Clause 1 - Duty to conserve water resources

Water Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 8:55 am on 16 September 2003.

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Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Liberal Democrat, Lewes 8:55, 16 September 2003

I beg to move amendment No. 173, in

clause 1, page 1, line 5, after 'implement', insert 'effective'.

Photo of Mr Bill O'Brien Mr Bill O'Brien Labour, Normanton

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment No. 1, in

clause 1, page 1, line 6, after 'use', insert 'clean'.

Clause stand part.

Government new clause 16—Duty to encourage water conservation.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Liberal Democrat, Lewes

Perhaps we can maintain some harmony, because there seems to be general agreement that we should include the duty to conserve water resources in the Bill. It is simply a question of how we achieve it. The current formulation does not lend itself to support from the Government. They have tabled new clause 16 for the reasons that the Minister set out in a letter, which I imagine he sent to all members of the Committee—

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Liberal Democrat, Lewes

I see. For the benefit of the hon. Gentleman, as he has not received the letter, I shall read the relevant paragraph:

''Clause 1 was added to the Bill by an amendment in the Lords. While the intention of the amendment is sound, 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 can cut across the statutory responsibilities of regulators. The Government amendment retains the principle of the clause, whilst addressing these concerns. This will place a duty on the Secretary of State to take steps to encourage the conservation of water and report to Parliament every 3 years on the action taken.''

I am not against the Government's move in principle, because the intention is to strengthen the duty to conserve water resources. However, I note that new clause 16 includes that dreaded phrase ''where appropriate''. That seems to be the opposite of the wide duty that the Minister complains about, and can be a narrow duty if he or his officials choose to interpret it in that way. When does he believe that it would be appropriate to

''take steps to encourage the conservation of water''

as the new clause says?

Photo of Robert Key Robert Key Conservative, Salisbury

Could the hon. Gentleman kindly tell us where new clause 16 comes in the Bill, because we do not have that information?

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Liberal Democrat, Lewes

The new clause is on page 1078 of the amendment paper, if that helps members of the Committee.

I want to tease out with the Minister some issues relating to the phrase ''where appropriate'', and I hope that he will respond when he replies to the debate. I am reassured by the fact that the new clause requires the Secretary of State, after three years, to prepare a report about the steps taken, and any steps that he proposes to take. That seems entirely sensible. The report will be laid before Parliament, which gives hon. Members an opportunity to comment on the action taken and not taken. I am reassured by that safeguard.

The language in the Minister's letter amuses me slightly in a wry sort of way. He says that the duty is very wide, so there is a danger of unforeseen and undesirable implications. Presumably that means that we might save more water than is intended or be even more efficient at the conservation of water than is anticipated. I hope that that is not the reason why he put that in.

In general, I can support new clause 16, so in due course I will beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

The purpose of amendment No. 1 is to ensure that the Committee is acutely conscious of the dilemma that we will face during the passage of the Bill. I am referring to the fact that the Environment Agency is considerably more empowered by the legislation. Its mandate is to ensure that the environment is protected, and I do not think that any of us has a problem with that until we come into conflict with human needs. That is why we must be clear about the type of water that we are discussing at each stage. There is a significant difference between

river water and clean water or drinking water—water that does not pass on diseases and is safe for children and elderly people to drink. That is a fundamental difference. If we do not separate clean water and water as it is in the river outside, we will be unable to distinguish between the powers that are positive for protecting the environment and the powers that the Environment Agency may have to increase dramatically the cost to consumers. That is why we must be careful.

It rains in this country, as we know, all the time. Certainly if we ask someone from France or almost anywhere else abroad, they will say that the thing about Britain is that it never stops raining. That is why I am grateful for the sun shining in my eyes today. However, we fail to conserve a great deal of that water. On Second Reading, the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) said that only 2 per cent. of rainwater was conserved. If that is so, we must be clear about the type of environment that we are protecting and the type of water that we are conserving. That is why I saw fit to seek to insert the word ''clean'' before the word ''water''. My hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) spoke on Second Reading about the scarcity of clean water per capita in the south-east.

Photo of Mrs Diana Organ Mrs Diana Organ Labour, Forest of Dean

I am a little confused by the hon. Gentleman's line of argument. I can understand trying to separate out water that is fit for human drinking and water in our lakes and rivers, but is he advocating that the Environment Agency should not ensure that the water in our rivers, lakes and canals is as clean as we can make it? He seems to be distinguishing between one kind of water and another. I hope that he means that all the water in our natural environment should be as clean as it can be.

Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

The hon. Lady is extraordinarily naive if she thinks that canal water should be of the same quality as the water that comes out of the tap. That is not the point of the amendment. I am grateful for her intervention for that purpose alone.

Photo of Mrs Diana Organ Mrs Diana Organ Labour, Forest of Dean

I am perfectly well aware that we would not want canal water or British Waterways water to be fit to go straight into our drinking glasses, but I hope even so that the Government will give the Environment Agency, which has responsibility for the quality of our natural waters, enough powers to ensure that our waters are as clean as possible. Unfortunately, in past times, river water and river basins have been severely polluted.

Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

The Minister referred to his supporters as battle-hardened. I suggest that this is the wrong battle: we are talking about the duty on organisations to conserve water that has been cleaned. Most of the cost of delivering water to people's houses derives from the cleaning process, so it is extremely important to differentiate between the water in people's houses and the water outside. Throughout the Committee stage, we will be locked into a dilemma, discussing the quality of water that comes out of people's taps and the quality of water in rivers, streams, swamps, marshes and canals. We must be clear early on what the Bill will cost the consumer.

Photo of Ms Sue Doughty Ms Sue Doughty Liberal Democrat, Guildford

Is it not true that the Bill is about the abstraction of water for many purposes? It is about how we look after clean water that has already been treated and untreated water. This summer there has been a severe drought and river levels have fallen, with a consequent effect on the environment. Huge capital costs have been borne by water undertakers to get new supplies or to hold on to their untreated water supplies—water that is not defined as potable—thus there is a query when we discuss whether water is clean or potable. The Bill is not just about clean water but about water.

Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Very cruelly, on Second Reading, I said that the hon. Lady had not read the Bill, and I apologise to her for making that personal comment. However, it is clear that she has not read the beginning of the Bill, which refers to the duties of persons who use water to do so without wasting it. If people are watering their garden with water that they have collected in a water butt, they are not wasting the same asset as if they had filled up the water butt from the tap. There is a clear differentiation between the cost of collecting, cleaning and distributing water and water that falls from the sky.

Photo of Ms Sue Doughty Ms Sue Doughty Liberal Democrat, Guildford

I have spent a substantial time on the Bill. Personal insults about whether I have read it do not alter the facts: we are discussing the amount of water used as a whole, and clean drinking water. The proposal is about abstraction of water from rivers and reservoirs, some of which goes through a treatment process to create potable water and some of which is used in trickle irrigation, for example, which does not use potable water.

Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for clarifying her point. She is right: the Bill covers all the things that she mentioned, but the part that we are discussing now is about the duty to ensure that everyone who uses water does so without wasting it.

I want to move on from the clarification of clean or not clean water, water that has been cleaned rather than water from rivers or other sources—I referred to fresh water, I have not mentioned sea water. The Government have decided to replace the original clause. In the House of Lords, there was great concern that a Water Bill without the concept of conserving water was wrong—I agree with that opinion—and the Government have addressed many of the concerns raised.

I am sure that the Minister sent me a letter on the new clause, but I did not receive it, which is a shame. However, he has accepted much of the criticism levelled in another place, so I will not need to press my amendment, although I hope that the Committee will have taken note of the important difference between clean water and water that has not been through the cleaning process.

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley Minister of State (Environment and Agri-Environment), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I welcome the comments from Opposition Members and their indication that they will not press their amendments. As they rightly stated, the Government do not disagree about the principle behind clause 1. Indeed, we accept it and have supported it. We simply want to ensure that the provisions stand up to the various legal pressures and

that there is no confusion about responsibilities cutting across other regulators. We recognise that the need to conserve all water resources must be embedded in the Bill.

Opposition Members recognise that our concerns about clause 1 are significant because a wide, general duty could have unforeseen and undesirable consequences. The question whether a particular activity constitutes an appropriate use or a waste of water will be difficult. The phrase ''appropriate use of water'' is well understood and appears a lot in legislation—that should answer the question of the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker). We have to consider whether there is a problem and whether it is appropriate to take action. The term ''appropriate'' means proportionate and cost-effective in terms of the measures that could be taken in an assessment of investment for both drinking water and other environmental benefits. It is an accepted term, which places a duty on the Secretary of State for the clear objective of conserving water.

Photo of Ian Liddell-Grainger Ian Liddell-Grainger Conservative, Bridgwater 9:15, 16 September 2003

For clarification, in areas that have the potential of flooding and where there is long-term standing water, would the Minister envisage the possibility of water holding tanks for the renewal of reservoirs? There is also a proposal for him, when he is wearing another administrative hat, to consider inland holding tanks for flood water. Would he see those ideas as part of what he is trying to do with regard to clean water?

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley Minister of State (Environment and Agri-Environment), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Possibly. We should get away from the term ''clean water'' when discussing this part of the Bill. I understand the point made by the hon. Member for Leominster, but we are talking about all water resources. As was mentioned, the definition of ''clean water'' is potable water, but we are talking in a wider sense of water management.

With water management for flood protection, it is common for internal drainage boards to impound their drainage ditches for the summer. They raise the water levels in the summer, so that there can be summer abstraction for agriculture. That is a perfectly sensible way of managing water. In the winter, they lower the dykes so that there is carrying capacity for rainfall. As was said, we see a holistic approach on water management for a range of benefits, one of which is flood defence.

