Commons Amendment

– in the House of Lords at 7:37 pm on 13th November 2003.

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1 Clause 1, page 1, line 4, leave out Clause 1

Photo of Baroness Byford Baroness Byford Conservative

rose to move, as an amendment to the Motion that the House do agree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 1, leave out from "House" to end and insert "do disagree with the Commons in their Amendment 1, but do propose the following amendment to the words so restored to the Bill—

1AClause 1, page 1, line 6, at end insert ", and in carrying out his duty, shall have particular regard to the steps to be taken under section (Duty to encourage water conservation)""

Photo of Baroness Byford Baroness Byford Conservative

My Lords, in our various discussions during the passage of the Bill through the House we tried desperately to persuade the Government that there was a need to have a duty to conserve water placed at the beginning of the Bill. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, who wrote to me on 12th September 2003. The letter states:

"While the intention of the amendment is sound"— in other words, the Government accept the thrust of what we are trying to do—

"as drafted it presents a number of significant concerns. The duty is very wide so there is a danger that it might have unforeseen and undesirable implications. In particular, it has been suggested that it could cut across the statutory responsibilities of regulators".

I read that very carefully and I am still not convinced that we should not try to proceed with our amendment.

As noble Lords will realise, last summer was extremely dry. It is said that unless we get rainfall this winter that is 30 per cent higher than average it is likely that we shall have a serious drought next spring. I return to the Minister's letter. I understand the term "unforeseen"; obviously, crises can arise. I have no difficulty with that. However, I should like the Minister to explain further the term "undesirable implications". In what way could such a duty have undesirable consequences unless the Secretary of State took actions which were ill-judged or poorly implemented? I do not see where the Minister is coming from.

I turn to government Amendment No. 82. I am grateful to the Government for having taken on board the thrust behind our original amendment which we pursued at every stage of the Bill's passage through this House. I realise that the measure is an important addition to the Bill but I should like to see it at the beginning of the Bill. I think that the Minister will not be surprised to hear me say that that is where I think it should be. It is very important that one of the first things that a reader of the Bill sees is a duty to encourage water conservation. I cannot understand why there is so much resistance from the Government to that particular aspect.

I am trying to be constructive and helpful, as one does at the end of a Bill's passage. I suggest therefore that my amendment would partly meet the Minister's concerns in that it would make the reader of the Bill refer to the terms of government Amendment No. 82, which I presume he is happy with as he is proposing it. I am in a slightly difficult position, and would like to hear further from the noble Lord on that. My real desire is to see the duty to conserve water resources moved to Clause 1. I beg to move.

Moved, as an amendment to the Motion that the House do agree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 1, leave out from "House" to end and insert Amendment No. 1A as an amendment to the words so restored to the Bill.—(Baroness Byford.)

Photo of Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Liberal Democrat 7:45 pm, 13th November 2003

My Lords, I support the noble Baroness's amendment. Since we discussed the matter in the House, we have seen rainfall continue to diminish during the year. Indeed, the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington, in reply to my Question only on Tuesday said that we had had the worst rainfall figures for February to October for 74 years, with the exception of 1959. Under those circumstances, even the past few months could show us why it is more important than ever that we have the provision at the beginning of the Bill. After all, many of its clauses are concerned with changing the water regime so that it is more sustainable and more about conserving water. That is what the extraction changes and the drought plans are all about.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington, also said on Tuesday, the drought plans are applied region by region and are for water companies to implement. Of course, what was not said on Tuesday was that we now have Water Grid Ltd, which is to do with moving water around the country. That and Mr Morley's comments at Third Reading in another place—he said that a measure to deal with the very low levels in reservoirs was to pump the rivers out—leads me to lend the noble Baroness even stronger support for the amendment. The scenario that we have seen this year is likely to be repeated in other years if we are to believe, as I do, the forecasts by scientists who study climate change. We cannot afford to be complacent in this area.

I, too, look forward to hearing exactly what the problem is with underlining the importance of conservation as one of the prime purposes of the Bill. The Minister mentioned adverse effects. I cannot understand what the adverse effects of the Secretary of State having such a duty could be.

Photo of Baroness O'Cathain Baroness O'Cathain Conservative

My Lords, I wish to speak to Amendment No. 82. Before I do so, I declare an interest as a director of a water-only company in the South East. As we know, Amendment No. 82 inserts a new clause requiring the Secretary of State and the Assembly in Wales to take appropriate steps to encourage the conservation of water. I agree wholeheartedly with my noble friend Lady Byford that that really should be at the beginning of the Bill, because it is one of the most important issues.

