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2 Feb 2010 : Column 199

I look forward to a rescheduled meeting with the Prime Minister soon, with my hon. Friend and other colleagues. As she rightly said, we need to find a solution to the problem in the south-west. Anna Walker has given us some useful signposts and pointed squarely to where the problem arose. It could have been sorted right at the beginning. My hon. Friend mentioned the long-term impact, and the 25-year long-term planning approach that we now have is a useful way forward.

My hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith), alongside other Welsh colleagues, has been assiduous in lobbying to ensure that many of the measures in the Bill are also applied in Wales. I can confirm that Welsh Assembly Government Ministers will produce the draft guidance there. I hear once again her support for the transfer of private sewers, which is an issue that affects all of us in Wales. The Welsh Assembly Government have taken it forward in a slightly different way from that used in England, as we would expect, but as Welsh MPs we all have a role to play in getting involved in the process and ensuring that our constituents who are the most affected are the first to receive transfer where possible.

The only matter on which I will disappoint my hon. Friend is that of whether the guidance can specify how dividends should be shared out. Dividends are a matter for each company, but of course Ofwat, in its overall regulatory role, takes account of the water companies' ability to fulfil their functions within the price-setting mechanism. Within the guidance under the Bill, however, dividends are a matter for the companies.

Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD): In considering how that framework will work, will the Minister also continue to consider how companies can transfer money within wider groups that they are part of? That is significant in some areas. It is not just about dividends for shareholders but about how funds are moved around within groups.

Huw Irranca-Davies: That is a valid point, and it is one thing that we will want to examine in considering the role of Ofwat.

I hope that I have provided the necessary assurances. We are not pre-empting Walker, we are putting a mechanism in place so that we can deliver for the people who are hardest hit by affordability problems. We have already provided for what is set out in several of the amendments, and I have made clear my commitment to a full and comprehensive review of the regulator. That is not to say that its current role is remiss, but we recognise that the challenges that it faces now are significantly different from those at the time of privatisation.

Question put and agreed to.

New clause 22 accordingly read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

New Clause 2

Regular maintenance of water courses

'The Environment Agency must undertake a programme of regular maintenance work of major water courses on an annual basis with quarterly reports to both Houses of Parliament.'.- (Miss McIntosh.)

Brought up, and read the First time.

Miss McIntosh: I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

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Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: new clause 9- Staffing and resources for the Environment Agency-

'(1) The Secretary of State must make an assessment of the staff, equipment and resources required by the Environment Agency to implement the provisions of the Act in accordance with the lessons learnt from the floods of 2007.'.

New clause 20- The role of Fire and Rescue Authorities during major flooding-

'(1) A fire and rescue authority must make provision for the purpose of rescuing people and protecting them from serious harm in the event of major flooding in its area.

(2) In making the provision required by subsection (1), a fire and rescue authority must-

(a) secure the provision of such personnel, services and training as may be necessary efficiently to meet all reasonable requirements;

(b) make arrangements for dealing with calls for help;

(c) make arrangements for obtaining necessary information; and

(d) make arrangements for ensuring that reasonable steps are taken to prevent or limit damage to property resulting from action taken pursuant to such provision.

(3) Where-

(a) a fire and rescue authority maintains specialist resources ("the first authority");

(b) major flooding has occurred or is likely to occur in the area of another fire and rescue authority ("the second authority"); and

(c) the second authority has requested the first authority to use those resources in the second authority's area,

the first authority must use its specialist resources in the area of the second authority to such extent as is reasonable for the purpose of dealing with the emergency.

(4) In this section-

(a) "major flooding" means flooding that causes or is likely to cause one or more individuals to die, be seriously injured or become seriously ill as a result from-

(i) natural causes; or

(ii) an escape of water from a large raised reservoir;

(b) "specialist resources" means resources maintained for the purpose of taking action pursuant to provision made in accordance with subsection (1) including any personnel who have received specialist training for that purpose;

(c) "large raised reservoir" has the same meaning as in section 1 of the Reservoir Act 1975 (ambit of Act and interpretation).'.

Amendment 24, in clause 6, page 4, line 37, at end add-

'(g) the fire and rescue authorities.'.

Amendment 25, page 5, line 9, at end add-

'(e) a fire and rescue authority that exercises functions in relation to an area in Wales.'.

