Clause 8 - Rights to abstract small quantities

Water Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:00 pm on 16 September 2003.

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Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 3:00, 16 September 2003

I beg to move amendment No. 48, in

clause 8, page 8, line 10, at end insert—

'(1A) Where the construction of a bore hole in connection with an exempt abstraction could affect the essential characteristics of water resources used by the licensed natural water abstractor, the consent of the Environment Agency must be sought.'.

The amendment is important because it addresses the fears of the drinking water abstractors. I shall begin by saying how much I appreciated the 20 cu m small abstraction allowance. That is a positive provision, and I welcome it. However, if smaller abstractors sink a bore hole into the substrata and start abstracting water for use as drinking water, such as this Hildon water, or the excellent Radnor Hills, or the various other drinking waters and mineral waters that we all enjoy, they are subject to an enormous number of inspections and their water quality must be of the finest. I can see that the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) is itching to intervene on behalf of that blue-bottled water of which he is so fond.

There is, however, a risk. Not only will the abstraction licence for such a business be for 12 years, when it would normally expect to spread its costs over 20 years, but there is now a risk that others may also sink bore holes into the same rock substrata,

which could have a damaging effect on the quality of the water that the original company abstracts.

We are all aware of how much marketing is done on that type of bottled water, particularly with reference to the name of the spring. That means that those companies have very little flexibility in moving their source of water and so, since they have gone to the expense of setting up bottling facilities and quality control, they need to be protected. The amendment would offer them that protection and would also enable the Environment Agency to fulfil admirably what we would like to see as its role: policing the abstraction that takes place, for the quality of our environment.

I hope that the amount of water abstracted by bottling companies is not such a huge quantity as to be damaging, and it is important that we support that particularly British industry. Some 1.4 billion litres of domestic bottled water are drunk annually, out of a total of 1.8 billion bottles. A huge proportion of our domestic consumption is supplied from domestic sources, and we look to the Environment Agency to protect that industry properly. That is the purpose of the amendment, and I hope that the Minister, if he does not find my wording perfect, will at least adopt the concept that I have proposed. The issue is important to us all, and particularly to hon. Members, who are lucky enough to find mineral water in Committees such as this.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Liberal Democrat, Lewes

I am all for protecting the mineral water industry, although I would point out that in some parts of the UK the tap water is of better quality than mineral water—although I am sure that that does not apply to the water that comes from Ceredigion. Moreover, from an environmental point of view, the emissions from transporting bottles of water here, there and everywhere should be borne in mind. However, let me not be churlish about that industry and instead turn to the amendment.

The hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Wiggin) is right to raise the possible consequences for the industry of what would otherwise be exempt abstractions. I am not sure that the wording works, but it is the Minister's job, not mine, to tell the hon. Gentleman. It is not clear from the amendment who would be required to seek the consent of the Environment Agency, and if it is the person who wanted to sink the bore hole, whether he would have the necessary expertise to determine whether there may be an effect that would require the Environment Agency's permission. It is not clear to me how the system would work.

What is clear is that we need a remedy either of upfront consent—I agree that we want to avoid that for very small abstractions—or of giving individuals the right to take action subsequently. I do not know the answer, and I hope that the Minister has found a way of striking a balance between the legitimate rights of those who wish to abstract small quantities and those who may be affected by it.

Photo of Mr Simon Thomas Mr Simon Thomas Plaid Cymru, Ceredigion 3:15, 16 September 2003

Let me say how delighted I am to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Amess. I am sorry

that I missed this morning's sitting; we were trying to sort out the leadership of Plaid Cymru overnight, although it will take a lot longer than that.

I support the thrust of the amendment, which relates to an important matter that was mentioned on Second Reading. It is right that we have the opportunity to consider it in Committee. I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure us about how it might work.

I shall outline my concerns. There are two types of bottled water, that which is bottled at source, such as Ty Nant, in the famous blue bottle, which comes from my constituency, and generic bottled water, which may be called Brecon beacons bottled water or whatever, and can come from all over the place, not from one aquifer. It is not of the same importance as water bottled at source. As the hon. Member for Leominster said, the fountain, stream or aquifer cannot be moved, therefore although Ty Nant is no longer owned by a local family it still employs about 30 people, which is important in the area.

