6 Feb 2014 : Column 257

House of Lords

Thursday, 6 February 2014.

11 am

Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Wakefield.

Introduction: The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth

11.08 am

Christopher Richard James, Lord Bishop of Portsmouth, was introduced and took the oath, supported by the Bishop of Chester and the Bishop of Wakefield, and signed an undertaking to abide by the Code of Conduct.

Electoral Fraud

Question

11.12 am

Asked by Baroness Hanham

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the recommendations in the final report of the Electoral Commission Electoral fraud in the UK.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire (LD): My Lords, we are carefully considering the Electoral Commission’s recent report and its three main recommendations and will respond in the coming months. We welcome the commission’s finding that electoral fraud is not widespread and agree that we should continue to consider ways to safeguard electoral integrity. That is why the Government are introducing individual electoral registration from June this year, which will help make registration more secure.

Baroness Hanham (Con): My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. I am sure that many Members of this House will welcome the proposals in the package put forward by the Electoral Commission to be introduced by 2014. However, it proposes to leave the introduction of one area until 2020: individual identification at polling stations. In responding to the report, will the Government consider encouraging the commission to bring that forward, as it is a very important aspect of preventing fraud?

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, the Government are considering that although I have to say that Ministers are not yet convinced of its desirability. We all know from the American experience that demanding qualifications and identification at polling stations tends to discourage people from going to vote and we do not wish to discourage people from going to vote. There is less evidence of personation at polling stations than there is of multiple registration—ghost voters being put on the register—or of postal vote fraud, so we are not yet persuaded that the response is proportionate to the problem we face.

6 Feb 2014 : Column 258

Lord Campbell-Savours (Lab): My Lords, is it not interesting to note in the detail of the report that the Electoral Commission is finally prepared to recognise that there are high-risk areas, which it identifies and lists, which are identifiable as having ethnic minority populations, where it believes that there is a particular problem? Is it not true that if the commission had been prepared to admit that four years ago, when the legislation was introduced, we could have avoided spending tens of millions of pounds on an individual registration scheme, which is a total waste of public money, and could have targeted that resource on the areas where there is a particular problem? We are wasting public money on a scheme which is utterly ridiculous.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, I entirely disagree with the noble Lord on that. We are one of the few democracies that clings to the 19th century approach of household registration. Individual electoral registration is much more appropriate to the population we now have.

Lord Tyler (LD): My Lords, given that my noble friend has already said that the most prevalent problem in the past has been fraudulent use of the postal vote system, is he confident that the returning officers, who will now have to check personal identifiers for every single postal vote returned, will have the necessary resources this year to deal with that? Will he assure the House that a proper and careful review will be carried out in advance of the 2014 elections to make sure that the system works much better than it has done in the past in this respect in preparation for a higher turnout, presumably, in 2015?

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, I am informed that, in practice, almost all electoral registration officers are already checking 100% of postal votes, although they are currently required by law to check only 20%.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath (Lab): My Lords, coming back to the point raised by my noble friend and the issue of potential impersonation at polling stations, does the Minister recognise that in some places, particularly Birmingham, there are instances in which large crowds of men gather outside schools and intimidate some voters to prevent their going into vote? Does the noble Lord agree that that is what attention should be focused on and that the police need to be advised that they should take action when it occurs?

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, I do a lot of my politics in Bradford, as the noble Lord knows, and I am well aware of the differences between the local problems we have with the voting system. One of the reasons that the new regulations allow for police community support officers to be present in polling stations is precisely to deal with that sort of occasional outbreak of intimidation. There is, as we all know, a problem of registration fraud—ghost voters being put on the register—but, again, it is localised. As I am sure all noble Lords know, this is much more of a problem for local elections than for parliamentary elections.

6 Feb 2014 : Column 259

Lord Glentoran (Con): Is the noble Lord aware that personal identification is now in operation in Northern Ireland, has been for some time, and is, I believe, a success?

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, I am well aware of that. Indeed, the Electoral Commission looked at the Northern Ireland scheme in particular and has estimated that if we were to extend it to Great Britain, with likely take-up, based on the Northern Ireland model, of 10%—mostly young voters—it would cost some £28 million.

The Lord Bishop of Wakefield: My Lords, following the question of the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, about areas of high risk, in our diocese of Wakefield the local authority of Kirklees has been pinpointed as just one such area for the sort of reasons that the noble Lord mentioned. The local authority is working hard with a number of agencies to ensure the probity of the next elections. Will the Minister say what sort of support will be given to councils to enable them to fulfil this important duty?

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, I was discussing that exact question with the electoral registration officer of Kirklees the summer before last, including the authority’s co-operation with the police. We all know that there are pockets of problems within Kirklees. It is a matter for local co-operation with the police, who are well aware of this. We are also well aware that there is a certain tendency in some local elections for candidates to use allegations of electoral fraud against each other as part of the local campaign. That is one of the reasons why the police are occasionally a little sceptical about allegations being thrown around during the campaign.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean (Con): My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the Electoral Commission is responding to complaints from members of the public about the Scottish Government using taxpayers’ money for propaganda purposes, as part of the independence referendum campaign, by saying that it is not the commission’s responsibility? Does that not make a mockery of having election expenses and rules for expenditure in referendum campaigns? What is the head of the Civil Service going to do about this continuing abuse?

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, I am well aware of this; indeed, the noble Lord has made sure that I am well aware of it. I am conscious that the Cabinet Office owes him a letter, which is in process, in reply to his previous Question.

Lord Campbell-Savours: My Lords, does the Minister accept that this whole debate is riddled with political correctness? For the great majority in the United Kingdom, there is no problem whatever of electoral fraud. Why are we wasting tens of millions of pounds?

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: I am not quite as confident that there is no problem of electoral fraud outside the South Asian Muslim community, which I think the noble Lord was getting close to saying. As a young

6 Feb 2014 : Column 260

Liberal, I listened to many people talking about quite considerable electoral fraud among the white population during elections held in the 1940s and 1950s. I am not entirely sure that it has completely disappeared today.


Prisons: Deaths of Young People

Question

11.21 am

Asked by Lord Ramsbotham

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they intend to hold an independent review into deaths of young people in custody as recommended in the report by Inquest and the Prison Reform Trust Fatally Flawed; and, if so, when.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord Faulks) (Con): My Lords, we have decided to hold an independent review to learn lessons from self-inflicted deaths of young adults in custody aged between 18 and 24 and to identify actions to prevent further deaths. The review will be led by the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey, who I see is in his place. He is the chair of the Independent Advisory Panel of the Ministerial Council on Deaths in Custody. The review will report by spring 2015.

Lord Ramsbotham (CB): My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that positive response, but I am sorry that the review’s remit does not include children aged under 18. Since January 2011, 16 young adults aged between 18 and 21 have taken their own lives in custody and, worryingly, eight of those deaths have occurred in the last four months. All of them took place in adult prisons, to which it is currently the policy to send young adults rather than to young offender institutions.

In a thematic review, Suicide is Everyone’s Concern, in 1999, I made specific recommendations regarding the safety of young people, yet year after year the same old failings following young suicides are recorded in inspection and inquest reports, such as the lack of institutional understanding of, or attention paid to, the particular needs of that vulnerable age group. Now the Ministry of Justice plans to create secure colleges—fortified schools—for under-18s and, as I have mentioned already, to put all those aged over 18 into adult prisons, both of which could exacerbate existing flaws and create significant risk to young lives. Does the Minister accept that a degree of urgency exists and will he consider advancing the time by which the noble Lord, Lord Harris, is required to complete his review so that necessary improvements to current practice, based on the mass of existing evidence, can be considered in time to be built into the new proposals?

Lord Faulks: My Lords, the review will start as soon as resources are in place, and we are anxious that it should report back by the spring of 2015. That does not mean that lessons are not continuously learnt from all the other sources that provide information. The review will focus on key themes, including vulnerability information sharing and the safety of young people.

6 Feb 2014 : Column 261

The noble Lord referred to the secure colleges which are shortly to be established, the announcement of which is contained in the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill. The secure colleges will put education at the heart of youth custody and are intended to provide an innovative and holistic approach to the education and rehabilitation of young offenders so that fewer go on to reoffend.

Those aged under 18 are currently held in secure children’s homes, secure training centres and young offender institutions. No under-18s are mixed with over-18s. As to 18 to 20 year-olds, they are currently in young offender institutions, and the Government consultation on whether this age group should be in prisons with older adults closed in December. We are putting on hold the Government response to the consultation pending the result of this particular review.

Lord Patel of Bradford (Lab): My Lords, what inquiries are the Government making and, better still, what action are they taking with respect to what appears to be the disproportionate number of young black men dying in a range of custodial settings?

Lord Faulks: My Lords, every single death in custody is investigated by means of an inquest by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman and all lessons are shared. One of the purposes of the review is to go beyond the focus on individual circumstances, important though they are, to see whether lessons can be learnt from putting together all the individual facts which are derived from those investigations. I accept what the noble Lord says and, if there are specific aspects deriving from ethnic origins, I am sure that those will be taken into consideration.

Baroness Linklater of Butterstone (LD): My Lords, for a child to commit suicide at all is a tragedy, but for a child to commit suicide while in custody is a catastrophe. Will the Minister ensure that professionals inside and outside the prison are required to share information and to look at the underlying issues as part of sentence planning for these children? This is not routine practice today. Will the Minister also ensure that much more specialist training is given to prison staff? These children are very disturbed, damaged and difficult, but also in deep distress. The Government must act on this intolerable situation instantly.

Lord Faulks: My Lords, the noble Baroness identifies a matter of great concern to the Government. Under-18s are considered in various ways, through the work of the Youth Justice Board and the NOMS review of the assessment, care in custody and teamwork process—the acronym ACCT will be familiar to the noble Baroness and to the House. However, we intend to learn from this review as applied to this age group.

I entirely accept that suicide in any circumstances is a tragedy. We are concerned to focus on the early days in custody, when young offenders are particularly vulnerable. All prisoners will receive an initial health screening within 24 hours of reception and there will be an initial assessment of their risk of self-harm. If the prisoner is identified as being at particular risk, the assessment will take place within 24 hours and governors

6 Feb 2014 : Column 262

must ensure that arrangements are in place for staff to monitor prisoner safety and well-being throughout the first night in the prison. It is right to say that there is a disproportionate occurrence of suicide during the early stages of custody, so the suicide prevention strategy will be specifically targeted at that stage.

Lord Beecham (Lab): My Lords, the Government have drawn attention to the problem of the deaths of young people in custody. I welcome the Minister’s announcement today, although I continue to share some of the concerns expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham. There is continuing concern about the incidence of self-harm and suicide among women prisoners, who form 5% of the prison population but account for one-third of the incidence of self-harm and four times the number of suicides as men. They are 36 times more likely to commit suicide or die of an accidental overdose of drugs in the first two weeks after release. It is time for a radical change of policy in relation to the imprisonment of women and especially in the practice of segregation.

Lord Faulks: My Lords, we have been working hard to improve support for women in prison. We have issued gender-specific standards in all areas of prison regimes, including training for staff working with female offenders in prisons, which has now been extended to service providers in the community. New search arrangements ending routine full searching for women prisoners have also been introduced. The House will know that there are six mother and baby units in England and Wales which provide an overall capacity of 64 places.

I am slightly surprised at the noble Lord’s statistics. He is right that my research into this matter shows that women are disproportionately more likely to self-harm than men, relative to their occupation of prisons. Fortunately, the self-harm, compared with men’s self-harm, does not tend to be as serious, and does not usually require hospitalisation, although I do not suggest for a moment that any self-harm is not a significant factor. The statistics that I have been given do not indicate that women form a large part of those who have been responsible for self-inflicted deaths. I will write to the noble Lord with statistics. I hesitate to bandy them across the Dispatch Box but I do not think he is quite right.

Earl Cathcart (Con): My Lords, will legal aid be available following a death in custody if there is an inquiry?

Lord Faulks: My noble friend identifies a statutory source of inquiry that is of great importance to the inquest, which very much expanded following the application of Article 2 of the European convention. The House will know of the establishment of the post of chief coroner, who gives directions as to how these inquests should be carried out. Although the Government, because of the restricted financial circumstances, have had to make various cutbacks in legal aid, I am glad to say that the scope of exceptional funding under Section 10 of the LASPO Act allows the Director of Legal Aid

6 Feb 2014 : Column 263

Casework to provide legal aid in circumstances where Article 2 is engaged and there is a convention right. The Lord Chancellor’s guidance to the director makes it clear that,

“It is … likely that an arguable breach of the substantive obligation will occur where the individual has died in State custody other than from natural causes: for example, killings or suicides in prison”,

so it is highly likely that legal aid will be available.

Baroness Howarth of Breckland (CB): My Lords, the Minister will be quite aware that it is the build-up of stress throughout the system that leads to these young people self-harming. He will also be aware that, at the very beginning of the process, many of them are being held inappropriately in police cells because of the lack of facilities in the rest of the system. Would he ensure that that is included in the inquiry? I am absolutely sure that, if it is not, there will be a tragedy and we will have another inquiry.

