Motion made, and Question proposed,
Proceedings on Consideration and Third Reading
(1) Paragraphs 4 and 5 of the Programme Order of 8th September 2003 relating to the Water Bill be omitted;
(2) proceedings on consideration shall be taken in the order shown in the following table, and each part of the proceedings shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion on the day on which those proceedings are commenced at the time specified in the second column;
|Proceedings||Time for conclusion of proceedings|
|New Clauses and new Schedules relating to Part 1; amendments relating to Part 1.||5 hours before the moment of interruption.|
|New Clauses and new Schedules relating to Part 2; amendments relating to Clause 34, Schedule 1, Clause 35, Schedule 2, Clause 36, Schedule 3, Clauses 37 to 56, Schedule 4.||4 hours before the moment of interruption.|
|New Clauses and new Schedules relating to Part 3 (except new Clauses and new Schedules relating to fluoridation); amendments relating to Clause 57, Clauses 59 to 85, Schedules 5 and 6, Clauses 86 to 98.||3 hours before the moment of interruption.|
|New Clauses and new Schedules relating to fluoridation; amendments relating to Clause 58; remaining new Clauses and new Schedules; amendments relating to Clauses 99 and 100, Schedules 7 to 9, Clauses 101 to 104.||1 hour before the moment of interruption.|
(3) proceedings on Third Reading shall, so far as not previously concluded, be brought to a conclusion at the moment of interruption on the day on which those proceedings are commenced.—[Gillian Merron.]
It is a bad reflection on the House that we are even having this debate. We are all short of time—no one more so than the Minister, perhaps—and trying to cram as much as possible into our lives. But the use of guillotines to restrict debate is wrong and dumbs down the freedom of speech, passage of information and argument that we all value so highly—
Order. Will hon. Members who are not staying for this debate please leave quickly and quietly? This debate deserves to be heard as much as any other.
All hon. Members make speeches, but if we try to go faster, we will reach the stage—I fear that we are there are already—where we are too busy to listen to other hon. Members' speeches. Perhaps this is a good moment to point that out, as one glance at the Chamber makes clear.
This programme motion is an affront. For that reason, if for no other, I shall urge the House to oppose it. However, we should oppose it for other reasons too. It presupposes that the proposals on quarry dewatering, changes to the regulator, the ability to take possession of privately owned sewers and the regulation of water supplies are not sufficiently important to warrant more than a few moments of time each.
The proposals in clause 6 mean that we need to protect the British drinking water industry from environmental damage, as small unlicensed abstractors will be able to drill bore holes into the aquifer. That could damage the aquifer and cause contamination to bottled water. We argued that the Environment Agency should have powers to monitor environmental damage. Small, unlicensed bore holes must not be able to undermine a company's investment and sustainable development. The Environment Agency must be able to be alerted to any problems.
In clause 17, we believe that there should be a link between abstraction licence applications and planning permission. In that way, a business wishing to abstract water could take more than one course of action. Provided that it has planning permission, a business should be able to go ahead with abstracting water, as long as it is environmentally safe to do so.
Abstraction and impounding are issues of extreme importance, but the Bill is inadequate to secure the investor confidence needed by water abstraction businesses. I have tabled two new clauses and some new amendments in connection with abstraction, and I believe that having just one hour for the debate will be inadequate. Enough time must be provided for discussion of all the complicated matters to do with that special issue, on which the livelihoods of water abstractors depend. I have severe doubts as to whether one hour will be sufficient.
But only starting, as my right hon. Friend says. My hon. Friend Mr. Wiggin is talking about abstraction licences, and the relevant part of the Bill could have a huge impact on the quarrying industry. One hour is wholly inadequate for discussion of the many points that constituents have raised with many hon. Members, including me.
My hon. Friend is right, and I am grateful to him for drawing the House's attention to that very germane point. The size of the investment that firms must make in quarrying machinery, and the fact that it is impossible to quarry without abstracting water, mean that the Bill puts a heavy question mark over the future of the industry. It is very worrying that we will have so short a time for debate of such a crucial matter.
I know that the Minister has taken the trouble to meet quarrying industry representatives and that he has been sympathetic to their concerns. However, his sympathy and assurances are not enough. We need to have the necessary undertakings written into the Bill, and there will not be enough time to make sure that that happens.
