Schedule 7 - Minor and consequential amendments

Water Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:45 pm on 21 October 2003.

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Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 2:45, 21 October 2003

I beg to move amendment No. 130, in

schedule 7, page 185, line 35, leave out paragraph 4.

On my notes is written, ''Why not convert?'' and that is the question that I seek to raise with the amendment.

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

No, we are certainly having none of that—I had enough of that from my predecessor.

Schedule 7(4) concerns changing licences from one type to another. I ask the question, ''Why not convert?'' because why should someone not be able to convert one type of abstraction licence to another? It is not a contentious question. I understand that three types of licence are included in the Bill, and if someone should want to convert or prolong a licence, I do not see why that should not be possible.

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

Section 51 of the Water Resources Act 1991 allows a licence holder to apply to vary the terms of an existing licence. Paragraph (4) of schedule 7 expressly prevents the use of section 51 to change the type of licence, so, for example, a full licence cannot be converted to a transfer licence. The holder would need to apply to the agency to surrender the old licence and be issued with a new one to go through the proper procedures.

Amendment No. 130 would remove that restriction and allow a change in licence type to be a variation on an existing licence. However, changing the type of licence is not a change in terms. A new licence would then be required. I am talking about a transfer licence, a time-limited licence or the existing unlimited one. If a holder wants to change his type of licence, he can do so as I have indicated, but he must go through that process, rather than a variation.

Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 3:00, 21 October 2003

Is there not a real danger that people will be tempted to take up abstraction licences, to go through the process and then use them on a one-off basis, simply to continue their ownership of them as a safeguard, perhaps in case of a water shortage in the near future? Because they cannot move from, say, a transfer licence to a full licence or vice versa, there is a possibility that a water company that needed to be able to abstract and had a licence to do so, but did not really need it, would simply hog the licence to prevent anyone else from having it. Otherwise, when there was a water shortage, it would have to go through the whole process again, and it would very likely be turned down. That is why we need a certain flexibility in the Bill and why I seek to clarify the point.

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

The Bill deals with that. Let us say that someone applies to obtain a licence. One of the conditions for getting a licence is that the applicant has to show a requirement for a licence. If someone is surrendering an old licence and applying for a new one, the same conditions would apply. They would

have to demonstrate a need for the licence. In addition, if they did not use it for four years, it could be withdrawn.

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

I am grateful to the Minister for that reply—well, in fact I am not that grateful because the Minister has not addressed the problem. Yes, every four years someone would have to use their licence, but a company could do that. The shame of this is that people will apply for licences unnecessarily, on the basis that they may need them at some unknown future date. They will take action to continue to roll over those licences.

That means that many people who would like a licence will not be able to get one, because they will not be able to justify it environmentally. Because this part of the Bill rules out flexibility, that is more, rather than less, likely to happen. I am prepared to concede that it is not guaranteed to happen, but I imagine that a bit of flexibility would be constructive. [Interruption.] I see that the Minister has received a little note; perhaps there will be something interesting in it for me.

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

The situation is not very different from the one that I described to the hon. Gentleman. The licences as they are issued now can be very different. They will have conditions attached to them. Some will have protected rights conditions; some will specify volumes. There are abstraction licences and transfer licences, which can be very different things. If a licence holder wants to change a licence to which conditions apply, the best way will be to surrender it and make a fresh application, rather than a variation, so that it can be evaluated properly, whatever the new licence is; otherwise, control over the management of licences will be lost. That is why I argue strongly against the amendment.

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.

Amendments made: No. 303, in

schedule 7, page 186, line 16, after 'access;', insert 'or'.

No. 304, in

schedule 7, page 190, line 14, at end insert—

'( ) The Environment Act 1995 is amended as follows.'.

No. 305, in

schedule 7, page 190, line 15, leave out

'of the Environment Act 1995'

and insert

'(general provisions with respect to water)'.

No. 306, in

schedule 7, page 190, line 22, at end insert—

'( ) In Schedule 22 (amendment of enactments), paragraph 181 is omitted.'.

No. 307, in

schedule 7, page 192, line 43, at end insert—

'( ) In Schedule 3 (Director General of Water Services), paragraphs 6 and 7 are omitted.

( ) In Schedule 4 (customer service committees), paragraph 6 is omitted.

( ) In Schedule 25 (amendment of enactments), paragraphs 68(2)(a) and 76(a) are omitted.'.—[Mr. Morley.]

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

I beg to move amendment No. 101, in

schedule 7, page 193, line 9, at end insert—

'(3A) In section 144B (restriction on undertakers' power to require fixing of charges by reference to volume)—

(a) at the end of paragraph (a) of subsection (1) there is inserted—

''that is 'household premises' as defined in subsection (5) below,'';

(b) at the end of the section there is inserted—

''(5) In paragraph (a) of subsection (1) above, ''household premises'' shall have the same meaning as in section 17C of this Act.''.'.

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

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

New clause 26—Metering—

'(1) In section 142 of the Water Industry Act 1991 (powers of undertakers to charge), in subsection (2), ''(2A),'' is omitted.

(2) In section 142 of the Water Industry Act (charges schemes) subsections 2A and 2B are omitted.

(3) In section 143 of the Water Industry Act 1991 (charges schemes), in subsection (5)(a), ''in a case not falling within section 142(2A) above'' is omitted.

(4) In section 144A of the Water Industry Act 1991 (right of consumer to elect for charging by reference to volume), subsections (5), (6), (7), (8) and (10) are omitted.

(5) After subsection 144A of the Water Industry Act 1991 (Right of consumer to elect for charging by reference to volume), there is inserted—

''144AA Arrangements for introduction of metering

(1) Where—

(a) water is supplied by a water undertaker to premises in which, or in any part of which, a person has his home;

(b) charges in respect of those premises are fixed by virtue of any charges scheme under section 143 above without reference to the volume of water supplied; and

(c) such other conditions as may be prescribed by the Secretary of State through regulation are also satisfied in relation to the premises, and to the occupants of those premises,

the undertaker may at any time give the consumer a notice (in this section referred to as a ''company measured charges notice'') allowing the undertaker to fix charges in respect of the supply by reference to the volume of water supplied.

(2) Before making such regulations as are permitted by subsection (1) above the Secretary of State shall—

(a) consult—

(i) the Authority,

(ii) the Council,

(iii) the Assembly,

(iv) relevant undertakers,

(v) the Environment Agency; and

such other persons as the Secretary of State considers it appropriate to consult; and

(b) publish the draft regulations for public consultation.

(3) In making regulations under subsection (1) above, the Secretary of State must have regard to—

(a) the interests of—

(i) households with an occupant or occupants with low incomes;

(ii) households with an occupant or occupants of pensionable age;

(iii) households with an occupant or occupants who have a medical condition which causes significant levels of water use;

(b) the furtherance of water conservation;

(c) the particular circumstances in areas of water scarcity; and

(d) the promotion of economy and efficiency on the part of companies holding an appointment under Chapter 1 of Part 2 of this Act in carrying out the duties of a relevant undertaker.

(4) A water undertaker may not give effect to a company measured charges notice before the end of a period determined in accordance with the undertaker's charges scheme.

