Water Bill [Lords]

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Norman Baker (Lewes): New subsection (5) provides that the time limit is not simply two years, but that the Government accept that it may be longer, in the phrase,

    ''or such longer period as may be specified in the order.''

As that uncertainty is built into the Bill—the Minister may call it flexibility, but I call it uncertainty—will he explain the circumstances in which it would be appropriate to specify a longer period?

Mr. Morley: It is not unusual to include a provision for a longer period. For example, if an error occurred and an advert did not appear in the paper, it might be appropriate to extend the time past two years. The provision will cover only exceptions, and two years will usually be adequate. However, I should say that

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by pointing out that provision, the hon. Gentleman is arguing against the amendment of his hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Sue Doughty).

Sue Doughty: I am not totally convinced, especially in light of the most recent exchange, but I can see that we will not make further headway on the issue. I do not think that we should press for a Division, so I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 20 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 21

Form, contents and effect of licences

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury): I beg to move amendment No. 164, in

    clause 21, page 24, line 7, at end insert—

    '(2A) At the end of subsection (2) there is inserted—

    ''(c) provision for ensuring public access to information about the quantities of water referred to in paragraphs (a) and (b).''.'.

The amendment is designed to change section 46 of the Water Resources Act 1991. It would provide that every licence required publication of the quantity of water to be abstracted.

I should like to explain why I decided to table the amendment. My admiration for the military runs deep. In my time as the Member of Parliament for Salisbury, I have known about eight or nine Secretaries of State for Defence, four times as many Ministers of State and 10 times as many Under-Secretaries. I have dealt with them all about the estates of Salisbury plain. I must make it clear that I am full of admiration, not only for the MOD's guardianship of its land, but for the progress made on defence estates. Conforming to strict regulations, the MOD has made changes that relate not to military occupation of the land, but to looking after land properly on the community's behalf.

The Minister said that he does not want Crown immunity used, but he recognises that on grounds of national security it might be appropriate not to reveal some information. My hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) said that the MOD should decide what to disclose, which is fine up to the point at which it has to justify that decision. The MOD's natural stance is not to tell anybody anything if it can avoid it, and I understand that—it is not a bad rule of thumb. However, there are sometimes turf wars among Departments and their interests in the Salisbury Plain—or any other—training area, and among local people, parish, district and county councils, and the military.

The situation depends who is the current commandant of the Salisbury Plain training area and on how tough they are about the enforcement of public access to footpaths, bridleways and so on. At the moment, we have a tough regime, but at other times it has been not so tough. The Army always does its best to give maximum access for recreational activity, whether that is for hawking, model aircraft or riding.

Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon): Hunting?

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Mr. Key: I am glad to say that hunting continues to be allowed on Salisbury plain at the specific direction of the current Defence Secretary. He may not know it, but he allows hunting.

The Chairman: Order. I did not want to intervene, but as the hon. Gentleman continues to talk about fox hunting, I have to. Will he stick to the amendment?

Mr. Key: I apologise, Mr. O'Brien; you are entirely correct.

The MOD does not have a good record on water and sewage disposal. It realises that its water treatment plants and processes are antiquated and, some might say, legendary. Indeed, a few years ago the Cholderton and District Water Company, a small private undertaking, discovered that there was carbon tetrachloride in the tap water. Some zealous NCOs on Salisbury plain had been cleaning out the tanks for the dry cleaning of military uniforms and the pollutant had gone into the aquifer. However, the military are making huge efforts to put that right with Project Aquatrine, the biggest single PFI project in the MOD, which will contract out all their water and sewerage systems throughout the country.

The problem is that there has been massive abstraction in the Salisbury Plain chalklands for many years, with the water being exported from the area to Yeovil, Chippenham and other places. The beneficiaries have not been my constituents, but they have suffered from the low flows that occur because of excessive pumping out in the headwaters of the catchment. I am particularly concerned that legislation will make a nonsense of catchment abstraction management strategies, or CAMS, which I am afraid brings us back to the water framework directive. I suspect that both Crown immunity and the military's failure to tell us how much water they are taking will fall foul of the directive.

I asked some parliamentary questions about the problem in February, starting with how many bore holes there were on Salisbury plain. The answer is that there are 24 belonging to the MOD, but I cannot be told where they are for security interests. That is fair enough—I do not mind where they are—but I wanted to know how much water they abstract and what impact they have on the low flows in the streams that share the aquifer.