I accept the point made by the hon. Member for Lewes that from an environmental point of view it is better to drink water from the tap, which I do except when I am in London, where I would not touch it with a bargepole. As I am used to the clean springs of west Wales, hon. Members would not expect me to defile my body with London water.

It is important to protect the industry and ensure that it can plan for its future. The Bill will introduce a licensing regime; some producers are concerned that it will limit the scope for investment when they discuss matters with banks and so on, because they will not have the guarantee of a long-term licensing system. On the whole, environmental considerations must outweigh other considerations. Water is such a precious resource, we cannot give licences willy-nilly and say, ''It is available for as long as you want. Invest on that basis.'' We must be able to say, ''Now the aquifer is exhausted we must protect the resources.''

It must be the case, too, that a company that has a licence for only 12 years, for example, should be able to protect its investment. Bore holes, perhaps drilled by people who are trying to exploit the same water, should not undermine the company's investment and its long-term sustainable development. Much of our bottled water comes from rural areas, and depends on the source and purity of the water being maintained. It is easy for farmers to drill a small bore hole, particularly for summer use, and it is right that they should not be covered by the measure. Like the hon. Member for Leominster, I welcome the Government's approach, but it is also right to give the Environment Agency some powers of scrutiny so that it can be alerted to any problems. If a water resource in an area from which there is a lot of extraction is also being exhausted by several small unlicensed bore holes, the agency must have the ability to step in and say, ''Hang on. Let's consider the whole resource and its conservation. Let's accept that we have licensed one extraction and protect that, and try to deal with the rest.'' I do not really care how we do that. It is simply important that we get it right in the Bill, and the

amendment provides a useful opportunity to debate that and for the Minister to respond.

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

I certainly understand hon. Members' concerns on this issue. I appreciate what they are saying and I have some sympathy with it. There are some problems with the amendment, however, as I shall outline. The Bill introduces deregulation for small abstractions: they no longer have to be licensed. That is welcome in relation to agriculture in particular. It also means that we can concentrate on the bigger issues of water management. There is a balance within the Bill.

I understand the concerns of mineral water companies that are extracting from a particular bore hole because that is important in respect of the composition of the water that they market. It is worth noting, however, that an abstraction licence does not offer a guarantee. The licence that the company holds does not offer a guarantee as to the continuing composition of the water that it can abstract, because compositions can change over time, for various reasons. The licence offers no guarantee that that particular chemical composition will remain in perpetuity. It may do, but there is no guarantee. Changes over time are a risk that mineral water companies face.

Under the current regime, the Environment Agency has a duty not to issue an abstraction licence that would derogate from the quantity of water available to a water bottler. That is useful in itself. The agency has separate duties to ensure that the groundwater is not contaminated, which is also important. If a company markets a product on its purity, it does not want groundwater contamination, and the agency has powers to deal with that, which are not changed by the Bill. The agency does not have duties to maintain the exact chemical composition of groundwater—indeed, it would be very difficult to do so, as I am sure hon. Members recognise. The agency does not have powers to control the drilling of bore holes where those are below the exemption threshold. The Water Resources Act 1991 regulates the abstraction of water and drilling of bore holes where abstraction is above the threshold. Therefore, there are protections for mineral water companies in terms of the amounts of water that can be taken out of the aquifer that serves them.

The amendment would require a person wishing to construct a bore hole for abstraction to obtain consent from the Environment Agency to do so if the bore hole might impact on groundwater that is bottled. I do not believe that the amendment would have the desired effect. The abstraction licensing system does not generally enable the agency to consider effects on water composition, only potential impacts on water quantity. The amendment would not change that.

It is possible that, if there were worries that there might be a large number of small extractions from the water company's aquifer, the Environment Agency, under the catchment strategies that it will put in place, would have the power to lower the existing thresholds. That would reduce the number of bore holes. The agency has some powers to deal with problems should they arise.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Liberal Democrat, Lewes

In the event that the agency decides to lower the threshold, would that apply retrospectively?

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

I do not think that it would, because people would have the licence for what it was set for. The thresholds would be lowered in the case of future applications if it was felt that the amount of water being taken was at its limit, and therefore one could ensure that the thresholds were lowered below the 20 mark.

