try to delineate them. There is the so-called scientific argument, the issue of democracy and the issue of human rights. Although we must delineate them, they are all connected. If, for example, we are not satisfied with the scientific argument, the other two issues do not matter. The same is true if we think that human rights or democracy are most important. One of my colleagues said earlier that he was not concerned about whether fluoride was safe as long as the decision was left to the electorate. I cannot agree with that, but I see the logic.
I want to continue from the point made by my right hon. Friend Mr. Williams, who mentioned the York report.
Many people missed the importance of the report. The publication was distorted to such a degree that Professor Sheldon made a statement in January 2002. I will use his words so that I am not accused of using the wrong words. He said:
"As Chair of the Group, I am concerned that the results of the review have been widely misrepresented."
Later, when nothing had improved, the four scientists who were concerned wrote from the National Health Centre for Reviews and Dissemination in York. They used the word "misinterpretations". There is a tremendous difference between "misrepresentation" and "misinterpretation". In the end, we can leave people to come to their own conclusions.
Much of the pro-fluoride group's argument is about so-called science. In fairness, the Government were concerned enough to set up a proper scientific review. It was not set up by people opposed to fluoridation. Let us consider some of the things that those involved in the review said, not what the British Dental Association is saying, or the British Medical Association, or the Department of Health. In respect of the effectiveness of fluoridation in reducing caries, they said:
"We could discover no reliable good-quality evidence in the fluoridation literature world-wide."
As for effectiveness of fluoridation in reducing inequalities in dental health across social groups, the review stated:
"This evidence is weak, contradictory and unreliable."
When it came to safety of fluoridation, the review stated:
"Apart from an increase in dental fluorosis . . . we found no clear pattern among the possible negative effects we examined, and we felt that not enough was known because the quality of the evidence is poor."
That is hardly a ringing endorsement of fluoridation.
The York review asked for proper, decent quality research. We now know from the review that there has never been any good, decent research. Where are the BDA and company coming from? There are Members of this place who say that there is an irrefutable argument in favour of the efficacy of fluoridation.
Quite a lot has been said about the democracy issue. In Sunderland, there was a consultation process that was carried out in, I think, 1996. The Sunderland area health authority held two meetings in rather obscure places at rather bad times. That is not unusual and we have all come across it. We should not be too surprised. However, that process led to quite a lot of concern. The local newspaper, the Sunderland Echo, decided to publish both sides of the argument, and for once it did it reasonably well. I thought that it was quite impartial, and I do not always think that.
The Sunderland Echo asked people to write or phone in. It has been said this evening that about 67 per cent. are in favour of fluoridation, but in Sunderland in 1996—I know that it was a few years ago—90 per cent. of those involved voted against. It was a decent consultation area. All right, it was carried out by the press, but we take notice of other things that are carried out by the media. We also take notice of the BDA. There has been an absolute travesty.
Things were made worse when not long afterwards the Sunderland health authority took Northumbrian Water to court so that it could enforce what the public had said they definitely did not want. Fortunately, Northumbrian Water disagreed. That led to clause 61, which was introduced in the other place. We cannot go ahead otherwise.
I do not want anyone to think that I am too much against the BDA, but I do not trust it. It has put out a wonderful document about tooth decay in various constituencies, for example, be it high, medium or low. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the figures. Some constituencies sit across health authority boundaries and so an approximation may have been made.
But it is not quite as simple as that. My constituency is not even mentioned, and I do not know what the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend Mr. Mullin, my hon. Friends the Members for Houghton and Washington, East (Mr. Kemp) and for Easington (Mr. Cummings), and my right hon. Friend Mr. Mandelson think about it. However, I think it is pretty poor. If the BDA is as thorough—
There are two issues that I wish to address briefly. The first is an issue that, I believe, should not be in the Bill, and the second is an issue that is not in the Bill but which, I believe, should be.
We have already heard a lot about fluoridation, so I shall try to be brief, but I shall also give some new information. I am not sure whether I should declare an interest, because as a child virtually every back tooth in my mouth was filled. Having been through that, it could be said that I did not like going to the dentist and should be in favour of fluoridation, which is meant to end cavities and the need for such treatment. However, that is not the conclusion that I have reached. Although I had a number of cavities, it cannot be argued that had there been fluoride in the area where I lived, it would have done anything about the problem—there may have been a raft of reasons for my having a large number of cavities and having to spend a lot of time at the dentist. I make that point to contradict what Andy Burnham said. The examples that he gave were superfluous and quite misleading.
