Clause 29 - Withdrawal of compensation for certain revocations and variations

Water Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:30 pm on 18 September 2003.

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Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 4:30, 18 September 2003

I beg to move amendment No. 229, in

clause 29, page 34, line 3, at end insert

'or such later date as the Secretary of State may by order prescribe'.

In tabling the amendment, we seek further clarification of the drafting.

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

The clause introduces a new power by which, from 2012, the agency can revoke, without payment of compensation, any permanent licence that is causing serious damage to the environment. We have discussed that, and the principle behind it is understood. There is a right of appeal against the decision, either to the Secretary of State or to the National Assembly for Wales, depending on the case.

The amendment would enable the Secretary of State to substitute a date later than 15 July 2012. There are numerous environmentally damaging abstractions throughout England and Wales, and many of those are in place for historical reasons. I said that one or two of those might have to be dealt with earlier than 2012. Some of the licences would not have been granted today, given the agency's current knowledge of water resource management.

Abstractors must work with the agency to ensure that environmentally damaging abstractions are replaced with a sustainable alternative. I reiterate that removal of the licence is a last resort; there may be alternatives that can be put in place through work with

the abstractor. We see no reason to delay dealing with the damaging abstractions beyond 2012, bearing it in mind that the notice period started from when the Bill appeared in draft form. Those who hold licences have therefore had a long period of advance notice of the changes that will take place.

Photo of Hugo Swire Hugo Swire Opposition Whip (Commons)

What the Minister says is right, but will he make a distinction when he comes to deciding on the compensation, or inducement, that those with permanent licences will be offered in order to convert to the four-year licences? Will he make a distinction between those who have been granted permanent licences within the past four or five years, and those who have had them for 10 or 20 years? There will be a significant difference between the two.

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

That may well be the case. I hope that the licences granted more recently would reflect the greater knowledge and understanding of catchments and the impact on the area. It depends on the individual circumstances. Each case will be considered on its merits. There will be attempts to resolve issues through sustainable means. I would not want Members to get the impression that from 2012 there will be squads of agency hit-people going around the countryside withdrawing licences. It is simply about giving the agency proper tools for proper sustainable management.

Photo of Hugo Swire Hugo Swire Opposition Whip (Commons)

The Minister deals with a point that I had not raised. I want to pursue the point about licensing. If, come 15 July 2012, there is a logjam in the transfer process for licences, can he guarantee that the people involved will be able to continue to operate while the change is processed?

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

I can confirm that. In discussions, we have already ascertained that licences will continue during withdrawal and appeal procedures.

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

I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. We sought to ensure that there was some flexibility. We do not want the scenario—jokingly described by the Minister—of agency officials rushing around taking people's licences away. The amendment would have provided the extra flexibility necessary to prevent that from happening. However, this is not a make or break clause, and 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. 246, in

clause 29, page 34, line 21, at end add—

'(4) Where this section applies, in determining any proposals to revoke or vary a licence to abstract water, the Secretary of State shall have regard to the reasonable requirements of the abstractor, including, in relation to businesses, the existing and planned commitment of resources.'.

We discussed this matter in some detail earlier so I shall be much quicker than I intended when I tabled the amendment. However, I cannot get by without mentioning the dreaded word ''watercress''. Everybody else has been mentioning it so I need to put it on record as well, particularly as I have been lobbied at great length by my hon. Friends the

Members for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) and for Romsey (Sandra Gidley), who have watercress in their constituencies. Watercress looms large in my consideration of the Bill, as it does in that of other Members. I wake up dreaming of watercress at night—well, almost.

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

While we are talking about Members who have been lobbying on that matter, I should mention my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke), who has been lobbying on behalf of watercress growers—[Interruption.]

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Liberal Democrat, Lewes

I am not sure that there is in any watercress in Colchester, but perhaps I will be corrected—[Interruption.] The matter may well be in the next issue of ''Focus''. You should call the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) next, Mr. O'Brien; he is shouting at the Liberal Democrats. He might wait for the by-election result tonight to—[Interruption.]

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

Order. We can talk about watercress, but not by ballot.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Liberal Democrat, Lewes

The watercress industry has been exceedingly efficient in lobbying on the Bill and we should pay credit to it for that. Members of the industry will know, more than anybody else—although members of the Committee probably now know—that watercress production is developed over many years. Beds are constantly repaired, renewed and replaced, as any structure more than 200 years old would need to be. Watercress producers finance their structures on a 50-year writedown basis and are obviously concerned about what might happen now, hence the amendment.

Rather than repeat all the arguments, I will put on the record those that have not been made. There are environmental benefits to watercress production, not least to wildlife. I am told that some of the last populations of white-clawed water crayfish are located in watercress beds. One can also find thriving populations of brown trout, marsh pipits and other vulnerable species that choose to live in the environs of the farms.

If we are balancing the interests of producers with those of the environment, we must consider that if watercress producers do not have some certainty, and on that basis cannot raise bank loans, some production could move overseas to Spain, Portugal or other countries.

Photo of Robert Key Robert Key Conservative, Salisbury 4:45, 18 September 2003

It is important that we recognise that the clause is not just about persistent watercress growers but something much bigger: the court case that was hanging over the heads of Severn Trent Water which very nearly led to the Environment Agency being sued for millions over abstraction and other issues pertaining to the length of the River Trent. So as I said, this is not just about the watercress growers; the agency is also covering its back to ensure that it avoids the possibility of being sued.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Liberal Democrat, Lewes

That is a powerful point. I would have developed a more comprehensive argument if I had not wanted to speak to other amendments. My life

with my colleagues would not be worth living if I had not mentioned watercress.

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

I want to return to the subject of plant growers, although not to watercress growers. The habitat directive must be completed. If it is completed earlier than required, that is all well and good. But if it takes longer than that, is there not a danger that we are tied to a date while another directive is being passed which the Bill seems to have ignored?

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Liberal Democrat, Lewes

It is always a difficulty for the Government to marry up different legislation. For example, the Bill and the water framework directive do not marry up in this case, and there are similar examples in other areas. While world trade negotiations are being held, biodiversity protocols are being drawn up that are not as parallel to those negotiations as they should be. However, it is 4.46 pm, and there are other amendments to be discussed, so I will sit down and let the Minister respond to the points that have been made.

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

I freely acknowledge that the watercress beds can be very important to the environment. The birds in question are actually water pipits, not marsh pipits. I have seen them and can identify them. The watercress industry's environmental importance is one of the strengths of its case. I do not suggest that Members have been doing this, but we do not want inadvertently to give the impression that there are huge environmental problems with the watercress industry. I am not sure that there are, but the Bill contains mechanisms for dealing with any problem caused by any aspect of water abstraction. I make no apology for that, because it is vital that we have the tools for resource management.

I also freely acknowledge that there are issues of investment and of people's businesses, as hon. Members have spelt out. I have every sympathy with them. That is why there are clear appeals mechanisms in the Bill, and why a licence cannot be revoked unless there is a clear case for doing so and that case can stand up to examination. The right to appeal is absolute. Anyone who feels aggrieved by the revocation of their licence can do appeal.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Liberal Democrat, Lewes

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 29 ordered to stand part of the Bill.