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

I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Bringing in this 20 cu m limit effectively gives people a great deal of freedom, particularly the farming community. That is good, but the purpose of the Bill is to ensure that the environment is protected too. Focusing the Environment Agency only on the quantity of water that is abstracted fails in terms of the quality of the abstractions. I do not suggest for one second that my wording necessarily achieves what I want to see done, but that is not the whole debate.

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

To clarify, the Environment Agency has powers in relation to pollution control of the groundwater. It cannot guarantee or maintain the chemical composition.

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

No one is asking for a guarantee of quality, but we want to prevent damage to the aquifer. This is a fundamentally different debate. All the quality controls exist after the water has come out of the ground. That is the responsibility of the water company. It is not allowed to bottle water that is not of a certain standard, nor may it add chlorine or any other chemicals. The water must be pure from the spring. It is worrying that these freedoms will open up the aquifer to many little abstractors. Surely the Environment Agency must have at least some responsibility for the quality of the aquifer. It does not have to protect the quality of the water. Punching lots of little holes into the aquifer will make it more liable to chemical pollution.

Photo of Mr Simon Thomas Mr Simon Thomas Plaid Cymru, Ceredigion

Did the hon. Gentleman get the same impression as I did from the Minister's final response when he said that the Environment Agency rightly had an overall view of the catchment area and the water being extracted from it? It could take action later on if the aquifer was being severely denuded. That would be shutting the stable door after the horse had bolted, because the bottled water industry might be in a perilous situation by the time that happened.

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

That is exactly the problem. The water bottlers do not want to have their source reduced. They do not want to be told that because of damage that others have done by drilling into the same aquifer they cannot carry out their business anymore. I am sure that the Minister has visited a water bottling operation. If not, I would invite him to visit Malvern Water, which is in my constituency, Radnor Hills, which is just over the hill, or Moreton Hills, which is part of Brooks Soft Drinks and is near my constituency. Such operations are extremely expensive to set up. I repeat that they are long-term investments. They do not require quality control from

the Environment Agency, but they require some sort of policing.

Under the Bill, the Environment Agency will grant licences on a first come, first served basis. There is no quality concept in the Bill; it does not have to make a judgment about who should be allowed to abstract and who should not. That is only in the big amounts. There is no policing built into the Bill for the small amounts. If a water bottler's aquifer was damaged by another person he could not ask the Environment Agency to reduce the amount that they both abstract. He would want either compensation or, better still, to ensure that people who wish to come in and extract first seek permission from the Environment Agency. One would hope that it would have an idea of what the aquifer could take without damage. We are trying to be constructive here.

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley Minister of State (Environment and Agri-Environment), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 3:30, 16 September 2003

The Environment Agency will have an idea of what the aquifer can take without damage. While the threshold has been set at 20 cu m, it is in line with the definition of small quantities in existing legislation, which goes back to the 1960s. There is the other safeguard of catchment planning and strategies. If the threshold were lowered, those abstractors who currently fall below it would have to apply for a licence. We could then apply time-limited licences and use them as tools for water management within the powers in the Bill. Even on a small-scale abstraction, there are safeguards for overall management.

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

That is very useful and I am grateful to the Minister because it is the first step in the right direction. There is another problem, which is that by the time someone has built a water bottling plant, they cannot afford to have their licence withdrawn. If the threshold is dropped and all abstractors in a particular catchment area or aquifer are expected to apply, some will be losers. Some will invest all their money in producing a water bottling operation and then lose their business.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Liberal Democrat, Lewes

If the limit is lowered and someone has to apply for a licence that they would not previously have needed, is not the system retrospective, contrary to the earlier impression given by the Minister? That person would have taken a decision based on the law, which will effectively change, leaving them in a new position, so the Bill is retrospective.

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

That is an important point because the figure of 20 cu m is a starting level for the Government. It is flexible, not set in stone. The Minister has intimated that, as the Bill will drop the threshold, people who previously did not have to apply for licences will now be forced to do so.

