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Baroness Byford moved Amendment No. 43:

"( ) the likely effect on the applicant's interests of any decision to grant an abstraction licence, or licences, of a type other than the type for which the applicant has applied;"

The noble Baroness said: The Minister said in her reply, for which I am grateful, that my request is already considered and that there is a right of appeal for someone affected. Who deals with that appeal, and on what timescale? Will the response be quick? I beg to move.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: The noble Baroness refers to the process of appeal to the Secretary of State, which the Committee considered on the first day in Grand Committee. If the noble Baroness wants any further details, I should be happy to write to her.

Baroness Byford: I thank the Minister for that response. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 44 not moved.]

Clause 13 agreed to.

Clause 14 [Publication of application for licence]:

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer moved Amendment No. 45:

    Page 16, line 32, after "publish" insert "on its website"

The noble Baroness said: Amendments Nos. 45 and 46 have been tabled to find out whether the Government have updated their means of publishing information to take account of developments such as

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websites. Amendment No. 45 inserts the idea of using websites into the Bill in order to test the proposition. Amendment No. 46 suggests that the prescribed means of publishing should,

    "be reviewed regularly by the Secretary of State".

I believe that there is still a requirement for advertisements to appear in places such as the London Gazette. Many noble Lords may regularly see that organ, but I am not one of them. The Minister tut-tutted when I said that—I am sure that the London Gazette is very informative. However, we should consider the use of websites and more modern ways of notifying interested parties of what is happening. Will the Minister say something about the appropriate places in which to publish information? I beg to move.

Lord Dixon-Smith: I support the amendment. This kind of amendment is almost in the nature of a hardy annual, as it appears at every season in every Bill. I remember it arising during the passage of the Greater London Authority Bill. We suggested that that authority should publish some details of its consultations and decisions on a website as a way of supplying sufficient information. I wonder about that.

Nowadays, anyone running the sort of business in which they might be involved in water abstraction is almost bound to be computer literate. I shall immediately hear howls of protest and shall probably receive letters from people throughout the country saying that they have never seen a computer—such is life. Even I, albeit after a few years of drumming in this House, have had to become somewhat computer literate. I would not describe myself as completely computer literate, but I get by. I would have thought that, if the Environment Agency published on its website what was going on, that should be sufficient publication. For information of this kind, the London Gazette is a trifle antiquated. The information needs to be spread throughout the country, and my strong suspicion is that, in the provinces, the London Gazette is not widely distributed of a Friday afternoon. I am glad that the amendment was tabled. If the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, had not put it down, I would have done so myself. I am happy to support it.

It is perhaps a little unnecessary to suggest that the process should be reviewed regularly by the Secretary of State. If Amendment No. 45 were agreed to, it might be wise for the Secretary of State to make sure that the system was working adequately. However, once he had determined that it was, as I suspect he would, he probably would not need to review it again.

All the indications are that society is becoming more, not less, computer literate. If the publication of information were satisfactory at one point in time, it is unlikely that it would become unsatisfactory at some point in the future, unless someone devises a novel way of communication that we have not yet dreamt of. That may happen, given the changes taking place in communications. The information might come up on the television screen or something similar.

Lord Whitty: The legislation will require the Environment Agency to advertise applications for full

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and transfer abstraction licences and for impounding licences. The way in which that information is advertised is important.

We intend to make regulations that will provide the Environment Agency with the flexibility to use its website to provide the information, but we would not necessarily wish to confine it to using the website, as the amendment, by implication at least, would do. Other technologies—older and newer—might provide better or, at least, complementary ways of communicating the website. If we put the matter into regulations rather than into the Bill, we shall have the kind of flexibility that Amendment No. 46 was intended to provide without referring the matter to the Secretary of State. That is probably a better way of going forward on that front.

Not wishing to be outshone by the technological frontiersmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, I think that we must prepare for the future. We must also recognise, however, that some colleagues and some people involved even in this business may still be slightly behind the noble Lord.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: I thank the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, for his contribution and the Minister for his reply. I do not believe that the amendment confines publication to the website. It simply adds that in and leaves open the definition of "prescribed way". As the Minister said, that is likely to appear in regulations. I do not believe that it is a confining amendment. But I hope that this debate will encourage in the review of the regulations the use of websites and appropriate newspapers, not simply those that have always been used, which few people now read. In the light of that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 46 not moved.]

Clause 14 agreed to.

Clause 15 [General consideration of licence applications]:

Lord Whitty moved Amendment No. 47:

    Page 18, line 42, at end insert "(but as if the existing licence were to continue without expiring)"

On Question, amendment agreed to.

6 p.m.