Lord Faulks: We have the good fortune of having the noble Lord, Lord Harris, present in the Chamber. I am sure he will have heard that question and taken it into account. I am unable to give the House actual statistics on the situation that the noble Baroness describes, but clearly the duty on the state to look after young people arises just as acutely whether they are in police cells or in prison.

Lord Shutt of Greetland (LD): My Lords—

Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall (Lab): My Lords—

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Lord Hill of Oareford) (Con): My Lords, we will hear from the Labour Benches first. I am sure we can get both questions in if we are quick, and if the questions are short and the answers brief.

Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall: My Lords, briefly, could the Minister confirm that the health assessment at the very beginning of custody includes assessment of mental health? If it does—which I hope it does—can the Minister say who conducts those mental health assessments and whether they are fully competent to do so?

Lord Faulks: The noble Baroness makes a very good point. Prisoners are screened on arrival in prison by a trained nurse to find out their health needs, and people with mental health problems who might be vulnerable to suicide are referred for a mental health assessment. All prisoners have access to an on-site healthcare team which deals with most problems. If a prisoner is suffering from a severe mental health illness, they may be transferred to a secure hospital. Approximately 1,200 prisoners with a severe mental illness are transferred to NHS secure services. We recognise that prison may not be the most appropriate place and we are developing liaison and diversion services, together with the Department of Health and the Home Office, to ensure that people who are vulnerable are identified and can be diverted, if necessary, away from the criminal justice system.

6 Feb 2014 : Column 264

Lord Shutt of Greetland: My Lords, I have a simple but important question. Is the inquiry of the noble Lord, Lord Harris, to be an inquiry under the Inquiries Act 2005?

Lord Faulks: I am unable to give a precise answer, but it is certainly not within the scope of those terms specifically. I will write to the noble Lord to confirm that.


Flooding: Somerset

Question

11.33 am

Asked by Lord Skelmersdale

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what the Army has so far done to help people affected by the floods in Somerset.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord De Mauley) (Con): My Lords, military personnel and Somerset County Council have conducted a joint reconnaissance of affected areas. This concluded that the civil authority’s response, augmented by the substantial deployment of the national fire and rescue service’s assets, had sufficient capacity to manage the necessary tasks. There is an established system for authorities to request military assistance, which has been called upon several times over recent weeks. A range of defence assets remain on six-hour notice to move in Somerset.

Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, the ongoing floods on the Somerset Levels in particular are causing misery to people and animals on farms. Does not the fact that the county council can when necessary call in the Army and the fact that the Bellwin formula has been extended to the end of March show that the Government are doing all that they can to exacerbate the problem, but that it is for the people on the ground actually to do the work?

Noble Lords: Oh!

Lord De Mauley: I am sure that my noble friend did not mean exactly what the Opposition thought he meant. The Army is on standby if necessary, as I have said. High-volume pumps have been deployed from the National Asset Register and they are in place to prevent further increases in levels of flood water. The pumping operation is in fact one of the largest that the country has seen. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State has asked for a clear action plan for the sustainable future of the Somerset Levels and moors to resolve the problem for the next 20 years. Noble Lords will be aware that I am repeating a Statement later to deal with extra funds for repairs.

Lord Berkeley (Lab): My Lords, has the Environment Agency got its priorities right on the floods? It says that it does not want to do any dredging. I was told by one of its officers that there is no point in dredging, because there is a high tide and the water is coming in, but it must understand that there is also a low tide and it can go out. I had an e-mail this morning from the Environment Agency about the Dawlish Warren, and

6 Feb 2014 : Column 265

as we know the railway will be closed for six weeks. The agency says that it will study the bird movement on the beach over the next year to see whether it can move any sand back there. Are we looking after birds before humans?

Lord De Mauley: My Lords, the agencies are working together to ensure that measures such as dredging can proceed as rapidly as possible and meet the existing environmental requirements. The Environment Agency, Natural England and the local authorities are working together to expedite this.

Lord King of Bridgwater (Con): My Lords, is my noble friend aware that while what has been done so far in terms of pumping is a great improvement, in certain respects the situation is deteriorating significantly? I heard reports this morning that parts of Bridgwater are now liable to flooding at this time. The pledge from the Prime Minister on further action that will be taken is much appreciated. Meanwhile, is my noble friend aware that while it is not a matter for the military, I hear nothing but tributes for the work of the emergency authorities and services at the moment? Undoubtedly, if one looks at the weather forecast, there could be a serious and maybe continuing deteriorating situation.

Lord De Mauley: My Lords, I think that all noble Lords would share with me sympathy for the people of Somerset, who are experiencing a really dreadful time. Like my noble friend I pay tribute to the local authorities, the emergency services, and the fire and rescue services. All services assisting in this exercise are wonderful.

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon (Lab): My Lords, I realise that the Minister will shortly make a Statement that, apart from anything else, will be about funding. I am told by colleagues and friends in Somerset that the people there are collecting money. They are looking to raise £1.4 million to deal with dredging and whatever is necessary. While we must of course take responsibility for many things that happen within our communities, the people of Somerset should not have to foot any of the bills in relation to flooding, and future flooding and defences. May I suggest that once the present crisis has passed, the Minister will give an undertaking that the Government will look at the funds allocated to Defra and how they are allocated within it? It seems to me that something is not quite right at the moment.

Lord De Mauley: I am sorry to hear that the noble Baroness thinks that. As she knows, I will be repeating a Statement which covers funding, among other things. I agree with her expression of sympathy for local residents. However, it is reasonable to say that there is a scheme of partnership funding and, certainly in other parts of England, it is working extremely well.

Lord Jenkin of Roding (Con): My Lords, I do not think that my noble friend really gave a proper answer to the very relevant question asked by the noble Lord,

6 Feb 2014 : Column 266

Lord Berkeley. There have been many complaints by the residents of the Somerset Levels that the Environment Agency seems to be prioritising birds over the needs of people. What is the Environment Agency’s answer to that charge, which seems to be very widely felt by the people in the area?

Lord De Mauley: What I can say to my noble friend, which will not entirely satisfy him, is that I referred earlier to an action plan that has been demanded by my right honourable friend. Dredging will form part of that plan but it will not provide the whole answer. The plan will have to consider a whole range of options for improving the area’s resilience in the long term.

The Countess of Mar (CB): My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, mentioned animal welfare. We have all seen pictures on our television of cattle in a barn that seems to be on an island. Should the water get any higher, are there any contingency plans for evacuating those animals to higher ground?

Lord De Mauley: I, too, have seen the clips that the noble Countess is referring to. What is really important at this stage is that when people are asked to evacuate by the Environment Agency, the emergency services and the police, they must listen to the advice that is given. We are also facing some potential tragedies with our farms and animals on those farms. The county council and the emergency services are working as best they can but people must come first.

Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville (LD): My Lords, the floodwaters are now beginning to affect people who were previously on the periphery, bringing increased demand on the scarce resources of the fire and rescue and Army services, as we have heard. Where drivers recklessly enter floodwaters by removing “Road Closed” barriers, will the Minister join me, a resident of Somerset, in supporting the emergency services in charging those thoughtless people who have to be rescued, sometimes more than once?

Lord De Mauley: What I can do is share with my noble friend her rap on the knuckles for those who do that and do not take the advice of the emergency services.


Business of the House

Timing of Debates

11.42 am

Moved by Lord Hill of Oareford

That the Questions for Short Debate in the names of Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb, Baroness Wheeler, Baroness Royall of Blaisdon and Lord Mawson set down for Wednesday 12 February shall each be limited to one hour.

Motion agreed.

6 Feb 2014 : Column 267

Water Bill

Committee (2nd Day)

11.43 am

Amendment 109

Moved by Lord Whitty

109: Before Clause 22, insert the following new Clause—

“Consumer objective

In section 2(2B) of the Water Industry Act 1991, after “interests of” insert “current and future”.”

Lord Whitty (Lab): My Lords, Amendment 109 is one of several before us today that are intended to tweak Ofwat’s responsibility into a more long-term aim on sustainability and resilience.

Ofwat is an economic regulator and currently its prime duty is to the interests of consumers—the consumer objective. But Ofwat has never been simply an economic regulator and since 2003—2005 in terms of implementation—it has had secondary duties relating to environmental and social sustainability. We will be having a debate shortly about whether those duties, too, should be primary duties.

Although historically it would be true to say that Ofwat has interpreted its economic regulator status somewhat narrowly, in practice it has always had a sustainability dimension—albeit at times that this has may have been interpreted rather weakly. The five-yearly price review looks at financing long-term infrastructure as well as immediate business and householder water supply demands. In this Bill, there is yet more emphasis on social and environmental considerations. As the next but one debate will show, some of your Lordships want to take that further.

It is important to recognise that even the purely, or mainly, economic interest of the consumer—the need for water at affordable prices—is multifaceted and changes over different timeframes. As an economic regulator, Ofwat should act not only in the current interest of consumers, or the next-five-years’ interest, but in the long-term interest of both current consumers and future consumers. That duty fits more clearly with resilience and sustainability considerations or objectives. My amendment would make that clear. It would make it clear that Ofwat’s responsibility, as laid down simply in terms of consumers in the 1991 Act and repeated thereafter, should apply also to future consumers. We made a similar change regarding Ofgem in the Energy Act passed by the Labour Government in 2008. Ofgem has responsibility for future consumers. Some might argue that that has not made a dramatic difference to Ofgem’s deliberations, but at least that responsibility is clearly there. It has had the effect of holding it responsible for such longer-term issues.

In the water sector, we have five-yearly price reviews, six-year water catchment management plans and 25-year water resource management plans. They all require water undertakers to be concerned about the long term. However, it is also important that the consumer objective is seen in the long as well as the short term. That is what my amendment seeks to ensure. I beg to move.

6 Feb 2014 : Column 268

Lord Redesdale (LD): My Lords, I rise to support this amendment. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, has underestimated the effect of the change to the primary duties of Ofgem in the 2008 Act, which states that the duties for present and future customers are one of the underlying bases of its commitment to sustainability. The problem that it faces is that the limitations of the sustainable action that should be undertaken have not yet been tested. I had the fun of suggesting to Ofwat that we could take it to judicial review to suggest that it was not fulfilling this pledge. That had an enormous effect on Ofgem. Ofgem should be commended for the strides that have been taken over the past six years to move from an organisation that saw sustainability as something outside its remit to seeing it as something that is very much part of its remit. The value of this—an amendment first moved by the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, to which I added my name—is such that it has changed the culture of Ofgem. It is rather unfortunate that Ofwat does not have the same duty and therefore the same drive to understand that it has that responsibility.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord De Mauley) (Con): My Lords, the purpose of Amendment 109 is to ensure that, in discharging its primary duty to protect consumers, Ofwat must take account of the needs of both current and future customers.

I agree that this is an essential objective. Water is an industry with unusually long planning and investment horizons. Our water resources management-planning processes require companies to plan, as a minimum, 25 years ahead and encourage them to plan over much longer timeframes. Although much of our current infrastructure will be expected to serve customers well for decades or even centuries to come, this is why we have introduced the new duty of resilience, which requires Ofwat to secure the long-term resilience of systems to the long-term pressures identified in the water White Paper, such as climate change, environmental pressures and population growth. It also requires Ofwat to ensure that the companies take action to meet the long-term needs of consumers by promoting appropriate long-term planning and investment; and by taking any and all relevant measures to manage water resources sustainably and reduce demand.

So let me assure the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, that I concur entirely with his aims. However, I consider his amendment to be unnecessary, because its effect would be to duplicate an identical existing provision in Section 2(5A) of the Water Industry Act 1991, which provides a definition of “consumers” for the purpose of the consumer duty. It clearly states that,

“‘consumers’ includes both existing and future consumers”.

I hope that this will satisfy the noble Lord and that he will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, for his support and agree with him that I was perhaps too dismissive in relation to the effect on Ofgem. Such a responsibility has had an effect on Ofgem and on the way in which its work, output and regulatory responsibilities are seen by the companies and consumers within the energy sector, so it has made a difference.

6 Feb 2014 : Column 269

The arguments that the Minister has just put were very similar to those put initially by Energy Ministers in relation to the amendment to the 2008 Bill pursued by the noble Lords, Lord Oxburgh and Lord Redesdale. I cannot remember whether I openly supported them, but I certainly spoke to the then Minister—it was none other, I believe, than the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath—who agreed that the briefing that he had from his department was too negative and reflected the usual view of Whitehall that just because there were references to it in other documents you should not make it clear in the Bill. The Minister should perhaps go back to his own officials and say, “Well, yes, it may be that we can point to other documents, but people will look at the Bill”. They will look particularly at the front end of the Bill, if they get that far, which amends the 1991 Act—although that bit of has not been amended yet by the Minister.

The role of future of future consumers is reflected very early on in the Bill in defining Ofwat’s responsibilities. The flexibility shown by Ministers in responding to the amendments to the 2008 Act proposed by the noble Lords, Lord Oxburgh and Lord Redesdale, should be repeated here. Perhaps the Minister could agree to go back to his officials. I do not suppose that he will tell me that he is going to do that, so I will withdraw the amendment now and allow him time and grace to do that, because I would like to see this matter addressed on Report. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 109 withdrawn.