(5) If and so long as a water undertaker is entitled under subsection (4) above to fix charges for the supply of water in respect of any premises by reference to the volume of water supplied, a sewerage undertaker is under a corresponding obligation to fix charges in respect of foul water drainage provided by the sewerage undertaker in respect of those premises by reference to that volume.

(6) Any charges scheme under section 143 above—

(a) must contain provision for determining the period mentioned in subsection (4) above, and

(b) shall have effect subject to the preceding provisions of this section.

(7) In this section ''household premises'' has the meaning as defined in section 17C above.''.

(6) In section 144B of the Water Industry Act 1991 (restriction on change in basis of charging), for subsection (2) there is substituted—

''(2) Where this subsection applies, a relevant undertaker may not by virtue of any charges scheme under section 143 above begin to fix the charges in respect of those premises by reference to volume unless either—

(a) the consumer—

(i) has given the undertaker a measured charges notice under section 144A above, or

(ii) has consented to the charges in respect of the premises being so fixed, or

(b) the undertaker has given the consumer a company measured charges notice under section 144A above, or

(c) the fixing of charges in respect of those premises by reference to volume is required under section 148A below, or

(d) there has been a change in the occupation of the premises and no charges have yet been demanded from the person who has become the consumer.''

(7) After section 144B of the Water Industry Act 1991, there is inserted—

''144C Metering charges

Charges and other amounts to which this section applies shall not, by virtue of anything contained—

(a) in this Chapter;

(b) in any local statutory provision;

(c) in any charges scheme under section 143 above; or

(d) in any agreement entered into on or after 1st September 1989, be recoverable by a relevant undertaker from any person if they have been fixed wholly or partly by reference to a rating valuation list or are otherwise determined, whether directly or indirectly, by reference to any value or other amount specified at any time in such a list.

(2) This section applies to—

(a) charges in respect of any services provided at any time after the end of 31st March 2018 by a relevant undertaker in the course of carrying out its functions; and

(b) amounts of any other description which such an undertaker, in exercise of any power conferred by or under any enactment, requires any person to pay in respect of any period ending after that date or in respect of anything done after that date.

(3) In this section ''rating valuation list'' means a list which is or has at any time been maintained, for the purposes of rating, under section 41 or 52 of the Local Government Finance Act 1988 (c.41),

section 67 of the General Rate Act 1967 (c.9) or any other enactment.''

(8) After section 148 of the Water Industry Act 1991 there is inserted—

''148A Charges by volume, etc

(1) Subject to subsection (2) below, the Secretary of State shall, not later than the end of 31st March 2018, by regulations require all water undertakers to fix charges in respect of the supply by reference to the volume of water supplied for all household premises and to instal any meter in household premises to be used in determining the amount of any such charges.

(2) The requirements of subsection (1) above do not apply—

(a) to household premises—

(i) that share a supply pipe with one or more other premises;

(ii) where it is not reasonably practicable to instal any meter to be used in determining the amount of any charges; and

(b) to other household premises as may be prescribed by regulations.

(3) The Secretary of State may be regulations require all water undertakers to ensure that all customers in household premises, such as are excluded from the provisions of subsection (1) above by subsection (2) above, are charged by reference to the volume of water supplied and that meters are installed in household premises to be used in determining the amount of any such charges; and that this is achieved by such times as may be prescribed.

(4) Before making such regulations as are required by subsections (1) to (3) above the Secretary of State shall—

(a) consult—

(i) the Authority,

(ii) the Council,

(iii) the Assembly,

(iv) relevant undertakers,

(v) the Environment Agency; and

(vi) such other persons as the Secretary of State considers it appropriate to consult; and

(b) publish the draft regulations for public consultation.

(5) In making regulations under subsection (1) above, the Secretary of State must have regard to—

(a) the interests of—

(i) households with an occupant or occupants with low incomes;

(ii) households with an occupant or occupants of pensionable age;

(iii) households with an occupant or occupants who have a medical condition which causes significant levels of water use;

(b) the furtherance of water conservation;

(c) the particular circumstances in areas of water scarcity; and

(d) the promotion of economy and efficiency on the part of companies holding an appointment under Chapter 1 of Part 2 of this Act in carrying out the duties of a relevant undertaker.

(6) The Secretary of State may by regulations make provision for transferring to the Authority powers and functions for the purposes of subsections (1) to (3) above, including—

(a) modification of appointment conditions to meet the requirements of subsections (1) to (3) above, and

(b) imposition of penalties under section 22A above following the failure of a water undertaker to meet the requirements of sections (1) to (3) above.

(7) In this section ''household premises'' has the meaning as defined in section 17C above.''.'.

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

I shall speak only to amendment No. 101. This fairly straightforward little amendment would be tacked on to the end of paragraph 27(3) of

schedule 7, which deals with regional committees—that term is enough to send a shiver up anyone's spine. The amendment refers to

''undertakers' power to require fixing of charges by reference to volume''.

We have had a long debate on issues of volume, and the amendment is designed to qualify them. I hope that it finds favour with the Government, but I suspect that it will not.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Liberal Democrat, Lewes

I shall address my remarks to new clause 26, in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Sue Doughty). Members will know that I have referred to metering on Second Reading and during this Committee, and I want to explain in some detail why it is the correct way forward. I draw the Minister's attention to the fact that the new clause is detailed, so he will not be able to use the standard response that there is no detail. He will have to use his other response and tell us what is wrong with the detail. I look forward to it.

The new clause is what Sir Humphrey might have called courageous, as it is not without political risk, but we have proposed it because we think that it is right. Unlike gas or electricity, bills for which are based on consumption, water has historically been charged on the notional 1973 rateable value of the property—in other words, the amount for which someone could theoretically have rented out their house in 1973. That is an odd way of charging for water, especially as that value, if it had any meaning to start with, is 30 years old.

The 1991 Act conceded that water companies should no longer use rateable value and provided that its use would no longer be permitted beyond 31 March 2000. That decision was subsequently overturned. We now have an odd no-man's land in which companies use both rateable value and metering, which gives us the worst of all possible worlds. We are moving by stealth towards universal metering, but the Government do not want to champion it overtly. They are waiting for people to make their individual choices and for water companies to push the idea in the hope that we get universal metering without the Government doing anything.

That is a fundamentally dishonest policy, which has its own dangers. The current hybrid situation represents a worse solution than basing everything on rateable value, because there is a cross-subsidy from unmetered to metered properties. That is not something that people want to see in terms of social justice.

The new clause would prevent water companies from using rateable values as a basis for water charging, effective from 31 March 2018. We have built in the long lead-in period in recognition of the fact that such changes cannot be achieved overnight. We must consider the infrastructure and how quickly we can introduce universal metering throughout the country, and having talked to water companies, we believe that 15 years is a reasonably generous period. I

hope that that deals with the practicality of whether we could achieve the change in that period.

Photo of Andrew Lansley Andrew Lansley Shadow Secretary of State for Health

Before we go too far into the discussion of the hon. Gentleman's metering proposals, will he clarify whether he intends the metering to be strictly based on the volume of water supplied or whether he wants the charges to be levied in relation to the variable costs of water supply in which fixed costs are attributed to each customer on the basis on which those costs arise? Does he intend that the fixed costs should still be varied according to the volume of water consumed?

