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I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
The Bill has made steady progress through the House, and I thank hon. Members for their commitment in helping it reach this stage and for their contributions to interesting and thoughtful debates. In particular, I thank the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend Miss Johnson, for her work this evening on fluoridation, on which we heard some very good speeches.
The points raised on the Bill have not suggested that its principle is wrong. I am glad that the principle of the Bill has received so much support. Members have asked whether the Bill should go further, how far it should go or what should be in it that is not in it. I feel that our debates have answered the fundamental questions asked while clarifying our intentions and the Bill's scope. I am particularly pleased with the amendments that we have made today to strengthen the sustainable development duty on the consumer council, which was of particular interest to my hon. Friend Ms Atherton. I am sorry that she cannot be with us tonight, but she will be pleased to know that we have addressed the points that she raised in Committee.
Hon. Members have welcomed the amendments intended to address the problem of private sewers, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping), for Rugby and Kenilworth (Andy King) and for Stroud (Mr. Drew) and Opposition Members who raised that matter. As an estimated 50 per cent. of households are connected in some way or other to private sewers, the issue is not minor and requires much careful thought. Although it is unlikely that there will be quick, short-term solutions, the Government are committed to addressing the issue.
I enjoyed the debates, although I realise that concerns remain and that we have not reached agreement on some things. I very much hope that the assurances that I have given and put on record about the principles and about some of the affected groups and industries will go some way to address the legitimate concerns that have been raised.
The impact of the Bill on industries that abstract water, especially in relation to quarry de-watering, which is being introduced for the first time, understandably concerns people who will have to obtain licences when they previously did not have to. Like many of the resources on which we rely, water is not in infinite supply. Until recently, we thought that rain was not in short supply in this country and that our water stocks could always be replenished but, increasingly, demand is rising and our water supplies struggle to meet it. Recent drought warnings in some parts of the country are a timely reminder of that. It is thus important that all types of abstraction are controlled. The impact of quarry de-watering on other abstractors and the damage that it has sometimes caused to conservation sites should not be played down. However, the industry is legitimate and I hope that my reassurances will go some way to meet its concerns.
Abstraction licensing based on water consumption rather than on activity type or water use is the only real way to tackle the problem of managing demand. If we are serious about sustainable development, we need to be ready to make those changes and look for alternatives to our current water use as well as seeking ways to reduce demand.
In setting up new regulatory arrangements, it is tempting to be over-prescriptive, but experience tells us that we need some flexibility to allow the water services regulation authority and the consumer council for water to be managed and to shape themselves. Our role is to ensure that the minimum requirements are laid out to enable those bodies to carry out their functions in an open and transparent manner that benefits consumers, the industry on which they depend and other stakeholders. I can only reiterate that we are committed to best practice and, in the case of the authority, to follow the recent recommendations of the Better Regulation Task Force.
As we have just heard, fluoridation will continue to spark much debate. However, it is important to continue to stress that the Government's approach to fluoridation has not changed; we are simply placing the decision to add fluoride to local water supplies in the hands of those best placed to make a decision: local strategic health authorities, in consultation with their local communities.
Despite our differences of opinion, there has been agreement among Members on both sides of the House about the main principles of the Bill: to promote the sustainable use of water resources, strengthen the voice of consumers and achieve a measured increase in competition. Those principles bring challenges and the Bill meets them by reforming abstraction licensing to improve long-term water resource management; introducing provisions for the better operation and regulation of the water industry and giving water consumers an independent voice; providing opportunities for competition for new entrants to supply water to large commercial and industrial customers; and promoting water conservation by undertakers and public bodies and, through them, by the public at large.
The Bill cannot deal with all water matters. In relation to our debates about such things as the water framework directive, it is important to think of the Bill as only one part of the wider water conservation and sustainable development picture. The Bill's contribution to that picture will greatly depend on the commitment to its principles beyond this place. Although the principle of sustainable development underpins the Bill, the measure is specifically about balancing the interests of the environment, consumers, water companies and other abstractors—a balance that we have sought to achieve throughout the Bill.
