Clause 89 - Transfer of discharge consents

Water Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:00 am on 21 October 2003.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 10:00, 21 October 2003

I beg to move amendment No. 114, in

clause 89, page 103, line 33, leave out 'or 6 above'.

Photo of Edward O'Hara Edward O'Hara Labour, Knowsley South

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Clause stand part.

New clause 24—Discharge consents—

'(1) Schedule 10 to the WRA is amended as follows.

(2) After paragraph 7(1) there is inserted—

''(1A) Where any consent given under paragraph 3 or 6 above authorises a discharge—

(a) of any substances defined as a priority substance by Directive 2000/60/EC; or

(b) into any controlled waters which do not meet the definition of ''good surface water status'' set out in Directive 2000/60/EC (except where the Agency is satisfied that the relevant discharge does not contribute significantly to the failure to achieve such status)

the Agency shall review such consent and the conditions (if any) to which the consent is subject to at least once in every period of four years beginning with the day on which the consent takes effect or, if applicable, the day on which any previous review under this paragraph was concluded.

(1B) If, having carried out a review under subparagraph (1A) above, the Agency wishes to exercise its powers under paragraph 7(2) below, but is unable to do so by reason of a restriction imposed under paragraph 8 below—

(a) the Agency shall notify the Secretary of State within one month of the conclusion of such review of the outcome of the review and its recommendations and shall request that the Secretary of State exercise his powers under paragraph 7(4) below; and

(b) taking full account of the Agency's recommendations, the Secretary of State shall consider whether to exercise his powers under paragraph 7(4) below, and shall notify the Agency in writing of his decision and the reasons for it within one month from the date of receipt of the Agency's notification under subparagraph (1B)(a) above.''.

(3) In paragraph 7(3) after ''a review under subparagraph (1)'', there is inserted ''or (1A)''.

(4) In paragraph 7(4), the words '', subject to such restrictions on the exercise of the power conferred by virtue of paragraph (c) above as are imposed under paragraph 8 below,'' are omitted.

(5) Paragraphs 7(5) and (6) are omitted.

(6) In paragraph 8(1), (2), (4) and (5), the words ''or (4)(c)'' are omitted.'.

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

This is not a particularly large or contentious amendment. It would leave out the words ''or 6 above''. We seek to find out whether this is a great improvement on what was in the Bill before. It is a small, tinkering addition and I just wanted a little information as to why the Minister chose to include those words.

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

The clause deals with the transfer of discharge consents. That is an integral part of the consenting regime, and clause 89 will put in place some minor changes that will improve the efficiency and effectiveness of transferring a discharge consent from one consent holder to another.

The Environment Agency issues discharge consents. It may also, without prior application, issue a consent to someone who is discharging without a consent and where it is likely that the discharge will continue. Such a consent is subject to the same terms and conditions as other consents. There is no difference in the way that it is dealt with.

The purpose of clause 89 is to improve the procedure for transferring consents made under either circumstance, but the amendment would mean that consent holders who obtained their consents via applications to the agency would be able to transfer their consents, but those who had an equally valid consent, obtained by a different route, would not. That is not justifiable, because the consents are treated in exactly the same way and are granted for the same reasons. If the agency is content to issue a consent in those circumstances, there is no reason why consent holders should not be able to transfer their consent if the need arose. One example of that need might be if the company were sold, or put in the hands of a liquidator, because the consent is in the name of the particular company. There is no difference in relation to the company or the terms of the consent. The clause therefore tidies that up.

I understand the concern behind new clause 24, and that proper implementation of the water framework directive is of paramount importance, but the proposed provisions would not add a substantive benefit to the powers already available, so they are not necessary.

Consents are granted for a period of four years or more, but the agency already has the power to review a consent at any time. The Secretary of State has the power to direct the agency to modify or revoke a consent if that appears to be appropriate to give effect to European Community obligations, or to protect public health or relevant flora and fauna. That is not restricted by the four-year non-intervention period.

The new clause proposes that following a review the Environment Agency, if it is prevented from modifying a consent by the restrictions already in force, should notify the Secretary of State and request her to exercise her powers of direction to determine whether the consent should be modified. However, that is already taken care of under the existing powers. The provisions take account of the intention of the new clause, as I hope that I have explained.

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

New clause 24 does rather more than the Minister understands. We return to the problem that the Bill sometimes recognises the water framework directive and sometimes does not. We bump along and then we diverge, and this is another example.

Although the Bill gives us a much more sustainable approach to water resource management, on this occasion it misses a trick with the water framework directive. The directive focuses on water quality, as does the clause. The Government propose to incorporate the water framework directive into law through secondary legislation. That means that, potentially, the approach to the directive could be poorly planned and last minute, as has happened so

often with European directives that affect the environment. The clause gives us the opportunity for pre-planning rather than just for wondering what on earth to do about it.

The Environmental Industries Commission, which has more than 240 member companies, and is the largest association for the environmental technologies and services industry in Europe, is particularly worried about that issue. It also needs to plan, because there is a lot of work to do.

The Bill should address the major challenge presented by the legal obligation under the directive for all rivers to achieve good surface water status by 2015. Some 28 per cent. of our rivers are currently defined as being of only fair quality or worse. The majority of them will need upgrading. Even those that are defined as good might need upgrading to meet the water framework directive definition. The task is significant and will need a planned approach. We must consider the consents held by industry to discharge trade effluent into rivers and ensure that they are reviewed and tightened wherever they contribute to rivers not achieving a good status.

