Water Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Morley: The hon. Gentleman has touched on the reason for the provision. The amendment would remove the agency's ability to decide that an application for an abstraction licence ought to be accompanied by an application to revoke an existing licence. The agency is most likely to seek an application for a licence simultaneously with the revocation of an existing licence when a permanent licence is to be replaced by a time-limited one—an applicant may find it advantageous to switch over. The agency would ask the licence holder to apply to revoke the current licence so that only one licence was extant for a given abstraction at any one time. Generally speaking, most people would want to revoke one when applying for the other, but the provision makes absolutely clear the procedures that would have to

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be followed. It is a matter of clarification rather than of the provision being unnecessary.

Mr. Wiggin: I am grateful to the Minister for that reply, which makes sense. There is one other problem with the wording. An abstractor with a permanent licence might wish to abstract more water, perhaps not for a long period, and would have to apply to the agency. Obviously that would not be an emergency abstraction; we dealt with those earlier. A company that bottles water might have a particularly large order that will run for six months, and it might want to abstract a considerably larger amount of water for that short period. It would therefore give up its permanent licence and put itself in the agency's hands, which might well turn down the company's application when it returned to its original business.

That is a hypothetical example of the point that I am trying to make: why would anyone want to put their permanent licence in the agency's hands when the Bill contains few safeguards? The agency seems to operate on a first come, first served basis, so the clause will put a business's permanent licence at risk.

Mr. Morley: I repeat: in some cases, there will be advantages to the holder of a permanent licence switching to a time-limited one. Those advantages may be cost-related, or they may relate to the compensation arrangements, which are different for time-limited and permanent licences, as we will see later in our consideration of the Bill.

In response to the example given by the hon. Gentleman, I can tell the Committee that if someone holds a licence for a certain volume of abstraction, they do not have to apply for a whole new licence, but can seek a variation to the existing one, so the situation that the hon. Gentleman outlined would not arise.

Mr. Wiggin rose—

Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater) rose—

Mr. Wiggin: I give way immediately.

Mr. Liddell-Grainger: I seek clarification from the Minister, as my hon. Friend has a point. The holder of a licence is totally in the agency's hands if he wants to change that licence. If the agency chooses to delay the application for any reason, such as the investigation of land ownership, the holder could be put in the very difficult position of, say, bottling while having no licence, all because of time constraints, bureaucracy, or whatever. If that did happen, what recourse would the licence holder have? Would they have recourse to the Secretary of State to arbitrate the gap between the granting of licences, or could they appeal to the agency on the grounds that it had caused the delay? Would it not be better for the licence to be coterminous so that it could be revoked without causing a delay?

Mr. Morley: I cannot think of any circumstances in which a delay would occur. Bottling plants, for example, have permanent licences. If they wanted to vary the abstraction, as in the example given by the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Wiggin), they could seek a variation, and they would still be able to abstract while they did so. That should not be especially problematic. The agency would, of course,

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want to consider the potential effects of increasing the abstraction. If the licence holder wanted to change to another licence, the existing licence would remain in effect while the application was being considered and until it was determined. As I said, I cannot think of circumstances in which a gap of the sort referred to by the hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) would arise.

Mr. Wiggin: The Minister has, once again, clarified matters. The amendment sought to clarify the wording of the clause. I am comfortable with the Minister's explanation, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Wiggin: I beg to move amendment No. 31, in

    clause 15, page 16, leave out line 26.

At our last sitting, the Minister was very clear that we should not make ourselves hostages to fortune with the wording in the Bill. The great word that emerged was ''proportionate''. I was not quite sure whether we were being proportionate by allowing the agency to

    ''arrive at the decision referred to in paragraph (a), (b), (c) or (d) . . . on the basis of its assessment of any one or more of the following'',

and then to include ''any other prescribed matter.'' The word ''prescribed'' might well mean prescribed by the Secretary of State, which would probably be acceptable. However, it may not mean that, so again I probe the Minister for a little clarification.