I asked another question about the daily abstraction rate from all 24 bore holes, the emergency bore hole, the largest volume bore hole and the smallest volume bore hole. I received an answer on Tuesday 8 April:

    ''The abstraction rate from individual boreholes has security implications and I am therefore withholding it under Exemption 1 of the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information.''—[Official Report, 8 April 2003; Vol. 403, c. 145W.]

Under the heading

    ''Defence, security and international relations'',

that exemption cites

    ''information whose disclosure would harm national security or defence''.

I know a bit about the problems of water being used by terrorists as a means of distributing pathogens

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because I also represent Porton Down, which is only a few miles from the area that I am talking about. I specifically did not ask for that information, but the MOD was not prepared to give even the global figures. It will not do for the Minister to reply by saying that the Defence Secretary invokes the code and that is the end of the story, because that is not joined-up government. We need to know why the MOD has done that—it must justify its actions.

It is also absurd if large public companies have the information and the Environment Agency does not. I say that because I had a letter from the area manager of the South Wessex division of the agency on 16 April about the important Bourn and Nine Miles rivers project, which involves low flows and abstraction from chalk, telling me about the current position.

I wrote back asking the area manager if he would explain how much water was extracted by the MOD because I had not managed to get such information. I asked if all his modelling on the Bourn and Nine Miles rivers project and the River Avon and special area of conservation strategy was taken into account. What particularly struck me is that when I spoke to a representative of Thames Water at the launch of those projects on 4 April, he expressed surprise that the MOD was withholding information. He said that all that information was public knowledge and was available to Thames Water and Wessex Water, without restriction or confidentiality agreements, in connection with project Aquitrine.

I wanted to know why, to the MOD, the information was so secret. The area manager wrote back to me on 19 May. He said:

    ''I am given to understand that various pieces of information concerning Ministry of Defence sites were made available to bidders under Project Aquitrine, but am unaware of the nature of that information.''

He was not told. The Environment Agency did not know, although the commercial company knew. The letter continued:

    ''No detailed abstraction data was received in this Region under those auspices and so I am unable to make further comment other than to say that any information we have concerning Ministry of Defence abstractions must be treated as confidential.''

That is why I tabled the amendment.

It is extraordinary that the MOD, without justification, can say that it will not tell anyone anything, but it then gives information to the water companies, which are large organisations employing hundreds of people. One can imagine the number of copies of the letters that are circulated to telling everyone, but the agency is not told and neither are Members of Parliament. That is not joined-up government and it will not conform to the water framework directive. It is an abuse of Crown immunity, whether or not it is in the security interests of the MOD to tell us.

I hope the Minister will agree that my amendment is sensible. It does not seek to say that the MOD should not have any secrets, which would be ridiculous. Of course it should, but the blanket approach to saying

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no is not in the spirit of the age in which we live and is certainly not appreciated by my constituents.

Mr. Morley: The hon. Gentleman knows that as a general principle I accept much of what he says in making his reasonable case, but I cannot support his amendment. It may not be what he intended, but its effect would be to put the onus to provide information on the abstractor, not on the agency. I understand that he feels that information should be available, and certainly to the agency because of its responsibilities under the water framework directive.

As I explained, we want to lift Crown immunity in those circumstances, although we will have to respect issues of national security, as the hon. Gentleman will understand. Information on abstraction flows and rates may be useful to people who have a malicious intent, for example, so there may be good reasons for the MOD withholding that information.

Through the Green Ministers Committee, all Departments have been charged with responsibility for sustainable management on Government estates. The MOD has done a lot of good work on biodiversity and resource management, and it deserves credit for that; it has a successful structure to drive it forward.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that we are in the process of lifting Crown immunity. We will respect the issue of national security, which will reassure the MOD. The information related to all the points raised by the hon. Gentleman will be made available to the Environment Agency as part of the CAMS process in the water framework directive.

The agency will have that information, and I want it to put as much of it as possible in the public domain. However, to address the MOD's concerns and safeguard national security, the agency will release it only after clearance from the MOD. The water companies will also have a responsibility in that regard. They have a good understanding of security as they have their own security issues to address. The information that the water companies receive will be sent in confidence, and there are strict rules governing who in those companies has access to sensitive information.

I have outlined the current situation. In future, the agency will have all the information that the hon. Gentleman, quite rightly, would want it to have, and I want to see as much as possible put in the public domain, with the caveat of national security and one or two other legitimate reasons.

3 pm

 
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