In addition, the Bill places time limits on licences. At the moment, licences will be certain only for 12 years. That is only one of the provisions that will undermine the key factor that is investor confidence. Although nearly all the costs involved in the water industry can be offset over a long period, that will be undermined if the Environment Agency can take licences away after just 12 years. In London, our drains, pipes and sewers were built by the Victorians, more than a hundred years ago. Water industry equipment is likely to last for a long time, but the Bill makes it difficult for investors to have the sort of confidence that they should have in such projects. The Environment Agency must be able to take into account the infrastructure costs and investments associated with abstraction and then make the decision on the life of the abstraction licence. That gives it greater freedom to issue longer licences when it is safe, especially environmentally safe, to do so.
Three topics of great importance to the future of our water industry, not only for businesses but for the customer, are the regulator, discharge to water courses and consumer council publications. Again, allowing only one hour for discussion of those three detailed topics is insufficient. We want to address several concerns surrounding those topics, such as the regulators of the new water services regulation authority and access to information available to the new council, but I fear that we will be short-changed in the amount of time that we have to do that.
My hon. Friend is offering a probing analysis of the deficiencies of the Government's position. As he is renowned for his self-effacement, however, I would not want him to understate the case in any way. Will he therefore confirm, for my benefit and to provide elucidation to the House, that for a Bill with 104 clauses, nine schedules and an unpredictable number of amendments to consider, the Government propose a truly draconian truncation of the debate, which will allow three or four minutes to consider each clause? Will not that outrage the listening public as much as it outrages us?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. In his usual eloquent manner, he states the case exactly as it is. I also hope that the listening—or watching—public to whom he refers are gripped by the very short debate, but, as he says, they will be disappointed.
Is not Report supposed to be the stage at which those of us who have constituency interests have an opportunity to speak? As a Member with significant quarrying interests in my constituency, I want to contribute to the debate on the quarrying industry. I see clearly from this programme that I will not have the opportunity to do so—[Hon. Members: "Why not?"] Because the Front Benches will take the time.
I will do my best not to take too much time, to allow the hon. Gentleman to make the points that he wishes to make. The point that he has just made, however, is true. He is right that the quarrying industry affects many constituencies and Members of the House, who will not have the opportunity to represent their constituents in the way that they would prefer. It is a draconian motion, as my hon. Friend described it.
Does the hon. Gentleman also accept that in relation to issues such as quarrying, talks are going on behind the scenes, through the Departments, with the various interest groups, to ensure that those issues are considered? That is an issue of concern, but it is being dealt with through the guidance.
The hon. Lady's point is extremely worrying. We are talking about what is written in the Bill. We are legislating for all quarrying participants and abstractors. We cannot do that through behind-the-scenes conversations. Even if we could do so, the Minister's assurances may not be there for ever: perhaps he will be promoted, perhaps he will disappear on one of his ghost ships—who knows? It is extremely worrying that the hon. Lady suggests even for a moment that we can legislate with behind-the-scenes chats. I find that most unworthy of her.
Apart from the obvious issues in relation to the quarrying industry, large numbers of people in all our constituencies are looking to the House next week to debate properly the issue of fluoridation, which could undoubtedly fill an entire day of the parliamentary calendar were that opportunity to be made available. Does my hon. Friend agree that those people will feel profoundly let down by a Government who fail to make adequate time available for a proper and full debate of a major and important public health issue about which so many feel so strongly?
I agree with my hon. Friend; he is absolutely right. I shall come to fluoridation in a moment, but the issue will affect every household in the country and particularly the people who have the young children who are most vulnerable to tooth decay. One may believe that fluoridation is the best way of tackling that problem or that other methods should be explored, but it is almost deceitful that such provisions should be slipped into the Water Bill. I accept the reasons given in Committee as to why the Government chose to behave in this somewhat underhand manner, but there will be a deficit in the length of our debate. No matter how much we would like to debate this provision in the Bill more, there is another probably more sinister side to the matter. The decision on whether fluoride should be added to water will not be taken by us in the House. It will be pushed to the strategic health authorities, and that is a further derogation of our duty.
The votes on fluoridation will, unusually, be free votes for Opposition and Government Members. Does my hon. Friend therefore not agree that hon. Members may be more susceptible in those circumstances to listening to the debate and making up their minds rather than following a party Whip? Is it not then even more important that we have adequate time to hear all the arguments on fluoridation?
That is a tremendous point. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Furthermore, most hon. Members will have fairly open minds on this issue, particularly because the conclusions of the York report were so questionable. It did the work properly and suggested that there was a risk, but it said that further research needed to be carried out. The Government have failed to carry out that research and have proceeded with their legislative programme. That is astonishing. I agree that a great deal more time should be set aside so that we can obtain as much information as possible from the Government. They seem to be so confident that this is the best way to go ahead with mass medication that they have hidden it in the Water Bill.