We have heard that fluoridation is the best thing since sliced bread, but we must remember that sliced bread is not necessarily the best thing anyway—[Interruption.] We do have freedom of choice—we bake our own. There is evidence that fluoridation is harmful. Dartmouth News is not a magazine from Dartmouth in Devon, as glorious as it is, but from a college in Hanover, New Hampshire in the United States. Robert Masters produced a report on his research in which he said:
"Analyzing a survey of over 280,000 Massachusetts children, the investigators found that silicofluorides—chemicals widely used in treating public water supplies—are associated with an increase in children's absorption of lead."
He went on to say:
"Compared to a matched group of 30 towns that do not use silicofluorides, children in 30 communities that use these chemicals were over twice as likely to have over 10 micrograms per decilitre of blood lead."
There is therefore evidence that fluoridation is harmful.
No, because another Member may be able to speak if I finish quickly.
Other countries do not allow mass fluoridation. France, Italy, Germany, Sweden, Denmark and Holland have all rejected fluoridation. Belgium has gone even further—last year, I am told, the Belgian Government banned the sale of fluoride tablets and chewing gum because of their concerns about safety. However, whether there are health benefits or not, there is the democratic matter of people's right to choose. I would argue that if the Minister were to start selling Coca-Cola outside, and sold both plain Coca-Cola and Coca-Cola with added fluoride, the public would choose to buy the Coca-Cola without fluoride. All the evidence that I have seen is that people do not want fluoride added to their water supply, so they should not be forced to accept it.
I shall now turn to something that is missing from the Bill. Earlier, a Government Member mentioned the high water charges in the south-west. Devon and Cornwall pay the highest water charges in the country because of a mistake made after privatisation, where equalisation measures to meet the costs of improving the beaches and the waterways were not spread across the water companies, but fell solely on the people resident in that area. As a result, 3 per cent. of the population in Devon, Cornwall and other areas have paid for the clean-up of 30 per cent. of the beaches.
When the Minister reflects on charges, will he consider changing the charge regime so that the people of the south-west can be compensated for the high charges that they have paid for the clean-up of beaches that are enjoyed by hon. Members from all parts of the country who, I know, like a holiday in the south-west?
In the two or three minutes that I have, I am glad to give a warm welcome to a Bill that is long overdue. At the world summit in Johannesburg last year, it was made clear that 1.1 billion people worldwide were without clean water and 2.4 billion were without proper sanitation. It is right that the Government are going ahead with the best possible strategic framework for the management of our water in this country. That is good news as regards the River Trent, which goes through much of north Staffordshire.
In the brief time available to me, I shall flag up three issues. The first is that the Coal Authority will get new powers to deal with pollution from mine water. That should have come about at the time of the privatisation of the coal industry. It is long overdue and the measure will be welcomed across mining communities everywhere. It is good that it is in the Bill.
The second issue that I wish to raise with my hon. Friend is one on which I have been lobbied by the ceramics industry in Stoke-on-Trent. Everybody understands the importance of sustainable development and the need for balance. In earlier speeches, hon. Members spoke about how the right balance should be achieved in the legislation. Will the Minister meet representatives of the British Ceramic Confederation to discuss the guidance? There is a difference between the criteria for abstraction licences for water use and those for dewatering. That must be reflected in the detail of the guidance that is to be issued.
Thirdly, there is the issue of private sewers. Like many who have spoken in the debate, I believe that we should be bringing forward proposals for adopting private sewers. That is long overdue, and we have had to wait so long for the Bill. During the Committee deliberations on the Bill, will the Minister introduce proposals to address the problem of all those who cannot afford to deal with private sewers and who do not even know that such sewers belong to them?
If I have time, I should like to remind my hon. Friend of letters that I have written to him. Rats have not featured in the debate so far, but when we are discussing public health issues, there is a clear need for us to give statutory backing to the code on sewer baiting for rats. I know that voluntary guidance was issued by Water UK, but many local authorities have not heard of it. There are rats right across the country. Many of the water companies try to ignore the voluntary code. We could so easily give it a statutory basis in the Bill going through Parliament.