The Bill's Committee was one of the more constructive Committees on which I have served. The contributions from both sides were thoughtful and some good ideas were proposed. I end my speech by repeating that the measure forms part of an ongoing process to ensure that we take a sustainable approach to water, which is not an infinite resource—as we saw from the pressures put on us this year, the driest on record. We also face global pressures on water resources. The issues are important and the Bill goes a long way to meeting our commitment to sustainability in all aspects of Government policy.
The Bill had the potential to make a significant and positive impact on the UK water industry's regulation, competition and environmental sustainability. Instead, the Government have missed many good opportunities to implement something constructive, open, democratic and fair. I agree with the Minister that contributions throughout the debates on the Bill have been thoughtful, constructive, helpful and heartfelt in their intentions. The Government's intentions may have been sound, but they have failed to deliver them, and I am disappointed about the huge gulf between what could have been achieved during the constructive debates in Committee and what has been allowed to pass.
First, the Bill fails to link water abstraction with planning. The application processes for abstraction and planning and their dates of commencement and expiry should be simultaneous, so that there is only one course of action to take for a business wishing to abstract. A business with planning permission should be able to abstract, as it is a requirement of the planning process that abstraction is environmentally safe. The delay created by such a separation will undermine the certainty that businesses require in the longer term. That will not provide a sustainable outlook for water abstractors and is the first example of the Government fracturing investment in the water industry. Such fracturing persists throughout the Bill.
Secondly, the Government must have severely dented investor confidence in the water industry through their alterations to abstraction licences. I tried to ensure that the period of abstraction licences should be determined only after the Environment Agency has taken into account the infrastructure, costs and investments associated with the abstraction. The presumption of renewal could have been made more explicit in the Bill, but the Government have failed to create an open and clear process that would provide the stability required by those making long-term investment decisions. I cannot understand why the criteria for licence renewal are not incorporated into the Bill.
Thirdly, I remain concerned for drinking water companies—the Minister did not mention them, but they constitute a very British industry—and the Bill's consequences for their long-term prospects. Of course, I refer to allowing small abstractors to drill boreholes into licensed abstractors' aquifers. We covered that earlier today.
Water conservation duties have not been given high enough priority. Despite the Minister constantly reminding us in Committee and today that the Bill is about water resource management, the provision on the first crucial step to managing water has been worded far too weakly. That is not in the best interests of the future efficiency of our water sector. Equally, it is important to voice once again my concerns about the powers of the water services regulation authority and the possible danger that they involve. By not stating that the posts of chairman and chief executive are separate, the Government could allow a monopoly on the control of the regulation of the water industry.
Another matter of enormous significance is the failure to connect the Bill with the EU water framework directive of 2002. Perhaps one day the Government will get around to introducing legislation to deal with the EU commitments that they signed us up to.
I regret that clause 58, on fluoridation of water supplies, was sneaked into the Bill and subsequently pushed aside other important water issues. That is a fundamental failure by the Government; the Bill was neither the time nor the place to include that clause. Although fluoridation may have swamped the other topics by comparison, consultation on the issue has still not been as in-depth and detailed as perhaps it should have been.
I am also concerned that strategic health authorities will not ensure neutral, comprehensive consultations, because they are certainly not the correct bodies to assess people's views objectively. That has been shown by the very close vote that we have just had. Strategic health authorities are not representative of local communities, but the Government have nevertheless steamed ahead with the arrangements and duly failed to live up to the promise of local determination. Instead, they have left the decision to bodies with clearly biased agendas. This is a sad day for democracy and freedom.
The ideas of sustainability and resource management behind the Bill are welcome, but, sadly, the principles have not been applied to the content. As for the Government's supposed commitment to sustainability, the UK ranks 91st in the world environmental sustainability index. That is a disgrace and perhaps a reflection of the Government's lack of commitment to this country's environment. I am saddened by the knowledge that the Bill will not further the sustainability of the water industry.