Amendment 109A had been retabled as Amendment 122A.

Clause 22: Primary duty to secure resilience

Amendment 110

Moved by Lord Redesdale

110:Clause 22, page 63, line 20, after “resilience” insert “and sustainable development”

Lord Redesdale: My Lords, I shall speak also to Amendments 111 and 112. I want also to express support for Amendment 113, which is in this group. The purpose of the amendments is very simple: to put in the Bill a duty on Ofwat to further sustainable development. This has not been a short debate; it started a number of years ago and follows on from debates that we had in relation to Ofgem, about how you bring the regulator to understand that its duties as an economic regulator also encompass the environment and issues going forward into the future.

The wording of the previous amendment—I will have to check this—referred not just to present and future customers but to acting for the good of present and future customers. This comes to the heart of the problem that I see in the Bill. We have a greater understanding of the changes that have taken place in the environment. I believe that climate change is a fact: anybody standing up to their waist in water on the Somerset Levels at the moment would believe that we live in a situation where the climate is changing. Of course, the problem is that, at a time when there are

6 Feb 2014 : Column 270

floods, the idea of drought seems somehow very distant. However, it was not very long ago that we were actively discussing droughts.

My noble friend Lord Moynihan is sitting in his place. I remember a discussion we had in the Bishops’ Bar about water, because there was a real possibility that London would not have enough water and the Olympics were coming up. My noble friend Lord Moynihan said, “That’s fine; we have an agreement with Thames Water that we will get water whatever happens”. I am not sure that the Olympics would have been the fantastic success that they were—and I must commend him on the work he did on them—if people in the surrounding area were having to deal with massive water shortages because we were throwing water without reservation at the Olympics.

This comes to the heart of the issue: that there has to be a change in our view of water. Water has very much been seen as a resource that could be dealt with because it just comes out of the tap and you pay for as much as you want. With a population that is growing so rapidly, however, and with the constraints we are facing in our urban areas, we are going to face real issues about the amount of water that we can actually use. Therefore, putting in the Bill the word “sustainability” would change the very nature of how Ofwat would go about its duties. It should look not just at the economic issues, because looking just at the price is a very narrow definition.

The cost of those floods is going to be substantial indeed, and the cost of droughts to water companies is incredibly expensive. Noble Lords will remember the time when Yorkshire Water actually had to tanker drinking water by lorry. That is an incredible expense which would have to be borne by the consumer. We may have had 220% of our normal rainfall pattern, but last year we were looking at one of the wettest droughts in history. It did not change the fact that the water companies still had real problems with the aquifers and the amount of water available.

I realise that the Minister is going to say that the duties of resilience that the Government have put in the Bill deals with my concerns. My problem with the duties is that, while the Minister and the Defra team have worked incredibly hard to make sure that those resilience duties are encompassing, resilience has a different concept of dealing with an issue, while sustainability is talking about how we can look into the future to deal with those issues.

The Government will probably reject this amendment. I always live in absolute hope that the Government will see the error of their ways—as the Labour Government did in 2008 when they moved forward in changing Ofgem’s duties—and come forward to say, “My noble friend Lord Redesdale’s amendment is quite perfect in every way. We will accept it and he is to be commended”. That would, of course, be the end of it, but I have a feeling that they might reject it. Obviously, after 23 years and however many thousands of amendments I have put down that have been rejected out of hand, they might well come forward with that position. However, I think there is a discussion to be had. It is central to this Bill that we change how the

6 Feb 2014 : Column 271

regulators view this, not just in economic terms but realising that there must be a holistic approach and we have issues to deal with.

I have not met anybody with whom I have discussed this issue who has not turned around and said, “Surely, sustainability of the water supply has to be the starting point, because without water being sustainable, we will actually die”. You cannot do without water for very long. It is a ridiculous position to say that this is absurd rumour-mongering; we have a Statement after noon today on the floods. Within a year or two we will have Statements on the next drought that we face. These things come and go. Just because we are not in a drought at the moment does not mean that it will not happen. Therefore, while the Government might be fundamentally opposed to sustainability, a discussion looking at some of the aspects that could be added to the resilience clause would be very helpful.

Noon

The issue I would look at most closely is water efficiency. That is a duty for the water companies but not for Ofwat. Ofwat sets the funding in five-year cycles. If it does not make it a main priority, the water companies will not see it as one. It is a bit like with local authorities: if something is not statutory at the moment, such as local museums, it gets cut. Without water efficiency being set as a priority, Ofwat will not make it one. I say this because water efficiency is actually down to the actions that we take as individuals. Everybody sitting in this Chamber uses far too much water. We are some of the most profligate water users in the world. We must change our behaviour and realise that water is a scarce resource. We probably have to train people to understand that they must change their businesses. I must declare an interest as I am the chief executive of the Energy Managers Association. Most energy managers see water as a major cost to their business and are doing a lot to reduce that cost. Of course, there is also a major energy cost. About 1 kilowatt of energy is used to get water to you and 1 kilowatt to deal with sewage taken from you. There is a massive carbon and energy cost in water.

I very much hope that the Minister will agree to look at water efficiency and maybe even at adding to resilience the issue of catchment areas. Of course, that is the issue we are all talking about at the moment. If he did that, sustainability would not be an issue that I felt needed to be taken to the next stage. However, if the Minister decides that the Government have gone far enough and they will not take this issue any further, at the next stage I will obviously seek support from around the House to vote on this issue. It is core to the whole Bill. The White Paper setting out what would be in the Bill had water efficiency through almost every page, yet it is not mentioned in the Bill. That is a fundamental flaw of the Bill at the moment. I very much hope that the Minister will agree to have a discussion on this issue between now and Report. The rather surprising alacrity with which Committee followed Second Reading caught some of us a little unaware but I hope we will have time to have some of those discussions before the next stage of the Bill. I beg to move.

6 Feb 2014 : Column 272

The Earl of Selborne (Con): My Lords, I am always impressed by the fervency with which my noble friend Lord Redesdale promotes the cause of sustainable development. Who could disagree with him that the sustainable use of water is clearly desirable? But does the more specific mention of sustainable development in the Bill help towards those causes or duplicate what is already there and in previous legislation? Does it give a much clearer direction to Ofwat? None of us would dispute that the major issue that must be addressed is long-term sustainable management of water resources. None of us disputes that the new resilience duties on Ofwat are extremely helpful. However, my noble friend Lord Redesdale did not remind us that this issue of whether the situations of Ofgem and Ofwat are totally parallel was looked at by the Gray review in 2011, the advice of which was to reject that. I accept that the Government rejected much other advice—from the Cave review and others—so that is not a roadblock. However, it must be recognised that there are already duties on Ofwat to promote sustainable development.

I am always a little nervous about those who find themselves supporting sustainable development. The concept has three pillars: the economic benefits, the societal benefits and the environmental benefits, all of which must be interconnected. The argument put forward by my noble friend Lord Redesdale was almost entirely based on the environmental and water efficiency benefits. Those are very worthy and very important, but I have also heard sustainable development prayed in aid of some pretty harsh economic messages. Clearly, that is not an appropriate way to interpret it. Is the Minister really sure that this is going to help clarify to Ofwat’s roles? I am not as convinced as my noble friend Lord Redesdale.

Lord Crickhowell (Con): My Lords, at Second Reading I said I was green with envy that the environmental regulators will now have the Bill rather than the legislation that I had to deal with as chairman of the National Rivers Authority when I was in almost continual friendly conflict—I emphasise the word “friendly”—with Ian Byatt the economic regulator. It was so friendly that I have two cartoons at home, which were sent to me by a notable newspaper, showing both of us in the boxing ring. In the first, we are engaged in a vigorous fight, and the second shows us collapsing together exhausted at the end of the exchange. We have made huge progress since then, and the existing sustainable development duty, as I understand it, is now being given statutory authority in the Bill. The clear steer that has been provided by the Government is now being given statutory effect in the Bill. As I understand it, Ofwat now has sustainable development as a central objective. It will have to take account of that. It will have to carry out its functions in accordance with the strategic priorities and objectives identified by the Secretary of State.

So while I entirely understand and, indeed, sympathise with the arguments advanced by the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale—and perhaps it is because we have made such a huge advance from the position with which I had to deal when the economic regulator just did not think he had any obligations to provide for the environment and blocked almost every proposal that

6 Feb 2014 : Column 273

came from Europe or from us—I would like my noble friend to clarify what is to be gained or lost if we accept the proposition put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, over what we have already in the Bill. I find it very difficult to understand exactly what benefit we would gain. If there is nothing to be lost by including it, I would not be against including it. Against the background of a huge step forward having been taken, I am seeking from my noble friend clarification of the benefits and possible downsides of having this written into the Bill in the way proposed.

Baroness Parminter (LD): My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Redesdale for raising this issue yet again. He has done so on numerous occasions, as have many other noble Lords. It is an important debate. It is quite clear that the Government are committed to sustainable development, but they believe that they do not need to elevate the primary duty of sustainable development for the regulator in the water industry because it has a secondary duty. What they are prepared to give is the new primary duty for resilience. I think we are going to carry on arguing about whether resilience delivers the environmental and social benefits that those of us who are concerned about sustainable development believe it does. The Government say it does and I am sure that the Minister will reiterate today that he believes that resilience will deliver the sustainable benefits that we believe are crucial for the regulator to deliver. There are others who believe that the resilience duty does not.

I would like to pick up on what my noble friend Lord Redesdale has said. We should try and move the debate on from arguing about what “sustainable development” and “resilience” mean to what we actually want to achieve. It is significant that my noble friend Lord Redesdale raised the issue of water efficiency. That is, bluntly, what we want to achieve—a more resilient future for our water industry which protects the scarce resources that we have, to the benefit of the environment and communities. I urge the Minister to reflect again between now and Report on a duty to promote water efficiency. I think that is a constructive way forward. There will be a difference between those of us who believe resilience is sufficient and those of us who would have liked to see a primary duty on the regulator. I do not think the Government are going to move, but I do think that a duty to look at the issue of water efficiency is a helpful way forward.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I have tabled an amendment in this group which attempts to deal in a slightly different way with exactly the same issue as the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale. Which is the closest approximation to perfection I am not entirely sure, and whether either of them is perfectible in the eyes of the Government, I am not entirely sure.

We do have an issue. The noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, stated the current situation correctly. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, that, since 2003, Ofwat has had a sustainable development responsibility but it is a secondary objective. What these amendments attempt to do is to put it on a par with the economic objective for consumers. There is an economic, a social and an environmental dimension of sustainability which

6 Feb 2014 : Column 274

goes wider than that responsibility to consumers, now and in the future. The reason why relations and general coherence are better than the early days which the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, described, is that Ofwat has recognised that it is more than an economic regulator, and the Environment Agency has recognised that it has economic objectives as well as environmental objectives. Some of those have become a little controversial in recent days, in that, for example, flood defence priorities are determined largely in terms of economic effect. Both agencies now have all three—certainly environmental and economic objectives—which they routinely integrate within their operations. For that reason it is slightly odd that there is a differential between the objectives to consumers on the economic side and the objectives of sustainability on the other side, in terms of Ofwat’s requirements. The Government have made two attempts at convincing those of us who are interested in this subject through some very well written briefs. There were much more understandable than the Bill itself, or indeed the Explanatory Notes. By and large, I understood those briefs; they have nevertheless failed to convince me. They are arguing in terms that are now obsolete. They argue that the economic regulator is Ofwat and the environmental regulator is the EA. They both overlap and they need to operate a coherent approach to this in relation to sustainability.

The Government have moved significantly, as the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, was hinting, in stretching the definition of “resilience”. Resilience is a jolly good, robust term. We all approve of resilience, and long-term resilience is clearly a responsibility of Ofwat and indeed the EA, in relation to water resources and their delivery. It is not quite the same as sustainability. It is part of sustainability but it is not the totality. The noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, have both pointed to the energy efficiency dimension, which, let us be fair, has been lacking until at least very recently in some of Ofwat’s priorities, when it allows expenditure during the price review. It is that which worries people—that this issue will fall out.

The Minister told me the other day that resilience includes social resilience; it presumably therefore includes issues of affordability and access as well as environmental and social issues. That may be so but the normal meaning of “resilience” is protection and upgrading of the assets that you have, and which need a long-term permanence to protect them. The Government are in danger of stretching the term rather beyond what the Oxford English Dictionary would term as resilience.

12.15 pm

We might be able to work around this. I ask the Minister not to take an absolutely hard line on the amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, now because there are anxieties. I do not agree with what the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, said about this being dealt with elsewhere but I do agree largely with what the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, said. The Government have to come back to us with something to make it clear that there is a sustainability dimension to Ofwat’s activities.

Let us be frank: some of the suspicion out there, in view of recent months, is that there are forces within the Government who regard any reference to sustainability

6 Feb 2014 : Column 275

or sustainable development as part of what the Prime Minister allegedly referred to as “green crap”. I am not sure whether that has been mentioned before in this House and if it is out of order, I will withdraw it. However, it has been widely reported. If the Government being so illogically resistant to the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, is seen to be part of the attack on green measures, then I regret that. The Government have to reassure the many people who are interested in the long-term future of water supply and the ecological and economic sustainability thereof. Given my support for the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, I hope that the Government will recognise that they need to do something on this front. I look forward to hearing from the Minister both today and in the period between now and Report.