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Liberal Democrat, Lewes

My preference would be for the system to operate in the same way as electricity and gas. There would be a minimal standing charge, together with costs according to volume. I would also want to see rising tariffs providing a disincentive to use a greater amount of water.

Photo of Andrew Lansley Andrew Lansley Shadow Secretary of State for Health

The hon. Gentleman's reply is interesting and not what I expected. It is interesting because the structure of costs in the water industry is different from gas and electricity, and the variable cost of water is a far smaller proportion of the total cost than the variable costs of either gas or electricity. I see no reason to suppose that, if one were charging only on the basis of the variable cost of water supply, there would be any incentive to water conservation, because the variation in charge would be very limited. The application of a standing charge, if it were unrelated to the rateable value, would mean that cross-subsidisation from expensive properties to cheaper ones would be removed.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Liberal Democrat, Lewes

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will let me develop my arguments, because he has intervened at an early point in the case that I am making. I have indicated that if there were a standing charge, it should be low. I am ambivalent about whether there should be such a charge—on balance, perhaps, I think that there should. However, I believe that there should be an increase in tariffs on the amount of water consumed, to give an incentive to reduce water consumption.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Liberal Democrat, Lewes

Yes. I am trying to make a case, but I will give way.

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

I appreciate what the hon. Gentleman is trying to do, but I should like him to clarify a point. Does he intend the standing charge to include a certain amount of water that can be consumed under that standing charge before the extra charges for variable amounts of consumption are incurred? Will the standing charge allow for an average household's consumption, with more to be paid on top, or will the standing charge apply whether one uses no water at all or a little water?

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Liberal Democrat, Lewes

The answer is that the new clause allows either solution to be introduced; it is not prescriptive. However, I would want there to be rising tariffs at a key point. It could be that a given amount of water could be taken under the standing charge arrangement, and then a rising tariff applied according to consumption, to act as a disincentive to use of water

beyond the point at which increased consumption might become environmentally disadvantageous.

The new clause would require the Secretary of State to put in place a strategy for attainment of comprehensive water metering by 31 March 2018 and, in the interim, it would enable water companies to introduce compulsory metering, when the Secretary of State allowed it. In that way, metering would be implemented gradually, with the expectation that it would occur first in areas where there is currently a water shortage, such as the south-east, and that the areas where water supply is less of a problem would be left until later.

The new clause would implement comprehensive metering to a set timetable. The Government are currently allowing metering to be introduced by stealth, and should make up their mind whether they regard metering as a good idea. The 1991 Act initially suggested that it should be phased out. New consumers may choose to switch from rateable value to metering, but there is no choice for those who come into a property that is already metered—they have to inherit it.

The water companies have made it plain to us that it is not possible to carry on indefinitely with the current legislation, which is based on that hybrid solution. They say that there is a cross-subsidy from unmetered to metered customers that will be unsustainable as the number of metered customers continues to grow. Those who are opposed to metering must face that fundamental point.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Labour, Cardiff West

Can the hon. Gentleman tell the Committee, from the discussions that he had with the water companies, how many of those companies are in favour of compelling people to transfer to water meters, as he suggests, and how many are not?

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Liberal Democrat, Lewes

I cannot give the hon. Gentleman an absolute figure. I have spoken to the water bodies collectively—to Water UK—and to individual companies in my patch, and to several others throughout the UK. None of them wants compulsory metering, but all recognise that the current situation cannot be allowed to continue indefinitely.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Labour, Cardiff West

If the hon. Gentleman cannot do that—I realise that it might be a bit much—can he tell us one company that is in favour and one that is not?

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Liberal Democrat, Lewes

I can tell the hon. Gentleman that South East Water recognises the need for compulsory metering, and it has been helpful in drafting the new clause under discussion. No doubt other companies are opposed to it, and I am sure that hon. Members will draw attention to them in their own contributions to the debate.

I do not want to lose the last point that I made—one which hon. Members must address in the interests of equity and fairness to consumers who are not well off. At present, creeping metering happens where people perceive that switching to metering is of direct economic interest to their own situation. The figures to which I referred earlier are in a parliamentary answer

provided to me by the Minister earlier this year. They indicate that the average metered bill is significantly lower than the average unmetered bill in every company area except Portsmouth. That means that those who are unmetered are providing a cross-subsidy to those who are metered. It is often the poorest who are unmetered. That should not be allowed to continue. We must address that in some way. My preferred solution is to have universal metering. In a sense the alternative solution is rateable value. The present hybrid arrangements are unsustainable.

Photo of Nick Palmer Nick Palmer Labour, Broxtowe 3:15, 21 October 2003

Does not the hon. Gentleman think that one of the reasons for that difference may be that metered customers use less water?

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Liberal Democrat, Lewes

Of course metered customers use less water. The very fact that they are metered acts as in incentive to use less water. But there is an overall cost to the water supply as they are paying less than they would have done under rateable value. The income that the water company would have received has to be obtained somewhere else and is a cost to other householders.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Labour, Cardiff West

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that one company that is against water metering is Glas Cymru, which, to my knowledge, is the only water company in the UK that has been set up as a public interest company not to make a profit but to serve the interests of its consumers?

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Liberal Democrat, Lewes

I was not aware of that. I am grateful for the information, which is doubtless a fact to be considered. I do not pretend that these situations are black and white. But I am sure that the metering by stealth, which has been going on for 13 or 14 years, cannot be allowed to continue. We need a clear statement of Government policy, which my new clause is designed to elicit. There are arguments for and against.

We support metering despite the fact that it has downsides. I do not pretend that everything is rosy. There is a short-term transitional cost. There are infrastructure costs in implementing the system and installing meters but we believe that in the long term the effect of stemming the forecast growth in demand will benefit the consumer by keeping bills lower and benefit the environment by limiting the growth in abstraction. If water consumption can be capped, the need to invest in longer-term infrastructure such as new reservoirs is obviated.

Metering trials took place in the early 1990s. The final summary report from the national metering trials working group states:

''The Water Industry Act 1991 requires that water companies can no longer use rateable values as a basis for charging after 31st March 2000.''

That has been overtaken by events.

''The metering trials have shown that customers, by and large, accept the idea of paying by volume and that there can be a significant effect on demand.''

It is a given from the studies that took place that demand can be reduced by metering. Indeed, the study

in the Isle of Wight, which was the most comprehensive of all the studies, showed a 21 per cent. reduction in demand for water. I am happy to accept that that may be to some extent an unreliable figure. For example, an attempt was made at the same time to introduce leakage controls. Nevertheless I am in doubt that water can be saved by metering.

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

The hon. Gentleman has just mentioned the very point that I wanted him to address. Although his attempt to achieve greater water conservation is undoubtedly the right approach, about 18 per cent. of our water is still lost through leakage before it even gets to the customer. I wonder whether his new clause addresses the real problem in the industry, which is downstream from the customer.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Liberal Democrat, Lewes

There are a number of problems with water. One is the failure of the public authorities to conserve it properly. We tried to deal with that this morning and only partly succeeded. There is the problem of technology and how one can design toilets that do not waste water. There is the problem of leakage in pipes and how one deals with householders' pipes, particularly the section from the tap to the main connection which is privately owned and where most of the leakage now takes place.