Amendment 27, in clause 7, page 5, line 35, at end insert 'the fire and rescue authorities,'.

Amendment 26, page 5, line 40, at end add-

'(e) a fire and rescue authority that exercises functions in relation to an area in England.'.

Amendment 5, in clause 9, page 7, line 42, at end add-

'(10) The Minister shall as soon as possible instigate, publish and have regard to a review undertaken by a panel of independent persons pertaining to the-

2 Feb 2010 : Column 201

(a) recruitment costs which will be incurred by local authorities in implementing the provisions of this section; and

(b) training and equipment costs incurred by local authorities in implementing the provisions of this section.'.

Amendment 4, in clause 18, page 13, line 20, at end add-

'(4) A report under this section must be laid before and approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament.'.

Government amendments 31 to 34.

Amendment 28, in clause 38, page 24, leave out lines 5 and 6 and insert-

'(3) Condition 2 is that in carrying out the work the Agency-

(a) has regard to the national flood and coastal erosion risk management strategy under section 7, and

(b) does not create or increase potential harmful consequences of a kind listed in section 2(4)(a) to (d)'.

Government amendments 48 and 49.

Miss McIntosh: I wish to make one or two general remarks at the outset before going through our amendments and those in the name of the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), after which I shall allow the Minister time to make the case for the Government amendments, of which several have come at such a late stage.

We had the opportunity to rehearse our arguments about the resourcing of the Environment Agency and local authorities at some length in Committee, but we did not receive the satisfaction and reassurances that we wanted from the Minister. I know that in relation to our amendments in this group, and even more so for those in the next group, he is hoping to give some reassurances that go beyond the Government amendments. If so, it would be helpful if he took the opportunity to state whether the discussions will be on the basis of Pepper v. Hart, so that we can provide assurances to those outside. The Government amendments in this group may not rely on Pepper v. Hart so much as those in the next group.

5.30 pm

I have a general point to make on the fire and rescue authorities, if I may, before I address the specifics of the proposals. In Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) made some logical points about the prominence of the fire and rescue authorities under the Civil Contingencies Act 2004, which the Minister addressed. I have some sympathy with the proposals of the hon. Member for Stroud and his hon. Friends, but without putting words into the Minister's mouth, I am sure he will agree that they would raise funding requirements. Nevertheless, there seems to be a lacuna in the law, in that we generally assume that fire and rescue crews will turn up and swing into action, as they did most recently in the Cumbria floods in November and December 2009, but there are resource issues with that, and I am not convinced the Government have yet addressed them.

New clause 2 would place a duty on the Environment Agency to

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In its conclusions, the Pitt report clearly stated-the Government adopted this in their most recent response-that regular maintenance should be done, and more importantly that it must be seen to be done. That is one of only a very few points of dissention that I have with Sir Michael Pitt. At the moment, I am not convinced, anecdotally, that the public believe that regular maintenance is being done. A number of people said that had regular maintenance been done, even the Cumbria floods might not have been as bad. I am not sure about that, because events that happen once in 1,000 years would lead to substantial flooding in any circumstances, but if regular maintenance on major watercourses is not done, water backs up into small watercourses.

Following the 2007, 2008 and 2009 floods, I saw with my own eyes areas where regular maintenance had not been undertaken, where a fairly basic strip of self-planting willow trees could have reduced flooding. As we know, the internal drainage boards have a regular programme, but it is acutely worrying for landowners and those who contribute to IDBs, and to the work of the Environment Agency from the IDB budget, if major watercourses are not regularly maintained and if minor watercourses are flooded as a consequence.

We are asking for work to be undertaken on

which could be debated and published. That would send the message that substantial maintenance was being done regularly.

Mr. Redwood: That goes to the heart of a big problem in my constituency, where the rivers Emm and Loddon have flooded on all too many occasions in the past decade. Part of the problem has been the failure of the Environment Agency to maintain the free flow of the waters, which means blockages that exacerbate the flooding. I hope that my hon. Friend is successful with new clause 2.

Miss McIntosh: I am most grateful for that support from my right hon. Friend. There is an argument that the Government have reduced the maintenance programme while increasing along with inflation the budget for substantial infrastructure projects. Capital expenditure has been maintained and even modestly increased, but the same has not happened on the same scale with maintenance.