As we approach the magic hour of 9.40 pm, I shall end by saying that it would be a great pity if the Bill were hijacked entirely by the debate on fluoridation of the water supply. As someone with environmental concerns at heart, I want us to adopt the precautionary principle at all times and have a proper debate about how to deal with the appalling dental health care in many deprived parts of the country, including my constituency. I am not yet convinced that fluoridation is the way forward and that it would be compatible with the precautionary principle. I am grateful for the brief opportunity to raise those five issues.
The Bill exemplifies the gulf between the theory behind the Government's best intentions and the reality of their long list of missed opportunities. There are changes to the excellent job that Philip Fletcher has done as regulator that will make it easier for the Government to control the water regulator by dispensing with the individual and replacing him with a board nominated and paid for according to the wishes of the Secretary of State. There are also increases in the power of the Environment Agency, whose board has four members whose political declarations determine that they have previously been members of the Labour party. Perhaps that is why the Government have strengthened the Environment Agency's powers. Indeed, the agency performs so many roles that the enactment of the Bill will make it policeman, accuser, advocate, judge, jury and executioner. There is a major missed opportunity—the opportunity to allow the new board of the water services regulation authority to act as an appeal judge in regard to the Environment Agency's decisions. Sadly, as the Bill stands they will be unchecked.
Of the 25 speakers in the debate, at least 14 wanted to discuss the addition of fluoride to water supplies. Speeches were time-limited, and to an extent the debate was hijacked by that subject. It is a great shame that the Bill did not contain a skeleton measure allowing proper consultation by strategic health authorities with the public. That is one of the biggest omissions: without such a measure, the quality of debate that has been denied to Members will also be denied to the public.
Views on fluoridation differ, but we heard the views of two Scottish Members who were passionate about the subject. I now know how to murder my wife and although Mr. Donohoe mentioned adding Viagra to the water, he is also passionate about the anti-fluoride campaign. Mr. Williams introduced the Welsh angle, and my hon. Friend Mr. Ainsworth described the problems with fluoride eloquently.
Mr. Thomas also discussed those problems, but, more important, he said that only 2 per cent. of rainfall was stored, which had caused a water shortage in his constituency. In a helpful and sensible speech, Mr. Crausby said that he should be allowed to choose what he swallowed. He then unfortunately had to own up to the fact that he had not been allowed any sweets because of rationing during the war.
The second world war, I believe.
Sue Doughty clearly had not read the Bill. Dr. Starkey adopted a scientific approach to the toxic benefits, or disastrous effects—[Interruption.] She was clear about the fact that toxic substances were of benefit if added to the water supply in sufficient quantities. What she did not tell us, and what I longed for her to tell us, was whether newborn babies could be given water with fluoride added to it. There is a real danger that that may be so toxic that infants should be given milk diluted with spring water.
Mr. Lewis, who made an important speech about the bottling of water, unfortunately said that he would like mineral water to be sold in school vending machines. Although helpful, his speech prompted a question: if fluoride is such an important addition to water, should it not be added to mineral water?
Mr. Webb had sent 1,200 e-mails to constituents asking for their views on fluoride. Andy Burnham was passionately in favour of adding it to water, but ignored the fact that others had drawn attention to the quantity of sugar in people's diets, which might have a more significant effect on tooth decay.
The problem that the whole House faces is that there are huge gaps in scientific research. It would have been better if the Government had spent more money, or made more effort with their drafting, to ensure proper research so that the facts came out. Sadly, that has not happened.
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has helpfully identified a deficiency in the failure to connect the Bill with the water framework directive. Indeed, the implementation in national law of some aspects of the directive, such as efficient use and water abstraction, is a missed opportunity. Some 16 out of 45 UK biodiversity action plan habitats are threatened by water abstraction, and there may be a need for a water saving trust. Such a body, which would be similar to the Energy Saving Trust, could encourage water-efficient technology, water conservation at home and the use of other methods to ensure that customers change their habits to preserve clean water. Sadly, all those things are missing from the Bill.
Another missed opportunity relates to the improvement of competition in the sector. We all want the benefits of fine pricing and higher efficiency, particularly as water customers cannot practically change their supplier and water companies still occupy a monopolistic position by default. What exactly is a licensed water supplier going to look like and how will it be treated for tax and other purposes? What is to prevent big water users from setting themselves up as licensed suppliers and writing off any losses against tax?