There is a whole range of problems relating to the loss of water. We are trying to address one of them. I have never pretended that it is the only issue, but it is one of them. If electricity were based on rateable value people might decide to keep the lights on, but as they pay for it people are more careful about how they use electricity. I want the same philosophy to apply to how people use water.

Photo of Richard Burden Richard Burden Labour, Birmingham, Northfield

The national water metering trials in the early 1990s, which considered the impact of metering, came in for a lot of criticism on the grounds that the areas chosen were far from typical. One argument advanced then was that the Isle of Wight does not have many high-rise blocks of flats, which cause technical problems when introducing water metering. Has the hon. Gentleman thought about how reliable those metering trials were?

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Liberal Democrat, Lewes

Yes, I have. I discussed the matter at length with Southern Water, which is a local company. The Isle of Wight was the biggest area in which tests were carried out and probably produced the most reliable figures. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it may be dangerous to extrapolate too widely from the results in the smaller areas. The Isle of Wight was a large test area and it is reasonable to draw conclusions from it.

The new clause addresses the issue of high-rise blocks. It recognises that there must be different arrangements for areas and premises in which individual households could not be metered, such as metering a block of flats and subdividing the bill, but that is not specified in the proposal. However, the new clause recognises that there is a problem in high-rise

blocks and other buildings and contains a measure to deal with it.

The National Consumer Council report, ''Towards a Sustainable Water Charging Policy'', published in 2002, states that in New York 600,000 were converted to charging by volume between 1988 and 1998. As a consequence, the water company was able to postpone indefinitely a huge investment programme to develop further water supply resources. It is clear, first, that the installation of meters suppresses demand and, secondly, by doing so it obviates the need for long-term infrastructure investment, which means lower consumer bills in the longer term.

Photo of Mrs Diana Organ Mrs Diana Organ Labour, Forest of Dean

I go along with the philosophy that we should be considering efficient ways of using water in the infrastructure. Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the most successful boys' urinals in new primary schools, such as Hopebrook in my constituency, are completely dry? As a Member of Parliament, the hon. Gentleman, like me, will have to visit many boys' urinals in primary schools. A new design is being used that does not need water, so it does not smell and is extremely efficient. We should consider every measure by which to cut down on the unnecessary use of water in new infrastructure.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Liberal Democrat, Lewes

I am grateful for the hon. Lady's intervention. It shows another means of saving and conserving water. I am not over-familiar with boys' urinals but I take her point. [Interruption.] Not for a long time, anyway. I will bear in mind what she said the next time I am near a boys' urinal.

I return to my response to an intervention from the hon. Member for Ceredigion. A lot can be done generally to save water and the hon. Lady mentioned one means of doing so, but it is important, because it has got people who use water to consider how much they use, and whether they need to use it. I am in no doubt that water metering will suppress demand, obviate infrastructure investment and keep bills down. It is also fairer, by and large, that people pay for what they use rather than pay some notional amount based on 1973 rateable values, which is indefensible. I want someone to defend that position in a moment.

The arguments about water metering are not all for or against. The real issue is to ensure that any system that is introduced does not adversely affect the poorest people. That concern is probably why successive Governments have not pushed ahead with the proposal, and perhaps why, in 1997, the new Labour Government pulled back from the 1991 Act, which would have required universal metering.

The changes in subsections (5) and (6) of the new clause give water companies the power to require customers to install a meter and to be charged volumetrically, but they give the Secretary of State power to have regard to important factors such as the needs of low-income consumers and areas of water scarcity. The Secretary of State is given room for manoeuvre to deal with those groups and to take extensive consultation. The new clause provides that he must give particular consideration to vulnerable customers such as the poorest families and those with

medical conditions requiring high usage. Those conditions must be satisfied and the matter sorted out before water metering can be introduced.

The Government recognise the need for vulnerable groups to be protected in respect of water metering in the regulations, but water companies and Water Voice have told us that those regulations do not work at present. There is little take-up, they are not understood, the forms are hugely complex and they do not help the target audience for which they were designed. Irrespective of anything else in the new clause, the Government need to review the regulations to ensure that they work.

Our overall intent is to balance the interests of the environment, consumers and water companies to provide a timetable for universal metering by 2018, to ensure that particular consideration is given to vulnerable customers in drafting the necessary regulations, and to charge substantially by volume. There should be rising tariffs which mean that the first use of water will be cheaper than later uses, although it is important not to penalise the essential use of water. We want to ensure that water companies are fully involved in the consultation process and to provide the Secretary of State with sufficient room to manoeuvre on the issue of vulnerable groups, taking into account the difficulty of metering properties. The concerns expressed in the amendment and the new clause are linked to our earlier amendment on water poverty. The Minister agreed that the regulations on vulnerable groups needed to be improved.

It is not practical or honest to proceed with the hybrid system of water metering by stealth. Some time in the future there will be universal metering. It will happen because water will become more scarce, especially in the south-east, for example; because as people move around, consumers who had water meters will choose that system for their new premises; and because there will be pressure from the water companies. If there is to be universal metering, it is better to manage the process properly. The Government should be open about it, have proper consultations with the affected groups and introduce a system that deals with the issue I have raised, ensuring that the vulnerable are properly protected. A system that is brought in by stealth would not do those things.

Photo of Robert Key Robert Key Conservative, Salisbury

My water system is metered in my constituency home and in my London home. Is the hon. Gentleman's water metered at both ends?

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Liberal Democrat, Lewes

It is certainly metered in my house in Lewes; I made sure that it was. I live in a block of flats in the Westminster city council area, and I do not know whether it is metered or not. I have only just moved in and I have not yet had a bill.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Labour, Cardiff West

May I check a further point with the hon. Gentleman? As I understand it, he proposes that the charges should rise according to the volume of water used. Why should a bath for the fourth child in a family of four cost more than a bath for an only child in a family?

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Liberal Democrat, Lewes

I understand that important point; I referred to the vulnerable groups regulations, which

should protect such people. I do not want a system that discourages the essential use of water in any way. Any system that introduces metering must deal with that problem, as the present regulations do not protect people. We discussed in earlier sittings the percentage of household income that is spent on water bills, which is way above the 3 per cent. guideline given by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

The vulnerable groups regulations, if they are properly drafted, in conjunction with the rising tariffs, should protect people who may question whether the fourth child can have a bath. If they can afford it, they may wish to use water to bathe the fourth child, while someone else may wish to water their garden or to wash their car using a hosepipe.

It is important to charge by volume, but also to have protection for essential use in the circumstances that I have described. That is what the new clause tries to achieve.

I hope that the Minister will respond positively to the new clause, although he will probably not accept it. However, the Government must be honest about water metering; it is not sufficient to leave it to metering by stealth, which does not provide the safeguards that the new clause would introduce.

