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10 Feb 1999 : Column 384

Water Industry Bill

Not amended (in the Standing Committee), considered.

New clause 1

Provisions for Wales

'.--(1) Sections 1 to 11 above shall apply in England only.
(2) The National Assembly for Wales shall, within twelve months of this Act receiving Royal Assent, consider the provisions of this Act and make decisions concerning--
(a) whether the provisions of sections 1 to 11, 16 and 17 shall apply in Wales; and
(b) whether to substitute different provisions in the case of Wales in place of the provisions of sections 1 to 11, 16 and 17, dealing with the matters provided for in each section.'.--[Mr. Dafis.]
Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Cynog Dafis (Ceredigion): I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The new clause would give the National Assembly for Wales maximum discretion on water policy in Wales. I spoke on Second Reading about the significance of water as a political, economic and ecological issue of major importance to Wales. I do not intend to rehearse the series of arguments that I made; I shall simply recall the main points.

Water is a priceless asset--we are only just beginning to realise just how priceless it is. As a resource, it will be in increasingly short supply over coming years and decades. Wales should be allowed to utilise that asset responsibly--of course--and in the interests of Wales and its people, in the context of sustainable development, which the National Assembly for Wales has a specific duty to promote.

The circumstances of water supply in Wales are very different from those in much, if not all, of England. Wales has a plentiful water supply. There is no prospect of Wales suffering a shortfall in water supply, even in the worst-case scenario of increasing demand and a diminution of supply as a result of climate change and other factors. There is, however, likely to be a significant shortfall of supply in parts of England, especially the south-east. Such different circumstances will result in different priorities, as on investment, as I spelt out on Second Reading. That could mean that Wales adopts a different charging system, because charges reflect such issues as the availability of supply.

I argued on Second Reading that it is unacceptable to bundle together legislation for Wales with that for England, when the Bill makes separate provision for Scotland. The new clause would allow decisions on the Bill's provisions to be delegated to the National Assembly, which would enable it to make different provision on matters such as disconnection, charging, and so on.

An example of the need for different provision is found in the recent Environment Agency proposals for limitations on angling in rivers in England and Wales. Angling is enormously important socially, culturally and, in large parts of Wales, economically, due to tourism, for example. The Environment Agency is proposing byelaws that impose uniform limitations on angling, such as on seasons, throughout England and Wales. That is a bad

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approach. Such limitations ought to be devised on the basis of river catchment areas. I believe that the proposals have more to do with the Environment Agency's administrative convenience than ecological or economic realities.

I and other hon. Members have written to the Secretary of State for Wales asking that implementation on this very important issue be postponed until after the Assembly has been able to debate it and come up with appropriate byelaws for Wales--different ones, I dare say. I hope very much that the Secretary of State will listen to what is being said to him on a cross-party basis. It is an illustration of the need for a different approach in Wales that reflects its reality.

What is the point, one might ask, of devolution, unless we can make our own different policies in Wales? Many might ask what is the point of establishing a National Assembly if it is not able to make decisions on such important subjects as water policy.

8 pm

The new clause is not especially about disagreeing with the specific proposals in the Bill. I do not disagree with the proposals in relation to disconnection, although I would have serious reservations about the process of facilitating and promoting metering as a method of charging. The new clause is about the powers of the National Assembly for Wales, and about how legislation in London that affects Wales should be drafted.

Mr. Ted Rowlands (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney): I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has said that he does not object to key parts of this provision, because the continuation of rateable value as the basis for unmeasured charging is vital for most of our communities. I trust that he will not cast any doubt on that issue.

Mr. Dafis: I am grateful for that intervention, and I have much sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman says. I feel that we need a better basis for charging than rateable value, which is well out of date. The best proposal is to charge on the basis of council tax banding; we should adopt that method. The danger of continuing to use rateable value is that, by doing so, we postpone the day when we can adopt such a method.

However, the issue before us is how legislation that has such an important impact on Wales should be drafted. The Government of Wales Act 1998 gives English Ministries--I suppose that, technically, I should say England and Wales Ministries, but, from the point of view of Wales, they will be seen as English Ministries--specific override powers in relation to water policy in Wales. The Welsh Office guide to the powers of the National Assembly, entitled "Making a Difference in Wales", puts it thus:

That is good.

    "However, if UK Ministers believe its actions in authorising discharges into rivers flowing into England, or allowing water to be abstracted from such rivers, or its actions in time of drought, would have a serious impact on England, they would be able to intervene to prevent the Assembly acting in such a way."

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    It speaks similarly about the Environment Agency.

I do not believe that such override powers are the right answer to what is a reasonable question. The guide does say--rather graciously--on the previous page that the Government do not believe that the National Assembly would wish to prevent people in England from having adequate water supplies. That is big of them; I am sure that the Assembly would not want to do that. However, I do not think that override powers are necessary. Other methods could have been used. There could have been a requirement for there to be consideration--a requirement for meetings to reach a consensus on how any conflict of interest might be resolved.

I do believe, however, that the National Assembly should be able to override policy proposals in Westminster legislation if it does not agree with them. It should have that power in general terms. Would that we had had such powers many, many times in recent years. Wales would be in better shape if we had had such powers.

The time will come--the sooner, the better--when the National Assembly will have full legislative powers, as the Scottish Parliament has. I am confident that that day will come. We might as well get it done as soon as possible. However, meanwhile, any primary legislation drafted in London surely must in future give the National Assembly maximum latitude to vary provision by secondary legislation. The Government should surely accept that principle. Legislation should routinely contain such provision when drafted. It should have been done in the case of the Bill.

The new clause applies to clauses 1 to 11--the clauses that relate to England and Wales--and there are consequential changes to be made to clauses 16 and 17. The new clause would do what the drafters of the Bill should have done. We are merely putting right a deficiency in the legislative approach.

There has been much debate in Wales and Westminster on the National Assembly's limited legislative functions. Apologists for the Government's approach--giving the National Assembly only secondary powers--would argue that not having primary powers is not a big deal, because primary legislation can be drafted so as to allow the National Assembly, which will have total democratic legitimacy in Wales, to draft legislation to make provision appropriate for Wales, however different that might be.

I am not arguing for difference for the sake of difference; I am arguing for the right to be different in order to be appropriate to the special circumstances that apply in Wales. In that spirit, and bearing in mind the fact that we merely want to correct a deficiency--that we are doing what the drafters of the Bill should have done--I hope that the Government will accept the new clause. It is an opportunity to show willingness to legislate to empower the National Assembly for Wales, while retaining the primary legislative function in London. I expect and hope--well, I hope--that the Government will accept the new clause on that basis. If they do not, that augurs rather badly for future legislation.

Alternatively, the Government might like to say that they consider that the issue is serious enough to merit further consideration in what is quaintly called the other place. If the Government were to say that they would consider exempting Wales from the requirements of the Bill by tabling an amendment in the Lords, we would be very pleased.

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However, I want to say something to the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, the hon. Member for Cardiff--which one is it?

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