Lord De Mauley: My Lords, I turn first to Amendments 110 to 112, in the name of my noble friend Lord Redesdale. I thank him for them, as I thank my noble friends Lord Selborne, Lord Crickhowell and Lady Parminter and the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, for their comments on these amendments, which would extend the new duty of resilience so that it became a dual duty of resilience and sustainable development. Of course, as my noble friend knows well, Ofwat has had a stand-alone statutory duty to contribute to the achievement of sustainable development since 2005. The Government have reinforced the importance of this duty by providing clear statutory guidance that sustainable development is central to everything that Ofwat does and must be fully embedded throughout its regulatory decision-making. We also require an annual report from Ofwat on its contribution to sustainable development.

I know that my noble friend Lord Redesdale has a long-standing interest in this issue, and I am particularly grateful to him for his assiduousness in pursuing this. He wishes, understandably, to see meaningful changes to culture and practice in economic regulation in water. These changes are already taking place: by correcting the historic bias towards capital investment, for example, the current price review looks set to achieve a much more equitable balance between capital and operational solutions than has previously been the case. Similarly, Ofwat has been working with the industry and Infrastructure UK to halt the stop-start pattern of work, sometimes described as “cyclical investment”, that has been a cause for concern in this sector for many years. Again, we are seeing measurable changes in behaviour. Ofwat has recently given permission to water companies to bring forward £100 million of investment into 2014 to smooth the investment profile and benefit the wider water supply chain.

My noble friends Lord Redesdale and Lady Parminter suggested a water efficiency duty for Ofwat. My noble friend Lord Redesdale referred to the fact that the water companies do indeed have a water efficiency duty. Ofwat has an obligation to ensure that the companies can perform their functions.

Having said all that, we are not and must not be complacent. That is why we have created a new duty of resilience, designed to address the specific issues relating to the long-term pressures facing the water industry.

6 Feb 2014 : Column 276

The resilience duty encompasses all the activities that water companies can undertake to manage those pressures: from investing in the additional water storage, to tackling unsustainable abstraction, to focusing on environmental management across the catchment. This duty recognises the need to address the pressures caused by climate change and population growth, and to protect the natural environment on which our water sector relies.

In response to concerns raised by people such as my noble friend, I am delighted that we have already amended this duty in another place to be absolutely explicit about the need to manage water resources sustainably and to manage demand to alleviate pressures on those precious resources. I think that I can say that our amendments have been welcomed, for example by the coalition of environmental NGOs with a particular interest in this area, the Blueprint for Water, with which my noble friend has been closely involved. I met this coalition recently, and it expressed itself satisfied with what we had done in this regard. I therefore hope that I will be able to persuade my noble friend that, given the changes already made, further amendment of the kind he proposes is not required.

Turning to Amendment 113 in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Whitty and Lord Grantchester, the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, has argued that elevating the existing sustainable development duty to primary status would help us to achieve a wide range of important objectives. Let me be quite clear: the Government support those objectives. As I said in the debate on the previous group, we want to see the regulatory regime for water recognise more clearly the needs of future, as well as current, consumers. We recognise the need for a strategic response to climate change, and we firmly believe that catchment management and demand management should form a mainstream part of water company activity.

The Government commissioned the Ofwat review to consider the case for elevating the sustainable development duty as proposed by the noble Lords. Having looked carefully at the arguments, David Gray concluded that he simply did not believe that the creation of a primary sustainable development duty would have the effect that its proponents were looking for. Despite the scepticism of the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, therefore, while we—and I speak for the entire Government—remain fully committed to the principles of sustainable development, we do not believe that the amendment is the best way to achieve the objectives that the noble Lords wish to see. I also believe that we should recognise where changes have already begun to take place. I have already spoken about the way Ofwat’s new price review methodology, to which the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, referred, has addressed the industry’s perceived preference for capital investment, resulting in the companies bringing forward business plans that propose a much more even split between capital and operational expenditure, such as demand management activity.

During our particularly constructive Second Reading debate, a number of noble Lords highlighted the importance of taking a proportionate approach to changes to Ofwat’s duties. Of course, it must be right

6 Feb 2014 : Column 277

that we should occasionally amend the duties to ensure that they remain up to date with the Government’s policy priorities. This is what we have done in the case of the resilience duty, in order to reflect the core policy message of the water White Paper on the need to build the long-term resilience of the sector. We have amended this provision in another place to emphasise that this must include the sustainable management of water resources. However, I agree that we must demonstrate restraint in applying new duties to the regulator; and the changes that we have already proposed strike the appropriate balance. I must therefore ask my noble friend to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Redesdale: My Lords, yet again I am not disappointed in my expectation that I will not get anything out of the Government. However, it seems almost a waste of a parliamentary process to have a White Paper which is full of water efficiency proposals and then to say, “We’ve had enough duties”, so that something which all noble Lords believe should be an objective is not moved forward on.

The noble Earl, Lord Selborne, and the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, raised very interesting points. I will make two points. First, the battles that the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, undertook, which were incredibly valuable, are not now taking place in the same way. Most groups agree that there has been a shift from the regulator against the balanced approach to economic environmental regulations. The noble Earl, Lord Selborne, raised the Gray review. I met Mr Gray to discuss this; one of his recommendations was that it is fine, because the Environment Agency leads on policy on this area, and therefore deals with this issue. Since the review, however, the Environment Agency has lost that ability, so it is out of kilter. Things have moved on so that the balance which the regulator has to take—and I understand the difficulties it faces between price, social cohesion and environment, which is tricky—has to be dealt with. However, the problem is that the regulator is seen as not meeting that objective.

The Minister talked about meeting with the NGOs. I believe he met with the RSPB and the WWF, but those are not all the NGOs that make up Blueprint for Water. I have discussed this with Blueprint for Water, and meeting with one, two or three NGOs out of a group of them is always slightly difficult. The whole group does not believe that, but those two NGOs will speak on their behalf. Therefore the Minister’s view that the Bill does not need amending to expand the role of resilience, even though it was amended in the other place, was unfortunate. It leaves no option when we come to the next stage but to try to force through sustainability as a solution to that problem. That may not be the simplest way of dealing with this issue, but, as was proved by Ofgem’s change in attitude, it does have an effect. Therefore it is rather unfortunate that the Minister has not agreed even to have discussions on this. Although I shall withdraw the amendment, I hope to bring it back at the next stage because this is a core issue.

This is not a political matter, which is why I very carefully did not ask the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, or any other noble Lords to put their names to this amendment. This is about whether we believe that

6 Feb 2014 : Column 278

water should be a sustainable resource and whether there is somehow a political lever. Most people in this country do not believe that water should be dealt with in a political context; it is about whether we have it or not and whether the regulator makes sure that we judiciously use this resource. If that means that I am a wishy-washy liberal, I sit on these Benches so I am quite happy to be described in those terms—and not as one of abuse. However, the Conservative Party talked about being the “greenest Government ever” and the coalition has moved forward on many of these green policies, so I find it incredible that we are bringing politics into this area. Therefore I hope that the Government will think again about a water efficiency duty. On that basis, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 110 withdrawn.

Amendments 111 and 112 not moved.

Amendment 112A

Moved by Lord Oxburgh

112A:Clause 22, page 63, line 33, at end insert—

“( ) In support of the measures indicated in subsection (2DA), the Secretary of State shall be authorised to allow metering of water supplies both in areas of water stress and areas of potential water stress and additionally in areas where metering might generate other social benefits.”

Lord Oxburgh (CB): My Lords, I add my thanks to the Minister for his courteous and helpful replies to questions raised at Second Reading, and in particular for the publication today of a new briefing note from his department about the bodies involved in the regulation of water, which I hope may go some way towards dispelling the concerns that were expressed in the previous discussion. I have not had time to digest it yet but look forward to reading it.

I have commented previously that my experience of water matters comes from a different jurisdiction, and that I expected to find some differences in this jurisdiction. That said, I had not expected the convoluted morass of uncodified legislation and regulation that surrounds the water supply in this country. My only comfort is that someone as experienced in water and legislative matters as the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, is as frustrated as I am.

12.30 pm

My reason for raising this issue again is that this complexity must impose a significant bureaucratic burden and cost on the industry, not to mention the department. I suspect that the only people who benefit from this are specialist advisers and lawyers. I believe that there is an urgent need for codification. Will the Minister say whether this is something we can look forward to when the present Bill is passed?

Various contributors to the Second Reading debate commented that the Bill was distinguished as much for what it did not include as for what it did. This is my reason for introducing this probing amendment, which I shall certainly withdraw when we have had our

6 Feb 2014 : Column 279

discussion, on a topic on which the Bill is virtually silent and which has been raised by a number of those who have written or spoken to us—namely, metering private water supplies. It is appropriate to discuss this topic at this stage as it is not something that you can discuss within the structure of the Second Reading debate. However, many of those outside who read our proceedings would regard it as odd if discussion on a Water Bill did not include at least some reference to this topic.

I found the silence of the Bill on this issue even more surprising when I discovered a report of which I had been unaware—perhaps I should have been aware of it—commissioned by Defra and published in 2009, entitled, The Independent Review of Charging for Household Water and Sewerage Services by Anna Walker. This seems to me an exhaustive and thoughtful report which could have formed the basis for part of the Bill. It includes a very thorough discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of metering private water supplies and was the outcome of extensive and wide consultation. It also gives considerable attention to the concomitant problems of water poverty that go hand in hand with energy poverty. It seems to me that the only respect in which the conclusions of the report are marginally less relevant today than when they were published is that in the intervening years we have become even more painfully aware of the challenges of water stress and the rate at which our weather patterns are changing.

Walker’s consultations gave a clear message that two views are strongly held by the public. One is that metering is the fairest way of charging for water. Another equally strongly held view is that metering should be voluntary for existing householders. She noted, however, that the majority of householders found that their water charges fell after meters were installed. The report makes the point that the overriding argument for metering water supplies and charging by volume is fairness. There is no other commodity for which we do not pay according to use, particularly when that commodity can be in short supply. I am told that we are the only country in Europe that does not charge for water by volume. That is not something that I have been able to verify independently, but it seems plausible. Metering has the benefit of making people realise that water is not a free good of which there is a boundless supply. Before and after comparisons suggest that demand tends to fall by 15% to 20% after meters are installed. This may mean that expensive improvements to the system that would otherwise have been necessary are not needed. The main disadvantage of metering is that meters can be costly to install, and inconvenient and costly to read. Typically, they are located at the bottom of shallow holes at the edge of the properties where there is connection to the public supply.

However, metering technology is changing and smart meters can transmit usage information to water suppliers and alert householders to leaks or other unintended releases of water on their property. Over the next few years, costs for meters can be expected to fall and the means of reading them remotely will improve. I declare an interest as a director of a company that works in the area of smart meters.

6 Feb 2014 : Column 280

So where do we stand today? I am not going to delve into the plethora of regulations that cover water metering. We are in a situation in which we may in future need to be much more nimble in dealing with challenging and novel weather, and where new technology is becoming available to help deal with it. One possible way forward is to separate the authority to install a water meter from the authority to use it for charging—an important distinction—and to make it easy for any supplier that wants to install meters throughout a particular area to do so. The reason for this is that installing meters for a whole street or area is much less expensive than doing it piecemeal. Water suppliers could equip a whole area but then use meters to charge only those who had opted in. However, the presence of a metering capability in an area would improve resilience and allow a more rapid response to a change in water stress conditions than is possible at present.

My question for the Minister, therefore, is in tune with present Government initiatives: why not completely or significantly deregulate the installation of water meters and allow suppliers to install them when they wish, while continuing to regulate their use for charging? The need to be more agile in response to changing conditions and the availability of more effective and cheaper technology means that such an easing of red tape would have benefits both for suppliers and consumers. I beg to move.

Baroness Parminter: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, for his probing amendment. My Amendment 133, also in this group, seeks to amend the Water Industry Act 1991 to allow water companies to introduce compulsory metering, if supported by their customers.

Current legislation means that water companies are able to introduce domestic water meters on a compulsory basis only where the Secretary of State has determined that either the whole or part of their area is an area of serious water stress. My amendment would simply remove this barrier, allowing water businesses to do what they felt was in the best interests of their customers and increasingly scarce water resources.

We know that metering gives consumers greater control over their water consumption and so can improve affordability. It also helps water companies to target households using large amounts of water, provide water efficiency support and tackle leaks. On that point, perhaps I may say how welcome it is that this Bill transfers the responsibility for supply pipes from customers to water companies as this should help to drive down leakages. The case for smart metering, combined with advice on how to reduce water usage, and social tariffs that minimise affordability issues for disadvantaged heavy-use households, is strong, and has been well made by the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh. As he has said, the independent Walker review in 2009 recommended a widespread switchover, as, indeed, did the EFRA Committee in the other place.

We know now that some water companies denied pursuing this course of action by current legislation want it. The chief executive of Northumbrian Water, Heidi Mottram, supports it. The company knows that it has to plan its businesses for the future, when climate change and other constraints may well impact

6 Feb 2014 : Column 281

on areas not presently water stressed. Given the opportunities in this Bill to trade water, they want all the tools they can get to maximise the precious and increasingly valuable resource that water is.