I should like to ask the Minister what action the Government intend to take in respect of the water-resource situation in the south-east of England. We heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, that there had been a huge drought. It makes me smile wryly when I consider that, in Committee, we talked about drought and were not quite laughed out of court, but we were told that the matter was not in our ken, that the country had too much water and had not had drought for seven years, and goodness knows what else. The situation is now very serious.

As I explained many times during the passage of the Bill, the south-east region is water-resource deficient. A recent Environment Agency report, State of the Environment 2003—The Environment Agency's assessment of the environment in South East England, showed that Kent, Sussex, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight's water resources were the most precious in the UK. More water is consumed for each person in the South East than anywhere else in the country, which, combined with the fact that it is more deficient there, sets up a real problem. The area receives one of the lowest amounts of rainfall each year.

The amount of water available to each person is already lower than in Egypt, Morocco and Kenya, and less than a fifth of that in Turkey. As the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, has said, drier summers are predicted in Britain in the future as a result of climate change. Added to that, a huge increase in demand for water in the South East is forecast as a direct result of population growth. Our population is going to grow by about 2 million. According to the Environment Agency, that will cause more unsustainable water abstractions unless demand is managed and new resources are developed. We all know about the outcry that greets new resource development such as reservoirs.

At last month's Economist Water Conference, the Environment Minister, Mr Elliot Morley, was quoted as saying that the South East has already been officially recognised as a water stressed area. In that context I want to ask the Minister what the Government's intentions are regarding demand management measures for the South East and, in particular, for water metering? The Defra policy paper, Directing The Flow: Priorities For The Future of Water Policy, published in November 2002, discusses the water resource situation and identifies as a priority for water policy,

"prudent use of water resources and keeping its use within the limits of its replenishment".

That point was made by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, and my noble friend. The paper goes on to state:

"We will continue to use the twin track approach of demand management and development of resources to achieve sustainable management of water resources".

The Water Bill takes forward the main supply measures set out in the Defra paper, putting water resource and drought plans on a statutory basis and makes changes to the abstraction licensing system. The Government are also aware of the need for water companies to reduce their leakage rates. However, as the Environment Agency has pointed out, the majority of the region's water companies achieved a reduction in their leakage rates between 1997-98 and 2000-01.

I turn to demand management measures. The Government's policy is to permit the growth of metering on a voluntary basis. It is now clear that that approach is less than equal to the water resource challenges that we face in the South East. The agency's report, State of the Environment 2003, the Environment Agency's assessment of the environment in south-east England, published in June this year, states:

"All water companies in the South East have seen an increase in the number of metered properties since 1997/98. This increase has mainly been through voluntary take-up, installations in new homes and the metering of sprinkler or swimming pool users".

But it goes on to state:

"Continuation of this policy is unlikely to achieve the metering levels the Environment Agency believes is necessary. Most of the companies are unlikely to achieve the forecasts for 2004/05 and 2024/35 proposed in their water resource plans".

For some time, the agency has accepted that real water savings from metering will come only when there is sufficient metering penetration to introduce innovative tariffs that dissuade high domestic use.

As I have explained previously, the reality is that pursuit of a policy of optional metering, at the request of customers and free of charge, is ineffective as a demand management tool. Compulsory metering is much more economical than optional or selective metering. Optional metering is more costly because meters may be situated only in every third, 10th or 20th house. In other words, compulsory metering is the only economic way of applying demand management in a scarce water area.

Furthermore, the situation in the South East has deteriorated since we last discussed the Bill and since the agency produced its report. For eight consecutive months, the region has had below-average rainfall. According to the Met Office, 575 mm of rain should have fallen in south-east England during the first 10 months of the year where only 346 mm fell. River flows have continued to fall throughout the autumn, which has been the third driest in the region since records began. As has been pointed out, if we do not have substantial rainfall this winter, the region faces water shortages next spring.

The water companies that serve the region have called on their customers to help conserve water supplies, but it seems ludicrous to suggest to people in the middle of November that there should be a hose-pipe ban, because few hose-pipes are used at this time of year. I note that WaterVoice Southern, which is the voice of the consumer, is backing these efforts.

Therefore, in light of the new Clause 81 and the deteriorating situation in the South East of England, do the Government have any plans to change their policy on metering? If not, do they believe that the situation in the South East is now sufficiently serious to warrant the Secretary of State declaring it "an area of water scarcity" and therefore to be subject to compulsory metering without the need for a company application, which would only delay the inevitable that a change in policy is required to recognise the seriousness of the situation?