Is my hon. Friend aware that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has been seeking to avoid discussing this issue in public? Two weeks ago I was drawn at No. 7 in the list for DEFRA oral questions, but Ministers transferred that question because they said that this issue was not a matter for the Department even though it is the sponsor of the Bill. The Government are trying to avoid discussing a matter of such great importance.
I remember that my hon. Friend and I discussed this at length, because I was horrified by the way that he had been treated. He is right. I suspect that Ministers were frightened of him. I can think of no other reason why they should shy away from his incisive questioning.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his customary generosity. Given that Ministers have a disagreeable habit of arguing in these circumstances that all the relevant matters have been exhaustively debated in Standing Committee, thereby justifying the circumscription of debate on Report, may I add ammunition to my hon. Friend's arsenal by making the point that some of us were not so favoured or fortunate as to be chosen to sit on the Standing Committee? That does not mean that we do not wish to inform the House of our views—if necessary, at appropriate length on Report.
My hon. Friend makes another extremely important point and I am very grateful to him for doing so. I suspect that, because he is such a tremendous debater, he will arm me with almost weapons of mass destruction. I do not think that I would be too upset watching the Government crumble before him.
Indeed, a 45-minute warning.
On the time limit of licences, we must cover the 12-year problem and the presumption of renewal. The presumption of renewal is a key issue for those investing in quarrying and abstraction. Provided that they are not doing any damage, the Bill should contain a provision that gives them a proper presumption of renewal. However, it does not. There will be problems with those who wish to appeal, and difficulties arise because details of how compensation will be claimed have not been set out. We could have thrown a little more light on those issues on Report, and it is again a tragedy that there will be a shortage of time. In Committee, we said that the Environment Agency needs to take account of infrastructure, costs and investments associated with abstraction before making a decision on the life of the abstraction licence.
We should address the conduct of the regulator and discharge to watercourses. The functions of the chairman and chief executive of the new water service regulatory body should be separate to prevent one person from having too much power in the regulation of the water industry. Clause 98 must ensure that surface water is kept separate from foul water in calculations of sewage water capacity. When new sewers are built, proper calculations should be taken into consideration so that if flash floods occur, water has the proper facilities to run off. If sewers flood back, which they do at present, it causes horrendous foul flooding that is deeply upsetting to householders and causes much damage. That could be avoided with proper regulation, but the Bill represents a missed opportunity to do that.
Clause 83 addresses the important duty to conserve water and improve water efficiency. An amendment relating to that issue was tabled by Labour Members and we had an important debate. I hope that further such amendments will be selected by Mr. Speaker, but who can tell at this stage? The water conservation duties in the Bill are too weak, and I hope to strengthen them on Report. I hope that an hour will be sufficient to hold an in-depth and constructive discussion on how to ensure the future best efficiency of our water because, after all, we all want the best possible management of water. Unfortunately, I doubt that there will be sufficient time for the views of the number of hon. Members who are passionate about that to be heard. The matter is of interest to hon. Members of all parties who have said how keen they are for a duty to preserve water properly to be imposed on all office holders.
My hon. Friend touched on the structure of the regulator and regulatory methodology. Does he agree that we do not yet know whether the time available—an hour—to consider a range of subjects including the structure of the regulator will be sufficient? It was evident in Committee that the Government's proposals on the structure of the regulator were questionable, and the Government were questioned by not only Conservative but Labour Members. The chances of the Government tabling amendments should be high, in which case we might not need to debate them at length. However, we did not have time to consider the impact of regulatory methodology and the regulator's regulatory impact assessments in Committee. Under the programme motion, there is a risk that we will not reach those issues on Report either.
I agree with my hon. Friend, who was a huge asset to the Committee because his wide-ranging experience of the way in which such legislation should be written was crucial. Tragically, he is absolutely right about the lack of time to explore the issues that he mentioned. However, the situation is worse than that. We want to use the framework on which he touched to ensure that proper regulation will exist so that people will behave in the way in which the Government want rather than having to be punished and pursued after a transgression. It would be helpful for the Bill to include such a provision but, tragically, it will not.
