Examination of witnesses (Questions 500-519)|
TUESDAY 13 FEBRUARY 2001
MEACHER MP AND
500. Not 15?
(Mr Meacher) 12 might be the normal period but the
applicant can justify a longer period in the interests of funding
a major infrastructure development. He could indicate that 15,
20 or even 25 years is appropriate and it is for us
to take a judgment on that. There is the presumption that a time
limited licence will be renewed. All that we are taking is the
power, for reasons that of course we would have to make public,
that in the interests of protecting the environment it is not
justified to continue this beyond 12. That may apply in a few
cases, but it will certainly not be the generality.
501. You are not saying you must strictly adhere
to the time limit to the Environment Agency; you are saying that
these are general guidances.
(Mr Meacher) We are saying that 12 years is the normal
period for which we would expect licences to be granted by the
502. It is interesting that you say there is
a presumption of renewal. It is not on the face of the Bill, is
(Mr Meacher) It is the kind of consideration which
it is difficult to put into legislation.
503. Life is full of situations like that, Minister,
but on the whole what is written on the Bill is what affects the
development of the companies in the use of water in this country.
(Mr Meacher) That is perfectly correct. Presumably
you are looking for some such phraseology as, "The Environment
Agency shall restrict the length of licence to 12 years unless
the applicant makes a justified plea that it should be extended
for a longer period."
504. I am not seeking to indicate wording to
you. I am saying if it is not on the face of the Bill it does
not exist and therefore a presumption by a minister that it should
be under normal circumstances renewed is something which changes
with the minister, if I may say so.
(Mr Meacher) Can I ask Alan Davis, the director of
water and land, to explain how that presumption would be exercised
if it is not specifically applied on the face of the Bill?
505. Can you get the Minister out of the little
hole into which he has dug himself?
(Mr Davis) The 12 years itself is not on the face
of the Bill. The 12 years is the policy that the Agency has announced
as the normal period in its work on catchment abstraction management
strategies. The government has stated very clearly that there
is a presumption of renewal and if it is not on the face of the
506. Where did it state this?
(Mr Davis) In Taking Water Responsibly, the
decision document following the
507. And yet you have not followed greatly the
other things that are in Taking Water Responsibly, have
(Mr Davis) I believe the government has. If the Agency
were to decide not to operate the policy the government has set
down, on every abstraction licence application there is a right
of appeal to the Secretary of State so it is the Secretary of
State who determines renewal and the time limit that will be imposed
if it arises. The government has stated the policy very clearly.
There is a balance to be struck between how much is spelled out
in primary legislation and how much is left to secondary legislation
or policy statements.
508. I am sure that is true but we are asking
you, since there is a clear presumption on the part of the ministers
that licences will be renewed unless there is some very clear
indication why they should not be, why that is not on the face
of the Bill. You are telling us it is because the Minister has
made this quite plain somewhere else. Is that right?
(Mr Meacher) That is right, but you are sayingand
I would like to consider further whether we should make it explicitboth
the normal length of a licence and also the possibility of it
being extended for justified reasons.
509. That is why you are such a very good Minister.
Are you confident that the Secretary of State is going to be able
to certify this Bill as it stands as compatible with the Human
Rights Act? If not, why not?
(Mr Meacher) You are talking now about the compensation
provisions. What we are proposing is that compensation should
be ended after 15 July 2012 for a licence without a time limit,
if it is curtailed for good, environmental reasons. Is that compatible
with human rights legislation? We believe it is. Our judgment
is that that strikes a proper balance between an individual's
property interest and the public interest.
510. I want to talk to you about trickle irrigation
because most people in horticulture would regard trickle irrigation
as not only the way to go in the future but a much more sensible,
disciplined way to use water. The NFU have given us very clear
indications that, certainly in the case of those people who previously
did not require licences but were using trickle irrigation, they
have now been told yes, they do require licences and, in one instance,
they have specifically been told, "You probably will not
get it anyway because we are a lot tougher than as has been indicated
in the past." When you talk about compensation and human
rights, most ordinary people would regard that as being pretty
(Mr Meacher) I am aware of this one case.