However, that does not address the environmental issue—which we all cared about in the first place—of preventing the damage in the first place. Once muck starts to come through the bore holes into the plant, water bottling has to stop, and that is the end of the business. Owners of such businesses are not protected by the Environment Agency, and that is a real failure

in the Bill. Although I recognise that the amendment's wording is inadequate, I hoped that the Minister might take away the important point that we should inform abstractors that they are being monitored for the damage that they cause to the environment, at least in areas where they are abstracting for human consumption. I hope that he will come up with something innovative that might calm me on that important subject.

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

I am always seeking to calm the hon. Gentleman. I understand the concerns raised about people's businesses, and I hope to be able to reassure him about the mineral water business. Existing licensed abstractors, including mineral water companies, will enjoy special protected rights because they already have a licence. That means that the existing right to abstract must be safeguarded when new proposals are made.

If the exemption threshold is too high—for example, if exempt abstractions cause problems—it can be reduced. The Environment Agency will know what the demands on the aquifer are and it will be able to take action before the damage is done, as it will be able to evaluate the demand of the main abstractor in a particular area. As I said, water companies that have held licences for some time have protected rights, which the agency will take into account.

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

It is extremely helpful of the Minister to say that. I draw attention to the fact that I have drunk all my bottled water. If the Minister's comments allay companies' fears, I am grateful. If they do not, will the Minister be willing to meet a delegation from the sector and explain to them exactly how they will be protected?

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

I will certainly look at that possibility. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that many people feel that the issue has an impact on them. I have tried to meet delegations, and I will continue to try to do so within the constraints of my diary.

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

I am grateful for that. We have had an important debate on the subject, and the Minister has gone some way at least to point out some of the safeguards in the Bill. I still feel that the agency could do considerably more, and that there is no appeals structure for any failure. However, in light of what the Minister just said, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Liberal Democrat, Lewes

I beg to move amendment No. 180, in

clause 8, page 8, line 28, leave out 'geographical' and insert 'river basin'.

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment No. 186, in

clause 11, page 13, line 10, leave out 'geographical' and insert 'river basin'.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Liberal Democrat, Lewes

The Minister will be pleased to know that this is a gentle amendment, and not one that involves a matter of deep principle for me, so I hope that he can give some clarification that will enable us to move on. He will know that the water framework

directive—that parallel legislation that we must not mention in this Committee, and which will be dealt with in other ways—talks about river basins. Indeed, river basins are central to the directive. That is reflected in the Scottish legislation, which of course does not implement the directive, according to what the Minister said this morning.

The Minister will know that the directive requires the drafting of comprehensive river basin management plans to manage surface water and groundwater, with arrangements for providing information and consulting the public. In those circumstances, I am slightly surprised that river basins are not specified precisely in the clause, although the Minister may say that there is a good reason for that. A number of classifications of water are given, but they do not include river basins. Can the Minister clarify why those are absent?

Secondly, I seek clarification on the exact parameters of the geographical area. After all, a geographical area could be nothing and everything, which seems to give the Secretary of State unduly wide powers under the clause. What does the Minister have in mind for a geographical area, and is it in any way constrained? Does he anticipate that a river basin might be one such area?

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

I think that I can explain. The provision is fairly straightforward. The powers allow the Secretary of State to use geographical areas as the basis for the measures for local water resource availability and the accompanying thresholds. Those geographical areas will be determined by the Environment Agency's catchment abstraction management strategies. There are 129 catchments for which strategies will be developed. The strategies fit in with the water framework directive.

Amendments Nos. 180 and 186 would replace the term ''geographical area'' with ''river basin'' in clauses 8 and 11. I understand that the hon. Gentleman wants the wording to be consistent with that of the directive. However, I can tell him that that is unnecessary, and it would in fact hinder effective water resource management under the directive. Incidentally, the current phrasing allows the Secretary of State to ensure that there is effective management. The amendment would prevent the Secretary of State from focusing the variation on only that part of a river basin that needs it, which would mean that variations could be imposed unnecessarily. The clause uses the word ''geographical'' because one may want to vary only part of a catchment in a geographical area.