Surely it is important to remember when considering the time allowed for discussing the groups of amendments that if there is a disagreement in the House and Divisions are called, that will eat into the debating time. In some cases, we might have only half an hour in which to discuss important issues.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I am reminded that we do not know whether there will be a statement on Monday, which would also eat into the time allowed for the debate. I am glad to say that guillotines and knives are bad because all Conservative Members think that we need the opportunity to hold the Government to account. They are wriggling by moving such a programme motion. I am worried that issues such as fluoridation, which my hon. Friends touched on, will not receive more than two hours if we are lucky. The situation is absurd. The topic is controversial. Much doubt and uncertainty surrounds it. Fluoridation should be allocated much more time. It is appalling how the relevant clause has been pushed into the Bill without providing reasonable time for a quality debate.
Indeed, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Let me rephrase my remarks. Does my hon. Friend agree that Ministers' motivations in selecting the timetable might be more dependable were the calendar packed with business? As we saw yesterday and see today, many parts of the parliamentary calendar are allocated to Adjournment debates, for example. Does he agree that if Ministers wanted to make time available, it would be easy for them to do so in the next few days?
I agree with my hon. Friend, who makes his point most honourably. The speed at which the Bill is accelerating through both Houses is unseemly and does not do justice to the importance of the argument.
Other unanswered questions left over from the Committee will also need to be debated. The Minister was amenable in Committee, but even he will not have time during the two hours to cover all matters raised. In fact, when we debated fluoridation, the Under-Secretary of State for Health, Miss Johnson, responded—[Interruption.] It seems that fluoridation slipped into a DEFRA Bill. The Government have ensured that the lack of debate will prevent everyone from having their say, including the public. After all, we need to debate fully whether the public will get a proper opportunity to be consulted and have their say on what happens to them.
We need to thrash out how the Government will proceed with their intended agenda of introducing a registered poison into our drinking water while protecting companies through an indemnification policy instead of devolving the matters to local authorities, which are democratically elected and accountable, as opposed to strategic health authorities, which are not. Strategic health authorities are also not local, whereas local authorities are in touch with local people. All households should be consulted. It is vital that everyone in an affected area is not only presented with neutral in-depth information, but has the opportunity to have their say, perhaps in a referendum. That is not in the Bill. It is essential to cover that in a constructive debate.
As I said, my hon. Friend makes a powerful case for more time to be available to debate fluoridation. There are many things to consider, not just whether it is good or bad. I suspect many hon. Members on both sides of the House, not least on the Labour Benches, will be interested in making that argument. We also need to consider how fluoridation should take place and which body should be charged with the duty of determining public opinion in a particular area. Such matters cannot be debated in a maximum of two hours.
My hon. Friend is right. The questions on fluoridation that we asked in Committee were not answered in full. We were relying on the debates on Report to provide some of those answers. One question was the likely cost of indemnification. What will legal procedures cost? We have been assured by people who feel passionately about fluoridation that they will go to court because they believe that it infringes their human rights. I do not know whether that will happen for certain, but we need to know what it would cost. That alone will easily fill the time allowed, but we have only two hours for the whole debate.
It is strange that the Government have decided to take time to put the Bill through both Houses but failed to allow a full debate on all aspects of it. In Committee we hurried through as much as we could and, despite receiving many assurances from the Minister, we are now hurrying through the Report stage as well. It is easy to grow cynical in old age, but the method of legislating is not as thorough as it could be—[Hon. Members: "Oh!"] Methinks hon. Members do protest too much. We could do more to scrutinise the actions of the Government, especially a Government with such a large parliamentary majority, so we should we take a stand, like Moses before the Red sea, and watch the Water Bill part before us into untimed portions, each to be fully debated by the House.
I had not planned to say much during this debate, because the programme motion has already been debated and was agreed on
The motion does not alter the programme agreed by the House on
Has not the Minister experienced in his constituency the level of public interest in fluoridation? Does he not realise how many letters hon. Members have received on this subject? Does he not accept that many hon. Members will want to debate that subject? Does he not recognise that allowing only two hours is, to be frank, an insult to hon. Members on both sides of the House?
No, I do not accept that. I live in a fluoridated area and I have had no letters on the issue from constituents.
It is an anomaly that Report stage does not include a report. Will the Minister report to us how many new clauses, amendments and schedules were not properly scrutinised in Standing Committee? Is it not the case that Committee stage proved to be more controversial and more detailed than was anticipated back in September?
No, I do not accept that. Although I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the precise details off the top of my head, I can say that the Opposition parties felt that too much time had been allocated to discuss fluoridation in Committee, so, with the consent of the Committee, the three sittings allocated were reduced to two, which allowed us to take all the amendments and schedules, and finish them completely in the course of the Committee's sittings.