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley Minister of State (Environment and Agri-Environment), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 3:30, 21 October 2003

I will deal with stealth metering in a moment, but I must first deal with the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Leominster. This is more technical and he is asking to use the term ''household premises'' as defined by the competition provisions in schedule 4. There is a problem with that, because that definition, which can be elaborated on in regulations, was created for use under the proposed competition regulations. It is not a definition that we wish automatically to apply to metering, and if any changes made to the definition of household premises automatically affected metering, it would restrict the ability to fine tune the competition provisions.

There are fundamental differences between metering and competition and we would not wish to replicate some areas here. That is why I do not think that the hon. Gentleman's definition is suitable. I am not aware of any problem with the current definitions; they were introduced in the Water Industry Act 1999 and have been in operation for three years without any great difficulty. I do not see the case for the amendment.

I do not agree with the new clause tabled by the hon. Member for Lewes. My disagreement is more with the philosophy of it, than with the new clause itself. I shall explain why. The Government are clear about our objectives: we believe that, in the long term, the most appropriate way of charging for water is metering. We have said that on a number of occasions. We have a difference with the hon. Gentleman because he accuses the Government of metering by stealth.

We are metering by choice; we are giving people the choice of moving on to a water meter. It is true that, over time, more and more people have done that. All new houses must have water meters; once one is put in,

the regulations say that it has to stay in. The hon. Gentleman misunderstands the situation. There is already provision for companies to apply for compulsory metering if they so choose. That is in water-stressed areas, and if the company wants to make the case that there is a problem with water resources in its area, it can come to DEFRA and make an application for compulsory metering. So far, none has done so. We would expect any company to address the points made about matters such as leakages, before it asks for compulsory metering, but the provision is there.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Liberal Democrat, Lewes

I assure the Minister that I know that the provision is there. I have had discussions with the water companies about it. Their view—I am obviously putting their case, which they wish to have communicated, rather than the Minister's interpretation of it—is that the hurdles that they would have to overcome to qualify for that are so high that it is difficult, and not sensible, for them to invest a huge amount of time in overcoming them. That is their argument; the Minister may not accept it, but that is what they told me.

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

I am not entirely convinced by that argument. If the water companies think that the hurdles are too high, they are welcome to address that through Ofwat and directly to DEFRA, as they do in our discussions. The provision is there, should it be necessary, and should there be an issue of real water shortages. Water metering is a complicated issue; that emerged from our discussion, and I am glad that we have had it. It is quite an important issue and there is no harm in addressing the pros and cons of it.

I can claim to have experience of both sides of the argument because I live in the Anglian region. I think that Anglian was the only company that started with compulsory water metering. I remember the horrendous difficulties that it ran into with that programme. It was paying for the meters that were being installed; it is worth bearing it in mind, when we talk about giving people choice, that meter installation is free. That is quite a powerful inducement for people to move over to it. There were enormous problems with Anglian and that is why I would be reluctant to accept the date that the hon. Gentleman cites in his new clause. There are terrific technical problems in many parts of the country in installing meters. We have heard about difficulties with blocks of flats. In my constituency, older blocks of terraced houses use one water supply, and attaching a meter to that is horrendously problematic.

My own home in north Lincolnshire—I must quickly say that I am metered in London—is an 18th-century manor house that has been socially divided into two houses. I live, in a socially responsible way, in one half of that building. There is only one water supply for the whole building, and it runs through my side of the house. Trying to install two meters is incredibly difficult. I know that because Anglian Water came round to fit my compulsory meter and, despite spending half a day under the sink in my kitchen, could not work out how to do it for the two

separate houses without enormous costs and problems. We have to be careful when setting dates for overcoming technical problems.

Although I believe that metering is the way forward—I make it clear that the Government believe that metering is the long-term future—I point out to the hon. Gentleman that the effect on demand is more complex than he thinks. There have been several studies on that, and the water companies and Ofwat currently assume that metering would bring a 5 per cent. saving in water use; not bad, but not huge either. However, in some areas this summer, metered customers used more water proportionally than unmetered customers. The reasons for that are not clear and more analysis is needed, but it is not necessarily the case, as the hon. Gentleman believes, that metering is the new nirvana and will solve all the problems. Meters may be part of the solution for water management, and we would not rule them out.

I also want to clarify that there is no cross-subsidy between metered and unmetered supply. Ofwat is responsible for setting prices and tries to ensure that there is no subsidy. If there were any implications, they would be for the unmetered supply because the biggest water users would move on to meters. It is also more likely that those who pay the highest rateable value would move over to meters so, as the overall income changes, there are implications for the charges of those with an unmeasured supply. Ofwat is responsible for examining that, and it sets prices, taking those factors into account. However, I do not want to give the impression that metered customers are subsidising unmetered customers, because that is not true; we would have strong words to say if it were.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Liberal Democrat, Lewes

The Minister said that there is no cross-subsidy, but does he accept that if somebody on an unmeasured supply changes to a metered supply in the belief, usually correct, that they will save money, the overall income stream to the water company will diminish? That affects the resources available to the water company for future investment and, if Ofwat is approached and told, ''We want an increase of X per cent,'' the figures on its balance sheet will probably justify that. There is an implication for unmeasured customers from the reduction in income from measured customers.

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

That is basically what I was saying, but the implication is for the unmeasured customers. If the base declines, Ofwat will have to decide on the charging regime to be applied to unmeasured as opposed to metered customers. However, I want to make it clear that there is no subsidy from unmetered to metered customers.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Labour, Cardiff West

Is not the implication of the suggestion of the hon. Member for Lewes that the introduction of compulsory metering will lead to a massive and sudden fall in income to water companies? That will lead to much lower investment and bigger problems with leakages.

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

That again would be an implication of a fast move to metering, which would affect water companies, consumers and vulnerable groups. We would prefer an orderly and phased move towards the

changes, to minimise dramatic impact on consumers and people. I do not believe that the new clause would achieve that.

I want to say a word about vulnerable groups. Some of my hon. Friends were concerned, and I can tell them that vulnerable group regulations are under review. They are designed to assist metered customers who need to use large volumes of water for essential purposes. The results of the review and consultation will be issued by the end of this year. That is an aside to say that we are sensitive to the needs of vulnerable groups in relation to water meters and we are trying to address them.

It would be to many people's advantage to move to metering at the moment. As prices and regimes change, I suspect that more and more people will find it in their interests to do that and we will see continued progress as more people make the move. We are moving towards maximising the number of people on water meters, bearing in mind the technical problems, which will not be easy to resolve. That is part of an overall approach to water management, which also includes tackling leaks, considering building regulations and the design of new houses, and minimising water use. We must consider a range of issues in ensuring that we have good water management, and leakages is just one of them.

I return to the point that if there are shortages in a water-stressed area, companies can apply for compulsory metering. They can also already insist on compulsory metering for large water users. In my area, for example, it is compulsory for people with swimming pools and, I think, sprinklers to have a meter. Such measures can be applied, which shows that far from introducing meters by stealth, we are giving people the choice. We are working in a way that allows transitions without huge distortions for either the companies or consumers. We recognise that there are sensitivities in terms of what people want to do and that effective measures are needed for vulnerable groups. We already have some measures in place and are trying to improve them further.

