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The Secretary of State for International Development (Baroness Amos): My Lords, the Department for International Development recognises the key role that water plays in poverty reduction. We are working with developing countries, other development agencies and financial institutions to ensure that support is provided to develop integrated water resources management and water efficiency plans by 2005 and that commitments to improved access to water and sanitation are kept. Our work includes bilateral programmes in many countries in the developing world, including Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, India, South Africa, Uganda and Nigeria.
Baroness Byford: My Lords, I thank the Minister for her response. Indeed, she will know that yesterday was National Drink Water Day, so it is something that is very close to our hearts. From the Minister's Answer, she obviously knows very well that we need to note the conservation of water, particularly in some of the areas that are so dry. Is she therefore not slightly concerned that the Water Bill, which is presently being taken through Parliament, does not have on its face the duty to conserve water in the United Kingdom? I feel that that is a wasted opportunity. It is one that we should be taking because we should be giving a prominent lead to other countries to show that we who are blessed with more water actually look to use our water wisely as well.
Baroness Amos: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for reminding the House about National Drink Water Day. She is quite right that, if we are promoting the sustainable use of water resources across the world, it is important that we look at these issues as well. I understand from my noble friend that these issues are currently being discussed during the Report stage of the Water Bill.
Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, I have spent an enjoyable morning at the Environment Agency Water Efficiency Awards. Will the Minister make sure that officials from her department have a chance to look at the excellent efforts made by both individuals and business in this country with regard to improving their water efficiency? I am sure that many of their practices could be very helpful in the cases to which she referred.
Baroness Amos: My Lords, I entirely agree with the noble Lord. Publishing and promoting good practice is very important indeed. As I said in response to the noble Baroness, I am very happy to ask my officials to look at the proposals and the awards given this morning.
The Earl of Sandwich: My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that the real problem in developing countries is the maintenance of water supplies and how the local community can become involved? Does that mean that her department now has a new policy, whichon the worse scenariowould perhaps lead to privatisation in those local communities?
Baroness Amos: My Lords, we do not promote privatisation. We work to ensure that water and sanitation are key elements in the national development plans in the countries in which we work. We have been concerned to find that many countries, despite having serious water and sanitation problems, do not prioritise these issues. If a country chooses to go down the privatisation route, using public/private partnerships for example, we will assist in terms of technical assistance, support and so on. We aim to ensure that the right kind of technical assistance is available to those countries.
It is important for the House to recognise that it is important that local authorities in developing countries have the right kind of experience and expertise. Where they do not, bringing in the private sector is very often the only way to go.
The Earl of Listowel: My Lords, will the Minister allow me to communicate to her the concerns I heard from children in Angola recently, that they were obliged to drink from river water, and that they would come down with illnesses such as diarrhoea, which is such an important killer of young children? I therefore welcome what she said about taking steps towards improving access to decent sanitation and safe water. I also express my appreciation for the £8 million that the British Government provides to the Luanda urban poverty project. One of its functions is to obtain suitable safe drinking water for the many people in shanty towns in Luanda.
Baroness Amos: My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for his comments about our programme in Luanda. I have seen what lack of access to clean water can do in countries such as Angola. We are trying to make sure that the poor benefit from improved water and
Baroness Amos: My Lords, we have prioritised working on the policy aspects of water and sanitation. There are a number of other donorsthe Japanese for examplethat give considerably more than we do in terms of direct service delivery. Much of our aid is managed through direct budgetary support to governments where we have agreed a programme of reform. That is why the work that we are trying to do to encourage those governments to put water and sanitation at the centre of their priority list is so important.
Lord Rea: My Lords, is my noble friend aware of the reports of arsenical contamination of quite a number of water points in Bangladesh, which has recently become apparent and which has had a very bad effect on the population's health? Is the Department for International Development concerned about that and doing anything about it?
Baroness Amos: My Lords, we have bilateral programmes in Bangladesh. They are focused around water resource management, looking principally at the sustainable use of water for land, agriculture and sanitation water. I am aware of the issues with respect to contamination. I am quite happy to write to my noble friend with the details of our programme in Bangladesh.
The Minister of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Lord Rooker): My Lords, the Government recognise the potential contribution to housing supply that unused space above commercial premises could provide if converted to residential use. We have already introduced tax allowances to encourage such conversions. Only last week, we published guidance on unlocking the potential of empty properties.
I thank the Minister for an update as regards his department's position on this issue. I seek two reassurances. There is a scheme called Living Over the Shop, which has been helping to restore properties for a number of years. I understand that it is running into difficulties over money. First, can the Minister reassure me that a lack of finance will not mean that the scheme fails? Secondly, bringing back properties often requires refurbishment on which 17.5 per cent VAT is imposed at the moment. Is the Minister lobbying the Treasury to back him on this matter?
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