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Standing Committee Debates
Water Bill [Lords]

Water Bill [Lords]

Column Number: 125

Standing Committee D

Thursday 18 September 2003

(Afternoon)

[Mr. Bill O'Brien in the Chair]

Water Bill [Lords]

Clause 19

Protected rights

Amendment proposed [this day]: No. 38, in

    clause 19, page 22, line 32, leave out 'four' and insert 'six'.—[Mr. Wiggin.]

2.30 pm

Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.

The Chairman: I remind hon. Members that with this we are considering the following:

Amendment No. 119, in

    clause 103, page 128, line 40, leave out 'four' and insert 'six'.

Amendment No. 120, in

    clause 103, page 128, line 43, leave out 'four' and insert 'six'.

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire): For the benefit of those who read the report of our proceedings, I remind hon. Members that the purpose of my intervention at the end of this morning's sitting was to recall that, at the start of his contribution, the Minister referred to the phrase ''or any other period'', which might be an extension of the period of protected rights. He seemed to be quoting, but I could not see whether he was quoting from the Bill.

Although the Minister kindly offered to write to me and to other hon. Members about the limitations—as I saw them—on the extension of protected rights, I hope that he does not suppose that he has answered my point, and that we might see his answer in writing later. I am concerned that there might be valid circumstances in which a licence holder has not used the licence for a period of time that might not be encompassed in new subsection (9)(b) in clause 19.

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Elliot Morley): First, I shall try to sum up where we are, which might be helpful to the Committee. On the hon. Gentleman's point, I can tell him that in the original Bill, the four-year period was fixed and there was no provision for an extension. During debate in the other place, the Government made a concession to ensure that the Environment Agency could, in certain circumstances, extend that period. Our view is that the Bill's wording is sufficient to give the agency the power to do that. We will re-examine the text to ensure that the concession is being delivered. I will ensure that that is checked, and if there is a problem, we will consider it.

To return to our discussion on protected rights, we were getting confused about the different issues of protected rights and abstraction rights. We are talking about protected rights, not abstraction rights. We are talking about abstractors who will be exempt under this Bill—those who come below the 20 megalitre

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limit. They can continue with protected rights so long as they are abstracting. If they stop abstracting, they do not lose the right to abstract, but they will lose protected rights after four years. They can start to abstract again at any time.

There was an argument about four years versus seven years versus six years. I reiterate that the Bill is about resource management, and good resource management requires in all cases that exemptions be kept to the minimum that is reasonable. The four-year period is consistent with the proposed four-year time scale, later in the Bill, for removing an abstraction licence that is held and not used, and the period of review of discharge consents. That strikes the right balance between helping the agency to discharge its resource management duties and safeguarding the rights of the abstractor. I invite the Committee to support the measure.

Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster): I am disappointed that Labour Members came back from lunch quite so quickly, because there was a moment there where I would not have had to appeal to their better nature. As the Minister says, this is a question of judgment. I think that the provision should be consistent with the catchment abstraction management strategies, but the Minister does not agree, and I should like to press the amendment to a vote.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 9, Noes 11.

Division No. 5]

AYES
Baker, Norman Doughty, Sue Key, Mr. Robert Lansley, Mr. Andrew Liddell-Grainger, Mr. Ian
Osborne, Mr. George Swire, Mr. Hugo Thomas, Mr. Simon Wiggin, Mr. Bill

NOES
Ainger, Mr. Nick Atherton, Ms Candy Brennan, Kevin Burden, Richard Cunningham, Tony Dobbin, Jim
Iddon, Dr. Brian King, Andy Morley, Mr. Elliot Simon, Mr. Siôn Tipping, Paddy

Question accordingly negatived.

Clause 19 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 20

Register of certain protected rights

Sue Doughty (Guildford): I beg to move amendment No. 196, in

    clause 20, page 23, line 22, at end insert—

    '(f) a duty for the Agency to publicise the procedure and expiry date for applying for a protected right to be included in the register.'.