The Government approach is the right one. We are aiming for the same end point as the hon. Member for Lewes, but it is a question of being practical and proportionate and of recognising the difficulties in applying large-scale metering throughout the country. We have recognised those problems, and our balance is just about right. We are open for discussions about different charging mechanisms and other approaches. As I have mentioned several times, we are receptive to new ideas and approaches. The hon. Gentleman has the best intentions and motivations, but his new clause would not work in the interests of either water companies or consumers.

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

Before we leave the new clause, I should like to make a few points. Much of the Bill is about reducing the amount of water that we abstract, using water wisely and putting in place measures to do that in increasingly difficult climatic times. The Minister rightly pointed out that several measures in the Bill are designed to do that, and we know that some water companies have been effective in reducing their leakages to the level of diminishing

returns. Other companies such as Thames Water, which was mentioned this morning, still have a way to go, and we want to see improvement from them. However, water companies in many parts of the country have responded to the challenge.

The Minister says that people can opt for a meter, but many people will not do so if, for example, they are unsure about the state of the pipes in their garden, for which they are responsible. The problem is that if there is a break in the pipe before it gets to the meter, where it is that person's responsibility, they may get a high bill. Constituents who have not been able to reach a proper accommodation with the water company come to me worrying about what might happen in such circumstances.

I appreciate that there is no great demand for metering in Wales. There is an awful lot of water there, so they would say that. I know of one other part of the country where metering would not be popular, for the same reason—there is no water shortage in that part of the country. The water companies in such areas would understandably not want to go for it.

One wonders whether the Welsh would be so keen for water not to be metered if there was a water shortage in another part of the country—perhaps in England—to which water was being shipped from a new reservoir in Wales.

Photo of Mr Simon Thomas Mr Simon Thomas Plaid Cymru, Ceredigion 3:45, 21 October 2003

Perhaps I might suggest that we put one big meter on it.

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

Well, effectively, that happens in practice. We look at the amount of water that is going through.

It is understandable that the Minister dwelled at length on the problems on shared supply pipes and where it is practical to install a meter. The new clause deals with that by excluding such provisions under proposed new subsection (2A) of the relevant section of the 1991 Act and allowing for separate arrangements.

It is well known and understood that there are some groups of properties where it is impossible to divide fairly the amount of water going through each component part. However, one could aggregate all those properties and divide the amount of water going into them proportionately and fairly. That would be a matter for consultation. We do not dictate how that should happen. The proposal allows for consultation before the Bill is enacted. It does not have to go down to the level of detail, because we recognise that such a thing would not just be included as a finished measure before due consultation of the implications was carried out.

There are questions about whether if everybody were metered, there would be less investment. However, if there were less investment, that would presumably be because there had been a reduction in the amount of water used. I hope that we would, for example, avoid a new reservoir in south Oxfordshire in the Thames Water region. That is always on the cards, despite what was said about leakage. We are using more water; we wash and shower more often and we

wash our clothes more often. There are all sorts of considerations to bear in mind, but eventually the water must be paid for. We are still keen on taking a closer look at metering.

Hon. Members have said that there are high hurdles to be overcome before we decide on compulsory metering. However, we need to consider the matter, not only in the interests of social justice, with the provisos that we have discussed, but because many of the measures that we are considering may not be enough to guarantee the supply of water in an increasing number of households, which we need to supply, and given the climatic stress that we are facing.

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

What an enjoyable afternoon I have had listening to the debate, thinking of the Minister reclining in his 18th-century manor house, particularly with the water authority burrowing under his kitchen sink.

I remember asking the hon. Member for Lewes earlier if it was official Liberal Democrat policy for there to be compulsory metering. If that is so—and I hope that it is—he has demonstrated in the new clause that he really believes in it. I do not mind if he distributes a ''Focus'' leaflet on such an issue around my constituency. I believe that the public deserve the choice of whether to have a free meter, should they want one, or to maintain the status quo by continuing with the rateable value. That is probably the right and reasonable way to proceed. Of course, we will end up with a higher proportion of metered houses in the long run.

I was grateful to the Minister for dealing with my rather technical amendment, the purpose of which is to define property and household premises, because in the next amendment we will come on to the difficulty with blocks of flats. However, I do not want to move on to that debate at this early stage. We shall later have a debate on fluoridation when we will talk about compulsory mass medication. I suspect that the more liberal-minded among us will be against that. And how could we possibly be in favour of compulsory water meters?

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Liberal Democrat, Lewes

I shall be quick, as there are many new clauses to debate.

First, I want to pick up three of four points that the Minister made. He mentioned the word ''choice''. There is choice in some respects, but not in others. There is choice if a person happens to be in a unmetered premises and wants to change to a meter, but there the choice ends. There is no choice if a person is in a metered property and wants to go back to being unmetered. There is no choice if a person buys a new house and it has a meter. The choice is therefore illusory, or at least there is a choice for some but not others. That contributes to the hotchpotch that I referred to during in my introduction.

Secondly, the Minister does not like the date 2018. As I said, I talked to the water companies; they said that a minimum of 10 years was required, and we have given them 15, so that is not an unreasonable period.

Thirdly, as the Minister said, the new clause is not nirvana. It could be one measure among many. I fully accept that, and I am prepared to sign up to Ofwat's 5 per cent. figure that the Minister quoted. The figure of 5 per cent. is significant and should not be thrown away; it is worth having. I have offered part of, but not the whole solution.

I shall turn to the idea that it is bad to save water because bills will go up. As the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) said from a sedentary position, the argument seems to be for subsidising inefficiency, which we should not be doing. We would obviate the need for further infrastructure improvements, thereby keeping the cost of the water industry down—my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford made that point.

We have had a useful discussion. The Liberal Democrats reserve the right to press new clauses to the vote later in the process. I do not pretend that metering is without problems—it is not. I hope that it appears in the introduction to the report accurately rather than mischievously. It is not honest of the Government to duck the issue and wait for sources outside the Government to sort it out over a long period. Labour Members generally want to protect vulnerable groups, but those people will suffer more unless the Government use a big bang approach.

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

I am grateful for the Minister's response. At this stage, it would be prudent to withdraw my amendment. 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. 102, in

schedule 7, page 194, line 19, at end insert—

'(8) In Schedule 4A—

(a) for paragraph 1(2)(a) there is substituted—

''(a) a private dwelling-house constituting the whole or any part of household premises,''

(b) at the end of paragraph 1 there is added—

''(3) In this paragraph, ''household premises'' shall have the same meaning as in section 17C of this Act.''.'.

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

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

New clause 4—Protection from disconnection for specified households in mixed use premises—

No. NC4, to move the following Clause—

'In Schedule 4A to WIA there is inserted—

''1A(1) Premises which include any dwelling which is occupied by a person as his only or principal home and whose household normally includes—

(a) an individual who is disabled or chronically sick;

(b) an individual of pensionable age; or

(c) a child under the age of five.

(2) In this paragraph, ''dwelling'' has the meaning given by paragraph 1(2)''.'.