Mr. Morley: The clause enables the agency to require an applicant for one type of abstraction licence to apply for another type instead, as we have been discussing. The amendment would remove the ability of the Secretary of State to prescribe further matters for the agency to take into account. By prescribe, I mean that the matters would be in the regulations set by the Secretary of State. This is an example of the accountability that has to exist in the operation of the agency, which, in the end, is a delivery arm of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs despite its being a non-departmental public body.

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I always feel a little uncomfortable discussing such provisions. In my time as a Minister, I cannot think of a single instance when the Secretary of State would have wanted to interfere with decisions made by the agency. The provision is for occasions when there might be further matters that the Secretary of State wanted the agency to take into account when making a decision on the variation of licences. It is a safeguard for the democratic accountability between this House, the Secretary of State and the agency as the delivery arm of a Department that is accountable to Members of Parliament.

Mr. Wiggin: As I suspected, this provision has a belt, braces and almost a spare pair of trousers. I draw the Minister's attention to the fact that the Secretary of State gets dragged into it all once again in new subsection(4). The interface between the Secretary of State and the agency is well covered throughout the Bill. That is why I suspect that the provision is not really necessary, particularly because, as the Minister says, the agency is a delivery arm of DEFRA. If the

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agency thought that there was a problem in the offing at any stage, it would be able to talk to the Secretary of State and arrange, in less wide-ranging wording, for corrections to be made.

I suspect that later on we will come across other such wording. I am grateful to the Minister for saying that he is not particularly comfortable about this sort of thing, and that in his experience the Secretary of State has practically never had to intervene. On that basis alone, we do not need the wording and I feel that the Bill would be better without it.

Mr. Morley: I return to the point that the wording is there to cover all eventualities. Loopholes need to be avoided in legislation. There might be a problem in the future which has not been foreseen, and legislation might not allow the Secretary of State, as in this case, to set regulations when it might be felt appropriate to do so. The provision is simply part of the normal checks and balances that give accountability to Parliament, bearing it in mind that the buck stops with the Secretary of State. We need a legal and democratic link in legislation to cover all eventualities. The subsection is a belt-and-braces provision, and I doubt that such measures would ever be used. However, I suspect that if we did not include the provision, we would find that we needed it.

Mr. Wiggin: I wonder whether the Minister himself might become Secretary of State. I am tempted to leave the line in, but what clinches it for me is that one day I might be Secretary of State. On that basis more than any other, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Wiggin: I beg to move amendment No. 32, in

    clause 15, page 16, line 37, leave out from 'served' to end of line 38 and insert 'within 28 days'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 33, in

    clause 15, page 16, line 42, leave out from 'period' to 'or' in line 43 and insert 'of 28 days'.

Mr. Wiggin: Once again, the amendment is to probe the Government on the time periods within which the agency must operate. In an earlier sitting, we bandied about the period of five days. I have used a 28-day period in the amendment as it seemed to be a more reasonable length of time. When amending Bills, there is always a danger of somehow constraining the process. However, bearing it in mind that the Minister went for my jugular on the subject of increased bureaucracy, I point out to the Committee that the amendment is designed to reduce the agency's ability to prevaricate and to tie it to a helpful time scale.

Mr. Morley: I understand the reasoning behind the amendment. However, it would completely remove the Secretary of State's power to prescribe important procedural details for abstraction licensing appeals. That is not a fall-back position. The Secretary of State's role in appeals is clear, and it is a key aspect of the Bill. The amendment would mean that there was

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no procedure for serving notices. It would remove the Secretary of State's ability to ensure that there are common procedures for appeals which are necessary to produce consistency.

New section 36A(6)(b) of the Water Resources Act 1991 provides that if the agency serves a notice to the applicant, it will not follow the advertising steps or proceed with the application before the end of the period within which notice of appeal may be served on the Secretary of State.

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