Licences for industry to discharge trade effluent into rivers are currently reviewed by the Environment Agency on average less than once every 10 years. That can drop to less than once every 30 years in some regions. Furthermore, there is a legal four-year non-intervention period when the Agency cannot change the consent to discharge without the approval of the Secretary of State. That is not a good basis on which to move forward when we implement the water framework directive.

The amendment requires the Agency every four years to review licences to discharge trade effluent into rivers where those rivers are failing to achieve good status, where the discharge is contributing to that failure, or where the rivers contain particularly serious pollutants. It creates a procedure for the Agency to report to the Secretary of State when it considers that a licence for industry to discharge trade effluent to rivers should be changed earlier than the usual four-year non-intervention period.

In the Lords, Lord Haskel tabled a similar amendment that would have enabled the Agency to review trade effluent consents earlier than every four years without the involvement of the Secretary of State. The Government rejected that because they wanted to give business certainty in planning investment.

The amendment must be agreed to so that there is a procedure whereby the agency can report to the Secretary of State when consent should be changed. It requires the Secretary of State to respond within one month and it ensures that cases of trade effluent discharge not meeting the standards required by the water framework directive are tackled more urgently than every four years. To ensure that such measures are not taken unnecessarily, however, the procedure retains the involvement of the Secretary of State.

A recent report by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee on the water framework directive concluded that

''Government does not seem to be seized of the urgency of the task . . . our most urgent plea is that the Government adopt a more positive, and more active, approach to the Directive.''

The amendment seeks to avoid the last-minute approach that is so beloved of the Government when considering environment directives. We are giving them a hand because we want to ensure that the costs to mainstream industry are managed, that the planning takes place and that the environmental and services industries can get on with the job. We must do so for our economy and for our environment.

I hope that the Minister takes the amendment seriously because it is necessary to clean up the 28 per cent. of rivers that will not meet the standards in the directive.

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

The amendment is unnecessary. I repeat my earlier point that the Environment Agency already has the power to do all that the hon. Lady asks for. As for leaving environmental regulations to the last minute, I remind the Committee that the water framework directive does not come into force until 2015. We must transpose the directive by the end of the year and we are currently into our third public consultation on it. We are giving it an enormous amount of time and attention. I take the points made by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee very seriously. It is a very important Committee and its advice is of a very good quality, but it did not say that the implementation of the water framework directive required any mucking about with the Bill.

Our river water quality has improved dramatically in recent years and I am very pleased to see that. The water framework directive emphasises the biological rather than the chemical quality of water and that makes some important differences to how we measure the standard of our rivers. We have until 2015 to put it fully in place, and we can have a review on discharge consents at any time. Because of the time scales, we feel that we do not have to disturb the four-year non-intervention period, bearing in mind that, if it should become necessary, the powers exist to do that to meet the requirements of the directive.

I ask the hon. Lady to free herself from the obsession that we cannot have the water framework directive without the Bill. The Bill has a set of clear objectives and criteria, some of which will help us to meet the water framework directive. The others will be implemented in the proper time scale laid out in relation to implementing the directive. I have no quibble with the hon. Lady over her commitment to seeing the water framework directive implemented properly and effectively, because that idea is shared by the Government. However, that does not have to be done in the Bill. Indeed, the measures that she is asking for exist in the current powers of the agency and are therefore unnecessary. I therefore urge her not to move her amendment.

Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 10:15, 21 October 2003

In my brief opening comments I said that we should leave out the words, ''or 6 above''. It was unclear, from examining the Bill, what the effect would have been on the Water Resources Act 1991, so

I am grateful for the Minister's reply, although I am not sure whether he has touched on exactly what I wanted. However, the purpose of the amendment was to draw attention to the slightly confusing drafting and I feel that I have succeeded. Therefore, I have no hesitation in withdrawing my amendment, but I will have to leave discussion of new clause 24 to the hon. Member for Guildford.

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

I have listened carefully to the Minister's views, and there is nothing wrong with saying that there are cases in which the water framework directive should align with the Bill, but I appreciate that the Government are not keen on it. Indeed the response given to Lord Haskel was not the same as the response given today. It is clear that the Minister has examined it more closely since the Lords scrutiny of the Bill, and further information has come to light and been provided.

I am pleased that the Environment Agency has been given the necessary powers and hope that it will have the funding to get on with the job. We pile a lot on to the Environment Agency, which does a good job, and work will have to take place. Having listened to the Minister's views, we will not press for a vote but will by leave seek to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Edward O'Hara Edward O'Hara Labour, Knowsley South

We will come to that later in the order of business.

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

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 89 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Edward O'Hara Edward O'Hara Labour, Knowsley South 10:18, 21 October 2003

In light of our progress, we need a suspension for a meeting of the Programming Sub-Committee to reconsider the further timetabling of business.

Committee suspended.

On resuming—

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley Minister of State (Environment and Agri-Environment), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 10:22, 21 October 2003

I beg to move,

That the Order of the Committee of 16th September be amended, in the Table, by substituting for the entries in respect of the sittings on 21st October the following—

21st October (8.55 a.m.)

Clause 59, Schedules 4 and 8; Clause 60; Clauses 62 to 87, Schedules 5 and 6; Clauses 88 to 102, Schedules 7 and 9; Clauses 103 to 106; remaining new Clauses and new Schedules (except new Clauses and new Schedules relating to fluoridation).

21st October (2.30 p.m.)

Clause 59, Schedules 4 and 8; Clause 60; Clauses 62 to 87, Schedules 5 and 6; Clauses 88 to 102, Schedules 7 and 9, Clauses 103 to 106; remaining new Clauses and new Schedules (except new Clauses and new Schedules relating to fluoridation).

5.00 p.m.

Question put and agreed to.