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

The amendment deals with a very real problem that water companies face: people living in flats. At the moment, a large number of the debts that water companies are owed are due to people who live in a flat that is part of a larger building and is probably temporary accommodation for them, but the water company is not aware of that.

Through the amendment, we want to ensure that the water companies can count dwellings within the whole or any part of a premises. I also draw the Minister's attention to the problem of people living above pubs or shops; they are living in homes that currently do not count as households because they are above commercial premises. Water companies have had difficulty with debt because of that.

The water companies can cut off a commercial property, but they cannot cut off a block of flats. In an ideal world, the water bills would be either metered or part of the rent that someone living in a block of flats might pay. That way, the bad debts accumulating would slow. That is what we want to achieve through amendment No. 102 and new clause 4, which states:

''any dwelling which is occupied by a person as his only or principal home and whose household normally includes—''

and groups of vulnerable people are then listed. I hope that the Minister takes the amendments on board, and I look forward to hearing his comments.

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

The amendment proposes that the definition of ''private dwelling house'', for the purpose of defining premises that are not to be disconnected for non-payment of water charges, be replaced with the planned definition for ''household premises'' in schedule 4.

That is a bit of a re-run of something that we have addressed. As I mentioned, the definition of ''household premises'' under schedule 4, which will be elaborated on in secondary legislation, is created for use in the proposed competition regime. We would not wish to apply it to disconnection any more than we would to metering, because there are many differences between disconnection and competition. If we wished to improve or adjust the definitions of premises for the purposes of disconnection we would draft afresh.

New clause 4 proposes to add to the list of premises exempt from disconnection for non-payment of bills, but it is unclear what the effect of that addition would be. The existing provision, which was introduced in 1999, offers protection against disconnection to a detailed list of types of premises that extends over more than two pages of the schedule—I think that the hon. Gentleman made that point..

The existing list starts by protecting from disconnection any dwelling that is occupied by a person as their only or principal home. It is made clear that a private dwelling house may be a building or part of a building. This list was the most extensively debated part of the Bill that became the 1999 Act, and the Government accepted many changes to the schedule in response to debates in the House at the time. I mention that to emphasise that the premises to be protected were deliberate policy choices.

One reading of this new clause is that it simply seeks to protect those dwellings that are occupied by the disabled, the sick, pensioners or children under the age of five. That is entirely laudable; they are vulnerable groups. However, an amendment is not necessary to achieve that. If all dwellings occupied as a principal home are protected from disconnection, any such dwelling occupied by the vulnerable individuals listed in the amendment is automatically protected.

On another reading, it might be thought that the amendment has a slightly different target. Some individuals do not live in dwellings occupied as a home, but in premises that are primarily commercial—I think that the hon. Gentleman was referring to that. If people live in a self-contained flat with its own water supply, they are protected from disconnection, like any other person is.

There can, however, be mixed-use premises in which the commercial supply is not separated from the supply for the individual. Examples of that include some public houses and caretakers' accommodation at a factory or on top of a large office block. Such a situation might occur where the accommodation is tied in that way, and the policy decision taken in 1999, which is still our policy today, is that it is appropriate to allow the disconnection of commercial premises. The problem is that it becomes difficult to distinguish private from commercial premises in those limited circumstances.

Where commercial premises include some elements that are residential, if those elements amount to a part of a building that is a private dwelling house, that, too, is protected, but the view was taken in 1999 that if those commercial premises are not a private dwelling house, disconnection should still be possible. However, commercial or industrial premises, which might be of any size, should not be sheltered against disconnection simply because they include a caretaker somewhere on site. [Interruption.]

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

Order. I call upon hon. Members to let the Minister make his contribution.

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

Thank you, Mr. O'Brien.

The problem is that there is a potential loophole. There could be a very large building, even a factory, which contained a flat, and the company could refuse to pay the bill, and if the amendment was agreed to, the water could not be turned off, although I do not think that that is its intention.

Although I appreciate that there are some difficult cases, I suspect that they are a minority and that they are generally dealt with if they involve a principal home that has a separate water supply.

Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 4:00, 21 October 2003

I am grateful to the Minister because he has understood the argument beautifully. What is worrying me is that he is not proposing to do anything about the problem. I accept that the loophole is a difficulty, but he will also accept that a loophole already exists and that people who live above a pub, or are caretakers, can be cut off. Obviously, if their home contains someone in a vulnerable group, they too will be cut off. The new clause seeks to close that loophole. I accept that it might not be perfect, but I would have hoped that the Minister would want to take the point on board and act constructively on it. What does he propose to do?

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

The problem is that the amendment does not close a loophole; it opens one. It would give commercial premises the opportunity not to pay their water bills and take away the power of the water companies to do anything about it. I am not altogether

sure that there is a major problem with vulnerable groups, bearing in mind the definitions relating to principal homes, which I have made clear. I am happy to have discussions with my officials to see whether they have identified a particular problem. If that is the case, perhaps we should turn our minds to it, but I do not think that we have received many representations to say that this is a big problem.

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

Perhaps the Minister would keep a watching brief on that situation, but I do not expect that there are great numbers involved. I suspect that he is right, but there is a loophole at the moment. I accept that a change would open another one, so we are in a difficult situation. A watching brief is probably the best way to deal with that. If he is prepared to do that, I shall not press the amendments. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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

We now come to a group of Government amendments attached to schedule 7.

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

On a point of order, Mr. O'Brien. The selection list that we were given grouped them differently. I am curious about why we keep returning to the Government amendments in this manner. It is difficult to follow, and therefore difficult for us to scrutinise effectively.

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

I am taking them in this order because of the procedure that we are going through. We are on schedule 7 and dealing with that part of the schedule that the amendments affect. The amendments that I am referring to are Nos. 308–313, 271, 314, 315 and 272. They are the group arising out of the block that we discussed earlier.

Amendments made:— No. 308, in

schedule 7, page 194, line 37, leave out from 'Director' to 'there' in line 38 and insert

'General of Water Services under section 29(6)''.'.

No. 309, in

schedule 7, page 194, line 39, leave out 'above or'.

No. 310, in

schedule 7, page 195, line 8, after '1991)', insert '; or'.

No. 311, in

schedule 7, page 195, line 16, at end insert—

'( ) The Water Consolidation (Consequential Provisions) Act 1991 is amended as follows.

( ) In Schedule 1 (amendment of enactments), paragraphs 10, 28(a) and 29(a) are omitted.'.

No. 312, in

schedule 7, page 195, line 17, leave out from 'Schedule 2' to '(transitional' in line 18.

No. 313, in

schedule 7, page 195, line 28, leave out from 'paragraph' to 'the' in line 29 and insert '(o) there is inserted—

''(p)'.

No. 271, in

schedule 7, page 195, line 36, at end insert—

'( ) In Schedule 10 (regulators), the following are omitted—

(a) paragraph 5(3),

(b) paragraph 13(2) and (3).'.

No. 314, in

schedule 7, page 196, line 7, leave out '''(gga)' and insert '''(gi)'.

No. 315, in

schedule 7, page 196, line 20, leave out from 'paragraph' to 'the' in line 21 and insert '(ra) there is inserted—

''(rb)'.