511. I do not want to just keep it to that one
case. Decisions on something as basic as trickle irrigation which
put people out of business must have an impact on justice for
(Mr Meacher) I think we are all agreed that trickle
irrigation is a very efficient form of irrigation. I agree with
you. I think it will be much more widely used in the future. It
is much less wasteful; it is much less targeted. The only issue
is whether a farmer automatically will get a licence when the
exemption for trickle irrigation is removed. In the case that
you are referring to, I think the Environment Agency indicated
512. Was that based on the use of water in that
(Mr Meacher) Yes.
513. Or was it based on some other abstract
set of presumptions?
(Mr Meacher) One would have to ask the Environment
Agency. I am sure it was the water situation in that region. My
view would be rather to put it the other way round. There is absolutely
no reason why the licence for abstraction should not be provided
when the current exemption for trickle irrigation is removed.
If it is necessary to cut abstractions in any particular given
area, the Environment Agency would look at all sources of abstraction
to decide what the reductions should be. I think they would not
necessarilyand almost certainly notfasten on a trickle
irrigator as the best way to make a reduction.
514. To be quite clear, trickle irrigation is
something which in principle the Ministry approves of. Secondly,
you would not regard any barrier against that as being simply
a matter of automatic disbarment on anyone taking extra resources
without all of the resources in a particular region being taken
(Mr Meacher) Correct.
515. Thirdly, in general termsand it
is very difficult to argue from the particular to the generalyou
would regard this as a perfectly normal development and something
which should be looked at on the basis of fairness and justice?
(Mr Meacher) Absolutely. I would be stunnedmaybe
I am sometimes all too easily stunned nowadaysif a trickle
irrigator were not to receive a licence for abstraction in the
absence of wholly exceptional circumstances and, even in those
cases, I would expect probably other forms of abstraction would
be where the cuts were made, not in respect of a trickle irrigator.
516. You would not regard the remarks that you
made about the Human Rights Act as being inimical to that decision?
(Mr Meacher) Not in our view. It is a very difficult
balance between the individual's property rights and the public
interest. We have drawn them where we have. We think that is justified
but of course it is arguable.
Mr Brake: Could we return to the subject of
dirigisme? You have already said that the economic regulator should
have regard to sustainable development in your view and you are
going to fight the dark forces in the Cabinet who might be opposed
Mrs Dunwoody: I do not think he quite said that.
517. Reading between the lines, I think that
was clearly what he was indicating. Do you think there should
be a duty on the part of water companies to promote demand management?
(Mr Meacher) Yes, I do in principle and they are already
doing a great deal to reduce the demand for water that they have
to meet. The leakage rates have been dramatically improved in
the last three years by something like nearly a third. All companies
now offer a free supply pipe leakage repair service. The toilet
flush for new cisterns has been reduced by 20 per cent. There
are regulations in respect of labelling for dishwashers and washing
machines. A great deal has been done. If one wants to have water
demand management mandatory targets, which maybe is what you were
meaning, I do not think they can operate in the absence of universal
metering. The level of domestic metering is 18/19 per centsomething
of that order. In the case of industrial premises it is 75 or
80 per cent plus, but it is still only about a fifth in the case
of domestic metering. The other problem is that you would have
to exclude external influences over which companies cannot have
controlfor example, the weather. Whilst I am in favour
of further and tighter measures to restrict use of water and companies
taking ownership of those measures, a wholesale mandatory target
water demand management is not practicable at the present time.
518. What other measures do you think they could
implement that are not currently being implemented to address
(Mr Meacher) I suppose if everyone were to put a hippo
in their tank. Again, there are ways of trying to ensure that
flush levels are reduced for existing cisterns and I suppose one
could give greater incentives for water companies to their customers
to do that. We already have the Watermark system for bench marking
water efficiency in the public sector. We have Envirowise, which
was formerly the energy efficiency best practice programme, giving
business advice about water efficiency. We are trying to encourage
consumers to be more publicly aware of excessive use through the
idea of the doing your bit advertising campaign. For example,
if you just need a cup of tea do not fill up the kettle to the
brim. Any further ideas we will take on board but there is a lot
which has already been implemented.
519. In relation to the weather, you are saying
that would be excluded from demand management, but is not the
summer period exactly the time when demand management is needed?
(Mr Meacher) Yes, but if you are going to have mandatory
targets and they are going to be nation wide, unless you are proposing
that they should be regionally variable, it would be much harder
for companies in hotter, drier parts of the country to meet them
than those in wetter areas. That is all I am saying.
3 Witness correction: the Environment Agency. Back