House of Commons portcullis
House of Commons
Session 2002 - 03
Publications on the internet
Standing Committee Debates
Water Bill [Lords]

Water Bill [Lords]

Column Number: 085

Standing Committee D

Thursday 18 September 2003


[Mr. David Amess in the Chair]

Water Bill [Lords]

Clause 13

Who may apply for a licence

8.55 am

Norman Baker (Lewes): I beg to move amendment No. 187, in

    clause 13, page 15, leave out lines 31 and 32.

Good morning, Mr. Amess. I wipe the sleep from my eyes and reflect on the early starts for Committee sittings these days. I hope that we can move to a later start at some point in my parliamentary life.

This modest amendment aims simply to clarify the position in the clause. Like Government Back Benchers, we are battle-hardened, and I confidently expect the Minister to tell me why my amendment is inappropriate, does not work or has an unforeseen consequence; I look forward to it.

I tabled the amendment because of the criteria that the Environment Agency will apply in judging who may apply for a licence. New subsection (3A) states:

    ''The Agency may, in particular, take evidence of a person's occupation of land to be evidence of his right of access to it.''

Why does the agency not satisfy itself of a right of access, which is a sensible legal test, rather than trying to second guess the situation by examining someone's occupation of land, which could occur through trespass or some other illegal means? If the agency satisfied itself simply on an occupation test, rather than on a right-of-access test, it might end up condoning the improper occupation of land. That may be a theoretical point about an unlikely situation, but the provision seems unnecessary. Will the Minister explain why it exists?

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Elliot Morley): Currently, occupation of land qualifies a person to make an application for an abstraction licence. Under clause 13, the availability to make an application is extended to land where there is a right of access. The clause amends section 35 of the Water Resources Act 1991 to establish a right of access to the relevant land as the only qualification necessary for a person to apply for a licence. However, occupation of land will continue to serve as evidence of a right of access. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that people who apply for an abstraction licence on land that is not theirs will have to provide evidence of right of access as part of the application.

Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster): The amendment is more interesting than I first realised. Will the Minister confirm whether the wording means that people will be allowed to abstract from common land, to which they automatically have right of access?

Column Number: 086

Mr. Morley: Commoners have right of access, but on common land there is probably an issue in law about occupation. People would not have sole or exclusive occupation of such land, which means that they could not apply for an abstraction licence.

Mr. Wiggin: I thank the Minister for that. Will he clarify the situation with an amendment?

Mr. Morley: I am happy to consider that. I do not know whether the point needs to be clarified in the Bill or in the explanatory notes, so I will check what needs to be done.

Norman Baker: I listened to that brief exchange with interest. It may be because it is early morning, but I am not much wiser at the end of it than I was at the beginning. My query does not seem to have been answered, and notwithstanding the historical precedent, I am unclear why there is any reference to occupation of land; it seems to be irrelevant in determining the right to abstract. However, it would be useful if the Minister wrote a note to all Committee members on that point, and on that basis I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 13 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 14

Abolition of combined licences

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

9 am

Mr. Wiggin: I am curious why the clause is necessary. What is wrong with combining abstraction and impounding licences? Those provisions will cease to have effect, but what useful purpose does the clause serve?

Mr. Morley: It is quite simple. The abstraction element will now be time-limited, and will expire, so there is no sense in issuing combined licences because the abstraction and impounding licences have different time scales.

Mr. Wiggin: I am grateful for the Minister's reply, but I am not completely satisfied that that is a good reason. It is a reason, and it makes sense, but it is not necessarily a good one. I do not see the advantage. If the work involved is damaging the environment, it makes sense that abstraction and impounding licences should be coterminous and expire at the same time. Will the Minister explain why they should not be coterminous?

Mr. Morley: The hon. Gentleman is suggesting that the principle of time-limiting abstraction licences should be extended to impounding licences. They have different functions, and different controls apply to them. We do not need to place a time limit on impounding licences. That would only increase bureaucracy for licence holders, who would then have to apply, unnecessarily, for two licences, even though the time limit applies only to abstraction licences. The purpose of the clause is simply to reduce bureaucracy for applicants.

Column Number: 087

Mr. Wiggin: The Minister has gone straight for the jugular this morning. I am allergic to the idea of adding to bureaucracy, and I would be happy to consider withdrawing my amendment. None of us wishes to add to the enormous quantity of red tape that the Government are already introducing in the Bill.

The Chairman: Of course, the hon. Gentleman does not have to withdraw anything.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 14 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 15

Applications: types of abstraction licence

Norman Baker: I beg to move amendment No. 188, in

    clause 15, page 16, line 6, leave out 'ought to be' and insert

    'will be considered as if'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 189, in

    clause 15, page 16, line 8, leave out 'ought to be' and insert

    'will be considered as if'.

No. 190, in

    clause 15, page 16, line 11, leave out 'ought to be' and insert

    'will be considered as if'.

No. 191, in

    clause 15, page 16, line 14, leave out 'ought to be' and insert

    'will be considered as if'.

Norman Baker: The discussion arising from the amendments will be brief. My tabling of them may be due to my past existence as an English teacher. I query the possible ambiguity in the Bill caused by the word ''ought'', which, it seems, can express a view of what should happen without necessarily compelling it to happen. I gently suggest to the Minister that our formulation, the words

    ''will be considered as if'',

would give a much clearer legal position and be more likely to achieve what the Government want.

Mr. Morley: I understand the hon. Gentleman's point about making text less ambiguous when there is a case for doing so, but I believe that his amendments would make it more ambiguous. The clause enables the agency to require an applicant for one type of abstraction licence to apply instead for another type, or to group several related applications together. It might, for example, be more appropriate for an applicant to have a temporary licence, rather than to spend a lot of money on a time-limited one, so the provision would work to the applicant's advantage.

The amendments all propose to modify the basis on which the agency may require applicants to apply for different types or groups of licences. Changing the drafting throughout new section 36A(1) to read,

    ''will be considered as if''

rather than ''ought to be'' is to make a distinction without a difference. Those words in the amendment add ambiguity.

Column Number: 088

The key issue is that the agency must be able to decide that an application is not right. If it decides, for proper and relevant reasons, that the application ought to be different, the clause requires the licence to be treated differently. The amendment, however, would not require the agency to decide why an application should be treated differently but simply that it should be so treated. That would miss the crucial test of the agency having to justify why the licence ought to be treated differently. That is the reason for the difference in the language, and I hope that, as a result of that clarification, the hon. Gentleman will withdraw the amendment.

Norman Baker: I thank the Minister for that explanation, and I think that he has a point. His argument that the amendment makes a distinction without a difference and that it is also ambiguous seems slightly contradictory. However, I am happy to accept his explanation, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Wiggin: I beg to move amendment No. 30, in

    clause 15, page 16, leave out lines 13 to 16.

The amendment deals with new section 36A(1)(d), which states that

    ''any such application as is referred to above ought to be accompanied by an application for revocation of an existing licence to abstract water.''

The provision is unnecessary, because that is something that the agency might have to decide when dealing with applications for abstraction licences. I understand that those who want to change the type of licence will accompany such applications with a revocation of the existing licence. That may be the key: it may be that one cannot change a licence unless one already has one, in which case the provision is more understandable. However, it seems a little too heavy-handed because it seems almost automatic that one should not be able to change something unless one already has it. I cannot return to a shop and change an item unless I have something to change. The provision seems to be over-egging the pudding a little, and I wonder why it is in the Bill; I feel that it is slightly more drafting than needed. I want to know why people should be able to change a licence if they do not already have one.


House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2003
Prepared 18 September 2003