Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Earl Peel: I must add to what the noble Lord has just said. If the Minister is, as he seems to be, minded to proceed with the four-year cycle, one possibility would be for the Bill to make provision for longer periods to be negotiated, where required. Would not that be a reasonable compromise?

3 Apr 2003 : Column GC168

Lord Whitty: The Environment Agency will not be required to take away a licence that has not been used for four years: it will have a power to do so, if, in all reasonable circumstances, it judges that there is unreasonable non-use of the licence that is either causing environmental damage or preventing access to the water for other potential users. The variation issue does not arise. The agency can use the power in those circumstances. The Environment Agency would need to take into account all the issues of horticultural management, if that is the reason for the non-use of the licence.

In answer the noble Duke's question, I must say that I understand that the position applies if the water has not been used beneficially—the use for which the licence was granted—for that period. Just turning on the tap and letting the water run down the drain would not be using the water, but if it is simply that less water was used or water was used less frequently than was anticipated, that would count as use, if the water were used for the purpose for which the licence was granted.

Baroness Byford: I am intrigued by the Minister's last comment. How would we know where the water had gone? If someone turns the tap on, the water runs away. It does not matter whether it runs into the ground or wherever. Anyway, I digress, which is naughty of me.

I thank the Minister for his response. He said "may", which brings us back to my great dislike of giving powers to an agency not under direct government control that it may or may not use. I read the response made by the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, to the previous debate, so I accept what she said. I indicated that in my opening comments.

In the circumstances that have existed in the past two to three years, how many times has the agency been hamstrung and been unable to supply water?

Lord Whitty: I do not know the answer to that question. It might need a longer period to get a proper indication, but, if the information is available, I shall let the noble Baroness have it. We are envisaging a period of greater pressure for water and less supply.

Baroness Byford: I accept that, but I hope that I have made the point that the agency may not have been required to make such decisions. If we accept that, we are starting to get somewhere.

There is nothing else that I can add to the debate at this time. The Minister is aware of the strength of feeling on the issue, and he will not be surprised to hear that we wish to return to it at another time. At this stage, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[The Sitting was suspended for a Division in the House from 5 p.m. to 5.9 p.m.]

3 Apr 2003 : Column GC169

Baroness O'Cathain moved Amendment No. 67:

    Page 30, line 34, at end insert—

"(2A) After subsection (4) there is inserted—
"( ) Subsection (4) above shall not apply while the possibility of the abstraction of water under the licence constitutes part of—
(a) any water resource management scheme maintained under section 20, 20A or 20B above; or
(b) any drought plan maintained under section 39B above.""

The noble Baroness said: I rise to speak to Amendment No. 67, which again is about abstraction licences, particularly sleeper licences, but from a different angle. This is on the management of water supplies for water companies. The point is that, at the moment, water companies are required to produce plans for long-term planning, in a sense, and to take water resources into account. Sleeper licences are part of the overall plan, the reason being that in this country we can go from periods of deluge to periods of drought, but periods of drought do not necessarily occur every four years. In order to safeguard water resources and their supply for the consumer we need the back-up of provisional sleeper licences.

On the idea of restricting sleeper licences from seven to four years, or indeed by any other period, we might not be able to produce the water required in a drought period. But the real problem is that, as the licences are already in the plan, companies would have to start new plans excluding sleeper licences. It is the belief that, in order to provide a constant, efficient water service to all consumers, we need sleeper licences to be protected, and we believe that they should be.

To sum up—I shall be as brief as I can—this is one more aspect of the Bill that concerns me, particularly in view of the fact that it seems that short-term planning reigns and long-term planning is not taken into consideration. I beg to move.

Baroness Byford: My name is alongside that of the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, on the amendment. It is a very serious matter, which I hope that the Government might deal with sympathetically. We are moving into times of uncertain climate change, which puts additional strains on those providing water for us all throughout the country. Just because the water has not been called on in the past, perhaps as the Government hope that it will never be called on in the future, does not mean that we should not plan long-term. My noble friend has expressed the point very clearly, so I do not wish to add to it, except to persuade the Minister that it is a very real problem, which I hope he will deal with sympathetically.

Lord Whitty: I am being sympathetic in the same way as I was sympathetic to the previous amendment. In a sense, the issue behind it is the same. There is a power to intervene after four years. But, of course, if a sleeper licence is being used for water conservation as part of a water company's long-term plan, that is a reasonable reason why the licence has not been used. The Environment Agency would therefore have to take that into account, just as it would consider the rotational requirements of the horticultural industry that we referred to under the previous amendment.

3 Apr 2003 : Column GC170

If the so-called sleeper licence were part of long-term planning and drought planning, clearly the Environment Agency would be acting unreasonably if it tried to revoke it. The same arguments apply, and there should be no anxiety.

We are dealing with a situation where unnecessary, unreasonable non-use of a licence causes damage in one form or another. The Environment Agency should have the right to intervene after a period of less than the current seven years. We are not dealing with a situation where sleeper licences are part of a company's long-term plan.

Baroness Byford: Before my noble friend comes back, the Minister keeps referring to examples of where the agency might have the power, if necessary, to use the licence. What sorts of examples are there of that being a problem? We are not getting such examples at all from the Minister in answer to any of our questions. With due respect, all he said was that the situation was hypothetical and that he could not answer. A balance must be made. Somebody must carry out a risk assessment on that issue. Will he clarify it for us?

Baroness O'Cathain: To support my noble friend, sleeper licences do absolutely no damage whatsoever to the environment. All they do is ensure, if there is a drought situation, that we will not have these bowsers, or whatever they call them, on the streets.

5.15 p.m.

Lord Whitty: Clearly, if there is no damage to the environment or to access to water, the Environment Agency would be acting unreasonably to revoke a licence being used for beneficial purposes.

The noble Baroness challenges me to think of an example. I am not sure whether this is particularly cogent, but one may have an abstractor abstracting water for an industrial purpose, on which basis it quite reasonably received a licence. That industrial process may have closed down but the abstractor has retained the licence in case another investment took place for which they needed the water. However, the water had not been used for that purpose for four years. The result could have been one of two things; either the non-abstraction meant that the water levels were different from those that had been planned or that the abstraction was creating a problem downstream. In those circumstances, the Environment Agency would be acting reasonably in intervening and revoking the licence. The only issue that we are changing is to suggest that it should be able to do so after four rather than seven years. The same degree of reasonableness would apply under the existing legislation.

Baroness O'Cathain: Is the Minister aware that these are not that type of licence? These licences are part of a water company's water resources plan, which is signed off by Ofwat. Now the Environment Agency will be saying that we cannot have them. They exist and are included in the water resources planning—the management planning of water companies—in order to provide for the situation. I know that there are

3 Apr 2003 : Column GC171

certain parts of the country where these issues will never arise—where there is water coming out of their ears—but there are other parts where they do and they have very serious problems.

Is the Minister now saying that there should be no planning at all in this country for drought at any time?

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page