We are concerned about information being made available to people. We are worried that people could miss the boat by applying too late. They might not realise that they have apply for their protected rights to be on the register. People have a time-limited window, and it is essential that they are informed that they might lose their right if they do apply. There is no problem for people who are actively abstracting and using their right; they will probably be aware of the

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requirement and will talk to the agency, so information will come through.

People who have not used their protected rights for more than two years may be less likely to think about making that application in time. Because of the changes in agriculture and farming practices and the current problems of countryside businesses, people might decide to diversify and develop an area of water as a fishing feature, for example. It seems logical that the two-year period should be changed, in line with the four-year limit for the non-use of the protected rights. We therefore say that the limit should be four years on one side and four on the other, so that people can ensure that they make their application. It is a matter of sweeping in all the people who should be aware of the provision, some of whom, because they are not using their rights at the time, may not have been keeping their eye on the ball.

Mr. Morley: We do not disagree with the principle of what the hon. Lady is saying. We entirely accept that it is important that people are aware of the protected rights register and that it should be brought to the attention of abstractors of small quantities of water. I can assure her that there is no need for the amendment. First, the agency will have a record of the former licence holders whose licences have fallen away by virtue of the change in the thresholds.

Secondly, the Bill applies the schedule 6 procedure in the Water Resources Act 1991 to the setting up of registers. That procedure requires an order that establishes a register to be advertised in the local press. We will expect the agency, in the normal course of its business, to liaise with stakeholder groups such as the National Farmers Union and to draw their attention to the measure. Together, clause 20 and new schedule 6 provide the right mechanism to bring the protected rights register to the attention of those who will need to register and those who need to know about it. What the hon. Lady wants is provided for in the Bill.

Mr. George Osborne (Tatton): I should declare a sort of interest. The measure might catch me in the sense that at my house, near my constituency, in the Peak District national park I have a bore hole from which I extract water to use in my house, as indeed do most of my neighbours. Currently, we are not required, as far as I am aware, to register the bore hole with anyone except the local council, which checks the water quality periodically. A national park may well be classed as a particularly environmentally sensitive area.

I should be interested to know whether the Minister envisages a massive compilation on the register of all the people who live in such an area and who have bore holes and so on, because there are no mains water supplies in much of the national park. Is there any prospect of home owners—I am talking not only about farmers and large-scale users of water, but domestic users—having to pay a charge to register their rights?

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Mr. Morley: People who are using water for domestic supply or using small quantities to water livestock, for example, will be below the threshold set in the Bill. They do not, therefore, require an abstraction licence, and there will not be a charge in that respect.

Sue Doughty: I accept some of the Minister's points, but I am concerned, on amendment No. 197—

The Chairman: Order. I draw attention to the fact that we are debating amendment No. 196.

Sue Doughty: I apologise, Mr. O'Brien. I will speak to amendment No. 197 later.

I continue to have concerns about people being made aware of the measure. If people are away the week that the information is in the paper, they may completely miss it. It may not be explicit in the Bill, but I hope that every opportunity will be given, in terms of due diligence, to ensure that those who do not read the interesting adverts in the back of the paper week after week are aware of the change in the arrangements, so that they can organise themselves to deal with it. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Sue Doughty: I beg to move amendment No. 197, in

    clause 20, page 23, line 30, leave out 'two' and insert 'four'.

I shall be brief. This is a case of natural justice. Given that there is four years to sort out what we are doing about non-protected rights, and that they lapse if an application to register them is not made, it is reasonable that someone should have four years to get the application in. I cannot see why the period has to be only two years; there is no logic to that.

Mr. Morley: The amendment would extend the period from two to four years, as the hon. Lady said. Generally speaking, we need to give people reasonable time to register any interest under measures introduced by the Government or local authorities for householders and businesses. The normal time limit for that is 12 months, but the Bill goes further by providing two years. That is generous, and people who have to register protected rights should have plenty of time to do so. Four years would be a bit excessive, and I hope that the hon. Lady will agree that two years is a fair compromise.

2.45 pm

 
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