Previous Section Index Home Page

Surface Water Charges

4. Mr. David Amess (Southend, West) (Con): What progress he has made in his consideration of options for mitigating the effects on water customers of increases in surface water charges. [268327]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Huw Irranca-Davies): I am pleased to report that United Utilities, about which most of the complaints on this issue have arisen, has in light of representations received taken steps to resolve the problem of disproportionate increases for faith buildings, community amateur sports clubs, scout
2 Apr 2009 : Column 1040
associations and so on, by reverting to charges based on 2007-08 for those customers—that is, back to rateable value.

Mr. Amess: I am sort of reassured. I have the honour of being joint chairman of the all-party Scout Association group, and the information that the Scouts have given me is a little different from what the Minister has said. They and other charities have clearly made the point that surface water charges in such difficult economic times have damaging effects on voluntary organisations. They have also brought it to my attention that Ofwat has refused to meet the water companies. They are worried that, next year, when the moratorium is lifted, the charges will be crippling because they will be treated the same as multinational companies.

Huw Irranca-Davies: I should declare an interest as the former president of the West Glamorgan Scout Association. We are not out of the woods yet— [Interruption.] I am sorry; that was not a deliberate pun. The principle of surface water charging, whereby a proportionate element is charged to everyone for discharging water is right; otherwise we would have cross-subsidies and would have to get into the question of which organisations should be exempt. Four companies have introduced surface water charging, which, by and large, has been well received because they dealt with it sensitively. Lessons have been learned and the regulator has been fully involved, but we need to keep a close eye on the matter. The regulatory principles and the need to deal sensitively with all community associations are clear. I will personally ensure that that happens and so will the regulator. I encourage any hon. Member of any party who is currently experiencing problems to take the matter first to the water companies, and by all means to bring it to me as well.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): May I suggest that my hon. Friend gets out of the ivory tower of London? He needs to come to the north-west and learn what is happening to the churches, sports grounds and voluntary groups, which will close and cease to exist. No impact study has been done on the effect of surface water charges—no one is telling us how many churches and sports buildings will close and how many scout groups will cease. The bottom line is that United Utilities needs to be told to back off and not introduce the charge. If need be, we should introduce legislation to stop it—the sooner the better. Let us protect the people we represent.

Huw Irranca-Davies: I understand my hon. Friend’s passion about the matter, but let me reiterate: United Utilities has agreed not to put a moratorium on this year’s prices, but to revert to 2007-08 pre-surface water drainage charges. It will take 12 months to assess the way forward with the regulator. I have met the company chief executive and the regulator. We have also been in communication with churches, scout associations, sports clubs, our colleagues in Whitehall and fellow Members of Parliament. I welcome the pressure that has been brought to bear and the representations that have been made. As I have said, we are not out of the woods: we need to ensure that the 12 months produces an appropriate review, so that all the groups that have been mentioned are not hit disproportionately. I will keep my eye on the matter, as I am sure my hon. Friend will, too.

2 Apr 2009 : Column 1041

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): Last week, I asked the Leader of the House to arrange a debate—a topical debate or even a debate in Westminster Hall—in Government time on the matter. She suggested that I question the Minister today, and I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for calling me to do that. The charge is unacceptable. The House has never agreed or introduced a proposal for such a charge for the disposal of surface water. The charge adversely affects many organisations—charitable, sporting and others. United Utilities in the north-west has announced a moratorium, but surely the Minister appreciates that that is only a delay. When will he say that the charge should be stopped and not introduced on any future occasion? That is justice; will he do it?

Mr. Hoyle: Nationalise it!

Huw Irranca-Davies: I hear the calls for nationalisation, although I am not sure whether the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) has suggested that. I repeat that things have moved on in the past few weeks, but we are not fully out of the woods. Events have moved on in that the moratorium has reverted to pre-surface water drainage charges in the United Utilities area. Four companies have introduced the model of charging that we are discussing. In three areas, it has been done proportionately, sensitively and in a customer-facing way. There is a way forward under the regulatory regime.

The call for legislation is interesting, and I assume that it covers exceptions. If we consider exceptions, I think that we all agree on scout associations, churches and community amateur sports clubs, but would we agree on, for example, consular buildings, fish farms, public houses—perhaps we would—and petrol filling stations, which had exemptions under the previous method of charging? Is that fair and proportionate? There is a way forward and we are getting there. I tell the hon. Gentleman to keep the pressure on, and we will get there.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Is my hon. Friend aware that since the Conservatives privatised the water companies, for those who are in the Yorkshire region, as I am, it is impossible to have a dialogue with Kelder or Yorkshire Water on that or almost any other issue, because the major shareholder in private equity is the Singaporean Government, who are more conscious about surface water in Singapore than they are about surface water in England? Is that not the sad state that we are in, thanks to the privatisation that those people over there on the Conservative Benches introduced?

