Water Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Morley: Precisely.

Norman Baker: I am being fair; I am giving the whole quotation. The Minister should not display a satisfied smile too quickly. The report goes on to say that

    ''until the administrative arrangements which will enable the Environment Agency to function as the competent authority have been properly explored, DEFRA cannot be certain that primary legislation is not required. We therefore repeat our recommendation that possible shortcomings in such administrative arrangements be identified as early as possible, and we recommend that the Government keep an open mind about the need for primary legislation to address such shortcomings.''

That is a pretty clear shot across the bows of the Government.

I return to the point that we are talking about the biggest piece of water regulation ever. That comes from the sustainability forum in Brussels in September 2001. Presumably the Government know about that. It is major legislation, but we will have it in dribs and drabs through statutory instruments.

Let the Minister come clean today and say that the Department got it wrong. We will live with what we have now. We will try to go forward constructively together, but let us not pretend that this is the ideal way to deal with the water framework directive. It is not, and it is an affront to democracy to suggest that it is. It is also far from joined-up departmental thinking on a crucial issue. I look forward to the discussion on the clause.

Mr. Wiggin: I am grateful to the hon. Member for Lewes, particularly for the sheep-stealing analogy with which he opened his speech. It was extremely accurate. I am curious as to why the Government do not want clause 2 in the Bill. I was particularly struck by the passionate intervention by my parliamentary neighbour, the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Diana Organ), about water cleanliness. I cannot understand why any hon. Member who serves on a Committee such as this would have a problem with such worthy regulations to

    ''prevent further deterioration of and protect and enhance the status of the aquatic ecosystems and, with regard to their water needs, terrestrial ecosystems and wetlands directly depending on the aquatic ecosystems''.

The whole list—I could read it, but I am sure that members of the Committee can do so perfectly adequately for themselves—is extremely worthy and important. The Government recognise that because they have already encompassed most of it in the directive. Therefore, I do not understand why they do not want the clause in the Bill. If it were damaging in any way, I would accept that, but I cannot believe that a single one of the items in clause 2 could be construed as anything other than helpful. Nor can I understand

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what is so bad about the directive that it makes it a problem to say it twice.

If the legislation is going to go through as secondary legislation, why cannot it also appear as primary legislation? What is wrong with that? We were reminded of the debacle over the fridge mountain. We cannot have water mountains, but we can have water shortages. The hon. Member for Lewes was right to identify that such matters are not being handled in a way that people who are passionate about water and the environment are keen to see done. I do not understand why, if there are items in the list that contradict the rest of the Bill, the Government have not chosen to amend those, instead of removing an entire clause.

I would like to know whether the water framework directive pilot scheme in, I think, the Ribble basin, has drawn any conclusions yet. If, as I suspect, it has not—because it has not been operating for long—it makes even more sense to include the aspirations in any Bill, but particularly a water Bill. The Government's failure to act in a joined-up way is a shame, but if the Minister has good answers as to why that is unnecessary, I would be pleased to hear them. However, I believe that there cannot be a good explanation for why all these things are bad, when the Government have signed the water framework directive. That is a natural contradiction.

Amendment No. 2 would require the Government to report annually, rather than every six years. If the legislation is so important and worthy of our attention, and if it is even worth doing through secondary legislation in relation to the water framework directive, we should still know about it. The Minister's answer to my question about why he wanted to report every three years was understandable, but not necessarily acceptable, particularly as the Government are trying to take the water framework directive out of the Bill. I hope that the Government recognise that we are interested in and care about the legislation, so we want to know what is happening annually. I hope that the Minister takes that on board.

Paddy Tipping (Sherwood): Important points have been made during this short debate. I agree with the hon. Member for Lewes that the way in which Parliament deals with European environmental legislation is far from satisfactory. He made a number of points. It is interesting that when one visits the Commission, the Commissioners speak highly of British officials and environmentalists. In the working groups the value of the input from British civil servants is extremely highly regarded.

There are two problems. A problem that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State herself has identified is that at the political level, there is a tendency not to get involved in the discussion at an early enough stage to shape the framework of forthcoming legislation. There is also an issue about not examining the outcomes or the impact of the legislation. That was well exemplified by the debacle of refrigerators.

