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That is the situation at the moment. We do not know what the weather patterns will be over the next few months. The Met Office forecasts pretty much average rainfall for this summer, but if we get a summer like 1976, there are likely to be difficulties. However, it would be unwise to say that we will have standpipes in a certain number of days, because that simply is not the case judged from where we stand today.

Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South) (Con): Does the Minister accept that there is widespread concern in my constituency, which is bang in the middle of the Sutton and East Surrey Water catchment area, over the imposition of a drought order? He says that he has
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asked the company to apply the order sensitively. Will he explain how one applies a drought order sensitively? Does he not accept that if, say, a car wash is still allowed to operate, people who drive past it will say, “Well, if that’s operating, why on earth should I cut down on my consumption at home?”?

Ian Pearson: I appreciate the difficulties that some of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents may face as a result of the drought order. That is why I looked very carefully at the inspectors’ report, talked to the Environment Agency and had a conversation with the company last week to convince myself that the order was absolutely necessary. I am afraid that it is. If we are to protect essential supplies to consumers, and particularly to vulnerable consumers, we need to allow the company to take action. However, we need to be clear—I have been clear in what I have said to the company—that we want to see the maximum water saving for the minimum impact on the consumer. That has got to be the objective and I am sure that that is how the company will want to apply the order in these circumstances.

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): I should declare an interest as a Sutton and East Surrey consumer. Does the Minister believe that customers should benefit from a discount in their Bills for the reduction in service?

Ian Pearson: No, I am afraid that I do not. Our water system is based specifically on ensuring that we have long-term plans, but those are not long-term plans to prevent there ever being a water shortage. Arranging for there never to be a water shortage would require such a huge capital investment that people’s water bills would be enormous. We have to expect water shortages because of adverse weather conditions in certain circumstances. I am afraid that, although the situation is difficult for consumers who cannot water their gardens and who are being encouraged to be more water-efficient, it is right that they should look to take those measures and they should not really expect to see a reduction in their Bills as a result.

Mr. Greg Hands (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con): Exactly five years ago —[ Interruption. ]

Mr. Speaker: Order. I will decide when the statement finishes. The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw) should not get impatient. The one thing that you need in Parliament is patience.

Mr. Hands: Exactly five years ago, TV images of the foot and mouth crisis had a negative impact on tourism in this country. If TV images of standpipes and people approaching them with buckets were to be beamed across the world, the likely effect on visitors to this country could be dire. What meetings has the Minister had with representatives of London and south-east tourism, and the conference and hotel industry in recent days?

Ian Pearson: I have not had any specific meetings with the tourism industry in London. I have been rather
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focused on other matters. In granting a drought order—other orders that have gone through the inspectors’ inquiries are under consideration in the south-east—we are trying to take early action to prevent the possibility of having to use standpipes in the future if the drought conditions persist. It is surely right to take early, prompt action now. The message to consumers in the south-east to use water responsibly could make sure that we do not need to take more extreme measures at a later date.

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): South-West Bedfordshire, which currently has water restrictions, is due to have the largest number of houses built in it out of anywhere in the south-east. Anglian Water has told me—contrary to what the Minister has just said to the House—that funding for local water infrastructure will come only in 2010, but the new houses will be being built from 2009 onwards. Anglian Water needs to know that information now. Is that not a failure of joined-up government?

Ian Pearson: I take the hon. Gentleman’s point seriously. My understanding of the situation is that the regulator has agreed investment plans with water companies up to 2010 at the moment. There are long-term water resource plans that go to 2030. Funding for 2010 onwards will be taken into account during the next price review. However, I undertake to look into the situation. I get the sense that the House has some concerns about whether planning is being effectively addressed in water resource plans. If I can make any further information available to comfort the House on this matter, I will certainly want to do so.

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): I welcome the Minister’s late conversion to the benefits of privatisation, but my constituents and their gardens are going to be thirsty if they have to wait for action until a price review in 2009. He said, quite rightly, that consumers can do much to save water themselves. So, why is it that, on a water company’s website, I can buy a large plastic tub with a lid on the top and a hole in the bottom, called a composter, at the heavily subsidised rate of £8.99, but on the same website a plastic tub with a lid on the top and a tap on the bottom, called a water butt, costs £34.99? Surely we should be doing more to promote the subsidised use of water butts in the current drought situation. The water companies claim that there is a national shortage of water butts. Can we get our priorities right and make sure that my constituents who want to save water have the means to do it at an affordable rate?