Lest I should be accused of worrying only about the South East, although that is where the situation is serious, the whole of England and Wales is seriously water deficient. According to a press notice from the Environment Agency this month, throughout England and Wales there is less water available per person than in some countries in Africa and the Middle East. Given the Government's own projection that there will be an increase of 3.3 million households in England and Wales between 1996 and 2016, and that the population is set to increase by 2 million over the same period, the situation is serious. Can the Minister inform the House what other measures the Government are considering in terms of demand management or resource development in order to comply with their new duty to take appropriate steps to encourage the conservation of water?

Photo of Lord Whitty Lord Whitty Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Food, Farming and Sustainable Energy)

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, raised a number of points which go beyond the terms of the alternative amendments. Clearly, there is a serious situation in the South East. We recognised that in this House and during the course of this Bill. The water resource plans, parts of which are reflected in the Bill, are aimed at ensuring that long-term planning of water supply meets the demand. The restrictions on abstraction, the powers given to water companies, the requirements on them to have drought plans, and their powers of persuasion and ability to impose, for instance, hose-pipe bans all go together to mitigate the potential water shortages in areas such as the South East. Water companies can also require the metering of new developments, which also helps the situation.

I am not trying to belittle the problems in the South East, but there are a number of different measures—

Photo of Baroness O'Cathain Baroness O'Cathain Conservative

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. In the case of new housing developments, water companies can ask for meters to be installed but it is not a statutory requirement. That would help.

Photo of Lord Whitty Lord Whitty Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Food, Farming and Sustainable Energy)

My Lords, no, but in practice water companies take advantage of the ability, in particular in the South East. New developments could be covered by that. However, we are talking about encouraging water conservation and the argument is about where, and the form in which, the provision should appear in the Bill. I interpreted the noble Baroness as saying that she had no real objection to Amendment No. 82, merely its place in the Bill. We could always argue about that, but the problem with putting it where she should wish it—as an additional amendment to Clause 1—is that Part 1 is described as "Abstraction and impounding" and it deals with restrictions on impounding. On the other hand, as regards some of the more general provisions in Part 3, the duty on conservation would apply more widely.

Ultimately, where we put the provision in the Bill is to some extent a matter of taste because every part of the Bill has the same legal significance. The more important objection to the noble Baroness's amendment is the form in which Clause 1 came out of the House and has been deleted in the Commons amendment. It states that:

"The Secretary of State shall have a duty to devise and implement measures to ensure that all entities and persons who use water do so without wasting it".

That is a somewhat wider power than others given to the Secretary of State in the Bill. It could cut across powers which are given to other entities in the Bill. The term "entities" here is not described and the term "persons" could mean that the Secretary of State in some sense has the ability to check the level of water in our baths or the number of showers we take per day. That may be at the extreme end of interpretation, but it is a legitimate and logical interpretation of this clause because there is no limitation on it; nor are any powers, other than those already in the Bill or in existing legislation, given to the Secretary of State to carry out that rather wide-ranging duty.

The other reason for placing the provision in Part 3 of the Bill is that that would apply to all aspects of water legislation. It would apply to parts which amended the Water Industry Act and those which amended the Water Resources Act. Therefore, the key issue is that the new clause, which would place a duty on the Secretary of State to carry a responsibility for water conservation, would apply throughout all the powers which accrue to the Secretary of State in the Bill, but it does not imply that she would have more powers, nor that her powers might override the powers given statutorily, for example, to the Environment Agency and the regulator. Those are prescribed separately in the Bill and in previous legislation.

That is my objection to keeping Clause 1 as it stood when we last saw the Bill. My objection to it being in this place in the Bill is perhaps more marginal. There are obviously advantages to having the duty up front but, in practice, that would limit its application to the areas covered by Part 1, which includes amendment to one piece of legislation but not the other.

Photo of Baroness Byford Baroness Byford Conservative

My Lords, I thank both the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, and my noble friend Lady O'Cathain. I particularly thank my noble friend Lady O'Cathain because she explained in great detail why she considers this amendment to be important.

I listened with care to what the Minister said but I am afraid that he has not convinced me either way. I believe that I quote him correctly. We shall have to wait until we read Hansard tomorrow before we can be sure, but I think that he implied that the Secretary of State should not have powers to override other people who have responsibilities. I believe that the Secretary of State should be able to do that. Ultimately, someone must be able to do so.

The Minister said that his feelings about where the clause appeared in the Bill were "marginal" but that he was not so concerned about that matter. However, I believe that the Secretary of State should have the power to dictate other aspects of responsibility in the Bill. I am not very happy with the answer that I have been given and I believe I should seek the opinion of the House.

On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 1A), as an amendment to the Motion, shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 43; Not-Contents, 72.

Division number 6 Private Parking: Ports and Trading Estates — Commons Amendment

Aye: 41 Members of the House of Lords

No: 70 Members of the House of Lords

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.

On Question, Motion agreed to.