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Standing Committee Debates

Draft Water and Sewerage Services (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Northern Ireland) Order 2006

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: John Cummings
Bacon, Mr. Richard (South Norfolk) (Con)
Berry, Roger (Kingswood) (Lab)
Borrow, Mr. David S. (South Ribble) (Lab)
Cairns, David (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland)
Chaytor, Mr. David (Bury, North) (Lab)
Cormack, Sir Patrick (South Staffordshire) (Con)
Foster, Mr. Michael (Worcester) (Lab)
Fraser, Mr. Christopher (South-West Norfolk) (Con)
Hermon, Lady (North Down) (UUP)
Keeble, Ms Sally (Northampton, North) (Lab)
McCrea, Dr. William (South Antrim) (DUP)
Morley, Mr. Elliot (Scunthorpe) (Lab)
Norris, Dan (Wansdyke) (Lab)
Reid, Mr. Alan (Argyll and Bute) (LD)
Robertson, Mr. Laurence (Tewkesbury) (Con)
Spellar, Mr. John (Warley) (Lab)
Trickett, Jon (Hemsworth) (Lab)
Geoffrey Farrar, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

First Standing Committeeon Delegated Legislation

Tuesday 13 June 2006

[John Cummings in the Chair]

Draft Water and Sewerage Services (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Northern Ireland) Order 2006