My hon. Friend the Minister has his eye on the ball of forthcoming directives, so I will tell him gently that

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I have real reservations about the end-of-life vehicles directive and the so-called WEE—waste electrical equipment—directive. My impression is that we are far from prepared for the outcome of those. That reinforces the point that Parliament needs to deal more thoughtfully with European environmental legislation. The European Scrutiny Committee does valuable work but the oversight of the detail of such matters is fairly limited. There is a wide issue about how we transpose European environmental directives into British law.

This is an important Bill; no one should underestimate that. Set against the impact that the water framework directive will have, however, the Bill is a dwarf against a giant. The directive will be a major change to the way in which we examine the environment. The hon. Member for Lewes was perfectly fair when he talked about the Select Committee report. The Committee kept an open mind about whether the directive should be dealt with in primary or secondary legislation, and the Government decided to use secondary legislation. The hon. Gentleman accepted that. The decision has been made; the clock has ticked on, and there is no point re-examining the matter.

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There is a need to raise awareness about the impact of the directive. It has to be implemented over 15 years, and we are well into that time scale. The directive will have a major effect on planning issues for local authorities, so we must ask how they will be involved, and on the way that we farm the land. The directive's significance has not yet been appreciated, and we need to get on with raising awareness. The need to consult the public is implicit in the directive, and a campaign is needed to deliver its aims. We are just at the beginning of that process.

The hon. Member for Leominster mentioned the Ribble pilot study. We should remember that initially it was decided that the United Kingdom would not have a pilot study—the Environment Agency was used to dealing with catchment areas—but subsequently there was a change of mind, and it was decided that a pilot study would be carried out.

My views as to whether the directive is dealt with in primary or secondary legislation are fairly catholic. The necessity now is for a big, detailed campaign on the directive, because we underestimate its significance at our peril.

Mr. Key: May I first say what a pleasure it is to be back in Room 14 with you, Mr. O'Brien? We probably first sat on a Standing Committee in this Room in about 1983. The face of politics has changed since then, just as it is about to change again at the next election.

I wholeheartedly support my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster on amendment No. 2. I support the hon. Member for Lewes as far as he goes, but he does not go nearly far enough. He is far too kind to the Minister. I will not repeat what I said on Second Reading, but I believe that the way that Parliament scrutinises these affairs is wrong. The hon. Gentleman assumes that the Minister is simply doing

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what he is told, because that is what Parliament has decided. That is not a good enough excuse. When the water framework directive is discussed by the House it will be in a single Committee sitting, and the Committee will not take any substantive votes to amend anything because it cannot. There is a popular misconception that statutory instrument Committees talk about things and then vote on them; they do not. It is a travesty that this extraordinary parliamentary chicanery continues.

I find it quite extraordinary that Government and Labour Members are prepared to delete clause 2 against the wishes of a wide range of national organisations. I am astonished that they are not prepared to listen to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the wildlife trusts, the WWF, the Woodland Trust, the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, the Herpetological Conservation Trust, Friends of the Earth, Buglife or the British Ecological Society. All those bodies are astounded that the water framework directive, the most far-reaching legislation to affect the water industry, the consumer and the environment, will be dealt with in a statutory instrument by a small Standing Committee. The directive raises such important issues that we should give it much more urgent consideration. It is a powerful tool that, if used properly, could result in much more efficient and equitable use of public money and bring huge benefit to our rivers, lakes, streams and wetlands.

The directive requires controls on abstractions, which must be periodically reviewed to meet European standards—that does not conflict with the Bill, so why can we not just say so? There is also a range of issues on which Ministers have failed to establish the appropriate administrative structures. An example is integrated catchment management; why can that not be included in the Bill, if we are all signed up to it, which, apparently, we are? In addition, there has been insufficient investment in the Environment Agency to ensure that the science underlying classification and risk assessment is robust. The directive must proceed with solid science underlying it. I am not convinced that that is the case, so we should say so and invest properly in the Environment Agency.

As the hon. Member for Lewes mentioned, the Government have failed to link water planning with land use and agriculture policies. I find that astonishing, as I said on Second Reading. I certainly will not support the amendment to delete clause 2, but I do support my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster.

 
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