This seems to be a reasonable amendment. All it would do is give companies the right to speak to their customers and manage their businesses to their benefit, with increasingly scarce water resources. It does not force, rather it enables water companies to consider the wider social and environmental benefits that metering brings.

Lord Curry of Kirkharle (CB): My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister and the department for the very helpful briefing notes we have been given, and for the opportunity to explore the Bill with him and his team. I fully endorse the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, on Amendment 133. I also firmly support the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh. I declare an interest in that I chair the management board of a rural estate that has an extraction licence.

At a time when the management of water is such a critical issue, I would go even further than this amendment. I think that a timetable should be set, by which time all consumers of water are charged for the volumes they use. These amendments mark a step towards that objective. I cannot understand the reluctance to expand the use of water meters. I know that there is an installation cost involved and that it will take time. The potential costs of installation could be fairly significant, as the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, pointed out, and of course meters have a limited life and will need to be replaced over time. However, these costs need to be set against the fact that metered customers use between 10% and 15% less water. Some will use more and some less, but the overall net benefit of a saving of 10% to 15% is massive.

The current policy of allowing companies to apply for the right to install water meters in areas of water stress has a certain logic. However, we have seen vividly over the past two years the dramatic impact of extreme weather events, whether they are the result of climate change or whatever. Flooding in winter and drought in summer could become much more frequent occurrences than has been the case historically, and water stress could become a reality well beyond the south and east of England. Even using the existing definition, we are likely to see a requirement for increased water use. Better, I would suggest, that we should extend the option of charging now in anticipation of the inevitable pressures on supplies, as mentioned earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale.

I come back to the issue of managing water. The well-known maxim, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it”, seems to apply very precisely to the subject of water. As I have mentioned, I chair an estate. We are now well advanced in the process of installing meters in every household and enterprise across the entire estate. We know where every litre goes and we can charge appropriately. We are also able to monitor, remotely in the office, how much water is being used, where and by whom. It is very effective and much more efficient. The water industry needs to become much smarter in its management of water, and measuring is essential. I understand that Anglian Water now has

6 Feb 2014 : Column 282

around 90% of its customers metered, not through compliance but because it makes sound economic sense. Other companies, particularly in the freed-up market that we are trying to achieve through this Bill, need to be encouraged to do the same.

I would like to make one final point. It costs all of us £14 every year to cover the costs of unpaid water bills. It is a fact of life that if we do not appreciate the value of water, we are likely to be much more indiscriminate in our use of it. We should take the opportunity in this Bill to further establish the principle of charging for water use. The Walker review, which has already been mentioned twice, firmly endorsed this approach, and I hope that the Minister will give this proposal his serious consideration.

Earl Cathcart: My Lords, when preparing to speak to this amendment, I was going to support the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, but having listened to the debate so far, I find myself supporting both amendments. I support in particular the part of the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, which states that,

“the Secretary of State shall be authorised to allow metering … in areas where metering might generate other social benefits”.

I was talking to somebody outside who, on asking what I was doing here and learning that I was involved in the Water Bill, said that they were on the board of a water company, which had been stopped by Ofwat when it tried to roll out meters across its area. I hope that I have this right—listening to the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, I think that I have—but the reason was that the company was not in an area of water stress. This seems unbelievable. If true, and I have no reason to doubt it, what gives Ofwat the right, or the power, to stop the rollout of meters when we all recognise the advantages that we have talked about, such as reducing demand, cutting costs for consumers, promoting fairness et cetera? If Ofwat has that power, what are the Government going to do to—I was going to use the word “curtail”, but let me use the word that the Minister used in a previous amendment—amend Ofwat’s powers in this regard?

12.45 pm

The Earl of Selborne: My Lords, I am sure that the Minister will help my noble friend Lord Cathcart, but the short answer is that, unless a water company is operating in an area of water stress, it needs the Secretary of State’s permission to introduce a universal metering programme. As the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, has pointed out, that is an unhelpful provision. I am sure that we all agree that, if we could move faster on metering, we would see some of the long-term objectives of the Bill delivered much more quickly.

The White Paper, Water for Life, to which we referred so much at Second Reading, gave one every encouragement that the Government would be promoting universal metering. It points out how universal metering changes our attitude to water, as the noble Lord, Lord Curry, has reminded us. Metering helps you determine where the leaks are, particularly when they are within your property—you suddenly take a great deal of interest when it is going to be reflected in your bill as

6 Feb 2014 : Column 283

opposed to that of society as a whole. It allows you, without in any way raising the spectre of de-averaging, to introduce all sorts of innovative incentivisation such as summer schemes, where you pay more on a summer tariff than on a winter tariff, and water reduction devices.

All these measures can and have been achieved once universal metering programmes have been introduced. In the Southern Water area, because we are a water-stressed area, these measures have been introduced and the water industry is looking with a great deal of interest at a number of the lessons which have been learnt from this programme. It is clearly correct that water use goes down. That is the first and most important message, but as the probing amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, points out, there are many other societal benefits. It is a no-brainer and we need to go for it.

Earl Cathcart: I thank my noble friend for correcting my wrong conclusion that the power lies with Ofwat. I should probably change my question to ask what the Secretary of State is going to do to change his attitude in this regard.

Baroness Northover (LD): My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, and my noble friend Lady Parminter for tabling these amendments, which give us an important opportunity to discuss the role of water meters. In many ways, the debate follows on from the comments of my noble friend on water efficiency in the context of sustainable water supplies, which is the context in which noble Lords have addressed these amendments.

I will take the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, on codification and simplification back to the department. I noted that, as he made those comments, the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, with her wide experience was nodding behind him. Noble Lords are very good at holding the Government to account in this regard, and so they should.

I will start by laying out the Government’s position in relation to water meters. We are seeking to strike a careful balance. I note that noble Lords feel that we have not struck the balance quite correctly, but I will outline our position. We agree that meters provide a fair way to pay and we want companies to do more to promote metering to those who would benefit. However, we are also conscious that universal metering could lead to increased bills for some struggling customers, which is a point that the noble Lord, Lord Curry, referred to. I thank him for noting that, even if he then went on to say that he did not really agree with it. That is why we do not wish to impose a blanket approach to metering across the country.

This balance reflects the current legislation. Section 144A of the Water Industry Act 1991 ensures that any customer can request a meter from their water company. The company must then fit a meter, which it does free of charge. All the companies also allow their customers a cooling-off period of one year should they wish to revert to paying according to rateable value. As a result, there is a permissive position there. On the very rare occasions where fitting a meter

6 Feb 2014 : Column 284

would be disproportionately costly, the company offers an assessed charge, based on an assessment of the water actually used by that household.

However, Section 144B restricts the power of water companies to impose universal metering across all of their household customers, which is the issue that we are addressing here. There are circumstances, as noble Lords have noted, in which this restriction does not apply, which are set out in the Water Industry (Prescribed Conditions) Regulations 1999. For example, companies whose areas of appointment have been designated by the Secretary of State as areas of serious water stress—based on advice from the Environment Agency—may impose metering. They may also do so where the household has particularly high water use for a number of specified reasons, such as filling a swimming pool.

As my noble friend indicated, the purpose of her amendment is to add another reason to allow unrestricted metering. That would allow all water companies to meter all their customers, if they considered that this would enable them to meet their statutory duty to supply water or their statutory duty to promote the efficient use of water. About 41% of all homes already have a meter, and we expect this to rise to 50% by 2015. Anglian Water and South West Water already have 70% metering. A number of companies in areas of serious water stress are in the process of rolling out universal metering or have plans to do so. These include Southern Water, Thames Water, Sutton and East Surrey Water, Affinity Water and South East Water. Noble Lords have made a powerful case for why these developments are taking place.

However, we must recognise that the costs and benefits of metering vary from region to region. The evidence suggests that benefits on a scale that outweigh the costs of metering will only be found in areas where incentivising reduced water usage is of critical importance—that is to say, water-stressed areas, where universal metering is already a possibility. As I have noted, we are concerned that there are costs associated with implementing universal metering, which are funded through the bills of all customers in the region. We have always been clear that, with climate change and population growth, the case for universal metering may change, but it may do so at different times for different areas.

The amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, would ensure that the Secretary of State has powers to allow metering of water supplies in areas that are currently or may become water stressed and where metering may generate other social benefits. I confirm that the Secretary of State already has these powers. He has the power to issue the prescribed conditions regulations, as I have already mentioned. For example, at present under the regulations, water companies in areas classified as seriously water stressed must evaluate whether compulsory metering is the most effective way to address their supply-demand balance alongside other options when preparing water resource management plans.

The Secretary of State recently asked the Environment Agency for updated advice on the designation of serious water stress. The new methodology defines serious water stress as occurring in areas where either the

6 Feb 2014 : Column 285

current household demand for water is a high proportion of the rainfall which is available to meet that demand or the future household demand for water is likely to be a high proportion of the rainfall available to meet that demand.

The Secretary of State already has the power to revise and reissue the prescribed conditions regulations—clearly, my noble friend Lord Selborne knew that—but I assure my noble friends Lord Cathcart and Lord Selborne that we hear what they say in this regard. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State would of course revise and reissue these regulations if he believed that allowing universal metering to be rolled out in a larger number of areas would lead to social benefits. We will keep these regulations under review. However, as I have said, I have already set out that at present we consider that the existing regulations strike the appropriate balance.

I heard with great interest what the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, said about smart meters and his other proposals. In relation to the installing of meters, restrictions on the power of companies to charge by meter do not extend to their power to fit a meter. Any company may do that and some, such as Anglian Water, have a policy of doing so for the reasons that the noble Lord laid out. We recognise fully the important role that water meters can play. I hope the fact that I have been able to spell out in more detail the Government’s position on this has assisted noble Lords and that they are willing to withdraw their amendment.

Lord Oxburgh: I thank all noble Lords who have participated in what has been a very useful discussion about metering. Can I just be clear in my understanding that it is the Government’s position that water companies already have the authority to install water meters anywhere they choose and that the only restriction is on charging?

Baroness Northover: As the noble Lord is aware, the emphasis at the moment is on water-stressed areas, which are more widely defined in the reissued regulations that I have just mentioned. I also mentioned that a customer can ask for a meter. I note that there is a bit of a gap between that position and the position for which noble Lords are arguing. If I have stated that incorrectly in any way, I will make sure that the noble Lord has a letter about it. It would be useful anyway if all this was laid out clearly to noble Lords who are interested in it, because it is obviously an area that concerns people and they want to have it clear in their minds.

Lord Oxburgh: That is extremely useful. If the Government are prepared to move at all on this area, it might be valuable for the Minister to hold a small meeting, as he has done most helpfully on various topics in recent weeks, to discuss whether the existing legislation covers the desirable possibilities or whether there is something that might meet the concerns that have been expressed here and would also be acceptable to the Government. We do not want—dare I say it—the water horse to bolt too soon.

Baroness Northover: We cannot be having that. On behalf of my noble friend Lord de Mauley, I can say that we would be happy to facilitate such a meeting.

6 Feb 2014 : Column 286

Lord Oxburgh: I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 112A withdrawn.

Clause 22 agreed.

Amendment 113 not moved.

Clause 23: General duty as regards undue preference in the provision of services

Amendment 114 not moved.

Clause 23 agreed.

House resumed.

Winter Floods

Statement

1 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord De Mauley) (Con): My Lords, with your Lordships’ permission, I will repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. The Statement is as follows:

“Mr Speaker, I wish to make a Statement on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government on the action taken in light of the recent floods and extreme weather. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is unable to update the House today, but we wish him a speedy return to his usual robust health.

One of the defining characters of Britain is her weather. However, in recent months it has been particularly savage. Parts of the country have been subjected to flooding from the sea, rivers, surface water and groundwater. In December, we saw the highest surge on the east coast for 60 years. This January has been the wettest since George III was on the throne. We will continue to face severe weather well into next week.

I want to put on the record my utmost sympathy for those affected. Flooding has devastating effects on communities. I know that it has been especially difficult for those families who have been flooded for many weeks, and those who have been flooded on more than one occasion in recent months. I think we have all been struck by the stark images of the stranded residents of the Somerset Levels, and their brave resolve to continue their daily lives, be it by boat or tractor.

I should also like to pay tribute to the hard work of councils, the Environment Agency’s on-the-ground staff and our emergency services, who have supported communities 24 hours a day, literally through hell and high water. Yet Britain’s flood defences have protected more than 1.2 million properties since 5 December, and the Thames Barrier has protected £200 billion of property.

None the less, it is evident that those defences are taking a pounding. There is damage to transport infrastructure and sea defences, including the railway line at Dawlish, as well as to power networks. More than 5,000 properties have been flooded, including at

6 Feb 2014 : Column 287

least 40 in Somerset. There are currently two severe flood warnings in the West Country, 61 flood warnings and 223 flood alerts in place. COBRA has met regularly since 29 January and has responded to every local request for assistance. The Prime Minister will chair a further meeting of COBRA later today.

