Clause 20 - Register of certain protected rights

Water Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:30 pm on 18 September 2003.

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Photo of Ms Sue Doughty Ms Sue Doughty Liberal Democrat, Guildford 2:30, 18 September 2003

I beg to move amendment No. 196, in

clause 20, page 23, line 22, at end insert—

'(f) a duty for the Agency to publicise the procedure and expiry date for applying for a protected right to be included in the register.'.

We are concerned about information being made available to people. We are worried that people could miss the boat by applying too late. They might not realise that they have apply for their protected rights to be on the register. People have a time-limited window, and it is essential that they are informed that they might lose their right if they do apply. There is no problem for people who are actively abstracting and using their right; they will probably be aware of the

requirement and will talk to the agency, so information will come through.

People who have not used their protected rights for more than two years may be less likely to think about making that application in time. Because of the changes in agriculture and farming practices and the current problems of countryside businesses, people might decide to diversify and develop an area of water as a fishing feature, for example. It seems logical that the two-year period should be changed, in line with the four-year limit for the non-use of the protected rights. We therefore say that the limit should be four years on one side and four on the other, so that people can ensure that they make their application. It is a matter of sweeping in all the people who should be aware of the provision, some of whom, because they are not using their rights at the time, may not have been keeping their eye on the ball.

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

We do not disagree with the principle of what the hon. Lady is saying. We entirely accept that it is important that people are aware of the protected rights register and that it should be brought to the attention of abstractors of small quantities of water. I can assure her that there is no need for the amendment. First, the agency will have a record of the former licence holders whose licences have fallen away by virtue of the change in the thresholds.

Secondly, the Bill applies the schedule 6 procedure in the Water Resources Act 1991 to the setting up of registers. That procedure requires an order that establishes a register to be advertised in the local press. We will expect the agency, in the normal course of its business, to liaise with stakeholder groups such as the National Farmers Union and to draw their attention to the measure. Together, clause 20 and new schedule 6 provide the right mechanism to bring the protected rights register to the attention of those who will need to register and those who need to know about it. What the hon. Lady wants is provided for in the Bill.

Photo of George Osborne George Osborne Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Treasury)

I should declare a sort of interest. The measure might catch me in the sense that at my house, near my constituency, in the Peak District national park I have a bore hole from which I extract water to use in my house, as indeed do most of my neighbours. Currently, we are not required, as far as I am aware, to register the bore hole with anyone except the local council, which checks the water quality periodically. A national park may well be classed as a particularly environmentally sensitive area.

I should be interested to know whether the Minister envisages a massive compilation on the register of all the people who live in such an area and who have bore holes and so on, because there are no mains water supplies in much of the national park. Is there any prospect of home owners—I am talking not only about farmers and large-scale users of water, but domestic users—having to pay a charge to register their rights?

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

People who are using water for domestic supply or using small quantities to water livestock, for example, will be below the threshold set in the Bill. They do not, therefore, require an abstraction licence, and there will not be a charge in that respect.

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

I accept some of the Minister's points, but I am concerned, on amendment No. 197—

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

Order. I draw attention to the fact that we are debating amendment No. 196.

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

I apologise, Mr. O'Brien. I will speak to amendment No. 197 later.

I continue to have concerns about people being made aware of the measure. If people are away the week that the information is in the paper, they may completely miss it. It may not be explicit in the Bill, but I hope that every opportunity will be given, in terms of due diligence, to ensure that those who do not read the interesting adverts in the back of the paper week after week are aware of the change in the arrangements, so that they can organise themselves to deal with it. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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

I beg to move amendment No. 197, in

clause 20, page 23, line 30, leave out 'two' and insert 'four'.

I shall be brief. This is a case of natural justice. Given that there is four years to sort out what we are doing about non-protected rights, and that they lapse if an application to register them is not made, it is reasonable that someone should have four years to get the application in. I cannot see why the period has to be only two years; there is no logic to that.

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley Minister of State (Environment and Agri-Environment), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 2:45, 18 September 2003

The amendment would extend the period from two to four years, as the hon. Lady said. Generally speaking, we need to give people reasonable time to register any interest under measures introduced by the Government or local authorities for householders and businesses. The normal time limit for that is 12 months, but the Bill goes further by providing two years. That is generous, and people who have to register protected rights should have plenty of time to do so. Four years would be a bit excessive, and I hope that the hon. Lady will agree that two years is a fair compromise.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Liberal Democrat, Lewes

New subsection (5) provides that the time limit is not simply two years, but that the Government accept that it may be longer, in the phrase,

''or such longer period as may be specified in the order.''

As that uncertainty is built into the Bill—the Minister may call it flexibility, but I call it uncertainty—will he explain the circumstances in which it would be appropriate to specify a longer period?

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

It is not unusual to include a provision for a longer period. For example, if an error occurred and an advert did not appear in the paper, it might be appropriate to extend the time past two years. The provision will cover only exceptions, and two years will usually be adequate. However, I should say that

by pointing out that provision, the hon. Gentleman is arguing against the amendment of his hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Sue Doughty).

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

I am not totally convinced, especially in light of the most recent exchange, but I can see that we will not make further headway on the issue. I do not think that we should press for a Division, so I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 20 ordered to stand part of the Bill.