River basins are defined by reference to surface waters, not groundwaters. It will be necessary to control abstractions from groundwater bodies by changing the threshold in respect of those groundwaters for the purposes of the water framework directive, but that would not be possible if the power to vary were limited to river basins. That would undermine part of the protective purpose of the directive. In fact, the amendments would inhibit the flexibility to make changes at local levels. There are good reasons for the terminology, and it is not because

we are ignoring the directive—the Bill does not do that.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Liberal Democrat, Lewes

In a strange moment of déjà vu, I had a feeling that the Minister would say that my amendment was unnecessary or otherwise unacceptable. I am grateful for the explanation, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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

I beg to move amendment No. 14, in

clause 8, page 8, leave out lines 35 to 37.

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment No. 15, in

clause 8, page 8, line 35, leave out from 'shall' to end of line 38 and insert 'by order'.

Amendment No. 181, in

clause 8, page 8, line 36, leave out from 'Agency' to end of line 37.

Amendment No. 17, in

clause 8, page 9, leave out lines 24 to 26.

Amendment No. 198, in

clause 20, page 23, line 34, leave out from 'Agency' to end of line 35.

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

Amendment No. 14 is about one of those little anomalies. Proposed new section 27A(2) contains a nonsensical circuit, stating:

''The Secretary of State shall not make such an order except upon the application of the Agency, but he may direct the Agency to make such an application.''

That effectively means that he will tell the agency to apply to him, so that he can do what he wants to do. I find that a bizarre twist in the drafting, and it would be helpful for the Minister to explain why the Secretary of State needs to tell the agency to make an application when he should be able to do it himself.

Amendment No. 15 would make a minor change to give the Secretary of State exactly that power. I am no great draftsman of legal documents, and I accept that I may have made some heinous mistake, but the proposed new subsection did not make sense to me. I hope that the Minister will at least clarify why it is drafted in that way, so that I will not need to try to edit it in future.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Liberal Democrat, Lewes

The hon. Gentleman is being unduly modest, as I do not think that he has made a mistake. In my experience, Members who are accused of making heinous mistakes are often proved to be right when the Government subsequently introduce rafts of amendments.

The subsection is an odd formulation. We are invited to imagine a situation in which the Secretary of State tells the agency to make an application, which the Secretary of State presumably considers carefully before—lo and behold—deciding to accede to the request. When a parliamentary question is tabled to ask why he has acted like that, he answers, ''I was responding to a request from the Environment Agency.'' That is probably why the provision is drafted as it is.

I recommend amendment No. 181, which deals with the points that have been raised by both the hon. Member for Leominster and myself. It would also remove the power of the Secretary of State to direct the agency. Yet again, we are seeing the centre putting a finger into all the pies. Surely the practical judgment about whether variation is required should be made by the agency. It is the body set up to monitor such matters, and it knows whether there is a problem in a particular geographical area, such as a river basin. It should be able to advise the Secretary of State on whether there should be a change to the arrangements.

How can the Secretary of State, sitting in an office in London, tell the agency that there is a problem in Dorset and that it should apply to him for an order? Why does he need the power to direct the agency? It is entirely unnecessary. The legislation would be much improved by amendment No. 181, which would delete the second part of the subsection.

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

I can explain the situation. The proposed new section in clause 8 allows the threshold for abstraction control to be set according to local water resources, availability and pressure of demand. In some areas, the availability of water resources will allow a high threshold to be set, while a lower one will be required in others. That is good management, as I am sure hon. Members would agree.

New section 27A allows the agency to apply for an order to amend the local threshold for abstraction licence control. That is proper because, as has been said, the agency's duty is to secure the proper use of our water resources. It will have the relevant information to inform such decisions, and we have every confidence in it. The information will be derived from the agency's catchment abstraction management strategies.

The clause allows the Secretary of State to intervene if she believes it to be necessary; for example, if she receives representations from the local MP, or if there are local reasons why it may be necessary to intervene. The clause gives her the power to direct the agency to apply for an order if it is felt desirable. I doubt whether that would be the case, but it is a question of needing accountability within the structures of the agency and Parliament.

Amendment No. 14 would remove from the Bill the ability of the agency to make an application for such an order, or for the Secretary of State to require an application to be made. The Secretary of State alone would have to trigger the making of such an order. Even under the clause as drafted, the Secretary of State has a discretion: she does not have to make an order even when the agency seeks one. Where a threshold-making order is to be made, there is quite rightly extensive consultation with interested parties. The order-making and consultation procedures in schedule 6 of the Water Resources Act 1991, as amended by the Bill, will apply. The amendment would therefore remove from the Bill an important element of public consultation and initiative in the local management of water resources.

