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The Bill has made steady progress through the House, and I thank hon. Members for their commitment in helping it reach this stage and for their contributions to interesting and thoughtful debates. In particular, I thank the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Miss Johnson), for her work this evening on fluoridation, on which we heard some very good speeches.
The points raised on the Bill have not suggested that its principle is wrong. I am glad that the principle of the Bill has received so much support. Members have asked whether the Bill should go further, how far it should go or what should be in it that is not in it. I feel that our debates have answered the fundamental questions asked while clarifying our intentions and the Bill's scope. I am particularly pleased with the amendments that we have made today to strengthen the sustainable development duty on the consumer council, which was of particular interest to my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Ms Atherton). I am sorry that she cannot be with us tonight, but she will be pleased to know that we have addressed the points that she raised in Committee.
Hon. Members have welcomed the amendments intended to address the problem of private sewers, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping), for Rugby and Kenilworth (Andy King) and for Stroud (Mr. Drew) and Opposition Members who raised that matter. As an estimated 50 per cent. of households are connected in some way or other to private sewers, the issue is not
I enjoyed the debates, although I realise that concerns remain and that we have not reached agreement on some things. I very much hope that the assurances that I have given and put on record about the principles and about some of the affected groups and industries will go some way to address the legitimate concerns that have been raised.
The impact of the Bill on industries that abstract water, especially in relation to quarry de-watering, which is being introduced for the first time, understandably concerns people who will have to obtain licences when they previously did not have to. Like many of the resources on which we rely, water is not in infinite supply. Until recently, we thought that rain was not in short supply in this country and that our water stocks could always be replenished but, increasingly, demand is rising and our water supplies struggle to meet it. Recent drought warnings in some parts of the country are a timely reminder of that. It is thus important that all types of abstraction are controlled. The impact of quarry de-watering on other abstractors and the damage that it has sometimes caused to conservation sites should not be played down. However, the industry is legitimate and I hope that my reassurances will go some way to meet its concerns.
Abstraction licensing based on water consumption rather than on activity type or water use is the only real way to tackle the problem of managing demand. If we are serious about sustainable development, we need to be ready to make those changes and look for alternatives to our current water use as well as seeking ways to reduce demand.
In setting up new regulatory arrangements, it is tempting to be over-prescriptive, but experience tells us that we need some flexibility to allow the water services regulation authority and the consumer council for water to be managed and to shape themselves. Our role is to ensure that the minimum requirements are laid out to enable those bodies to carry out their functions in an open and transparent manner that benefits consumers, the industry on which they depend and other stakeholders. I can only reiterate that we are committed to best practice and, in the case of the authority, to follow the recent recommendations of the Better Regulation Task Force.
As we have just heard, fluoridation will continue to spark much debate. However, it is important to continue to stress that the Government's approach to fluoridation has not changed; we are simply placing the decision to add fluoride to local water supplies in the hands of those best placed to make a decision: local strategic health authorities, in consultation with their local communities.
Despite our differences of opinion, there has been agreement among Members on both sides of the House about the main principles of the Bill: to promote the sustainable use of water resources, strengthen the voice of consumers and achieve a measured increase in competition. Those principles bring challenges and the Bill meets them by reforming abstraction licensing to improve long-term water resource management; introducing provisions for the better operation and
The Bill cannot deal with all water matters. In relation to our debates about such things as the water framework directive, it is important to think of the Bill as only one part of the wider water conservation and sustainable development picture. The Bill's contribution to that picture will greatly depend on the commitment to its principles beyond this place. Although the principle of sustainable development underpins the Bill, the measure is specifically about balancing the interests of the environment, consumers, water companies and other abstractorsa balance that we have sought to achieve throughout the Bill.
The Bill's Committee was one of the more constructive Committees on which I have served. The contributions from both sides were thoughtful and some good ideas were proposed. I end my speech by repeating that the measure forms part of an ongoing process to ensure that we take a sustainable approach to water, which is not an infinite resourceas we saw from the pressures put on us this year, the driest on record. We also face global pressures on water resources. The issues are important and the Bill goes a long way to meeting our commitment to sustainability in all aspects of Government policy.
Mr. Wiggin: The Bill had the potential to make a significant and positive impact on the UK water industry's regulation, competition and environmental sustainability. Instead, the Government have missed many good opportunities to implement something constructive, open, democratic and fair. I agree with the Minister that contributions throughout the debates on the Bill have been thoughtful, constructive, helpful and heartfelt in their intentions. The Government's intentions may have been sound, but they have failed to deliver them, and I am disappointed about the huge gulf between what could have been achieved during the constructive debates in Committee and what has been allowed to pass.
First, the Bill fails to link water abstraction with planning. The application processes for abstraction and planning and their dates of commencement and expiry should be simultaneous, so that there is only one course of action to take for a business wishing to abstract. A business with planning permission should be able to abstract, as it is a requirement of the planning process that abstraction is environmentally safe. The delay created by such a separation will undermine the certainty that businesses require in the longer term. That will not provide a sustainable outlook for water abstractors and is the first example of the Government fracturing investment in the water industry. Such fracturing persists throughout the Bill.
Secondly, the Government must have severely dented investor confidence in the water industry through their alterations to abstraction licences. I tried to ensure that the period of abstraction licences should be determined
Thirdly, I remain concerned for drinking water companiesthe Minister did not mention them, but they constitute a very British industryand the Bill's consequences for their long-term prospects. Of course, I refer to allowing small abstractors to drill boreholes into licensed abstractors' aquifers. We covered that earlier today.
Water conservation duties have not been given high enough priority. Despite the Minister constantly reminding us in Committee and today that the Bill is about water resource management, the provision on the first crucial step to managing water has been worded far too weakly. That is not in the best interests of the future efficiency of our water sector. Equally, it is important to voice once again my concerns about the powers of the water services regulation authority and the possible danger that they involve. By not stating that the posts of chairman and chief executive are separate, the Government could allow a monopoly on the control of the regulation of the water industry.
Another matter of enormous significance is the failure to connect the Bill with the EU water framework directive of 2002. Perhaps one day the Government will get around to introducing legislation to deal with the EU commitments that they signed us up to.
I regret that clause 58, on fluoridation of water supplies, was sneaked into the Bill and subsequently pushed aside other important water issues. That is a fundamental failure by the Government; the Bill was neither the time nor the place to include that clause. Although fluoridation may have swamped the other topics by comparison, consultation on the issue has still not been as in-depth and detailed as perhaps it should have been.
I am also concerned that strategic health authorities will not ensure neutral, comprehensive consultations, because they are certainly not the correct bodies to assess people's views objectively. That has been shown by the very close vote that we have just had. Strategic health authorities are not representative of local communities, but the Government have nevertheless steamed ahead with the arrangements and duly failed to live up to the promise of local determination. Instead, they have left the decision to bodies with clearly biased agendas. This is a sad day for democracy and freedom.
The ideas of sustainability and resource management behind the Bill are welcome, but, sadly, the principles have not been applied to the content. As for the Government's supposed commitment to sustainability, the UK ranks 91st in the world environmental sustainability index. That is a disgrace and perhaps a reflection of the Government's lack of commitment to this country's environment. I am saddened by the knowledge that the Bill will not further the sustainability of the water industry.
There has been much constructive and intelligent debate among hon. Members on both sides in Committee and today, but my hopes that such discussion would lead to improvements in the Bill have not been realised to the extent that I had hoped. I regret the waste of the available opportunities for improvement, and I fear that the lack of certainty caused by the refusal to put statutory assurances in the Bill will significantly undermine the industry's long-term investment future.