Clause 13

Flood and Water Management Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:45 pm on 14th January 2010.

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Co-operation and arrangements

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I beg to move amendment 13, in clause 13, page 9, line 35, leave out ‘may’ and insert ‘must’.

I hope that the amendment is clear. Instead of saying that a relevant authority “may” share information, the Bill would say that a relevant authority “must” share information

“with another relevant authority for the purpose of discharging its duty under subsection (1).”

It would be helpful if the Minister explained in which circumstances an authority may choose not to provide information in that regard.

The Minister said that the Bill will allow co-operation and such arrangements in relation to other amendments. However, we believe that the measure does not go far enough, and we would simply like to stretch it. Will the Minister say whether there are circumstances in which the relevant authorities may choose not to share information and what lies behind the existing terminology?

Photo of Huw Irranca-Davies Huw Irranca-Davies Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Marine and Natural Environment)

Yes, I think that I can explain that because I certainly exercised my mind on the matter when the hon. Lady’s amendment was tabled. I have tried to see the implications on either side. Just to reassure her, we are confident that the current drafting, which uses “may”, rather than “must”, and which we have done through parliamentary counsel and so on, is appropriate for the reasons that I will give in a moment.

The amendment uses the word “must” and would therefore require relevant authorities to share information, but it is not necessary because the duty to co-operate already entails a duty to share information if that is part of the co-operation. The purpose of subsection (2) is also to permit one relevant authority proactively to offer information to another authority without being asked.

I have explored the matter in some detail, so let me practically illustrate it. If we insert the word “must” into the provision to give that certainty—I understand where the hon. Lady is coming from—it could be a retrograde step. Doing so would require all relevant bodies, including, for example, water companies and highway authorities, proactively to go through all their paper and computer records, and find and pass on any information that they thought might be relevant to another risk management authority’s duties under part 2.

The amendment would put a huge obligation on such organisations that is probably beyond the necessary information that is actually required. It would certainly militate against the idea of encouraging people to work in partnership and volunteer information that they thought useful. It would send a lot of people in back offices running around as a result of their chief executives saying, “We’ve now got this duty; we must comply. Get out there, find everything we do and pile it there in front of them.”

Photo of Angela Watkinson Angela Watkinson Opposition Whip (Commons)

In a previous answer, the Minister made it clear that the flood response organisations will be consulted on the development of the flood risk strategy. Will there also be a duty to consult after a flood emergency, so that lessons can be learned from the experiences on the ground to improve the strategy if necessary?

Photo of Huw Irranca-Davies Huw Irranca-Davies Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Marine and Natural Environment)

We do that already. The provision is not within the Bill, but we are doing that in the Cumbria example at the moment. We have significantly improved the systems over the years to learn the lessons afterwards.

It may seem an attractive idea to insert the word “must,” but it would in some ways constrain the willingness of relevant organisations to work in partnership and provide information that might be considered useful. The amendment would set in train work for a lot of people in back offices, take up a lot of their time often unnecessarily and produce a big burden for no great result.

In addition, clause 14 provides lead local flood authorities and the Environment Agency with a power to request information from any person and places a duty on that person to comply with the request. There are therefore sufficient provisions in clauses 13 and 14 to ensure appropriate information exchange without the amendment. On that basis, I hope that the hon. Lady will withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I am most grateful to the Minister for his extremely helpful explanation. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I am grateful for this opportunity to ask a couple of questions. On the co-operation and arrangements, particularly the democratic process under clause 13, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee expressed concern that the draft Bill would establish a rigid vertical structure, which clause 13 will go some way to relaxing, that could preclude the pragmatic cross-boundary, area-based approaches that accommodate local people’s views and knowledge. That Committee’s view was that local people currently do not have a seat at the table and that the Bill will dilute the ability of an articulate community to influence decision making.

Clause 6 defines “Risk management authority” and sets out the roles. A number of parish councils will probably take a view on some parts of the strategy, and  I am sure that they would wish to be included. At the moment, under this part of the Bill, I do not see the potential for them to be included; they are not recognised as one of the risk management authorities. How exclusive is the provision, and what mechanism is there for such a democratic consultation process to take place?

Clause 13(5) states:

“subsection (4) does not apply in relation to” functions

“of the Environment Agency under section 7(1), or...the function of a lead local flood authority under section 9(1) or 10(1).”

Will the Minister elaborate on why that is so?

Photo of Huw Irranca-Davies Huw Irranca-Davies Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Marine and Natural Environment) 3:00 pm, 14th January 2010

This is a good opportunity to explain what we are trying to do. I welcome the hon. Lady’s recognition that, through the clause, we are trying to put some flexibility into the system. We have put an express duty to promote partnership arrangements in the clause. That is particularly important, not least for water companies, which are private companies that exercise public functions. The duty to co-operate will mean that all relevant authorities know that they have to engage in local flood risk management.

One of the problem identified by Pitt was that many of the responsibilities were so fragmented between several organisations—not through the fault of any individual organisation—that it never got to the point where the buck actually stopped. Co-operation will be the key to the delivery of the Bill, and it is crucial to this clause. It will also give communities the confidence that all authorities are working together to identify the most effective solutions and minimise flood risk. In 2007, there was a clear perception that authorities were not joined up in their approach to flooding. It is important that partnerships are underpinned by the new duty on all partners to co-operate and share information.

On local influence, we want to make it clear that we still want local input. The decisions will still ultimately be made by the local authority that leads on the strategy. The simplicity of putting things at that level, with the partnership feeding in, is important.

Clause 13(5) prevents the Environment Agency and the local flood authorities from delegating the responsibility for creating the strategy. That is important. We can delegate some functions and get partnership working going, but the question to consider is where the buck stops in respect of the strategy; it does not stop with those others who are asked for their help in producing the strategy. The clause stops the relevant authorities from passing on the responsibility and ensures that the buck stops firmly with the Environment Agency or with the local flood authority.

The clause has done a lot to get away from the rigidity that people were worried about and to give flexibility while still retaining the important bit, which says that the buck—the accountability—stops in a certain place. We want to see the authorities get on and work in proper collaboration with others.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 13 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.