I am in favour of including the domestic customer in all price advantages, because I do not accept that discounts do not benefit home consumers, who are as price sensitive as any company and perhaps even more so. I feel that the Government have failed in their duty to look after the smallest consumer.
The soft drink sector is very successful, but it has high machinery costs and very high standards of cleanliness. The 12-year limit on abstraction licences will have a detrimental effect. About 1.4 billion litres of the 1.8 billion litres of water drunk in Britain is from Britain. Obviously, cutting from 20 to 12 years the period in which costs are offset will make UK-produced water more expensive and detrimental to those companies' competitiveness.
There is a significant lack of proportionality in the Bill, especially in terms of powers allocated to the Environment Agency. It is not true to suggest that planners ignore the Environment Agency. If that is the problem, surely it is time to include in the Bill an obligation to take account of Environment Agency objections in planning decisions. For example, it could be allowed more influence in seeking to prevent damage caused by drilling into aquifers already used by a mineral water company that could damage water quality. The safeguards in the code of practice for well drilling are clearly inadequate, and the Government have been complacent in ignoring that in the Bill.
I mentioned investment with regard to the bottled water sector. The quarrying sector will now also have to rely on the mercy of the Environment Agency—an issue that many hon. Members raised—which will have the power to vary or revoke abstraction licences. That is a substitute for allowing proper consultation on environmental impact during the planning process. That could have been included in the Bill.
There is a major failure to address the fundamental issue, which is compounded by the right of the Environment Agency to avoid compensating companies when it takes away their ability to conduct their business. That extra uncertainty further undermines investment confidence. Although the habitats directive allows compensation, the Bill does not. There is a presumption that the Environment Agency is flexible. It seems unlikely that it will move away from units of six years when issuing licences to tie in with the catchment abstraction management strategies. I have no confidence that it will issue meaningful licences for more than 12 years. Even if it does so, it will have the power to alter the licences, which will further undermine investor confidence.
The problem with the Bill is that the Environment Agency has a priority for natural water, known as green water, which it will place above blue water or drinking water. The Bill so strengthens the Environment Agency that I have serious fears about the cost implications for domestic customers. Throughout the Bill, the agency is given more power and more opportunity to devise its own method for testing sustainable development. How will its sustainability criteria differ from those used in planning?
The Bill falls short on a number of criteria, mainly because the Government have ignored large groups of interested parties, all of which have clear and valid arguments.
The Bill represents a whole series of missed opportunities, compromises and weak drafting. Despite the fact that water is such an important part of good health, and of life itself, the Bill is incompetent, incomplete and inequitable. It demonstrates that this Government cannot be trusted with even the most straightforward piece of legislation, and I urge the House to make them think again by voting it down.
We have had an interesting and mainly constructive debate. Many issues have been addressed, and I am sure that hon. Members will want to debate them further in Committee, which will sit for a total of 24 hours, and when the Bill returns to the Floor of the House on Report.
My hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment was extremely generous during his opening remarks in taking interventions. In the limited time that I have, I do not intend to repeat any of his responses, but I shall try to clarify one or two points that he did not have a chance to address because they were raised subsequently.
I start with water resources and housing development. Mr. Thomas rightly said that rainfall is not always an accurate measurement of water supply. He knows that from his own experience, as do I from droughts in the south-west, which also gets a lot more rain than London and the south-east. On the specific question of adequate water resources where housing is planned, particularly in the south-east, no new provisions are required. Water companies already have statutory duties to supply water for domestic and other purposes, and they already produce water resource management plans that look ahead 25 years in order to reconcile supply needs with likely demand. Clause 65 places those plans on a statutory basis.
The updated abstraction licensing regime means that we will have the tools to sustain our water resources in the long term in the face of climate change and changing demands. As many right hon. and hon. Members made clear, that is always a question of balance. There has been quite a lot of special pleading from Members on both sides of the House for various interest groups, from the ceramics industry to the watercress industry. My hon. Friend the Minister helpfully said that he will be open to representations from hon. Members as the Bill proceeds through the House.