No. 272, in

schedule 7, page 197, line 5, at end insert—

'Reservoirs Act 1975 (c.23)

In Schedule 1 to the Reservoirs Act 1975 (index of general definitions), the entry for ''Local authority'' is omitted.'.—[Mr. Morley.]

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

I beg to move amendment No. 132, in

schedule 7, page 197, line 8, leave out 'for' and insert 'after'.

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

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment No. 133, in

schedule 7, page 197, line 9, leave out 'substituted' and insert 'inserted'.

Amendment No. 134, in

schedule 7, page 197, line 10, leave out 'for' and insert 'after'.

Amendment No. 135, in

schedule 7, page 197, line 11, leave out 'substituted' and insert 'inserted'.

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

This is a tremendous series of amendments, which will appeal to the Minister's sense of fair play, his passion for transparency and everything else that is good about him. The amendment is monumental, because it seeks to change the words so that ''centigrade'' and ''Fahrenheit'' appear in the Bill. That is hardly an unpleasant experience to have to go through. I hope that the Minister will appreciate that although metric is very acceptable, there is no need to delete the old Fahrenheit readings.

To leave out ''for'' and insert ''after'' is hardly the most testing of amendments.

Photo of George Osborne George Osborne Shadow Minister (Treasury)

Has my hon. Friend made any estimates of the temperature in centigrade or Fahrenheit of this Room?

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

As I said earlier, this is home from home for me. When I get home this evening, I expect my house to be as cold as it is in here because my boiler is broken. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing to my attention the fact that although some of us would be very comfortable with the temperature in this Room being measured in centigrade, some older Members might be happier if it were in Fahrenheit. We have an opportunity here to include both in the Bill. That is inclusive, transparent and in every way appealing.

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

Well, we are being invited to go back to the future in the amendment, but time has moved on. In 1965, the Government announced to Parliament their intention for metric units to become the primary system of measurement in the United Kingdom. I know that it takes Conservative Members a bit of time to get their minds round new things, but 1965 was long enough ago to allow plenty of time to adjust to the

metric system. It has been the primary system of measurement in schools since 1974. I must confess that I cannot relate to Fahrenheit; I think in centigrade. I can predict the temperature of this Room in centigrade. It is about 14 to 15° C, which is not particularly warm. I have no idea what the temperature is in Fahrenheit.

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

That is because of the movement of the air.

The hon. Member for Leominster had the teeniest bit of an argument in asking for both measurements. We often see measurements in both Fahrenheit and centigrade on the news and in weather forecasts, but there are two reasons why the Bill refers only to centigrade and why it would not be appropriate to have both.

First, the provisions contain criminal sanctions relating to temperatures. The temperatures are specified in centigrade to prevent people from putting hot liquids down drains, which can cause all sorts of problems. That is what this is about. It is a fundamental principle that there should be a single clear and unambiguous test for criminal liability. The difficulty is that the figures on the Fahrenheit and Celsius scales are not precisely the same. By referring to Fahrenheit, the amendments would have the unintended consequence of creating two different tests for criminal liability. Clearly, that is not acceptable, because there would always be someone who seized on whether it was Fahrenheit or centigrade and what exactly the temperature was.

The second reason is more practical than technical. It is important that there is no risk of confusion in matters of public health and safety. It is better to have one clear measure than two measures with the risk that the wrong figure may be used. It is time that some Conservative Members came into the modern world.

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

I came into the world in 1966, after that legislation.

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

Some things are ingrained upon me; clarity, freedom of choice and the fact that more information is better than less. The Minister says that the purpose of the provision is to prevent people from pouring hot liquid down drains. Perhaps he would like to tell us which is hotter; the temperature in Fahrenheit or in Celsius.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Liberal Democrat, Lewes

I apologise for interrupting the hon. Gentleman's contribution, but does he share my surprise that the Minister is not expanding choice by saying that there will be a gradual change from Fahrenheit to centigrade? That could evolve over time, and people could choose to follow the system, rather than having measures forced on them in this way.

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

I am as astonished as the hon. Gentleman. This is a light-hearted series of amendments, but there is quite an important point behind it, which is that if we are trying to prevent people from doing something wrong, we should not

deny them a measurement. Some people will understand centigrade; some would be happier dealing with Fahrenheit.

Photo of Robert Key Robert Key Conservative, Salisbury

It is Celsius. Where did my hon. Friend go to school?

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

I was at school in 1974, when the system was being brought in.

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

Order. I ask hon. Members to return to the amendment.

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

I am grateful to you, Mr. O'Brien. I was just trying to explain that my upbringing was deeply confusing, because we were taught both metres and miles.

Photo of Robert Key Robert Key Conservative, Salisbury

To clear up the confusion, could my hon. Friend say where he went to school?

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

There is no confusion. As far as I am concerned, we are sticking to the amendment. I appeal to the hon. Gentleman to stick to the amendment.

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

I will. I accept the point that the Minister made about criminality. If there is a difference between the two temperatures, I should be grateful if he told us whether he is moving towards hotter or colder. If our aim is the worthy one of trying to stop people pouring hot liquids down drains, we should make it as widely known as possible. I shall not veer for one second away from the amendment, but I should like the Minister to reply.

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

That is precisely the point that I made. As this is a regulation, and has criminal sanctions, it is important that people should be clear about it. It is also important that we have a temperature of which people are aware, and that that temperature is specified according to the Celsius system, because that is the legal system in the UK.

Photo of Andrew Lansley Andrew Lansley Shadow Secretary of State for Health

I understand the point that the Minister makes. However, the Minister, in converting, has rounded down in one case and up in another, although the circumstances are similar. I am not sure why that is so. Could he remind us why he has rounded in different directions?

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

I always thought that I was a rounded sort of person. I am not sure what point the hon. Gentleman is making. The Bill will have only one temperature range—the Celsius range—but the amendment would change that. I am saying that there is potential confusion in doing that.

Photo of Andrew Lansley Andrew Lansley Shadow Secretary of State for Health

My point is that the Minister has rounded down in the case of paragraph (b) of subsection (1) and has rounded up in the case of subsection (5).

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

I still have not had an answer from the Minister. Are things getting hotter or colder—[Interruption.] We appear to have exhausted this one. It is a shame, because there is an inconsistency, but we have done our duty in pointing it out.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Liberal Democrat, Lewes

The hon. Gentleman has not entirely exhausted the point, because the system currently in place is, presumably, understood by

everyone, and is applied throughout the industry. Someone will have to write round and tell everyone about the change, at some cost. The unnecessary change has imposed extra costs on the taxpayer.

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

The hon. Gentleman is right. We in the Opposition have tried to point out the inadequacy, by means of our amendment. However, I do not think that the Government are listening, and there is not much more that we can do about it at this stage. There are some important matters to discuss before the knife falls, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment made: No. 273, in

schedule 7, page 197, line 20, at end insert—

'Environment Act 1995 (c.25)

In section 101 of the Environment Act 1995 (grants in connection with drainage works), subsection (1) is omitted.'.—[Mr. Morley.]

Schedule 7, as amended, agreed to.