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will confirm or deny that my colleagues and I made every effort to take into account the Opposition's wishes when structuring the programme.
The Minister is right about fluoridation—we did manage to cover almost all the issues associated with it. However, he is not correct about how much of the rest of the Bill was not covered, which was a significant amount. It is important that people know that the issues I touched on in the speech I just made were not covered in Committee.
Just about all the issues were covered—not all, and I do not pretend otherwise, but I have served on Bill Committees for many years, including under the Conservative Administration when there was no programming of Bills, and I think that we got through a greater proportion of the Water Bill than of many other Bills. The lack of programming under the Conservatives meant that big chunks of legislation were never reached, and Opposition Members should not forget that.
The Minister is sniffily dismissive of the idea that fluoridation is a matter of public controversy. I put it to him, for the avoidance of doubt, that I have received a plentiful supply of letters on that subject from constituents, who would not accept his categorisation of the issue as merely one of health, but regard it as one of civil liberties. Furthermore, I remind him that consideration in Standing Committee is separate from and irrelevant to the question of hon. Members having a chance to ventilate their views on the Floor of the House.
That is why the largest chunk of the time provided on Report has been given to the issue of fluoridation, precisely to allow Members on both sides of the House to put forward their points of view. That is right and proper.
Following representations from the Opposition, we increased the number of sittings from nine to 11, and reached agreement on the programming. I have served in Committee on both programmed and un-programmed Bills. I believe that if programming is addressed in a sensible and rational way, as is proposed, it guarantees that many of the important issues raised during this debate can be discussed in a way that hardly ever happens during consideration of un-programmed Bills. I am not criticising Opposition parties, which have been constructive in their approach to an important Bill that contains many important measures, which I think the House wants to support and which people want to see enacted.
We, too, have concerns about the way in which the time for consideration of the Bill is being divided. One of the key issues is that even at this stage amendments are still being tabled. We are considering the allocation of time on Report and the grouping of amendments, yet we still do not know at what stage amendments will come before us for consideration and how much time will be needed to discuss them. If we end up with many amendments coming forward for consideration at the end of the Report stage, as often happens, we will not have adequate time to discuss them.
It is a good thing that the fluoride issue is not taking over the entire Bill. There are a great many important issues to be discussed, of which fluoride is one. However, we still question why such a vital health issue ended up in the Bill. I understand the concern about the legality of putting fluoride in water and the water industry's concerns about where it stands on that, but it is a health issue. However, those are concerns that affect many constituents and there will not be much time to debate them.
There are strong consumer issues. We have heard about quarrying, which affects many constituents. That is a key factor. Many Members want to make representations about those issues on the Floor of the House, and we need time to consider them.
Liberal Democrat Members are tabling important amendments that address some of the key injustices—[Interruption.] For us, they are important amendments. People in the south-west, for example, are paying large water bills and high environmental charges. Those are the injustices faced by people in the area, who are on very low incomes. We debated those matters in Committee. Having listened to the issues raised, we felt that it was right to bring forward further issues, particularly given that they concern Members with constituencies in the south-west, who have strong interests in the area.
We have concerns about the debate on fluoride. When we debated the matter on Second Reading and in Committee, we found that there was a lack of good scientific information on human health and fluoride. We have tabled amendments that will enable us to discuss why such scientific information is not available. Such information should be collected year on year. There were a number of questions that no one could answer on Second Reading or in Committee, which we felt could be dealt with successfully during further consideration.
The hon. Lady is touching on one of the more constructive Liberal Democrat amendments that was tabled in Committee, which proposed an annual review of the impact of fluoridation in areas where it went ahead. I understand informally from members of the Government that they were quite sympathetic to the idea, but we never had a chance to discuss it. Under the programme motion, we may never get a chance to discuss it on Report.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point. We were taken rather by surprise because we did not know when debate on the motion would take place. We were rushing round trying to find the Government's answers and who had written to whom. We still cannot find a letter that responds to the points that we raised. We knew that the Government said that they would respond to us. The letter may have arrived, but we cannot find it. In principle, we are not unhappy about grouping amendments, because it is important that we get to the end of the Bill and do not use the available time to discuss only half of it. We often discuss the initial clauses of a Bill for too long and fail to get to the end. It is important that we have time to do so. Many hon. Members want to speak on fluoride and quarrying, and it is a matter of grave concern that, once again, we are in danger of running out of time to discuss an important and wide-ranging Bill.