Amendment No. 15 would have the same effect as amendment No. 14 in that it would remove the trigger to make orders setting alternative thresholds. However, it goes further. It would require the Secretary of State, when she decides to make an order, to make different provision for abstraction thresholds in different areas and for different classes of waters. The intention of new section 27A is to allow for flexibility in the abstraction threshold according to local circumstances and the information available to the Environment Agency. For example, it will allow one threshold for groundwater abstraction in one catchment, where water is abundant, and another in a neighbouring catchment where it is scarce. Amendment No. 15 would remove that flexibility and force different provisions even when they were not necessary. Again, it would remove the intended element of local consultation and initiative in such matters.

I deal now with amendment No. 17. The orders are new and are needed to remove regulation when appropriate, as well as to tighten it where water resources are under particular pressure. Applying the relevant provisions of section 219 of the Water Resources Act 1991 to the orders enables different provisions to be made in different circumstances. Transitional provisions can be made to ensure that abstractors can move from one threshold regime to another as easily as possible. The amendment would remove the ability, for example, to make different transitional provisions according to local circumstances. That may be to the detriment of existing licence holders and those new to the regime. I note that the powers to make transitional provisions in clause 105 will not apply to the orders, because the orders will be made under the Water Resources Act, not the Bill. There is no duplication of provision.

Amendments Nos. 181 and 198 would remove the ability of the Secretary of the State to direct the agency to apply for either a threshold order or to establish a register of protected rights. The Secretary of State is accountable to Parliament for the agency, and the ability to intervene on water resources issues provision forms part of the checks and balances, which rightly exist, on the exercise by the agency of its powers. Some hon. Members have already asked whether the agency's powers are too great and unfettered. The clause ensures that the line of accountability between the Secretary of State and the agency is clear. The power to intervene, exceptional though it is, may be used to make changes to reflect important national policy matters, or matters in relation to which the agency has not yet had the opportunity to take action.

We want proper resource management and proper accountability. The amendments are unnecessary, and I hope that I have given the Committee adequate assurances.

Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 3:45, 16 September 2003

I am grateful to the Minister for reading that answer. I fear that it was written by the same person who drafted the Bill, particularly subsection (7) of new section 27A. It states:

''Paragraphs (e) and (f) of section 219(2) below apply in relation to orders under subsection (1) above as they apply to regulations made under this Act.''

I may have read it wrong, but it makes no sense. If the Minister is seeking to persuade me that this is clarification, I am afraid I have to say that it is—to put it politely—an own goal. I accept that what the Minister read out is what he intends, and therefore that the amendments are perhaps not as helpful as I would like them to be, but when I read the jargon I thought that the only way in which we could cut to the Government's real intention was to suggest deletion.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Lewes for his contribution, because he also recognises that it is not good enough to put in a Bill things that do not make sense to ordinary human beings. The clause may make sense to lawyers and to experts in such matters, but it is not clear to ordinary people. Unless the clause is written in English, I shall find it difficult to withdraw the amendment, and am therefore still in two minds as to whether to do so.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Liberal Democrat, Lewes

The clause raises an important point about where decisions are taken and to what extent the Secretary of State is prepared to let go, or wants to control all the minutiae of what takes place. All Departments have agencies and arm's-length bodies to undertake work on the ground—whether it be the Pension Service or the Environment Agency—the express purpose of which is to distance Ministers from those nitty-gritty individual decisions. Ministers should look at the umbrella picture, not the day-to-day decisions, and should employ in those agencies people with the expertise to take the necessary practical decisions such as, in this case, whether there should be a variation of a small quantity threshold. Why does the Secretary of State want the ability to vary the small quantity threshold on abstraction? What does that have to do with her role? The role of the Secretary of State is to appoint the agency, to set the policy and then to let people get on with it, not to interfere in such nitty-gritty issues.

