Documents considered by the Committee on 27 February 2019 Contents

2Drinking Water Directive

Committee’s assessment

Legally and politically important

Committee’s decision

Not cleared from scrutiny; but scrutiny waiver granted; further information requested; drawn to the attention of the Environmental Audit Committee and the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee

Document details

Proposal for a Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on the quality of water intended for human consumption (recast)

Legal base

Article 192(1) TFEU, QMV, Ordinary legislative procedure


Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Document Number

(39487), 5846/18 + ADDs 1–5, COM(17) 753

Summary and Committee’s conclusions

2.1The EU’s “Drinking Water Directive”15 is designed to ensure that drinking water across the EU is wholesome and clean. While it has been relatively well implemented, its approach to monitoring water quality at the point of consumption uses parameters determined over 20 years ago. Following a review, the European Commission proposed to revise the Directive in order to improve the quality of drinking water, modernise the approach to monitoring water quality and provide both greater access to water and information to citizens.

2.2When we first considered the proposal, we were concerned that some of its provisions strayed too far into areas best managed at a national or local level. We therefore agreed to issue a Reasoned Opinion, considering that the provisions on access to water breach the principle of subsidiarity—i.e. action should only be taken at the EU level where it cannot be sufficiently achieved by Member States at national, regional or local levels and there is greater benefit to taking action at the EU level. More information was set out in our Report from that meeting, The Reasoned Opinion was debated on 26 March16 and agreed by the House on 28 March.17

2.3We last reported this document to the House at our meeting of 20 June 2018, when we asked about reported concerns among other Member States about the provision to ensure access to drinking water for “vulnerable and marginalised groups”. We also sought information about discussions on the proposal at the 25 June 2018 Environment Council.

2.4In response to our Report, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for the Environment (Dr Thérèse Coffey MP) confirmed18 that there were concerns among Member States about the proposals on access to water, including the definitions of “vulnerable and marginalised groups”. Discussions were continuing following the Environment Council. As regards other areas of discussion, the Minister reported that concerns about the Commission’s approach to water quality and the access to justice provisions were shared by other Member States. The Austrian Presidency in the second half of 2018 was looking to draw up a compromise text.

2.5The Minister has written19 again to update the Committee, noting that Ministers are likely to be invited to agree to a General Approach at the Environment Council on 5 March 2019. She asks that the Committee consider clearing the proposal from scrutiny or granting a scrutiny waiver. She explains that, since adoption of the European Parliament’s (EP’s) position on 22 October 2018, pressure had mounted on the Council to agree a position. The Minister summarises the approach to the issues raised by the Committee, as set out below.

2.6The provisions on access to justice (Article 16) have been deleted and so there are no further issues of duplication.

2.7Concerning the chemical parameters to be monitored in drinking water, the Government’s position is that parameters should be included if they have been shown through scientific evidence to have health concerns. The UK has also been pushing for some changes to allow the exclusion of parameters from monitoring based on risk assessment that shows they do not pose a threat. While the Government agrees with the majority of parametric limits being suggested, there are some substances where the limits suggested are more stringent than current World Health Organisation (WHO) recommendations. The UK’s main outstanding concern is to ensure that the parametric value for lead matches the WHO recommendation (10μg/l,20 but with countries putting in place an action plan to achieve concentrations as low as reasonably practicable). The proposed EU limit would be 5μg/l, which would require the removal in the UK of a significant amount of existing lead piping in older properties, costing “billions of pounds” for the water industry and consumers.

2.8On access to water, the Government shares concerns with a number of Member States that the provisions do not respect the principle of subsidiarity. The UK would accept changes allowing national discretion to decide how to improve access to water at a local level. The Minister believes that the UK’s ambition set out in the 25 Year Environment Plan to increase access to water refill stations already meets the spirit of the Directive’s objective in this regard.

2.9Another priority for the UK, says the Minister, is to ensure that standards for materials and substances in contact with drinking water are maintained or improved. The UK and eight other Member States have put forward a proposal for achieving a harmonised approach to standards as opposed to the current situation where there is different national legislation in place, and the Government is working towards this proposal being adopted by the Council.

2.10The Minister does not set out any of the substance of the EP’s position. In summary, the EP agreed that the Directive should promote universal access to clean water for all but that the requirements should respect different national circumstances. The EP maintained most of the parameters set by the Commission. The maximum limits for certain pollutants, such as lead, would be tightened, and new caps introduced for some endocrine disruptors.21 By the end of 2022, Member States would be required to adopt national targets to reduce water leakage levels of water suppliers.

2.11The Minister’s letter does not set these negotiations in the context of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. That is no doubt due to the fact that any future UK alignment with this legislation will be subject to the outcome of exit negotiations, particularly concerning the principle of environmental non-regression.

2.12Our core concern when we first considered this proposal related to the provisions on access to water. We are pleased to note that the UK and other Member States have pushed back on the provisions of the text in this respect, coalescing around language that would afford greater flexibility at the local level.

2.13The potential implications of adopting chemical parameters more stringent than recommended by the World Health Organisation are concerning. We note the Minister’s assessment that the proposed halving of the lead parameter could have severe financial consequences for the UK water industry and consumers.

2.14The Minister references the European Parliament position but not does comment on its substance. We note that there is agreement that the provisions on access to water should ensure flexibility at the local level, but that the EP proposed to strengthen some of the parameters, including lead, and to add new substances (such as endocrine disruptors).

2.15Given that—once Council agreement has been reached—a compromise will need to be sought with the EP before the Directive can be adopted, we do not clear the proposal from scrutiny. We do, however, waive the scrutiny reserve in order to allow the Government to support the General Approach in Council should the Government judge that to be in the UK’s national interest. We ask the Minister to update us following the Council, including information on the potential implications for the UK on the assumption that the UK will be required to implement the terms of the Directive in the future, at least in part. This chapter is drawn to the attention of the Environmental Audit Committee and the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee.

Full details of the documents

Proposal for a Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on the quality of water intended for human consumption (recast) : (39487), 5846/18 + ADDs 1–5, COM(17) 753.

Previous Committee Reports

Thirty-second Report HC 301–xxxi (2017–19), chapter 2 (20 June 2018); Eighteenth Report HC 301–xviii (2017–19), chapter 1 (7 March 2018).

16 European Committee A, 26 March 2018.

17 Votes and Proceedings, 28 March 2018.

18 Letter from Dr Thérèse Coffey MP to Sir William Cash MP dated 10 July 2018.

19 Letter from Dr Thérèse Coffey MP to Sir William Cash MP dated 19 February 2019.

20 Micrograms per litre.

21 Chemicals that have the potential to harm people or wildlife by affecting endocrine (hormone) systems.

Published: 5 March 2019