I was pleased that several hon. Members mentioned the impact of the Bill on important environmental concerns such as biodiversity. For example, having recently visited the constituency of Mr. Key, I am aware of the problem of water extraction on the River Avon, which passes through his city. That has a negative impact on the positive attempts to restore the historic water meadows that form part of the famous view of Salisbury cathedral. I am sure that that experience will be replicated. Indeed, other hon. Members gave examples from their constituencies of the damaging environmental impact of water abstraction in certain cases. Ending exemptions for abstractors such as trickle irrigators and quarries will result in a fairer system for all abstractors. All abstractors will be subject to the new regime if they abstract more than the new standard threshold of 20 cu m per day. That new threshold means that some 20,000 abstractions, mostly by farmers, will not need to be licensed in future.
My hon. Friend Ms Atherton and Richard Younger-Ross mentioned costs. As a fellow south-west MP, one would expect that to be close to my heart. We pay the highest prices, and water prices are a burning political issue. The issue is not specifically addressed in the Bill, but I hope that the changes that it introduces to the regulatory regime and to the power of the consumer will help in addressing some of the concerns. Furthering the interests of consumers, as well as those of companies, will become a primary function of Ofwat. At present, the consumer's interests are very much secondary. The Bill also sets up the independent consumer council for water, which will be well placed to hold companies and the regulator to account. It replaces Water Voice, which is part of Ofwat.
Fluoridation has dominated much of the debate and I suspect that it will do so in the Bill's further stages. I shall not rehearse many of the arguments that were made today and will be made in future. The Government acknowledge that there are strong views on the issue, and Labour Members will have a free vote on the amendments on fluoridation. In the spirit of openness that Front-Bench spokesmen have demonstrated today, I put it on record that I support fluoridation as a sensible and long overdue preventive public health measure.
Let me make several clarifications on factual matters. It was suggested that fluoridation had been abandoned in Switzerland. However, it has been abandoned in only one small canton on the basis of one piece of research, which, I am told, is contradicted by the wealth of research from other countries and parts of the world.
In an intervention, Mr. Redwood claimed that those who advocated fluoridation were in a minority, but my hon. Friend Andy Burnham corrected him. He told hon. Members that national opinion polls have consistently shown a majority of approximately 70 per cent. of the population in favour of fluoridation. The right hon. Gentleman is always keen to cite the other place as a true reflection of public opinion. He may be surprised to know that, contrary to the comments of some hon. Members, their lordships passed a Back-Bench—not a Government—amendment, on the subject by 153 to 31. That shows an overwhelming majority in favour of fluoridation.
Fluorine is the 13th most commonly occurring element in the earth's crust. It occurs naturally in water and therefore cannot be compared to a discretionary medicine. No water fluoridation scheme has been introduced without local consultations and we intend to extend their range and content before a strategic health authority can request a water company to fluoridate its water. It may be helpful if I outline some details of the proposed consultation.
The format will be prescribed in regulations and include the dissemination of proposals through press, radio, television and leaflets. It will involve public meetings, discussions in the local media, helplines and websites. There will be objective means of measuring public opinion that will ensure the representation of a wide range of backgrounds. We shall consult those with expertise on the best practice of measuring public opinion. In response to questions by several hon. Members, local authorities will also have a role in the consultation process.
My hon. Friend Mr. Donohoe made a specific point about clause 61, which contains proposed new section 87B, and the Scottish provisions. Subsection (5) allows Scottish water suppliers to transfer water to areas of England that could be fluoridated in the case of serious drought or to cover deficiencies caused by maintenance. There are no routine transfers of water from Scotland to England, such as those that occur between England and Wales. Water is supplied from Wales to England and, in some cases, from England to Wales. There is no fluoridation of water in Scotland and the Bill will not affect the provisions there.
Mr. Lidington questioned our threshold for competition. Thirty per cent. of major companies' revenues come from non-household customers and we believe that the threshold that we have set is large enough to test the new framework. However, as my hon. Friend the Minister said, the threshold is flexible and only a start. Extending competition at the beginning could have an adverse impact on domestic customers. It is therefore important to proceed with caution.
The Bill builds on and strengthens the existing framework, especially in the Water Resources Act 1991 and the Water Industry Act 1991. It does not exist in a vacuum. Existing legislation has served us well. We have had the warmest and driest summer since 1995 but have managed to avoid the chaos that we suffered then.
The Bill will carry forward the Government's commitment to a sustainable water policy. It provides for the sustainable use of water resources and sustainable regulation of the water industry and will leave us well placed to face the challenges of the future. I commend the Bill to the House.