Amendment No. 167 and new clause 16 have been tabled by the Government to replace clause 1 with a duty on the Secretary of State to take steps to encourage water conservation and report to Parliament on progress and proposed steps. That will advance the interest of water conservation without cutting across the existing duties of regulators or water undertakers, which was a potential problem with clause 1 as drafted. The changes will also give Parliament the opportunity to scrutinise the sufficiency of the water conservation measures that have been adopted.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Liberal Democrat, Lewes

I am happy to see the new clause, but will the Minister explain a little more how the original clause would cut across the regulators? I am

keen for the Government to consider the reduction of water use in the home or business as part of water conservation measures, and they could look at various measures, including hippo bags. However, is he saying that such measures would cut across the regulators? What would be affected?

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley Minister of State (Environment and Agri-Environment), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Such measures are perfectly reasonable, and I can give the hon. Gentleman some examples of how we would see the duty to conserve being applied. First, however, I want to point out that the clause as drafted would have caused confusion among the drinking water inspectorate, water companies and the Environment Agency about where responsibility lay. The new clause will make it clear that the Secretary of State is ultimately responsible for the report to Parliament on the measures taken to conserve water.

The duty placed on the Government to promote conservation has been fulfilled in a number of ways, including: the establishment of Envirowise, which is a body that promotes water conservation; the introduction of enhanced capital allowances for investment in reducing water consumption; the promotion of the Watermark project, which enables benchmarking of water use to take place in public sector buildings; working with the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister on planning for sustainable communities and facilitating water-efficient new housing development; the development of a voluntary water-efficient product labelling scheme, as recommended by the Water Regulations Advisory Committee; and carrying out reviews, such as the recent review of the Water Supply (Water Fittings) Regulations 1999. Those are a few examples of how the duty to conserve water can be fulfilled by Government intervention and support.

Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I wonder whether the Minister would also consider establishing a water saving trust to promote water-efficient technology, on the same lines as the Energy Saving Trust. Will he also examine the planning process governing the creation of reservoirs and dams, which is long, complex and expensive?

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley Minister of State (Environment and Agri-Environment), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

On the latter point, there are clear procedures for putting reservoirs and dams in place. As the hon. Gentleman aptly states, those procedures are governed by the planning process and often involve a public inquiry. It is difficult to short-circuit that process, because there is always a great deal of interest in those issues.

I am familiar with the proposals for establishing a water saving trust, which have been around for a long time. I am fairly open-minded about taking such an approach, but we must ask whether the establishment of a body such as a water saving trust would achieve anything different in promoting the efficient use of water. I am not sure that it would, although the argument should be considered. At present, the priority is to ensure that the mechanisms in place deliver efficiently. The Bill is one of the ways in which we are trying to ensure that there are efficient regulations and controls and a duty on the Secretary of State to promote water conservation.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Liberal Democrat, Lewes

Let me pick up on the point about planning, because it is important that the duty placed on the Government is placed on all Departments, and not just on the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The issue of conservation in Government was raised by my colleagues in the House of Lords.

New clause 16 establishes the Secretary of State as the relevant authority in relation to England. Does that mean that the Secretary of State will be able to influence other Departments, for example by changing building regulations to ensure that water is saved in new dwellings? If so, will such measures be included in the triennial report to Parliament referred to in the new clause?

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley Minister of State (Environment and Agri-Environment), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Many of those measures are devolved and therefore are the responsibility of the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament. It is important to encourage the efficient use of water across the UK, but there is a devolved aspect to it, of which the hon. Gentleman will be aware.

Photo of Ian Liddell-Grainger Ian Liddell-Grainger Conservative, Bridgwater

Does the Minister envisage that the Secretary of State will formulate long-term extraction licences, which have been in place from time immemorial, into a more coherent system than at present? Would he see that as being provided for under the new clause?

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley Minister of State (Environment and Agri-Environment), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Bill includes provisions for dealing with licences that are currently held in perpetuity. Our long-term intention is to move all licences to time-limited licences, because our objective is the sustainable management of water. There are mechanisms in the Bill to encourage that to happen, and we will discuss them in various clauses, as we go through the Bill.

The Government take the issue of proper water resource management seriously, and that is the intention behind the new clause. We do not disagree with the principle or the reasoning behind the amendment that was made in the other place: the new clause will make it workable in relation to the legislation. I hope that the Committee will support it.

Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I have one more question. Why does the new clause contain a three-year reporting stage? Why did the Minister not choose annual reporting?

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley Minister of State (Environment and Agri-Environment), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The reason is simply that, in an industry such as water, in which large infrastructure investment is involved and things do not happen overnight, a three-year reporting stage will permit a clearer picture of what is happening on water management.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Liberal Democrat, Lewes

I need not delay the Committee further, because we have had a good run through the provision, and we are probably in the same position. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 1 disagreed to.