Ian Pearson: I have not seen the website that the hon. Gentleman referred to, but I am certainly aware that water butts in the south-east have been in short supply for a considerable time. The key message is that people need to save water and to use water sensibly. If that happens, I am sure that we can avoid the need for more extreme measures. Nobody wants to see standpipes in the streets. That is the purpose of the water order for Sutton and East Surrey. We will continue to look at further applications from water companies. As I said, the order of the day is early action now, more work on leakage from the companies, and more attention from consumers to the need to save water.

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European Communities (Deregulation)

1.7 pm

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): I beg to move,

I declare my interest in the Register of Members’ Interests. One of the constantly recurring complaints from British business concerns EU regulations. Of course, most businesses greatly resent the very existence of many of those regulations, but most of all they condemn the peculiar British habit of gold-plating EU directives. Her Majesty’s Government transpose the directives into our law so that they end up being tougher, more complicated and less business-friendly than elsewhere in the EU. The other big complaint is the open-ended lifespan of many of the directives. Time and again, business tells Members that what was relevant 10 years ago is now often out of date, yet the directives remain in place, so why not time limit the directives with sunset clauses?

That is why my Bill has two key aims: first, to outlaw gold-plating by giving businesses and individuals the right to launch a challenge in the courts, and, secondly, to ensure that directives can be challenged if they do not contain a sunset clause. I pay tribute to the entrepreneur, Sir Paul Judge, who has put a great deal of effort and work into the Bill, and also to my hon. Friends the Members for Cities of London and Westminster(Mr. Field) and for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly), who introduced similar Bills in the last Parliament.

In a few minutes, I will outline to the House some further details about the Bill, but I just want to say a word or two about the current context that business is facing. Anyone listening to the Chancellor’s recent Budget statement would have heard an upbeat assessment of UK plc. We heard a great deal about inflation, growth, interest rates and employment. However, whatever the Chancellor said in his Budget statement, dark storm clouds are gathering over the UK economy. The recent trade figures were atrocious. Indeed, trade in goods showed a quarterly deficit of £18.9 billion, which was the worst since records began in 1697. I am struggling to remember who was on the throne in 1697, although I sure that my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) will know—was it William of Orange? That was a long time ago and the figures are disgraceful.

Our competitive position is under threat. Indeed, in the World Economic Forum’s competitiveness league tables, the UK has fallen from fourth in 1998 to 13th today. According to the CBI, we are experiencing the lowest level of business investment since records began. Spending on research and development is falling and there is a skills crisis, with 5 million people having no qualifications at all.

The phenomenon of falling productivity growth is one of the key reasons behind our worsening competitive position. Our productivity grew at an annual average rate of 2.5 per cent. between 1992 and 1997, but has now slowed to 1.6 per cent. over the past
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six years, which is in line with the rate in the eurozone, but way below that of America and many other economies.

One of the main drivers for the dark set of clouds that is gathering is excessive regulation. Indeed, the British Chambers of Commerce has a burdens barometer. When I last looked at it, the combined total cost of regulation since 1997, excluding the minimum wage, came to £50.27 billion. Much of that regulation comes from the EU. Indeed, Her Majesty’s Government’s Better Regulation Task Force estimated that the EU was responsible for roughly 40 per cent. of all regulations affecting business. The relentless tide of EU regulations is getting worse, and despite what the Chancellor says and despite the Lisbon agenda, the situation is bleak.

I entirely accept that there are other drivers of regulation that affects business, including the Government’s policy agenda. We have administrative creep in this country and government is growing larger by the week and the compensation culture is exploding. However, the biggest driver of all is gold-plating, although it is the most avoidable of all, too. As I mentioned briefly, gold-plating occurs when implementation in this country goes beyond the minimum necessary to comply with an EU directive. It can involve extending the scope of a directive by adding to its substantive requirements, or substituting wider UK legal terms for those in the directive. It can involve not taking advantage of derogations, or providing for sanctions, enforcement mechanisms and matters that go beyond the minimum needed, such as the burden of proof. Such things happen time and time again.

Let me give two quick examples. The Government implemented the EU part-time workers directive through the Part-time Workers (Prevention of Less Favourable Treatment) Regulations 2000. The EU directive stated that part-time workers must have the same rights as full-time workers, but left member states to decide how to implement the requirement. The UK regulations include a provision that UK firms must issue part-time workers who query their terms and conditions with a written statement setting out all reasons within 14 days. The British Chambers of Commerce argued that that was a classic example of gold-plating.