Huw Irranca-Davies: We are always keen to see any companies out there engaging properly with all hon. Members and their constituents. However, let me reiterate the guidance from the Secretary of State in 2003: “surface water drainage charges” for non-household customers

and so on

2 Apr 2009 : Column 1042

and the phasing in of such charges should be considered. I hope—indeed, I can see this now—that lessons are being learned by certain companies. However, we will keep the pressure on and the dialogue going, because we are as concerned as everybody else that the charges are imposed in a proportionate, fair and sensitive way.

Water Shortages

5. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): What recent representations he has received on measures to prevent water shortages; and if he will make a statement. [268329]

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Hilary Benn): DEFRA has received representations on draft water resource management plans for all the English water companies, following consultation last year. These plans set out how the water companies plan to meet demand for water from 2010 to 2035 and to avoid shortages.

David Taylor: Given the Environment Agency’s call this week for water meters in every home to protect against future shortages and the evidence given to our Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs inquiry into Ofwat’s price review by Citizens Advice that it dealt with 28 per cent. more water debt cases last year than two years ago, does the Secretary of State agree that defining “water poverty” and standardising the charges made by companies on consumers’ sewerage and water bills are essential reforms if we are to protect ourselves against future water shortages without penalising poorer households?

Hilary Benn: That is precisely why we set up the review that Anna Walker is undertaking to look at charging. On average, water metering applies in a third of cases, but from memory the percentage ranges from 68 per cent. in Tendring Hundred down to 10 per cent. in Portsmouth. The Government have made it clear that by 2030 we will need near universal metering in those areas of the country where water is in short supply. The direction in which we are travelling is pretty clear. The change has affected the relative position of those who pay through metered charges, as opposed to those who use the other system. That is precisely why Anna Walker is looking at ways in which we can ensure fairer charging, while at the same time ensuring that we conserve water.

Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): In a week when the Environment Agency has warned that climate change and a rising population will increase pressure on water supplies and when households have once again seen above-inflation rises in water bills, has the time not come for a new regulatory approach, so that water companies, and not just their customers, are incentivised to conserve and value water? Will the Secretary of State confirm that although the draft floods and water Bill is expected shortly, the Government are planning to drop measures to reform the water industry from that Bill?

Hilary Benn: As I said a moment ago, the draft floods and water Bill will be published in the not too distant future. Clearly, future legislation depends on the legislative programme; the hon. Gentleman will be well aware of
2 Apr 2009 : Column 1043
the process by which those decisions are taken. It is important that we ensure that the water companies have the right incentives, and part of the purpose of the water resource management plans is to ensure that there is a sufficient supply of water. A range of things can be done in that regard, including encouraging the more efficient use of water in people’s homes. In some cases, it might be necessary to improve the supply, particularly in the parts of the country where there is a problem with that.

Derek Twigg (Halton) (Lab): We have one of the wettest countries in the world, we have just had some of the wettest few years on record and we have just been talking about flooding, so does it not beggar belief that there are still problems in some parts of the country that result in water rationing? Should not the regulatory authorities—particularly Ofwat—be doing a lot more, not least to ensure that leakage is reduced? That is still a major problem, and my constituents cannot understand why they have to watch water flowing away down the road and why it takes days, or even months, to sort out the problem and renew the pipes. What communications is my right hon. Friend having with Ofwat to ensure that it improves the reduction in leakages?

Hilary Benn: Ofwat takes that responsibility extremely seriously, and my hon. Friend will be aware that a lot of progress has been made to reduce leakages. However, when water companies have to make a choice about where they make further investment, they need to weigh up the cost of yet further leakage reduction work against other measures that might help to secure and improve the supply. That is the balance that they have to strike, and which Ofwat must consider, but there is no doubt that, in the years ahead, we will have to do more to ensure that we protect and preserve the water that we have.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): In the light of these and the previous exchanges, is the Secretary of State really satisfied that Ofwat is performing its prime duty, which is to protect the consumer?

Hilary Benn: Yes, I am satisfied that Ofwat takes that responsibility extremely seriously. Indeed, the water companies will attest to the vigour with which Ofwat performs its duties. In the end, a balance must be struck between the price that consumers pay for water and the investment necessary to address the problems that hon. Members on both sides of the House have raised in this important discussion this morning. I think that Ofwat is doing a good job.