There has been much constructive and intelligent debate among hon. Members on both sides in Committee and today, but my hopes that such discussion would lead to improvements in the Bill have not been realised to the extent that I had hoped. I regret the waste of the available opportunities for improvement, and I fear that the lack of certainty caused by the refusal to put statutory assurances in the Bill will significantly undermine the industry's long-term investment future.
It was a pleasure to serve on the Bill, and I congratulate the main spokespersons on both sides of the House on demonstrating the necessary technical knowledge, particularly in the early stages, when we were talking about abstraction; it was such knowledge that saw the Bill through. I have not followed the water industry with particular zeal, but I have learned a lot by serving on the Standing Committee, which sat for 11 two-and-a-half-hour sittings. If not exactly a marathon, that was certainly a long time.
The memories that remain with me from the debate on abstraction include Mr. Key waxing lyrical on the watercress beds that I never realised I was looking at in that lovely view of Salisbury cathedral. To him, I therefore say, "Thank you for the memory." I was not so convinced by the golf course lobby. Given that I do not play golf myself, I did not shed too many tears about the sustainability of golf courses during our consideration of the sustainability argument.
Another lasting memory was my hon. Friend Diana Organ telling us about the dry junior urinals that she had come across in a recently built school in her constituency. She asked us to spread the message, and I am doing so right now. But the funniest moment in Committee proceedings occurred when, as people were thinking about nothing in particular, the Clerk suddenly stood up and shouted, "Rats in the sewers!" I thought, "When? Now? Is a bubonic plague epidemic about to spread in London?" The shout was reminiscent of how the doormen shout the Divisions, and it surprised us all. It was a funny moment in the middle of such serious business. I congratulate those Members who promoted the adoption of private sewers. I never realised that there were so many private sewers throughout Britain. I can tell the Government that I have a lot of private street works, as well, which I shall be flagging up before too long.
To be serious for a moment, I asked the Whips if I could participate in this Bill because of the children in my constituency who suffer from bad dental health—an issue that the Minister mentioned today that was also mentioned in Committee. I said that I was ashamed to hear Bolton being mentioned so frequently in connection with bad dental health. I shall not spell out the statistics, but they are terrible. I wanted to participate in the Committee and to see the Bill through, as we shall shortly do, because the children in my constituency are suffering badly. They have no vote, and no knowledge of the health promotions that their households should be aware of.
I am delighted that the Lords supported the Bill by a ratio of 3:1, that the Committee supported it by a ratio of 14:6, and that there has been such a substantial majority across the political divide. It was nice to see people voting on the issue, rather than on its politics. I offer my thanks on behalf of the young children in my constituency, particularly those aged five and under. Depending on what the strategic health authorities and local authorities now decide, they could benefit from this important step forward.
I repeat that it has been a pleasure to serve on the Bill, and I congratulate all those who made such an important contribution to it.
I, too, thank those who were involved in the Bill. In particular, I thank the Minister for his generous response to the amendments—a response that was generous in the tone that he adopted rather than in the outcome. Still, that was a bitter pill with a sweetener attached. I also thank Mr. Wiggin, who approached the Bill very constructively. I congratulate him on his promotion to the post of shadow Secretary of State for Wales. It is good to know that, sometimes, the good guys get a lift up in this place, as well as the bad guys.
Having said nice things, I shall be slightly critical of the Bill for a moment. As we know, it was essentially a re-hash of what was dropped from the Utilities Bill, which shows that it had 2000 stamped all over it, rather than 2003. In the three years since then, the opportunity to move on has not been taken. The Bill totally failed to incorporate the water framework directive. In Committee, that was the directive that dared not speak its name. The Minister said that the Government had other ways of dealing with that matter but Scotland has a much better Bill as a consequence of the way in which matters are approached north of the border.
The Bill does not deal with the serious issue of water pricing, although Liberal Democrats did their best to raise it by referring to metering and to ironing out the differences in prices across the country. The Bill does not deal with water debt and only in passing with water efficiency. It does not deal with least-cost planning but it deals with fluoride, which is a health issue. It is interesting that the Under-Secretary of State for Health, Miss Johnson insisted that fluoride was not a medicine, but went on to set out the medicinal benefits that would result from adding fluoride to water—some mistake, surely.