Following the Prime Minister’s statement yesterday, I can now report to the House the Government’s plans for further funding for flood and coastal erosion risk management. In the short term, I can announce that the Government will provide an additional £130 million for emergency repairs and maintenance: £30 million in the current year and £100 million next year. This will cover costs incurred during the current emergency response and recovery, as well as essential repairs to ensure that defences are maintained.

Emergency work on repairs started during December’s coastal surge. However, the full picture of the damage caused to flood defences has not yet emerged, and the weather continues to be savage. The Government will therefore carry out a rapid review of the additional work needed to restore our flood defences and maintain them in target condition.

In addition, I am publishing before the House today details of how my department is enhancing the terms of the Bellwin scheme. This helps local authorities in England meet the exceptional and unexpected costs associated with protecting lives and properties. The changes I am announcing today include: paying the Bellwin grant at 100% above threshold instead of the normal default 85%; allowing upper-tier authorities with responsibility for fire to claim on a comparable basis to stand-alone fire authorities; reducing Bellwin thresholds for all county councils and unitary authorities; and extending the eligible spending period until the end of March 2014.

No council has yet made a formal claim under the Bellwin scheme, so no council has lost out. Indeed, far more councils will now be eligible to claim. The enhanced scheme terms reflect the exceptional nature of the recent weather events and the challenges facing local authorities in their role as first responders. However, it is clear that the Bellwin scheme needs further reform—an opportunity that was missed under the previous Administration. We will be undertaking a full review of the Bellwin scheme in due course, while ensuring that councils continue to have the right incentives to stop flooding happening in the first place. I can also tell the House that immediately after this Statement, Ministers will be holding a teleconference with council leaders from across the West Country to discuss further flood recovery measures.

Of course, flood prevention is as important as flood recovery. The additional funding that we have outlined today will allow the Government’s programme of capital investment to continue, fulfilling our commitment to improving defences throughout England. We have already put in place investment plans to improve the protection of at least 465,000 households by the end of the decade.

In addition, today we are announcing 42 new flood defence schemes for 2014-15. Together with other projects beginning construction in 2014-15, these will

6 Feb 2014 : Column 288

protect more than 42,000 households. They include schemes in Salford, which will improve protection for more than 2,000 homes and businesses; in Clacton, where more than 3,000 homes are currently at risk; and in Willerby in the East Riding of Yorkshire, where more than 8,000 properties will be better protected. There are also smaller, but no less important, schemes in Lincoln, Stockton and Todmorden. We will work to defend both town and country. For the record, I do not agree with the comments of Lord Smith, who implied that there is a choice between the two.

Looking further forward, we have made an unprecedented long-term six-year commitment to record levels of capital investment in improving defences: £370 million in 2015-16, and then the same in real terms each year, rising to more than £400 million by the end of this decade. By the Autumn Statement, we will publish a six-year programme of work running right up to 2021, including a new long-term investment strategy on flood defence. This will provide an assessment of the future need for flood and coastal defence, taking account of the latest risk maps and economic analysis.

We should certainly look at how councils plan and mitigate flood risk. However, I note that the level of development on flood-risk areas is now at its lowest rate since modern records began, and 99% of planning applications for new homes in flood-risk areas are in line with expert advice.

After the dark skies clear, there will be lessons to learn: from the way we help local authorities, to the role of quangos and the need for local accountability, to the influence of manmade policies on dredging and tree planting on our landscape and rivers, and to the resilience of our nation as a whole in the 21st century.

The measures that the coalition Government have announced today provide an clear commitment to reducing the risks of flooding and coastal erosion. The additional funding means that, over this Parliament, this Government will be investing more than £3.1 billion, compared to £2.7 billion in the previous five years under the previous Labour Government. This is more than ever before. We will spend it well and we will spend it wisely.

We cannot control the weather. But we can and will provide the security that hard-working people deserve to allow them to get on with the daily lives. I commend this Statement to the House”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

1.07 pm

Lord Whitty (Lab): My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement, particularly the announcement on Bellwin, which will be a great relief to the authorities and communities affected. I also thank him for his support for the people who are struggling to cope, in Somerset in particular, with the extraordinary and devastating events in that part of our country.

As noble Lords know, until two years ago I was a member of the board of the Environment Agency. I know the area; I live about 20 miles away. It is an extraordinarily complex system to manage. When an emergency occurs, it is the Environment Agency, the

6 Feb 2014 : Column 289

emergency services and local people who act together to try to minimise the effect, but it is a colossal effect and all our support should go out to the farms, families and villages that are in such serious difficulty.

Of course, as the noble Lord said, the problems are not just in Somerset. As it happens, while your Lordships were amusing yourselves with the European Union (Referendum) Bill last Friday, I was on the train to Plymouth, and a beautiful railway line it is—or was. It had been known that the line was vulnerable. There is now a serious problem as to how we restore communications with the far south-west of our country.

While it is important to recognise the efforts of the emergency services, it is also important to learn lessons. It appears that central government were taken a little by surprise on this occasion. It is an unusual event and therefore may not be in the normal contingency plans of central government. Nevertheless, the expectation of the population—certainly the expectation of the people of Somerset and other affected areas—was that the response would have been quicker than it was. In Questions, the noble Lord, Lord King, said that the level of pumping is the highest ever. It undoubtedly is. However, getting the pumps in was quite difficult, as the standing pumps were overwhelmed by the event. Whoever does it, the response must start a lot earlier than it did on this occasion.

Obviously there are issues behind this. The noble Lord has quoted some figures for expenditure on flood defences. The fact is that when the Government came in, for the first year they cut expenditure on flood defences—via the Environment Agency and in total—by £100 million. They have now restored some of that cut, but it has led to a hiatus. I would like the Minister to explain whether concentrating the resources of the Environment Agency on front-line activity at the moment—rightly so—has hit its ability to prioritise and to put in place a strategy for flood defences in the medium term. I think that there are serious concerns in that respect. Despite the Government’s claims, the resources available to the Environment Agency have not been made up by the funding from elsewhere—the £148 million to which the Government referred—as not all of it has been delivered, some of it is double-counted, and it is mainly from other public authorities. Therefore, there is an issue of public expenditure as well.

We need more priority given to flood defences of all sorts. By that I do not mean just pouring concrete, but catchment management. If anything, the Somerset Levels show very clearly how important catchment management is. It is not only a question of dredging; in my view, dredging will make relatively little impact, as the water must go somewhere. Dredging may be part of a solution, but it transfers the water somewhere else that may be more vulnerable, with more businesses and people involved. The catchment as a whole needs looking at, from the top of the hills, where there has been deforestation and inappropriate land use, right down through the streams into the sea. In an area that is below sea water, with a tidal river, these problems are particularly difficult. It requires a long-term plan and it is not yet entirely clear that we have a long-term plan.

6 Feb 2014 : Column 290

I welcome the Bellwin scheme and the efforts that are now being made to deal with the immediate situation. However, the immediate situation includes a lot of people who are in ancillary distress. It would be helpful if the Minister could indicate, for example, when he expects the electricity supply to be restored to all of those who have been hit. When does he expect the restoration of the rail services west of Exeter beyond Dawlish? Six weeks sounds a bit optimistic, I must say. We must recognise that while we are rightly worried about the hundreds of people affected in the Somerset Levels, some 1.3 million people are cut off from their main means of communication to Plymouth and Cornwall—an area that is greatly lacking in communications in the first place. I hope that we can have some urgency on that. It may require more drastic changes to the railways in that area. There is serious damage in Dawlish itself, which is an emergency equal to that in Somerset.

This has happened before. After the 2007 floods, the previous Government commissioned a report from Sir Michael Pitt. He made a lot of recommendations, some of which have been implemented. However, the Government have stopped producing progress reports on half of them. I would like the Minister to indicate when we will go back to those recommendations or any modification of them. In particular, could he refer to the recommendations relating to reducing the risk of flooding and the 10 recommendations, not yet acted on, concerning being rescued and cared for during an emergency?

There is also a superstructure issue. We have had 20-odd meetings of COBRA. However, Sir Michael Pitt proposed a national resilience forum. Although it is not necessary to have a Cabinet committee telling the Prime Minister how to run the Government, a national resilience forum is a good idea. It was being discussed towards the end of the previous Government. We would like to see progress in relation to that.

In immediate terms, I return to the issue of the long-term plan for the Somerset Levels. A number of assertions have been made, or have reportedly been made. However, the area needs to know what its future is. This emergency has hit a relatively poor part of the country pretty hard. Changes may be needed. The area is also one of great beauty and of significant economic importance to the agricultural and tourist sectors in that area. We must know how quickly a clear, long-term plan can be put in place.

I thank the Minister for the Statement. As the Prime Minister is now in charge of these issues, I suspect that he could do without the interruption to the Water Bill. I was to some extent expecting the Leader of the House to take this Statement. Nevertheless I welcome the contribution of the Minister and would like to hear his answers.

1.16 pm

Lord De Mauley: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his supportive comments, especially his sympathies for those who have suffered and the households and farms that have been flooded. As discussed in Questions, they have suffered a terrible experience. Like the noble Lord, I pay tribute to the emergency

6 Feb 2014 : Column 291

services, the Environment Agency and the Flood Forecasting Centre staff and to the leadership shown by the local authorities.

As alluded to by the noble Lord, there has been significant damage to sea and flood defences and road and rail infrastructure. Urgent repairs were made to critical coastal defences before the spring tides early this month. The Environment Agency is currently assessing the damage to flood defences. It may take a number of weeks to achieve a full assessment as water levels fall.

The noble Lord referred specifically to the Somerset Levels. As discussed in Questions, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has asked for an action plan to be developed within the next six weeks to look at different options as to how flood risk could be better managed sustainably on the levels and moors over the next 20 years. Dredging will form part of that plan but it will not provide the whole answer. The plan will look at a number of other options for improving the area’s resilience in the longer term.

The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, referred to lessons learnt. I agree with him very strongly about that. Those lessons will go quite wide. I also agree with him on the importance of a catchment management approach. The noble Lord referred to power shortages. My understanding is that of the 50,000 people who lost power the night before last, the substantial majority had power again yesterday. The energy companies are working hard on that. The noble Lord referred to transport. Immediate work is already underway, with that urgency that he described as so necessary. The noble Lord asked about the capability of the Environment Agency to continue to perform. The Secretary of State has been assured by the chief executive of the Environment Agency that he has every intention of protecting front-line services concerned with flooding. I have no reason to doubt his ability to do that.

I return to lessons learnt. The Minister for Government Policy is undertaking a review specifically to identify those lessons. There are a whole range of things that it will look at, and I know that he is looking to report to the Prime Minister as soon as he can—that will be weeks, not months.

The noble Lord referred to the Pitt review. The vast majority of its recommendations have been implemented. We are committed to implementing the remaining five by the end of this year. Some of the main aspects to come out of Pitt that we have implemented so far are the creation of the Flood Forecasting Centre, much lauded in recent weeks for its ability to warn us where the problems were coming, the publication of the National Flood Emergency Framework and the provision of funding to more than 100 specialist flood rescue teams. The Environment Agency has published its national strategy, which will help communities and all parties to work together to manage flood and coastal erosion risk.

Lord Oxburgh (CB): Before the Minister sits down, might I ask him whether he would be willing to include in the list of those whom he has thanked for their contribution in understanding and managing the

6 Feb 2014 : Column 292

present difficulties the Met Office? We may not enjoy the information that it gives us, but it is certainly useful.

Lord De Mauley: That was an outrageous omission of mine, my Lords, and I absolutely do that.

1.21 pm

Lord King of Bridgwater (Con): Having listened to the statement made from the opposition Front Bench in another place, perhaps I may say how much I preferred the response of the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, and his constructive approach to this very serious issue. He has the advantage of actually knowing something about the subject.

The most worrying sentence in this Statement is:

“We will continue to face severe weather well into next week”.

And no one knows what it is going to be like after that. Anyone who is familiar with the current state of the Somerset Levels will know how that water is spreading and how the situation is deteriorating in certain areas as the water moves around. I am all in favour of sensible, constructive meetings of COBRA but it is the co-ordination on the ground that is extremely important. I appreciate the Prime Minister’s personal efforts and I know that the Prime Minister and the Government are now fully focused on this, but I hope that the sympathy will not go when the floods go down. In certain respects, there could be a serious health problem. A number of septic tanks and parts of the sewerage system are not working and problems may arise with rotting vegetation. I hope that the concentration of the Government will not end when the floods disappear but will remain totally focused on what will clearly be a very serious situation for some time to come.

Lord De Mauley: I absolutely endorse my noble friend’s point about the importance of local co-ordination on the ground. My impression is that that is making considerable progress and I congratulate those who are involved.

My noble friend’s reference to ongoing attention—to Somerset, for example—I endorse as well. I must say that we should not lose sight of the other places that have suffered from flooding during this spate of weather. I shall not name any of them because I will forget to include some, but there are many places around the country which have suffered.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester (Lab): My Lords, I reinforce what my noble friend Lord Whitty said about the importance to Devon and Cornwall of the reinstatement of the main railway line that has been washed away at Dawlish. I declare an interest as a member of the First Great Western stakeholder board. Businesses are quoted this morning as saying that every day that the line is closed is costing them £30 million, so any delay beyond six weeks for its reinstatement will have a devastating effect on those economies—it is not just Cornwall; it is not just Plymouth; it is the whole of Torbay as well. I urge the Government to make sure that Network Rail is given every possible resource it needs to reinstate the line.