New clause 9 would require the Secretary of State to

We want a clear undertaking that the Pitt requirements will be met, and it is not clear that the Environment Agency will have any new resources. The report that was published last year on the Pitt conclusions included a table that did not show any significant resources for those purposes. I wish to press the Minister on where those resources will be found.

Amendments 5 and 4 similarly seek resources for local authorities. Amendment 5 would amend clause 9 to require the Minister to set up an independent panel to review the recruitment costs of the new staff required by local authorities to implement these new provisions-and
2 Feb 2010 : Column 203
the training and equipment costs. Amendment 4 would require a report to be presented to Parliament and approved by both Houses.

The Minister has failed to reassure us that adequate resources will be provided. We have been told that savings will be made, especially on lateral drains, but we have had a strong steer from the Local Government Association that these sums are wrong. The Minister had agreed, through his Department, a new burdens doctrine, but the resource implications of the Bill breach the spirit of that doctrine. Therefore, the Minister should use this opportunity to identify the new additional costs, how he proposes to meet them, and to confirm that they will not be met entirely from existing budgets so that local authorities will not lose funding for activities that they would otherwise wish to undertake.

Water companies were also concerned by the suggestion from local authorities that the water companies should fund certain aspects from their receipts from consumers. I hope that the Minister will take this opportunity to give an undertaking that that will not be the case. It would be totally inappropriate and unacceptable, and not the best way to proceed.

Amendment 28 sets out how the work of the Environment Agency should be carried out, with

It would also ensure that there were no unintended consequences from part 2 of the Bill.

Through new clause 2, we are raising concerns about the extensive and prescriptive role of the Environment Agency; its ability to carry out work that could increase flooding; the erosion of the responsibility to take a balanced approach; and whether the work that the agency undertakes might unwittingly cause damage to human health, the economy, infrastructure or the environment. Is it right to give those powers to the agency, or would that role be better played by local authorities? That is part and parcel of our hope that such powers will remain with, or be passed to, local communities through local authorities and internal drainage boards as appropriate.

Echoed within the group of new clauses and amendments is our concern about which should be the respective and potential local authorities. Without straying beyond the group, will the Minister confirm whether he is minded to provide the flexibility needed to allow district councils to be the proper planning authorities, if it comes to the approving authority for sustainable drainage systems? However, that debate might best be handled when we discuss the next group of amendments.

With those words, I would like to move this little group of new clauses and amendments.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. For the sake of clarification, may I say to the hon. Lady that she moved the new clause at the head of the group? Should there be a request for the House to express an opinion on any of the others, they will be moved formally at that stage.

Miss McIntosh: I am grateful for your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

We have some sympathy with the amendments in the name of the hon. Member for Stroud and his hon. Friends, but they might go beyond the content of the
2 Feb 2010 : Column 204
Bill. There is clearly a legislative omission that he is trying to plug, but I wonder where he intends the resources to come from. I would be most interested to hear the Minister's response to our concerns about his amendments-technical amendments, as he might call them. Why are they coming so late in the day? However, if he is minded to support our amendments, that would be most welcome.

Mr. Drew: I am delighted to speak to new clause 20 and amendments 24 to 27. I heard what the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) said, and I shall try to assuage her concerns and explain why we do not think that the amendments go too far. More than anything, however, I hope that the Minister will listen to my remarks, and that if my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) can catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, he might set out how we can do what we want to do, and put some recognition of the role of the fire and rescue service into the Bill.

I heard what the hon. Lady said about the need to consider how that might fit with other pieces of legislation, but references to the fire and rescue service pepper the final Pitt review. In an emergency, when people are facing floods, the service to which they are most likely to turn is the fire and rescue service. It seems bizarre, therefore, that none of the welcome changes that we are making contain a statutory duty for the fire and rescue service to be at a flooding incident. Of course, that does not mean that its members will not be there, because they are such good people that they will almost certainly want to be there. I have been talking to the Fire Brigades Union, which wants clarification not just about fire and rescue services wanting to be there, but about the repercussions, as it were, of how they get there-and when they do, what they have to do and how they have to do it.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): My constituents would expect me to be totally supportive of the hon. Gentleman's amendments and new clause, as indeed I am. Canvey Island, which I represent, suffered the greatest loss of life from any flood, in 1953. My constituents do not just want the fire service's statutory position to be clarified; they want it to be given proper equipment and training to enable it to do the job as effectively as it possibly can.

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