The Bill is good as far as it goes. It does not go that far, but it goes some distance and should be welcomed on that basis. I hope that the Under-Secretary is listening, because I am now being nice about the Bill. It advances the cause of the environment through its abstraction proposals and it introduces a duty on public authorities to conserve water. It deals with private sewers, an issue that Members on both sides have been keen to raise, and with strengthening the consumer voice. There are definite plusses with the Bill and that is why we voted for it on Second Reading. We shall do so again tonight in the unlikely event that there is a Division.
As with the Waste Emissions Trading Bill, my regret is not about what is in the Bill but what is not in it. It is a missed opportunity; we could have gone much further. When the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs gets slots for legislation—that does not happen often because the Home Office corrals most of them—let us hope that it will take the opportunity to introduce comprehensive Bills rather than Bills that go only some part of the way, even if it is in the right direction.
I have sat for eight hours on Second Reading and Report in an attempt to make a few points about fluoridation, so I hope that I can ask the House's indulgence to make one or two more points on that issue.
I congratulate the Government on introducing the Bill. It is long overdue. The unfortunate consequence of inadequate legislation in 1985 caused severe distress to many inner-city areas that will benefit from this measure if a strategic health authority feels it right to go to consultation and ask its local population whether they want their water fluoridated.
I draw attention to the York review that took place in 2000 and the Medical Research Council report of 2001–02. The Government set them up to look at the issue, which had become stalled when every water fluoridation application through the health authorities from about 1990 onwards was rejected by water companies for reasons that have been outlined in the House. The all-party group on primary care and public health, of which I have the honour to be secretary, thought that it was about time that the issue was revisited to consider what had happened between 2000 and the end of last year when we began to consider the issue. We organised consultation and we received written and oral statements from 17 witnesses on both sides of the argument.
The all-party group is the only group that I know to have examined the issue in the House and to have considered it from a neutral stance. We held three oral sessions and took evidence from the 17 witnesses. We reported, in effect, to the House, and although I do not want to overstate the role of the group, it is a valuable Back-Bench body that discusses issues that sometimes do not receive the limelight that they deserve.
When we reported in April, we came to the firm conclusion that fluoridation, as a public dental health measure, was a good thing. We said that it would be effective for the reasons that have been rehearsed today and that there was no evidence that it caused ill health. Of course, as hon. Members have said, more than 5 million people in this country currently benefit from natural and artificial fluoridation.
Members of the group reached the firm conclusion that the civil liberties argument could be rejected if, as we believed, the yardstick of public dental health was firm. A similar consideration applies to such measures as the compulsory wearing of seat belts and crash helmets. There is a civil liberty aspect to those measures but public health or road safety considerations outweigh that disbenefit.
Interestingly, when the group examined the MRC report and heard from the scientists who conducted the review, Dr. Harrison, who led the review, said that he believed that fluoride was safe. It was suggested earlier that there were 15 items that the review found outstanding but our questioning found only one—[Interruption.] It might be suggested that this has nothing to do with the Bill, but we have just voted on fluoridation.
The early-day motion in favour of fluoridation that was signed by 150 hon. Members has been mentioned, and the all-party group reported at about the same time that that motion was tabled. The report was sent to the then relevant Minister, my hon. Friend Ms Blears, who said that it was an important contribution to the debate on fluoridation. The group made the following recommendations and I am pleased that the House has confirmed its view tonight. It said that fluoridation was a public dental health measure, that the legislation needed amending and that health bodies should carry out open, effective and transparent consultation when recommending fluoridation to their populations. It also said that the Department of Health should amend the protocol to allow water utilities to be properly indemnified. Those measures have come to pass tonight, so I am delighted to have played a part in that and that the House has accepted the all-party group's recommendations.