Looking a little further ahead, will the Minister consider the need for a possible new alignment that

6 Feb 2014 : Column 293

takes the line at the coast inland? It is something that Isambard Kingdom Brunel looked at but felt was not necessary. He thought that his wall would survive for ever, but, as we have seen with the weather of recent days, that might not be the case. Another possibility would be the reopening of the old Southern Railway line to Plymouth, which would at least give an alternative route through from Exeter.

Lord De Mauley: I agree with the noble Lord about the particular railway line of which he spoke, which is perhaps one of the most exciting and beautiful of our railway lines. I know of his great interest in railways. I can assure him that the line is getting and will continue to get urgent attention. His comments drag me rather beyond my knowledge and responsibilities in terms of specifics about railways, but I will take his comments back.

Lord May of Oxford (CB): My Lords, perhaps I may add a footnote to this discussion, which I unfortunately missed because, for the past hour, I have been over at the BBC discussing the floods on “Daily Politics”. I expressed myself uninhibitedly amazed that anyone would ever have thought that it was a good idea to stop dredging on Sedgemoor, but then I learnt—this is a superb example of how good intentions can go awry—that this was a conservation measure in order deliberately to return it to marsh land in the interests of wildlife. It underlines the complexity of some of the issues that we have to deal with.

Lord De Mauley: My Lords, it is a shame that the noble Lord was not here at Questions because we addressed that specific point. I said then that the agencies are working together to ensure that measures such as dredging can proceed. That is likely to be part of the outcome of the action plan which my right honourable friend the Secretary of State has demanded. We are looking for that to proceed as rapidly as possible. It is fair to say, however, that it should do so while meeting our environmental requirements, which are set by among others the EU.

Baroness Parminter (LD): My Lords, perhaps I may pick up on the point about the Dawlish line being likely to be closed for six weeks. Further stretches are at risk from strong waves, meaning that other areas are likely to suffer—that is obviously not just local people but businesses. I thank my noble friend for the comments he has made today, but my understanding is that no research has ever been done on the significant impact of flooding on businesses, often small businesses, that make up the backbone of rural economies and the disproportionate effect of that on rural economies, particularly in places like Somerset. There is no research that shows how flooding affects the range of supply and demand chains in an area and identifies what impact this has on the overall community resilience of an area. After the devastation of this winter’s flooding and given that we are facing more in the next few years, do the Government have any plans to commission research into and to investigate the impact of flooding on the economic resilience of local communities in order to identify any further necessary policy interventions or resources?

6 Feb 2014 : Column 294

Lord De Mauley: I thank my noble friend for that question. She suggests that there has been no research on the effects of flooding on businesses. I will take that matter away. I am pretty sure that it will be covered in the action plan that my right honourable friend is looking at, but I shall look into it.

Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall (Lab): My Lords, I wonder whether I might ask the Minister the question that I was hoping to ask him at Question Time, which bears directly on the observations of the noble Lord, Lord King of Bridgwater. Has any assessment yet been made of the possible public health impact or implications of land being under water for sustained periods, particularly where that land contains, for example, domestic sewerage infrastructure and where animal waste is also involved? Who, if anyone, is undertaking that assessment?

Lord De Mauley: Yes, my Lords. Somerset County Council is working with Wessex Water to ensure that proper water sampling is carried out and to co-ordinate any mitigation measures that are needed. Public Health England has issued clear advice on how to avoid any risk to health. People in the affected areas are urged to follow that advice.

Lord Crickhowell (Con): My Lords, as the former chairman of the National Rivers Authority—thankful that I no longer have various responsibilities in these circumstances—may I join in the expressions of sympathy for those who have suffered the horrors of being flooded and in the tributes to the Environment Agency’s ground staff and the other emergency services who have been doing sterling work? I welcome the capital commitments that have been made and the proposed changes to the Bellwin scheme.

I would like to take up two particular points that have arisen. The first is on the local accountability question. In my Second Reading speech on the Water Bill, I said that for the NRA, the cornerstone of our activities was catchment management and the existence of our regional advisory boards, chaired by a member of the board and involving all the locally involved organisations. I have a feeling that that arrangement, which was so crucial to our successes, was discontinued at some time. Can the Minister assure me that a similar arrangement will be put in place? On the subject of dredging, may I suggest that regular dredging year by year of the lower reaches of rivers is likely to be much more cost-effective than one-off occasional action to try to relieve pinch points that should never have been allowed to develop in the first place?

Lord De Mauley: First, I reassure my noble friend that proper, ongoing local co-ordination is vital and is being, and will continue to be, undertaken. On his comments on dredging, I hear what he says and am conscious that he is quite right that it is not good enough to do it once: you have to do this process continually. I agree with him on that.

Lord Curry of Kirkharle (CB): I support the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, and by the noble Baroness earlier on, on the impact of flooding on the farmers whose land has been submerged under water for weeks on end. This is the second year in

6 Feb 2014 : Column 295

succession that many of those farmers have suffered this effect. May I take the opportunity—I am sure the whole House will support me in saying this—to thank His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales for going down on Tuesday? His visit was very well received by the residents and farmers of the Somerset Levels. I have to declare an interest: I am a trustee of the Prince’s Countryside Fund and His Royal Highness announced that £50,000 would be made available to help the farmers of the Somerset Levels. His Grace the Duke of Westminster also made a contribution, so we are very grateful for that financial support.

The funds will be channelled through the agricultural charities for the immediate costs incurred by farmers as a consequence of flooding, whether for animal feed or whatever. However, it will not restore the pastures and crops that have been submerged under water. The longer-term impact of this is not well understood. My noble friend may well have views on that. May I ask him to think longer-term about how those farmers might be assisted in maintaining their livelihoods following this dramatic impact on the land that is under water?

Lord De Mauley: First, I echo the noble Lord’s thanks to the Prince of Wales for his visit and financial contribution, and for the contribution of the Duke of Westminster, which are extremely welcome. We want to ensure that farmers are able to deal with challenges such as bad weather, to grow their businesses, create jobs and compete effectively in the marketplace. It has been very helpful that, in response to recent events, our colleagues at the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency have agreed to a derogation to move cattle in Somerset without a pre-movement test. That may sound like a small thing, but it is important. I am aware, as the noble Lord said, that a number of charities are supporting struggling farmers more generally. I can also say to him that we have not heard from those charities that they have yet experienced a huge increase in demand, but I take on board his comments, which were extremely important.

Lord Skelmersdale (Con): My Lords, earlier today, I appeared to criticise the Government for making the situation worse when I asked my supplementary question. I used the word, “exacerbate” when I should, of course, have said, “alleviate”—as this Statement shows very clearly. Whether that counts as a personal apology, I am not entirely sure. However, much of the Somerset Levels is classified as a site of special scientific interest. The problem has been made worse not only, as my noble friend has just said, by not constantly dredging the main rivers, but by farmers being allowed to change their farming practices by, for example, not dredging their individual rhynes. Would my noble friend take this point into the department’s thinking on the long-term ways of improving the situation, not least with the Environment Agency?

Lord De Mauley: My Lords, I certainly well. It is an interesting and important point.

Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville (LD): My Lords, I welcome this Statement and will try not to repeat what others have said. In particular, I welcome

6 Feb 2014 : Column 296

the additional resources for emergency repairs. As the Minister has indicated, the full extent of the damage will not be known until the water subsides. The announcement on the review of the Bellwin scheme is encouraging and I look forward to hearing the detail on this. The Minister has referred to the partnerships working on the ground, and I am proud of the work and intervention in respect of this of South Somerset District Council, of which I am a member. It will take a lot more hard work and co-operation in partnership before we are through this current process. As with previous speakers, I am concerned for the future livelihoods of those living on the Somerset Levels, particularly the farmers. The debate about how to take this forward has to be started soon. Overall, however, I welcome the steps in the right direction made by the Government, but there is still some way to go.

Lord De Mauley: I share my noble friend’s concerns absolutely.

Lord Elystan-Morgan (CB): My Lords, I would like to raise a constitutional point relating to Wales in the context of these storms. Some weeks ago, a number of noble Lords, including myself, were told by the noble Baroness, the Minister, that essentially, responsibility for these matters had been devolved to the Welsh Assembly. I appreciate that responsibility for marine structures, coastal defences and so on has no doubt been transferred. On the other hand, under the 20 headings that I included in the schedules to the Government of Wales Act 2006, there is great vagueness. There is nothing at all to say whether responsibility for storm damage or for substantial havoc caused by nature has ever been transferred. I would be most grateful if the Government would publish some sort of reasoned opinion in relation to the matter. With regard to the Bellwin proposals, I remember 30 years ago, soon after I came to this House, how sterling they were. Is Wales eligible to profit from such a fund—and, if so, to what extent?

Lord De Mauley: The noble Lord has a habit of bowling fast constitutional balls. Of course, coastal regions right across the United Kingdom, including in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, have been affected by flooding and severe weather conditions. Responsibility for flood management is, as he suspects, devolved to the Welsh Assembly, the Scottish Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly. It is for those bodies and their agencies to determine how best to allocate resources to support affected areas.

Baroness Browning (Con): I declare an interest as a former resident of beautiful Dawlish; the railway line from Exeter to the outskirts of Dawlish went through the constituency that I was very honoured to represent. I am therefore very familiar with the problems and quite horrified to see the size of the waves—with which, again, I am very familiar. May I reinforce to my noble friend the request of the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, to look at alternative railway access to the far south-west? May I also urge my noble friend to encourage the Department for Transport to urgently reassess the need for more dualling of roads into the far south-west—the A30 immediately comes to mind—

6 Feb 2014 : Column 297

and to make sure that the economies of, particularly, Somerset, Devon and Cornwall are not impaired in this way if this is the sort of weather pattern we are to expect in the future?

Lord De Mauley: My Lords, I have got the message and will take it back to the Department for Transport.

Lord Grade of Yarmouth (Con): My Lords, after the water subsides, I suspect that the next headache will be an insurance nightmare. One has not heard in the considerations of the lessons learnt whether the Government will try to understand the insurance implications for farmers, householders and businesses. One would imagine that, as a result of the now frequent flooding, many of those properties and businesses will be absolutely uninsurable—or insurable only at a cost that is entirely prohibitive. I hope that, once the catastrophe has been managed, the insurance implications going forward will be considered.

Lord De Mauley: My noble friend is ever topical, because we will debate the issue of flood insurance, specifically in the context of the Water Bill, on Tuesday. He will know that we have been working very hard for many months with the Association of British Insurers on this very issue.


NHS: Seven-day Working

Question for Short Debate

1.40 pm

Asked by Lord Ribeiro

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the implications of introducing seven-day working in the National Health Service.

Lord Ribeiro: My Lords, in opening this debate I must first record my interests in the register and my chairmanship of the Independent Reconfiguration Panel. I support the introduction of a seven-day service, promoted by Sir Bruce Keogh, medical director of the NHS, but I believe that it should focus on emergency and urgent care, which is currently poorly provided at weekends. The move to a seven-day service has the support of the Medical Royal Colleges, NHS Confederation, NHS Employers and the BMA, but why is it necessary?

When I was a consultant, I often provided an emergency service at weekends, initially every four weekends and then every eight as staffing numbers increased. That was a requirement to go into the hospital to deal with emergencies when they occurred, rather than a commitment to be there all day as I would be during the week. What has changed is, of course, the increasing number of elderly patients with comorbidities requiring care and the findings of the Francis report that patients felt vulnerable at weekends when,

“staff absences and shortages are more noticeable”.

A report commissioned by NHS London in 2011 found that increasing cover by consultants in acute medical and surgical units at weekends could prevent

6 Feb 2014 : Column 298

500 deaths a year in London. Further evidence in the

Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine

in 2012, analysing 14.2 million admissions in NHS hospitals in England in 2009-10, found that patients admitted on Sundays were 16% more likely to die than those admitted on Wednesdays, and 11% more likely to die if admitted on Saturdays. The

Dr Foster Hospital Guide

in 2012 reported similar findings, confirming that a higher level of senior medical staff at the weekend is associated with lower mortality. The case for change in respect of emergency admissions has been made and now something must be done.

Despite a reduction of acute beds by a third in the past 25 years, the number of unplanned admissions of those over 65 continues to rise, with some 2 million admissions a year. Length of stay is also important: for those under the age of 65, the average length of stay is three days but for over 65s it rises to nine days and for those over 85 it is 11 days. To prevent unplanned admissions we need more consultants because consultants make the decisions. They are able to decide whether patients can be sent home or need to be admitted. Junior doctors often lack the confidence to do that. We also need the infrastructure and systems in general practice and social care to allow those patients to be treated nearer their home. That must also be available at weekends.

