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Business of the House: Debates, 1st February

3.10 p.m.

The Lord Privy Seal (Viscount Cranborne): My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.

Moved, That the debate on the Motion in the name of the Lord Northbourne set down for tomorrow shall be limited to 2 hours and that in the name of the Lord Allen of Abbeydale set down for the same day to 3 hours.—(Viscount Cranborne.)

Lord Bruce of Donington: My Lords, I am all in support of the Motion on the Order Paper which relates to the Business of the House. However, I should be glad if the noble Viscount the Leader of the House would explain to us the specific authority claimed by the Government in respect of the Unstarred Question this evening which is tabled in the name of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich by which the debate is limited to one hour. Where is the specific authority for that step to be taken? I have in mind the very great importance of the matters that are the subject of the Unstarred Question for the whole issue of the preservation of historic buildings in this country and the ecclesiastical and general culture that is associated with them.

Lord Gisborough: My Lords, in view of the fact that there are 21 speakers for the first of tomorrow's debates and only 15 for the second, will my noble friend have further discussions through the usual channels to see whether he can revise the time limit for the short debate which has the greater number of speakers?

Viscount Cranborne: My Lords, with the leave of the House, I can readily understand the motives of both my noble friend and the noble Lord for intervening in the Motion. Perhaps I may, first, address the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington. As I am sure the noble Lord will know, a recent amendment was made to the Companion to the Standing Orders at page 83, which reads:

Noble Lords will be aware that recently, following the Third Report of the Select Committee on Procedure of the House for the year 1993-94, that experiment was made permanent with the agreement of your Lordships. I should add that the right reverend Prelate was very clear in his desire to introduce such a debate—on a question which, quite rightly, exercises the minds of many noble Lords—that a firm date should be secured well in advance of the time.

Therefore, although the right reverend Prelate was well aware of the risks attendant on securing such a fixed date —namely, that many people would want to speak in a very short debate—he preferred to do so, as I understand it, rather than take the risks attendant upon going for a balloted Motion.

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I must tell my noble friend Lord Gisborough that we are discussing a Motion which was put forward by the Cross-Benches. I believe that it has been made clear by the representatives of the Cross-Benches, through the usual channels, that that is the balance of time that they would prefer. I am sure noble Lords would agree with me when I say that it would be discourteous of the rest of the House to interfere with the preferences of Members of the Cross-Benches, who form such a substantial part of the Chamber, when they have expressed such a desire for the management of the time which has been allocated to them. I hope that my noble friend will accept that that is something to which I believe the House should adhere.

Lord Bruce of Donington: My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Viscount for his response. Is the noble Viscount aware that I was merely seeking to be helpful to Her Majesty's Government to enable them to get out of their difficulties in the matter? However, I should stress that my services will be available on another occasion when I hope to be helpful to the noble Viscount.

Viscount Cranborne: My Lords, I am always extremely grateful to any offers that the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, makes when he wishes to be of help to the Government. I particularly note the fact that, unlike many consultants who are employed by Her Majesty's Government, the services of the noble Lord come free.

Lord Monkswell: My Lords, can the noble Viscount comment on the fact that, while the Order Paper suggests that speakers in this evening's Unstarred Question will be allocated two minutes so as to fit in to the one-hour schedule, when an Unstarred Question was scheduled on a previous occasion to take place during the dinner hour, the rest of the Business of the House was completed before that time, thus leaving the Unstarred Question, effectively, without a time limit? Will the House take note of the latter as a possible precedent which might be used this evening?

Viscount Cranborne: My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell. My understanding—and I am open to correction in such matters—is that, under the circumstances that the noble Lord predicates, the hour is extended to an hour-and-a-half. Although in this particular instance I believe that noble Lords would not find themselves with very much more time at their disposal, it may be worth underlining to your Lordships that the risks associated with the procedure have always been made clear. In particular, the Select Committee recommended that noble Lords should, perhaps, consider carefully before adding their names to a list of speakers, the length of which already indicates that speech times will be short. If the procedure is to work, it is, to a degree, in your Lordships' hands; as, indeed, is the case with all things in this House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

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Environment Bill [H.L.]

3.16 p.m.

Viscount Ullswater: My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now again resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now again resolve itself into Committee.—(Viscount Ullswater.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.


[Amendments Nos. 191A and 191B not moved.]

