New clause 20 - Rats in sewers

Water Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:30 pm on 21 October 2003.

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'After section 95 of WIA there is inserted—

''95A Power to approve Codes of Practice

(1) The Secretary of State may by Order approve any code of practice (whether prepared by him or another person) which, in his opinion, gives suitable guidance to sewerage undertakers and local authorities on the performance of functions under this Part of the Act.

(2) In particular the Secretary of State may by order approve such Code of Practice (whether prepared by him or another person) which in his opinion gives suitable guidance to sewerage undertakers and local authorities on the control of rats in sewers.''.'.—[Andy King.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Mr Andy King Mr Andy King Labour, Rugby and Kenilworth

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

I shall be extremely brief because the new clause is self-explanatory. It is important that sewerage undertakers and local authorities be given consistent guidance that they must follow to deal with what is becoming a national problem. I understand that there are about 60 million rats, which means that they outnumber the population of the country as a whole. The breeding ground for them will be sewers. I have to be careful because my name is King, and being chair of the all-party sewers and sewerage group, I am known as King Rat. I hope that the Minister will take the purpose of the new clause on board and put in place the necessary guidance to deal with a major problem.

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

My hon. Friend raises a serious point about rats in sewers, the relevant controls and the guidance given to local government. The Local Government Association and Water UK published a joint protocol in 1999 that set out the arrangements for closer working relationships between the water companies and local authorities in controlling rodent infestations in sewers. That protocol was established and supported by the then Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions and the then Ministry for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. That was before DEFRA was in place, but we still think that the protocol has a great deal of merit.

The protocol's effectiveness is being monitored by the working group on rats in sewers, which is chaired by DEFRA. The protocol has been well publicised in the water industry, and I understand that seven out of 10 of its members responded to a recent survey on rats and said that they were aware of the protocol as it stood.

I have, however, been informed that local authorities may not have quite so good a knowledge of the protocol, and that might be the origin of some of the problems that have rightly been identified. The working group recently enlisted the help of the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health better to publicise the protocol at working level. Also, DEFRA recently wrote to all local authorities to ensure that their attention was brought to the matter.

We have a protocol that is not very different from the statutory code of practice that my hon. Friend is arguing for. The protocol is clearly not fully known by all local authorities, but DEFRA is taking steps to ensure that it is. Let us have the publicity campaign and see whether it makes a difference to the effectiveness of the response of local authorities to rodent control. If it does not, we might return to the

matter. I suggest that we keep in touch on the issue. I am happy to share information on our monitoring and how it is being applied nationally, and I am sure that my hon. Friend will want to keep in touch about the effectiveness of the measure.

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

The point of the new clause is to deal with rats in sewers. The Minister has been talking about rodent control by local authorities—

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

In sewers. I am particularly concerned because, as the Minister will know, rats carry Weil's disease, which is fatal to humans. The number of rats is on the increase so we should take the new clause seriously. I am a bit nervous when the Minister says that we will see how we get on with local authorities. Perhaps he could be a little more optimistic.

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

The hon. Gentleman should not start creating mass panic about Weil's disease, although it is a serious disease. It is carried in rat's urine and, where rats are found, it can enter people's bodies through open cuts. People need to be aware of that and take steps to minimise the risk. However, the protocol is about effective rodent control in sewers. There is no disagreement between what I am saying and what my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Andy King) is saying when it comes to the importance of the matter and trying to make things work effectively. Perhaps the protocol needs to be publicised a bit more in some areas. We are taking steps to do that through DEFRA, and that is what we want to evaluate.

Photo of Robert Key Robert Key Conservative, Salisbury

I do not think that the Minister is taking the matter sufficiently seriously. Across Europe this summer there were many areas in which bathing in traditional public places was made illegal. For example, across France, bathing in rivers, streams and man-made or natural lakes was outlawed because of the spread of Weil's disease. Sewers flow into rivers, lakes and ponds. Is the Minister aware of any discussions that have taken place between his Department or the Department of Health and the French or other European authorities on this important issue? People from this country go on holiday to France and vice versa. We need to take the matter a tad more seriously.

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

I made it clear that the issue is serious and I hope that I have dealt with it seriously. I have not been flippant about it. There is an exchange of information with European medical health officers and my colleague from the Department of Health will be in Committee later. Hon. Members might want to ask her about the matter in more detail.

There is an issue when it comes to rats and Weil's disease, but more to the point is that in France this year, river levels were exceptionally low because of the heatwave. When river levels get low, and drains go into those rivers, there can be a concentration of different kinds of pollutants, and in those cases there may be a public health reason for putting restrictions on open water bathing. That is probably what was behind the restrictions. It is not just rats.

Photo of George Osborne George Osborne Shadow Minister (Treasury)

The Minister is being a little hard on the clause. As I understand it, it is an enabling clause, and says:

''The Secretary of State may by Order approve any code of practice (whether prepared by him or another person)''.

It is extremely broad. As the Minister has conceded, the existing system has its faults and the guidance issued may not be as widely known as it should be. Surely the Minister should take advantage of the clause—I hope that the hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth will press it—and give himself the powers to introduce a code of practice if he needs to.

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

If there were a case for such powers, we should consider it within the Bill. I do not object to that. However, I disagree with the hon. Gentleman on one point, on which we come back to the advice of the Better Regulation Task Force; where there is no need to legislate and where the same results can be obtained by a non-legislative route, that should be explored as a priority. That is the intention of the protocol. However, if the protocol was considered not to be effective, we might consider such powers in future.

Photo of Mr Andy King Mr Andy King Labour, Rugby and Kenilworth

I take heart from what the Minister has said and I look forward to him and his officials reporting the result of the progress that has been made at a future all-party group, at which Opposition Members will be welcome. On that note, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.