Clause 41 - Forward work programmes

Water Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 7:00 pm on 14 October 2003.

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Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 7:00, 14 October 2003

I beg to move amendment No. 73, in

clause 41, page 44, line 6, leave out

'make to the Secretary of State'

and insert

'lay before each House of Parliament'.

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

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments:

No. 74, in

clause 41, page 44, line 20, leave out from 'require' to end of line 22.

No. 75, in

clause 41, page 44, leave out lines 28 to 32.

Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 7:15, 14 October 2003

The authority shall as soon as is practicable after the end of each financial year make an annual report to the Secretary of State. I think that it would be helpful if that report were laid before the House. Amendment No. 73 would provide for that. It plays very much into the Minister's hands because, as we have heard so many times this afternoon, he is mustard keen on proper scrutiny and clarity. Who could argue that the amendment could do anything other than add to that clarity? Therefore, will he tell me how I could possibly be wrong with such a helpful amendment?

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

I am sorry, but I will have to disappoint the hon. Gentleman.

Amendments Nos. 73 and 75 would transfer the responsibility for laying the report from the Secretary of State to the authority, which would take the Secretary of State completely out of the reporting line. That would weaken the line of accountability to Parliament. I know that that is not what the hon. Gentleman wants to do, but that would be the effect of the amendments.

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

So am I right in thinking that new section 192B(5) on page 44, which says that the Secretary of State shall lay the annual report before Parliament, will get us round the difficulty?

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

The Secretary of State lays the report before the House, the provision for which the hon. Gentleman will find on page 44, lines 28 to 32.

Amendment No. 74 would remove the Secretary of State's right to request that certain matters or information should be included in the annual report. Our Welsh colleague has gone, but he would be interested to know that, if the amendment were passed, the Welsh Assembly Government would still be able to instruct the authority to include certain matters even though the Secretary of State could not. It seems a bit of a Welsh-ist amendment, which would create an imbalance between the roles of the Assembly and Parliament.

While the authority is the economic regulator of the water and sewage industry—[Interruption.] Every dog in Lambeth is on its way here now—that was the most piercing alarm that I have ever heard. Anyway, while

the authority is the economic regulator of the water and sewage industry in England and Wales, the Secretary of State has a broader responsibility for water policy, including responsibility for the new authority itself. The Secretary of State will be responsible for the appointment of the new authority board and have overall accountability for the authority to Parliament. It is only right that she should continue to be able to request that information should be in the report and present the authority's annual report to Parliament.

I understand the hon. Gentleman's point, but the report will be presented to Parliament through the Secretary of State, which provides the line of accountability.

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

I am grateful to the Minister for his reply, which was more than satisfactory, and for taking us through the proper procedure. On that basis, 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. 277, in

clause 41, page 44, line 20, leave out 'and'.

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

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments:

No. 278, in

clause 41, page 44, line 22, at end insert—

'and

(f) an environmental audit of the Authority's activity including its contributions towards water conservation and sustainable development.'.

No. 279, in

clause 42, page 45, line 18, leave out 'and'.

No. 280, in

clause 42, page 45, line 21, at end insert—

'and

(e) to contribute to the achievement of sustainable development.'.

No. 282, in

clause 42, page 46, leave out line 40.

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

We are returning to the problems about sustainability. We had an interesting discussion earlier, some of which presaged what we are coming to with these amendments. We are setting up a body and giving it requirements—primarily for consumers, but it is also a public body—and we are starting to require that public bodies have regard for sustainability and the environment.

The amendments would move the authority towards conducting an environmental audit of its activities, including its contributions towards conservation and sustainable development. We want to see that from other organisations, but it will be particularly important for the authority. It would be good to have such an environmental audit, and we are asking much more of other organisations. The Government have already stated that they want organisations to take environmental reporting much more seriously, and this is an opportunity for a public authority to lead the way. There is a connection with water conservation and other organisational issues.

What about energy efficiency? What are they doing about waste and recycling? We would like that to be embodied into the way in which they conduct their affairs.

The other amendments would change the sustainability duty on the Secretary of State or the authority from a secondary to a primary duty, and the requirements of new subsection (3) would all be subject to the sustainability duty. We want the promotion of economy and efficiency, and to ensure that, when there is conflict, the environment is taken into account when decisions are made. We want to make sustainability a primary duty to ensure that the environment will not suffer unnecessarily at the expense of market efficiency. Our concern is that we are discussing the water industry with very little regard to the environmental behaviour of the bodies running the water industry, and that should be a core duty on the authority.

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

Again, I do not disagree with the reasoning behind the amendments. I assure the hon. Lady that the Bill already specifies that the authority must include in its annual report a general survey of developments in respect of matters falling within the scope of its functions. Those include a duty to contribute to sustainable development, and we have discussed that. That obligation is already in the Bill. If at any time it were thought that the report provided by the authority needed to cover more detail or was inadequate in relation to sustainable development, both the Secretary of State and the Assembly could require such information to be included in the report. Those powers already exist in the Bill.

Amendments Nos. 279, 280 and 282 would give greater prominence to the authority's sustainable development duty. In the Bill as drafted, the duty to contribute to the achievement of sustainable development is secondary to the authority meeting its primary duties. This group of amendments would make that sustainable development duty a primary objective of the authority. Again, a balance is necessary. The authority is an economic regulator. Sustainable development is an important part of that. No one disagrees with that argument—I fully subscribe to it—but we must get the correct balance between its functions: its economic function of price setting and the important function of sustainable development and its promotion. The balance in the Bill is right and I am not sure that the hon. Lady's amendments would maintain the correct balance.

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

I am disappointed with that response. The Government have a commitment to the environment and to better environmental reporting. The amendment provides a good opportunity to put that in the Bill. I heard what the Minister said about various requirements in other areas, but any organisation should, in its environmental reporting and auditing, be asked how it is conducting its affairs, whether it has taken account of the environment and what is happening to the environment as a result of its decisions.

That does not require every decision to be changed so that consumers are left behind in favour of the environment. The organisation should report on what

it is doing and put on record the effect of what it is doing. We want more transparency and accountability on sustainability and the effects of the organisation's activities.

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

I repeat that nothing in the Bill prevents that. The hon. Lady made reasonable points, but they are catered for in the Bill, so the amendments are unnecessary.

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

There is a world of difference between can and will. I am sure that Woolworth could report if it wished, and if it is still part of Kingfisher it may do so. Any organisation can report on such matters. The point is whether they will do so. That is what we are driving at. We are interested not in the possibility but in the actuality.

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

Is the hon. Lady pressing her amendment or withdrawing it?

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

Given the discussion that we have had, and the fact that we may consider the issue again on Report, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 41 ordered to stand part of the Bill.