Lord Beaumont of Whitley moved Amendment No. 191C:

Before Clause 35, insert the following new clause:

("Emergency drought orders

. In section 73 of the Water Resources Act, 1991 (power to make ordinary and emergency drought orders), after subsection (2) (b) there shall be inserted—
"(c) is satisfied, after consulting the Environment Agency, that the deficiency is such as to be likely to threaten the environmental well-being of flora and/or fauna."").

The noble Lord said: Looking at the long list of groupings that is before the Committee today, I believe that it would be unwise to wish your Lordships Kung hei fat choy, although it does look as if it is a good start to the Year of the Pig.

The purpose of the amendment, and of many of the others which are to be discussed in the grouping, is to enable the Secretary of State, or the agency, to issue drought orders on environmental grounds. The Water Resources Act 1991 enables the Secretary of State to issue drought orders whereby water abstraction from specific sources may be limited or prevented during a period of drought. However, the Secretary of State may do so only on the grounds that a deficiency has been wrought in the supply of waters due to a lack of rain. Requests for such orders to be made come either from the NRA or a water undertaker.

The legislation initiating the new agencies would have been an ideal opportunity to offer further protection to the environment by enabling drought orders to be made on environmental grounds; indeed, it would be and is an ideal opportunity. Situations often arise where a serious lack of rain has caused, or threatens to cause, serious damage to the environment. Of particular vulnerability are sites of special scientific interest.

Such protection could be offered by amending Section 73 of the Water Resources Act 1991, which deals with,

    "power to make ordinary and emergency drought orders".

The environment agency should have the ability to issue drought orders where it believes that there is a risk to "flora and/or fauna". I beg to move.

Baroness Nicol: I wish to speak to my amendments which are grouped with this one. May I first say that I support the amendment to which the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, has just spoken. I have a similar one which I shall deal with briefly when we come to it.

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My Amendment No. 203 is aimed at managing water resources so as to protect nature conservation interests. The amendment would allow statutory nature conservation agencies to request revocation or modification of an abstraction licence where it appeared that the licence was causing significant damage to a site of special scientific interest.

Section 52 of the Water Resources Act 1991 allows the NRA or the Secretary of State for the Environment to formulate proposals for revoking or varying an abstraction licence. The owner of fishing rights in an inland water supply can apply for such revocation or variation. The amendment would allow the statutory bodies to make a similar application to that of fishing interests to protect sites for which they have a statutory responsibility.

Amendment No. 204 concerns licences of right and licences of entitlement granted under the water Acts of 1963 and 1989. Abstraction levels for the licences were set at relatively high levels to allow for possible future demand. There was not at that time any consideration of environmental impact. The system, I understand, has had considerable adverse effects on SSSIs and on some rivers. The RSPB, which supports the proposed amendments, suggests that over 100 sites of special scientific interest and 40 rivers have been damaged. The licences have also created difficulties in re-allocating water between users in an effort to balance supply and demand. Amendment No. 204 would ensure that abstractions were formally reviewed by the agency within five years to take account of the environmental duties of the new environment agency. Has the Minister considered the matter? Does he intend to do anything about the licences even if he cannot accept the amendment?

Amendment No. 205 seeks to clarify the emergency drought orders. The noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, dealt quite extensively with that; I shall therefore be brief. I notice that the amendments in the names of the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, and the noble Viscount, Lord Mills, which appear much further on in the Marshalled List, are on the same lines. It seems important that the environmental considerations of drought orders should be taken into account.

Amendment No. 207 seeks to allow the Secretary of State to set mandatory leakage targets for water undertakers. This touches on discussions we had earlier in the Bill, but I remind the Committee that about a quarter of treated water is lost through leakage. The setting of targets is supported by the National Rivers Authority, the Royal Town Planning Institute, the Association of County Councils and the Nature Conservancy Council. Diminishing the rate of loss would obviously be of benefit in reducing demand on existing supplies and in the creation of new sources which in turn would lead to a reduction in pressure on the natural environment.

Finally, my Amendment No. 222 seeks to introduce an incentive charging scheme for abstraction licences. The present cost recovery system does not encourage the abstractor to conserve water. Incentive charging could be a useful tool in encouraging the wiser use of water. I understand that following consultation on the

31 Jan 1995 : Column 1339

paper Using Water Wisely the Government are considering the possibility of introducing incentive charging for abstractions. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us how far that has progressed. I hope he recognises that the Bill provides an opportunity to introduce such a system if that is what the Government intend.

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