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Lord Marlesford: My Lords, all that I can say is that we shall look forward with interest to what the Government bring forward in respect of what I regard as a very important subject and objective. On that basis, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Viscount Addison moved Amendment No. 34:

Page 7, line 18, at end insert:
("( ) In exercising its powers under subsection (2) above the Agency shall at all times endeavour to protect and safeguard the interests of any owners of land insofar as these may be adversely affected by its actions.").

The noble Viscount said: My Lords, at Committee stage I spoke to two amendments designed to help safeguard the interests of landowners who suffer subsidence and other damage to their land and businesses through the activities of major water abstractions. Some noble Lords may subsequently have seen the issue well reported and discussed in an edition of "Country File" on BBC1 last Sunday 26th February.

I return to the issue now because I believe that the Minister may be able to give a more encouraging reply than he was able to give in Committee. Subsequent to that debate I wrote to the Minister giving fuller details of cases in which damage has occurred consequent on water abstraction. I also outlined some of the legal advice which has been received on those cases. I offered several possible solutions to those difficulties, or options meriting further study in striving to find an acceptable way forward. The current law is quite unsatisfactory on these matters.

I hope that the Minister, if he is not able to offer immediate solutions, will at least be able to undertake to examine the issue thoroughly with a view to proposing suitable amendments to the Bill in another place.

At Committee stage I moved an identical amendment to Amendment No. 280, which would remove what I see as an unfair and discriminatory provision within the Water Resources Act 1991. I refer to the power conferred upon the NRA by Section 57 of that Act to curtail direct water abstraction for spray irrigation. By exercising that power the NRA can drastically affect farm businesses, particularly those producing high-value horticultural crops to exacting standards. In contrast, other commercial users of water such as car washes are protected from such drastic measures. Their use of water, which may be equally critical for the environment in times of drought, can only be curtailed through the imposition of a drought order. There is no question of an overnight cut-off for them.

I was grateful for the support which several noble Lords gave to my amendment at Committee stage. However, I was disappointed with the response of my noble friend the Minister. Effectively, all he was able to offer was the statement that the Section 57 provisions are only one among several other provisions to manage drought conditions, and the fact that they exist does not

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necessarily mean that they should be used first. I hope that having reflected on the debate at Committee stage the Minister may be able to be a little more helpful in replying to the following points.

First, will he confirm that the decision to exercise the powers granted by Section 57 of the 1991 Act will be subject to the requirements under Clause 37 of this Bill to take account of costs and benefits? One group of irrigators who suffered a total ban in East Anglia halfway through the growing season in the recent drought estimated losses at £10 million. The ban meant that they could not finish their crops to the standard required and they had to suffer reduced prices, if they were able to salvage a marketable crop at all. In addition they also had the tag of unreliable supplier attached to their businesses and, as all suppliers know, supermarket buyers cannot and do not deal with unreliable suppliers.

Secondly, in these days when the NRA at any one time has an immense amount of information available to it on the water resources situation, there should be some possibility of advance planning of irrigation needs and consultation with licence holders over the possibility of bans being introduced. The NRA in East Anglia learnt some valuable lessons from its early experience of the recent drought. It subsequently ensured that forecasts were made for irrigators at the beginning of each irrigation season of the likely water resources situation. It backed this up with an early-warning system to allow for advance planning if the water resources situation began to look more difficult. That helped farmers to plan their use of spray irrigation, and that in turn may have helped to avoid the need for subsequent all-out bans with their disastrous consequences for farming businesses and the economy of the rural areas affected.

That experience should be translated into a national planning and early-warning system in which both the agency and irrigators can work together to ensure the most effective management of water resources to satisfy all needs in times of water shortage.

Thirdly, and finally, I should like to suggest that the Minister should include consideration of all these matters in the review which I understand is currently being undertaken of the scope of drought orders and the procedures relating to them. Moreover, it would be helpful if he could undertake to consult bodies representing irrigators to discuss these matters, and how best the current unsatisfactory situation may be improved.

The current provisions are discriminatory. We need to show the horticulture industry that the problem is recognised and that the Government are committed to redressing the balance to ensure greater fairness for water users all round. I beg to move.

8 p.m.

Lord Crickhowell: My Lords, I listened with a good deal of sympathy to what my noble friend said. I do not have too much difficulty with the general objective of his first amendment. I have difficulty with the wording. A clause which requires one to endeavour,

    "to protect and safeguard the interests of any owners of land",

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raises the difficult question as to the extent to which one has to protect and safeguard those interests. A clause might refer to the agency having "proper regard to", or some such phrase. However, I have anxieties about the wording on the Marshalled List. It would make it very easy for landowners in a variety of situations to challenge the actions of the agency.

However, I wish to speak principally on the other amendment, relating to spray irrigation. One cannot help but have a good deal of sympathy with the problems faced in drought years. My noble friend referred to the efforts of the NRA to give advance warning, to consult, and to introduce arrangements which minimised those difficulties. At the same time, we learnt a lesson during those drought years. It was often precisely in those parts of the country where spray irrigation was carried out on an extensive scale that we saw some of the gravest threats to the environment. Noble Lords made representations to me in this House about the condition of wetlands and other vulnerable areas threatened by drought. There is a conflict of interest here. On the one hand one needs to protect the environment and, on the other, to protect the interests of farmers and landowners.

My noble friend suggested that there was a discriminatory system in operation. I am not sure that that is right. A clear distinction needs to be drawn regarding water abstracted from rivers and from under the ground, stored by water companies. Water companies make huge investments in their supply systems in order to achieve a reliable supply during dry periods. During such dry periods most of the water for their customers comes from storage in the systems rather than from the natural water environment. Therefore the supply of water by the water companies for such purposes as car washing does not have a direct and immediate impact on the water environment during drought periods.

Of course there is a price to be paid for that reliability. Those who obtain their water supplies from the water companies pay a great deal more than do those who are obtaining water directly from the water environment for spray irrigation. The impact of spray irrigation upon river flows in dry periods can be very considerable and arises very quickly. It can cause dramatic reductions in river flows. However, even if the agency obtained emergency drought permit powers, the time taken to obtain those powers is likely to be too long to enable the agency satisfactorily to protect the environment.

Many licences are already in existence where, in practice, the sources are over licensed, and therefore there is an even greater need to be able to vary the abstractions in order to prevent environmental damage. Most of those licences have been issued in the knowledge that their use can be restricted in drought conditions. They would not have been issued in the present form if that were not so. Therefore, without such powers, the amendment poses a serious threat to the environment.

For many years the Government and other organisations have been urging on those who are dependent on spray irrigation the construction of storage arrangements so that they can draw their water in winter, when there is usually plenty, for use during drought

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periods. My noble friend referred to losses of some £10 million occurring in an area during a specific period. That suggests to me that the turnover of those businesses must have been very considerable indeed. It seems to me that any industrial company manufacturing goods with that kind of turnover and profit or potential loss would invest a good deal in the necessary equipment to deal with that potential hazard. It does not seem unreasonable to suggest that businesses which operate on that scale, supplying to the markets at the level of quality now demanded, must be expected to provide at least a significant part of their spray irrigation from winter drawn supplies which have been stored to meet the possibility of drought in summer.

I believe that before we move away from the present arrangements we need to be careful that we do not create a situation which would soon lead to strong complaints from many people—I suspect that they would include some noble Lords who have taken part in the debate—that an essential protection of the environment had been removed.

At some stage we may need to consider again the exact arrangements under which the licences have been issued. However, if we allowed the amendment to be carried, we should face a serious threat to the environment in times of drought.

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