A further such example was discussed the other day. The artists’ resale rights directive or, to give its French title, the droit de suite regulations, give living artists—it will eventually cover dead artists as well—a right to a percentage of revenue when their works are sold. The British Government said that they would oppose it, but unfortunately, the regulations got into the hands of an especially weak Department of Trade and Industry Minister in another place. The Minister spectacularly over-regulated, and instead of implementing the directive to the letter and sticking to what it strictly required, he ensured that the threshold for a work of art was not €3,000, but €1,000, thus drawing into the net huge numbers of extra businesses and items and completely contradicting the Prime Minister’s and the Government’s earlier campaign in Brussels to try to get the directive rejected.

17 May 2006 : Column 1010

Such gold-plating happens all the time, so what can be done about it? A Bill could be introduced to challenge gold-plating itself. My Bill would achieve that by introducing a right for businesses, individuals and public bodies to seek a declaration by the courts that UK regulations enacted under section 2 of the European Communities Act 1972 were ineffective to the extent that their provisions went beyond the basic minimum requirement under Community law. That would apply if the UK regulations contained extra and burdensome clauses beyond the requirements of Community law. Secondly, it would apply if other member states had not implemented certain provisions, and, thirdly, if other member states had implemented such provisions in a less burdensome way. Additionally, and importantly, similar legal challenges could be made under the Bill if the EU directive did not contain a sunset clause or specific cut-off date.

My Bill would force policy makers and civil servants to monitor closely what was happening in other member states. Above all else, it would help to change the whole culture of Whitehall and make that much more business-friendly. Rather than the UK habitually being the toughest and most pedantic implementer of EU regulations, we would thus actually move at the pace of the most dynamic and least regulated UK economy. That explains why the Bill is needed. It is not some back-of-an-envelope, here-today-gone-tomorrow, kite-flying ten-minute Bill, but a measure that is vital to the health and future of UK businesses.

The Bill has third-party endorsement. The Federation of Small Businesses says:

The Bill has the support of the British Chambers of Commerce, which says:

It has the support of the Forum of Private Business, which says:

The Bill also has all-party support and I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Henry Bellingham, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory, Adam Afriyie, Mr. Edward Davey, Mr. Philip Dunne, Mr. Mark Field, Mr. Nick Hurd, Miss Julie Kirkbride, Mr. Shailesh Vara, Angela Watkinson and Mr. Tim Yeo.

European Communities (Deregulation)

Mr. Henry Bellingham accordingly presented a Bill to make provision in respect of the effect on persons and businesses of regulations made under section 2 of the European Communities Act 1972: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 20 October, and to be printed [Bill 183].

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Orders of the Day

Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill

As amended in the Committee and the Standing Committee, considered.

New Clause 1

Sustainable development

‘(1) A public authority must, in exercising its functions, act in the way it considers best calculated to contribute to the achievement of sustainable development in Northern Ireland, except to the extent that it considers that any such action is not reasonably practicable in all the circumstances of the case.

(2) For this purpose—

(a) a public authority must have regard to any strategy or guidance relating to sustainable development issued by the Department of the Environment, and

(b) a public authority other than a Northern Ireland department must have regard to any guidance relating to sustainable development issued by a Northern Ireland department other than the Department of the Environment.

(3) In this section “public authority” means—

(a) a Northern Ireland department,

(b) a district council in Northern Ireland, and

(c) any other person designated for the purposes of this section by order made by the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister.

(4) The power to make an order under subsection (3)(c) is exercisable by statutory rule for the purposes of the Statutory Rules (Northern Ireland) Order 1979 (S.I. 1979/1573 (N.I. 12)).

(5) Such an order may not be made unless a draft of the order has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, the Northern Ireland Assembly.'. — [Mr. Hanson.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

1.18 pm

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office(Mr. David Hanson): I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Speaker: With this it will be convenient to discuss Government amendment No. 1.

Mr. Hanson: I hope that the new clause and amendment will find favour in the House because they will establish a statutory duty for sustainable development on public authorities in Northern Ireland. They will ensure that public authorities act in a manner that best contributes to the objectives of sustainable development. You may be aware, Mr. Speaker, that on 9 May my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State launched the Northern Ireland sustainable development strategy, which in itself establishes a framework and focus for tackling the challenges that lie ahead on sustainable development and environmental protection, to provide a better future for future generations in Northern Ireland.

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