This has been a good, short Third Reading, so I shall be brief. The Minister for the Environment was right that the Bill was one of those of which it was well worth serving on the Committee. However, we shall have to return to several matters. I look forward to returning to the water framework directive, abstraction and Crown immunity. I look forward to addressing the price of water, which must be determined by metering in the future. I look forward to tackling sewerage systems that flood into clear and clean waterways and the price that we pay for that. I would like to examine Ofwat's role in future investment in the water industry because I believe that it is obstructive. I would like much more attention to be paid to planning consent linked to sustainability when considering water and sewerage. My message tonight is that the Bill has surely taught us to stop wasting water, if nothing else.
There is a lavatory in the No Lobby. Cold water was dripping from its tap on the evening of the Second Reading debate on
I shall try to be as commendably brief as Mr. Key, who, for the purposes of our deliberations in Committee, I considered an hon. Friend because we worked together to make the Bill better. Although some of us will campaign outside this place to ensure that fluoride does not get added to our drinking water, that was the one sore point in an otherwise consensual piece of legislation.
I want to emphasise the role of flood relief. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will take that forward because it is as important as sewerage. Some of us are pleased that it is in the Bill, but other legislation also needs to be introduced. The cohesion in Committee and the importance of flood relief deserve to be mentioned. As hon. Members said, we will return to other issues, but let us not underestimate the importance of flooding as a key consideration.
I want to say a few brief words about the Bill's effects on the horticultural sector. The Minister is aware that I have one of the few constituencies in England where fruit farming is the predominant agricultural type. Many of my constituents are deeply worried about the effect of the Bill on trickle irrigation. Their concerns centre on two things: the cost of trickle irrigation schemes and the regulatory impact of such schemes. My hon. Friend Mr. Wiggin dealt with many of those concerns in Committee, for which I thank him. I am sure the Minister will agree that fruit farming should be supported.
Perhaps I can give the hon. Gentleman some reassurances on trickle irrigation. When it comes to abstraction licences and costing, the Environment Agency will be structured in a way that recognises trickle irrigation as a much more efficient use of water.
As I will not contribute to the debate further so that others may speak, I take this chance to thank Committee members. In addition, I will miss Mr. Wiggin, who is leaving his post as shadow spokesman on the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to become shadow spokesman on Wales. He is obviously the nearest thing the Conservatives have to a Welsh MP. I also thank the excellent officials who worked so hard in supporting the Bill and drafting amendments.
I want to refer to one thing that has not been mentioned. Changes have been made to the Bill's measures, whether they be on fluoridation or private sewers, at all its parliamentary stages. I have been here four years and it is rare for that to happen. So that is a positive event to acknowledge.
One thing that we did tonight, which we did not have an opportunity to debate but should be noted in passing, was to provide a better definition of sustainable development. We debated that in Committee. I am glad the Minister saw sense on the nonsensical initial definition of sustainable development. What is in the Bill now is far better for consumers and whatever authority is involved. That will be more important in the long term than anything else in the Bill because it sets down the principles, which are more vital than the details. If we get the mindset right, the details will follow. The Bill is important for getting the mindset right.
I remain disappointed by the Bill. It will not tackle the problem of rising water tables under many of our big cities. If more competition were introduced, more companies would come forward to tap into those resources and solve two problems at once. The Bill will not solve water shortages. Indeed, it seems animated by a wish to ration and control water use rather than to tackle shortage. Again, if competition were strengthened that would go a long way to dealing with water shortages without damaging the environment. There is nothing damaging about using the water cycle more often as water makes its way from the mountains to the sea.
I am disappointed by the flooding provisions. Many of us have had flooding problems in our constituencies and we often find that we do not get an answer because of the conflicts between the Environment Agency, the local council and the water companies. Although I understand that the Minister has worked through the Bill to tackle those issues, the solution will not be perfect. Conflicting powers remain and we will find that the three different bodies involved will deny responsibility and make it difficult for us to get the solutions that our constituents want.
I am worried about price—
There is hardly enough time.
We have very expensive water. Again, competition would tackle that. There is nothing in the Bill to deal with the absence of a national water grid, yet we have an embryo national water grid between the various main pipes in the regions and with the canal network. It would be good if more work were done, through the industry, to find a way to get a national water grid so that we can transfer more water more readily from the wet areas of the country to the drier areas where there are more people and rising water demand.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed, with amendments.