4.30 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (David Cairns): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the Draft Water and Sewerage Services (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Northern Ireland) Order 2006.
I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Cummings. It is a pleasure to serve under you, particularly as this is the first order that I have attempted to steer through a Committee since becoming the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland last month.
The order represents a small but necessary element of the Government’s ambitious programme of investment and reform of water and sewerage services in Northern Ireland. That programme will introduce measures to improve the quality of our water, better protect our environment, provide new rights for consumers and deliver sustained investment in our infrastructure. The substance of the reform will be introduced in an order later this year. I launched consultation on that draft legislation on 1 June and I should like to take this opportunity to encourage all interested parties to submit their responses. I give an undertaking that all such responses will be considered very carefully.
This order paves the way for wider reform in two areas. First, it enables the sharing of information to establish a customer billing and contact system which ensures that automatic assistance is provided to those who need it most. Secondly, it makes amendments to the Department of the Environment’s powers under the Water (Northern Ireland) Order 1999 to facilitate new and comprehensive controls on the abstraction and impounding of water. Those controls will also enable the Department to meet its European obligations, particularly in relation to the habitats directive.
Taking the first of these issues, the Government have consulted widely about how we can sustain the investment needed to develop world-class water and sewerage services. As has been said on many occasions, we see no feasible alternative to the introduction of domestic charges but we have taken additional time to think longer about affordability for low-income households in light of the concerns raised. I refer particularly to the concerns raised in an Adjournment debate that was secured in March 2005 where the issue of affordability for those on low incomes was a primary concern.
Lady Hermon (North Down) (UUP): I, too, welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Cummings. Would the Minister enlighten the Committee about the Government’s proposal to introduce water metering?
David Cairns: Yes, there will be particular reference to water metering in the main order which is out for consultation at the moment. Essentially, it will be a requirement for new build houses to have water meters installed. Secondly, we will make water meters available to any pensioner who wishes to have one installed. There is clearly a case for water metering of every household, but to do that in the short term would be prohibitively expensive. None the less, we are taking steps in that direction, as will be evident from a reading of the draft water order.
Dr. William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): I thank the Minister for giving way. He knows that there is a general consensus among the political parties in Northern Ireland against the water reform and water charging. Therefore what recognition will the Department give to the representations that have been made by the various parties on this issue?
David Cairns: The hon. Gentleman is quite right. I am labouring under no illusions that this element of the reform programme commands universal affection and acclaim throughout Northern Ireland. In fact, it is quite the contrary. I would say a couple of things. I understand that the charging element is controversial, but it is a part of an overall package of investment and reform in improving water services. If we can demonstrate to the people of Northern Ireland that we are investing the money needed to improve the quality of their water, which is not up to the quality of the domestic water in the rest of the United Kingdom, and to improve the quality of rivers and beaches by improving the sewerage system, they will understand that the money they are contributing will bring them a benefit.
The second point is that because there are no hypothecated water payments in Northern Ireland, and there have not been for a number of years, funding for water essentially comes out of the general pot. That means that there is significantly less money in Northern Ireland for investment in other areas such as health and education. Again, I think that the people of Northern Ireland would understand that if this reform allows us to spend more in Northern Ireland on those investment and reform programmes and other elements of the public sector they would see that it was a good thing too.
To answer the hon. Gentleman’s direct question, because we understand that imposing a charge where hitherto there has not been one is something to which people need time to adjust, we propose to introduce the charges incrementally: a third in year 1, two thirds in year 2 and the full amount in year 3. That recognises people’s concerns about their ability to pay. Finally, there was a great deal of concern about affordability. That came through loud and clear in my meetings on this issue with the hon. Gentleman and others.
The affordability package that we propose in the draft order goes significantly beyond what was being asked for, certainly at the time of the Adjournment debate in March last year, and goes beyond the calls that even a well respected body such as the General Consumer Council for Northern Ireland was making at the time. We have a package that addresses some of the genuine and legitimate concerns that people had about this issue. None the less, we believe that if we are to maintain the levels of investment and reform that are necessary to bring the water and sewerage service system in Northern Ireland up to the levels of the rest of the United Kingdom—my aspiration is to surpass that—we will need to impose local, domestic contributions.
Dr. McCrea: Does the Minister accept that there is a great frustration among the people of Northern Ireland because they believe that they are being penalised? While the rest of the United Kingdom enjoyed new infrastructure over the years, the money in Northern Ireland was redirected because of the terrorist campaign. A lot of finances were spent on that, rather than on the necessary water and sewerage infrastructure and other issues. We are now being asked to bring them up to the level of the rest of the United Kingdom and there is some anger and frustration in the hearts of the people of Northern Ireland. They believe that they are paying for something of which they are totally innocent.
David Cairns: I am familiar with that argument. Indeed, there has been a backlog in investment in the services of Northern Ireland which was acknowledged by my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (Mr. Spellar), when he addressed that too. However, the totality of public spending in Northern Ireland is significantly higher than the totality of public spending in other parts of the UK. Even stripping out the security-related spending, that continues to be the case. The hon. Gentleman did not mention the green dowry issue, which is often mentioned in relation to the point he made. Of course, that was a significant sum of money given to make the necessary improvements pre-privatisation to the water system in England, but that was in large measure offset by the receipts from privatisation of £6 billion.
None the less, I acknowledge that historically speaking there is a strong case for greater levels of investment. I would argue very strongly that we are already addressing that with £1 million a day at the current rate of spend. Hundreds of millions of pounds will be put in to improve our water in terms of the pipes, the sewerage, water treatment works and so on. That would continue even if we were not imposing these charges. If we really want to see the necessary step change in investment—we are talking about billions of pounds over the next 15 years or so—we cannot see any feasible alternative but to proceed along the lines of the charging which is contained in a further order that is currently out for consultation.
We propose introducing an affordability tariff, which will benefit nearly a third of Northern Ireland’s domestic consumers. Articles 3 and 4 of the order ensure that the Government's commitment to assist people who need help with the new charges is facilitated.
Article 3 allows information that is already held by Government agencies, principally the Department of Finance and Personnel’s rates collection agency and the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, to be shared with the Department for Regional Development’s water service agency. By identifying all those eligible, we will allow nearly 200,000 people to benefit automatically from the proposed affordability tariff and establish an accurate billing and contact system for all customers. Article 4 recognises the Government’s duty to ensure that information in their possession is protected from misuse, and it introduces criminal sanctions for unauthorised disclosure of information.
Those aspects of the order are effectively time limited to April 2007, when it is proposed that the main water reform legislation will allow information sharing for the affordability tariff. The measures will come into operation on 1 August 2006, which will allow sufficient time to put the necessary systems in place.
We consulted on the proposal, but only seven responses were received and only two of them contained substantial comments. They reiterated the general opposition to the introduction of water and sewerage charges, about which we have already heard, although a district council agreed in principle to information sharing. However, I am grateful to those who took the time to respond.
The second aspect of the order facilitates the introduction of measures to safeguard Northern Ireland’s water environment, through regulation, by controlling the abstraction and impounding of water. Article 5 inserts a new article 20 in the Water (Northern Ireland) Order 1999 and makes other amendments to it in order to broaden the scope of the Department of the Environment’s power to make regulations to establish an abstraction licensing scheme.
The wider powers provided for by those amendments are necessary in order to confer sufficient legislative authority to introduce a modern and comprehensive set of regulations in line with the general framework of other environmental licensing schemes operated by the Department. I acknowledge that those enabling measures were unusually added to the order only after it was issued for consultation. However, I emphasise that the order makes changes only to the enabling powers to introduce regulations. The details of the new licensing scheme are contained in the draft Water Abstraction and Impoundment (Licensing) (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2006, which were published on8 May 2006 for a 12-week public consultation. Subject to parliamentary approval, it is hoped to make those regulations in the autumn. They will also ensure that the Government can meet their commitment to having the controls in place by 31 December 2006, thereby avoiding the imposition of financial penalties by the European Court of Justice.
The introduction of new and comprehensive controls on water abstraction will facilitate the wider process of water reform in Northern Ireland, and will ensure that we can meet our European obligations.
Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): The Minister gave a provisional timetable. Is itthe Government’s intention to hand the subject over to the Assembly if the Government’s deadline for the reconstituted Assembly is met?
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