Baroness Byford moved Amendment No. 48:

    Page 19, line 2, at end insert—

"( ) After subsection (2) there is inserted—
"(2A) In respect of any application for the renewal of any licence under this Chapter there shall be a presumption in favour of the grant of a new licence, except where in the opinion of the Agency the resource is already fully utilised, or there are other exceptional circumstances.""

The noble Baroness said: I shall speak also to Amendment No. 53, which is tabled in my name. It is unusual to object to one's own amendment, but I shall do that in regard to Amendment No. 48. On reflection, if the Minister is not persuaded to come back with a provision on Report, I shall propose the introduction of a presumption in favour of granting a new licence.

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New subsection (2A) states that the presumption should be given,

    "except where in the opinion of the Agency the resource is already fully utilised, or there are other exceptional circumstances".

We are actually talking about the renewal of licences—where water is already being used—therefore I realise that I am arguing against myself, which is not what I intended. I hope that the Committee will bear with me as I speak to the amendments and interpret them as I hope to later. The amendment would provide that,

    "there shall be a presumption in favour of the grant of a new licence".

It relates to the renewal of a licence; therefore, it is hugely important.

It is important that businesses have continuity for planning purposes. The NFU is one of the organisations that believes that the Environment Agency should offer a presumption in favour of renewal, especially in circumstances where the lifespan of plant and equipment might be greater than that of the licence available. Such factors must be considered when making decisions on borrowing capital. The NFU believes that a licence should be refused only if the Environment Agency can show that the water resource is fully used. As I explained, that is the aspect on which I have a problem with my amendment, so I shall move on to other points.

The CBI in its briefing expressed concern about how licences are granted. The British Soft Drinks Association, which I referred to during the previous Committee session, is equally concerned about the time lag on licences. It wishes us to consider introducing a 20-year licence. Soft drinks companies work on a long-term licence. They seek a presumption in favour of renewing those licences. When we debated quarrying, a presumption in favour of renewal was sought. So the amendment does not deal with any particular area; it relates to the general consideration of licence applications. We should bear in mind the issues raised.

Amendment No. 53 deals specifically with the term of licence that one might expect or hope for.

In our considerations last week, the Minister indicated that a 12-year lifespan might be selected. However, as we mentioned then, it is impossible for many businesses to work in such a short timescale. The amendment would provide for a 25-year licence. I shall be interested to hear what other noble Lords have to say about such a term. I might have proposed a period of 30 years or left it open-ended, but I think that the Government understandably wish to reconsider giving open-ended licences. Therefore, I understand their decision to tighten up the present procedures.

Clause 19 imposes an expiry date for all new abstraction licences. Although no likely time is set in the Bill, initially the Government and the agency have suggested that they are contemplating a 12-year lifespan. As I have already said, if a time limit is to be imposed on abstraction licences, it is important that the limit is sufficient to allow horticulture, agriculture and other businesses—I include them all—to recoup investment in their necessary capital equipment,

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which, by its very nature will be medium to long term and not short term. We also had a debate about water companies.

It is a clear example of the importance of giving adequate time limits. They can be seen in the process of many different kinds of businesses. If one takes a big business such as watercress farming, which is entirely dependent on the right to abstract water, most of its assets would have little value without this right. A supply of high-quality ground water is essential to commercial cultivation of items such as watercress. Safe, hygienic production standards are required for the cultivation of the crop, which is carried out on constructed beds, and associated works. It has a life expectancy of more than 50 years—one would not have thought so.

The practice of one of the largest companies in this field is to write off its capital assets at 2 per cent per annum, which is equivalent to a 50-year write-off period. There are many other examples that I could give. Certainly, many have raised queries and concerns as to the possibility of moving to a 12-year turnover.

The CBI is concerned about that. The Bill introduces a right to revoke a licence without compensation if it has not been used for four years. Mineral operators need to be able to plan their operations over long periods. They have given periods of 25 years and above in order to justify the high capital investment involved. That needs to be included in securing abstraction licences well in advance of any that may be required. A short time limit is unacceptable.

We have touched on the issue earlier. It is sometimes difficult when one is working through a Bill on which, by its very nature, one keeps returning to the same argument. As I have tried to reflect, the amendment does not apply to one particular little group. It applies to the sectors that I mentioned and many others—CBI, the soft drinks industry, quarrying, water companies and farming. Their needs are very different. One would not have thought that watercress worked on a 50-year cycle, but one would naturally have assumed that water companies do, by the nature of their infrastructure.

We hope that the Government will deal with the amendments sympathetically. I am prepared for the Minister to come back to me on Amendment No. 48. I shall return with a shorter version of that amendment, because I shot myself in the foot in arguing the toss on that matter. That certainly was not my intention. I beg to move.

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