Topical Questions

T1. [268345] Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Hilary Benn): DEFRA’s responsibility is to enable us all to live within our environmental means. I wish to inform the House that, from yesterday, only timber from independently verified legal and sustainable sources, or from a licensed forest law enforcement, governance and trade partner, will be used on the
2 Apr 2009 : Column 1044
Government estate. I have also launched a consultation on how to toughen the proposed European legislation on tackling illegal logging. We believe that there should be an EU-wide prohibition on placing illegally produced timber on the market. I am sure that the House will also want to welcome the establishment of the South Downs national park.

Mr. Stuart: The Secretary of State said earlier that no one wanted to squander productive farmland. Why, then, is his Department pushing for compulsory set-aside? Is it because its only public service agreement deals with environmental matters? Is that why food and people never get a look-in at his Department when it comes to the policy crunch?

Hilary Benn: I have great respect for the hon. Gentleman, but I fundamentally disagree with what he has just said. It is not the case that food and people do not get a look-in. The problem in relation to set-aside is that it was introduced as a production control measure, it brought environmental benefits, and it now needs to be updated. Going back to the question about butterflies raised by the hon. Member for St. Albans (Anne Main), we need to examine how we can continue to derive those environmental benefits from the way in which the land is managed. As I said to the National Farmers Union conference, I do not have an ideological view on how we do that. I welcome the fact that the NFU and others are now looking at a voluntary scheme, and we are now consulting on that. I would encourage everyone to respond to the consultation.

Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): My right hon. Friend recently visited Nairobi. Will he report to the House what he learned on that visit?

Hilary Benn: We discussed a number of the questions that we have been debating this morning, but the single most important outcome of the meeting of the United Nations Environment Programme Ministers in Nairobi was our agreement to negotiate a deal on tackling mercury. The problem of mercury pollution is felt in many parts of the world. Indeed, I learned at first hand that traces of mercury are now being recorded by the monitoring equipment in Antarctica. This is why we need organisations such as UNEP: if we come together as a world, we can negotiate agreements to deal with environmental problems.

T2. [268347] Mr. Michael Moore (Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk) (LD): In recent days, there have been some suggestions of introducing some flexibility into the new regulations on the electronic identification of sheep. Will the Secretary of State confirm that, and does he recognise that there is now an urgent crisis in the hill farms of the UK, which the regulations will make much worse?

Hilary Benn: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman knows that I share the concern that he and many right hon. and hon. Members have expressed. He will also know that, as a result of our efforts, we have already made some progress on easing the impact of those regulations. I am glad to say that at the last Agriculture Council eight countries spoke up, including the UK, to express concern, whereas previously we were part of a
2 Apr 2009 : Column 1045
smaller group, so the message is spreading. The visit that Commission officials paid to the UK was important, because the Agriculture Commissioner said at the recent Council meeting that he intended to consider what further steps might be taken to ease the impact of implementation. We are putting a number of suggestions to the Commission, so I hope that we can make further progress, because it is very important that we do.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): My right hon. Friend is proposing six trial areas for wildlife vaccination against bovine tuberculosis. It would be useful to know what criteria will be applied to those trials and when they will be published. Will my right hon. Friend take from me a commendation that in this regard, we are basing what we are doing on sound science—unlike some of the other proposals currently doing the rounds?

Hilary Benn: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind words. Clearly, we are looking to run the six demonstration projects in the areas with the highest incidence of bovine TB, a terrible disease that is having an awful effect. The fact that we have an injectable vaccine, which we hope will be available from next summer, provides us with some means to try and deal with the problem. On a visit to the Veterinary Laboratories Agency last week, I met the team working on developing the vaccine: those people are very committed and very expert. I welcome the positive response of the farming community to this announcement, because, all being well next year, we will have some means of dealing with the problem of infection in wildlife.

Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): DEFRA now claims that the target to halt biodiversity loss by next year was never realistically achievable. In that case, why did Ministers agree to it? The concern now is that the Government will do what they always do when they miss their own targets—make an excuse and change them. Three hundred and eighty-six of the Government’s sub-targets for biodiversity—that is nine out of 10—have been missed, so can the Secretary of State explain that dismal performance?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Huw Irranca-Davies): The setting of what was a very ambitious target was welcomed by very many bodies, including green non-governmental organisations, which recognised that although it was ambitious, it was the right thing to strive for. We now need to focus on the resetting of a target that is both ambitious and realistic, which is to be welcomed. In terms of biodiversity, we are taking relevant steps in all our six priorities. About 88 per cent. of sites of special scientific interest are in favourable or recovering conditions; the agri-environment schemes that I know are close to all our hearts are making good progress; we have introduced the Marine and Coastal Access Bill; and we have funded new international work of more than £8 million on the Darwin initiative. We are thus making good progress, but we know that there is more to do.

Next Section Index Home Page