The Minister discussed the line of accountability. If the Minister wants more accountability, perhaps we should involve local flood defence committees or other bodies that have local credibility on such decision-making issues, rather than the Secretary of State. Under the clause as drafted, with the inclusion of my amendment No. 181—which, if I may gently say so to the hon. Member for Leominster, I think is a better amendment than his on this occasion—the Secretary of State would retain accountability. The amendment would simply remove the decision-making ability of the Secretary of State by requiring the agency to make the application. It would not prevent the Secretary of State from being involved because, in each case, the agency would still have to apply to her or him; public accountability would kick in at that point. The Secretary of State would not be excluded from the consideration, but would be prevented from initiating it.

The Minister and hon. Members will know, from other Bills that have passed through the House recently, and from serving on different Committees, that this issue is important. During the passage of the Police Reform Act 2002, for example, the question was raised whether the Home Secretary could issue instructions to police authorities to take particular

actions, or whether he had to wait for the police to initiate such actions. Hon. Members on both sides of the Standing Committee viewed it as an important principle that the Secretary of State should not be able to interfere in that way. We should not allow the Secretary of State, on the basis of a representation from one MP or other local interests, to override the Environment Agency, which has the specialist people on the ground and, presumably, knows its job, if it has not made an application. I believe that to be a matter of principle.

The extra line in the clause, to which amendment No. 181 refers, is improper in giving far too much power to the Secretary of State. Notwithstanding what the Minister said, I can conceive of no circumstances in which it would be right for a Secretary of State to intervene positively, and presumably against the wishes of the Environment Agency, to require it to make an application, when that agency is the expert on the ground and would know whether such an application should be made. That has to be wrong. For that reason, I shall, if I am able to do so, request a vote on amendment No. 181.

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

The hon. Gentleman is getting rather over-excited about the provisions. He has scrutinised enough Bills to know that such provisions are fairly normal. It is frequently the case that legislation gives the Secretary of State powers to intervene—those are the normal checks and balances in a democratic society. The Secretary of State is not going to intervene in minor local issues. The point of the Environment Agency is that it is the delivery arm of DEFRA, while the Department itself concentrates on policy.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Liberal Democrat, Lewes

I am sorry to intervene on the Minister again, but does he accept that, notwithstanding the intention that he has stated, the clause allows the Secretary of State to intervene in the minutiae of local issues? That might not be the intention of the present Secretary of State, but it is made possible by the wording of the Bill. We have to make legislation not for the present incumbent, but for all time.

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

I really cannot see, now or in the future, any Secretary of State ringing up a farmer on the Somerset levels and saying, ''Have you switched off the generator on your borehole? I need to know.'' That is not going to happen. If it did, it might be interpreted as interfering with minutiae, but it will not, given the roles of the Secretary of State and the Environment Agency. It is simply a line of accountability that would apply should issues of national importance or national policy be affected in relation to the thresholds in a particular area, in which case the Secretary of State might want to take a role. I cannot envisage many circumstances in which that would be likely.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the professionalism and effectiveness of the Environment Agency. It is set up to get on with such work and has the expertise to do it. It is not the intention of the Government to interfere with that. This is simply the

normal guarantee of accountability under the democratic process that can be found in any legislation on any issue. That is all—there is nothing sinister about it and no desire for micro-management. Believe me, we all have enough to do without micro-managing water issues.

On the point made by the hon. Member for Leominster, I would not disagree that the language of legislation can be ponderous, difficult and hard to follow. The only consolation is that at least it is no longer written in Norman French. The hon. Gentleman had a bit of fun about the language. It does not flow smoothly; such language never does. However, there is a practical point: if we did not refer back to subsections, we would have to duplicate them in every section of the Bill and we would end up with a document three times the size of this one to say the same thing. There is a rationale to the use of language here, even though it is not elegant.

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

In that case, I am more than willing to withdraw two thirds of my amendments. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment proposed, No. 181, in

clause 8, page 8, line 36, leave out from 'Agency' to end of line 37.—[Norman Baker.]

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 7, Noes 12.

Division number 3 Adults Abused in Childhood — Clause 8 - Rights to abstract small quantities

Aye: 7 MPs

No: 12 MPs

Aye: A-Z by last name

No: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

Clause 8 ordered to stand part of the Bill.