My noble friend the Minister will no doubt point out that “seven-day working”, as this debate is titled, is not the same as a seven-day service. I agree but the public need to be clear what sort of service they receive. When we promise them the same service at weekends as in the week, they will assume that that implies seven-day working. That means that there will need to be a massive expansion of consultant numbers. I have recently heard the figure of 1,800 quoted as likely. Do we actually have enough qualified trainees to fill those posts—and trainees of the right calibre? Over what timescale do we expect to have this expansion? If the service is to be both for elective procedures, including routine operations, and emergencies, then a bigger challenge is funding and the staffing of theatres, X-ray rooms, and pathology and scientific laboratories—all of which must be supplied if we are to provide the same service at weekends as we do during the week.

We should not promise what we cannot deliver. The seven days a week forum report commissioned by Sir Bruce Keogh, which the Library kindly sent round as a briefing document for those involved in this debate, identifies 10 clinical standards that are evidence based. Three of them incorporate standards developed by the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, whose committee on this was chaired by the president of the Royal College of Surgeons—so I have a slight inside track on what was developed. The standards cover the patient’s experience through to the transfer to the community. They focus mainly on the management of emergency admissions. Of the 10 standards, eight revolve around hospital care. They recognise that a one-size-fits-all solution cannot be applied in this situation and that what will work best is usually based around local solutions. But there is an emphasis on emergency care that does match the rhetoric of providing care for all at the weekend.

6 Feb 2014 : Column 299

The NHS Confederation and NHS Employers recognised that we already work seven days a week, but it is how we do that work that is in question. Changing to a seven-day service could be liberating for many staff. I heard one lady consultant on southern TV last week say how much she enjoyed working at weekends. I think she worked at Southampton General. One reason she enjoyed working at weekends was that it provided a better work-life balance for her family. We should grasp the opportunity that this offers to use our workforce more flexibly. With the increasing feminisation of the workforce, remembering that more than 60% of our medical school intake is female, it is important that we take families, children and women into account when we design our workforce of the future. It is also important that many women with children would find working at weekends helpful because it would mean that their partners were there to look after the family and home while they were away working. I am not against that but will put forward some arguments as to why we should deal with the emergency problems first.

We also need to be much more creative about how we utilise some of our older, senior staff. I say that advisedly as I retired at 64 and was doing emergency admissions until the age of 60. How I could have done that between 60 and 64 I do not know; I feel for my colleagues who still do. Between the ages of 55 and 60, you could take most senior doctors off the emergency on-call rota and have them there providing mentorship for more junior consultant colleagues, and perhaps undertaking elective work at weekends if that could be managed.

Much could be done to achieve seven-day care but I am daunted by the cost of implementing both an emergency and elective service at weekends. The seven-day services improvement programme, which I believe was due to start in January this year, is focused in its first year on emergency care and the provision of enhanced recovery pathways and diagnostic and support services. The programme freely admits that its big challenge is how to actually develop those diagnostic and support services. I wonder where it will focus its attention in the next two years of the three-year programme it has set out. In addition, what are the likely costs of staffing a seven-day service in both primary and secondary care? The figures of £3 billion, from the Department of Health, and £32 billion, from the BMA, have been quoted as the cost of introducing seven-day care right across the piece in primary, secondary and social care.

From my experience of service reconfiguration, the public want high-quality care, but are wary of change, particularly if it affects their local hospital. We have seen the benefits of such service change, particularly here in London. Stroke services, acute heart condition services and trauma care concentrated in fewer centres have already delivered improved outcomes, so we have the evidence. A new project in Northumbria to produce a specialist emergency care hospital, which is due to open in 2015 at a cost of £200 million, is an example of a local solution to rural problems. Local solutions driven by clinicians and co-designed with the public can lead to centres of excellence.

6 Feb 2014 : Column 300

It is important that we focus our attention on delivering an emergency service. If we base this on the 22 trauma centre networks that were designed by Profession Keith Willett and Sir Bruce Keogh, the success of the centres will trickle down to the spoke hospitals which are linked to them. By aiming for this low-hanging fruit, we can demonstrate success to the public, and the effectiveness can be translated to elective care. However, I do not think we are yet in a position where we can provide care at the weekend in the way we go shopping at Tesco and Sainsbury’s. Please do not forget the European working time directive, which applies to junior doctors and equally to consultants, because the SiMAP and Jaeger agreements are still there and they will require compensatory rest for consultants who work at weekends.

I have identified barriers to change. I am not a naysayer, but I have concerns about staff and cost implications, particularly with an austerity budget designed to reduce our deficit, GP contracts—will they be asked to work nights and weekends again?—the ability of social services to cope with seven-day working and whether payment by results can be adjusted to take account of the increased emergency work. I support the proposals for a seven-day service, but I have misgivings about implementation and the costs involved. I hope the Minister will be able to reassure me.

Baroness Jolly (LD): My Lords, I remind noble Lords that this is a time-limited debate and, with the exception of the Minister, speeches are restricted to four minutes. When four is on the clock, time is up.

1.52 pm

Lord Warner (Lab): My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Ribeiro, on securing this platform to enable us to discuss this very important issue. I declare my interest as an adviser to Synlab, a German pathology company.

There is not much to disagree about in principle on the idea of seven-day working in healthcare with such a large number of emergency admissions to hospital. The evidence is pretty clear that we need the most senior doctors working later in the day and at weekends in those places dealing with emergency conditions. The noble Lord, Lord Ribeiro, told us the scale of those admissions each year. The interesting thing is that the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges has made clear that patients with these conditions need on-site consultant inspection at least once every 24 hours. Those admitted on Friday may not be seen by a consultant until Monday. That is clearly a dangerous practice. I would be very interested to know whether the Minister accepts that in hospitals which have A&E departments they would expect there to be seven-days-a-week consultant cover to enable a person to be seen by an on-site consultant at least once every 24 hours. Is that now government policy or just an aspiration set by the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges?

We know all about the difficult practical issues of implementing this kind of policy. We have also heard from the noble Lord, Lord Ribeiro, the different financial estimates for doing this. It is very interesting that the BMA’s estimate of £32 billion for seven-day working

6 Feb 2014 : Column 301

overall is roughly the same size as NHS England’s estimate of a £30 billion funding gap by the end of this decade on present plans for the NHS. There is some symmetry and agreement around about £30 billion; it is just a question of whether it applies to the gap or the funding increase you would need for this kind of policy.

I do not disagree with anything the noble Lord, Lord Ribeiro, said, but I want to focus on the point he made about money. Before I do that, I pay tribute to the work he has been doing in his capacity as chairman of the Independent Reconfiguration Panel. The trouble with that work is that he has to wait for what is served up to him. He is not allowed to take the initiative. We know many of the failing health economies. The NHS Trust Development Authority was set up to deal with many of these bodies. We have a situation where we are thinking of dreaming up a highly desirable change in patients’ access to consultant cover on urgent admission to hospital when we know full well that we have a very large number of almost insolvent trusts carrying out A&E admissions day in, day out. They are propped up by handouts from other bits of the NHS. This is the reality that the NHS faces daily. I suggest that we can implement this policy only if we grasp the nettle of reconfiguring services rapidly and consolidate more of these specialist services on a single site.

1.56 pm

Baroness Brinton (LD): My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Ribeiro, for securing this key debate. It is shocking that your chances of receiving prompt treatment and, indeed, of surviving are worse if you are admitted to hospital over a weekend or on a bank holiday. The 2011 Freemantle report provided the evidence that more than 500 deaths could be prevented in London each year purely by increasing consultant cover in acute medical and surgical units.

The good news is that there are early adopters and pathfinders who are demonstrating that it can be done. I hope your Lordships’ House will indulge me with a personal anecdote. I was very unwell over Christmas and had the good fortune to be admitted to the acute admissions unit at Watford General Hospital. The unit was set up in 2009 to help reduce pressures on A&E and the main hospital. The £12 million 120-bed unit shares the building with A&E but all referrals have to come from a GP and the maximum length of stay is 72 hours, although stays are usually much shorter. Consultants are on duty 24 hours a day and see patients as they are admitted so care is tailored very quickly. The AAU and A&E share their own MRI scanner, X-ray and ultrasound unit, a catheterisation unit for angioplasty, blood testing facilities and pharmacy. My experience of the care was outstanding: tests, scans, monitoring and observation and treatment were all prompt, and I felt that the entire clinical team worked smoothly as one unit. I know that I am not alone in my praise for the unit.

Seventy-two hours seems to be about the right length of time. I have seen reports of other acute units where the time is only 36 hours. Recently a Leeds hospital reported that there is still pressure on the main wards from this shorter timescale.

6 Feb 2014 : Column 302

The briefing from the Royal College of Surgeons states:

“Seven day services may also reduce pressure and stress on doctors. For example, consultants can spend much of Monday morning dealing with weekend admissions that are waiting for review or discharge”.

However, this does not affect just doctors: radiologists and many other clinical support staff are similarly affected by the Monday morning catch-up that impacts on an already busy week. Can the Minister assure the House that the NHS will provide robust modelling and review structures using the examples of early adopters to ensure that seven-day working is introduced carefully and effectively?

There needs to be a realistic timetable and a full understanding of the workforce issues—not just consultants or contracts and payments, but also appropriate staffing levels right through the NHS. It therefore seems sensible to move ahead on urgent and emergency care first and then reassess for wider clinical services, rather than rushing ahead with elective care at the start.

Many people are concerned about the costs of adopting a seven-day working system. With careful modelling—and with units such as the one I described earlier—in addition to inevitable new costs, we will find that there are some cost savings. Overall, the biggest change will be in culture and attitude. The NHS heart is willing. We all need to use our heads and energy to make it happen.

2 pm

Baroness Masham of Ilton (CB): My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Ribeiro, for asking this question. I am sure all noble Lords speaking today want to see improvements in the NHS.

A few years ago, I attended an open day at the Harrogate hospital trust. When we were shown the MRI scanner and other equipment, one of my group asked, “Would it not be desirable and beneficial to keep everything running seven days a week?”. The radiologist said, rather forlornly, “There are only one and a half of us”. The public would be very pleased to see a seven-day service in the NHS, but this would need more trained staff right through the system, and a culture of co-operation and communication. There should be an eradication of bullying and fear among managers and all staff. There should be a duty of candour and transparency, and dedicated teams looking after patients. Patients need continuity of care. They are so dismayed when their operations are cancelled at the last minute. Is there too much pressure on our existing National Health Service? General practice is facing a growing crisis as it struggles to provide the care needed for an increasing patient population.

I agree with the forum’s ambitions but, first, it is surely important to improve the safety of patients and the training of staff, so that they become experts in diagnosis and treatment. So much money is wasted on compensation and there is so much heartbreak for the nearest and dearest—and for the patients, if they live—when something goes wrong. Before the much hoped for seven-day working there should be

6 Feb 2014 : Column 303

improvements for what we already have in the NHS. For example, hospital A&E costs for stand-in doctors have increased by millions over three years. Blood donors are turned away by clinics because of late-running sessions and sick staff. If they feel their gift is not respected and they are not well treated, they will not turn up next time. I have an interest, as blood transfusions saved my life. Volunteers play an important part in the NHS, and they should be appreciated. There are huge variations in how GP surgeries provide a service to patients across the country.

I for one appreciate our health service, but we need to keep it safe and sustainable, and it has to grow with the increasing demands. Carrots are better than sticks. How can we keep our good doctors in a competitive world? How can we make nurses put patients first, giving them TLC? Without commitment and enthusiasm, it will be difficult to keep the NHS in full sail for seven days a week. Does the Minister agree that safety of patients at weekends should be addressed now?

2.04 pm

Lord Parekh (Lab): My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Ribeiro, for securing this debate and introducing it so well. A case for seven-day working in the NHS seems so overwhelming that I am surprised that it has taken us so long to raise it. I can think of half a dozen powerful reasons why seven-day working is an absolute must. As the noble Lord, Lord Ribeiro, has said, it reduces mortality, which can rise by as much as 16% for patients admitted over the weekend. In law—although I have not had the time to get this tested—it would amount to indirect discrimination to suggest that people who are admitted over the weekend receive less satisfactory treatment and invite death earlier than in other cases. That would constitute a case of indirect discrimination.

If we have seven-day working, it will amount to better use of diagnostic machines, laboratory equipment and operating theatres. It will also decrease the patient’s length of stay in hospital and thereby not only reduce pressure on hospitals but increase GDP because people will come out of hospital earlier and be able to work more days. The amount of patient satisfaction would also be considerable. For all these reasons, a case for seven-day working seems compelling.

I add an extra reason to assist the Minister in his negotiations with doctors who might resist this, but it is not the comparison with retail traders opening on a Sunday, as that is not a good analogy. We ask that our hospitals be open over the weekends, and that consultants and others be available, because these are issues of human lives. Where human lives are concerned, you cannot make a distinction between a weekend and a weekday.

Given that the case is so overwhelming, what are the objections? I hear three objections from many doctor friends who I am privileged to know. First, I am told it will impose extra burdens on consultants and senior clinical staff. The answer to that is, first, it need not be so because the workload can be properly distributed. Secondly, the same doctors who talk about the extra burden have absolutely no

6 Feb 2014 : Column 304

difficulty attending private clinics and private hospitals where they perform operations over the weekend. That is an argument of self-interest, which does not wash with me.