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Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: I thank the Minister for that explanation.

Lord Dixon-Smith: With respect, the Minister did not respond to my point about whether, if a licensed abstractor was causing the problem, the Environment Agency could in any way be involved in the action.

Lord Whitty: I ignored the point because it was not particularly relevant to this amendment. The Environment Agency can conceivably be a party to the action only if it has granted a licence for activity that caused the damage. Even then, one would have to show that it had behaved perversely and unreasonably, which is always the case when contemplating action against a public licensing body. That is not relevant to the issue of small abstractors.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 24 agreed to.

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4.45 p.m.

Clause 25 [Compensation for modification of licence on direction of Secretary of State]:

Baroness Byford moved Amendment No. 66:

    Page 30, line 34, leave out subsection (2).

The noble Baroness said: With Amendment No. 66, we come back to an issue that is crucial to many, but particularly to those involved in agriculture. The Minister said, in our previous debates, there was a lot of pleading from quarries, from water businesses, from horticulture, from agriculture or whatever. This amendment addresses the needs of agriculture and horticulture. As the noble Lord knows only too well, farmers are being encouraged to diversify and consider different ways of using the land that have, perhaps, not been tried in the past and, because of problems with disease, to look at rotation, which has been four or five years and, on the whole, is now moving up to a recognised six or seven years.

The clause would amend Section 61 of the Water Resources Act 1991, reducing from seven years to four years the period of the non-use of a licence after which revocation or variation did not entitle the licence holder to compensation. Furthermore, Clause 17 removes the protected right under the licence, if unused for four years.

The implication for those who have to manage the land would be that the reduction in the period of non-use would affect, in particular, the unsupported sectors of the agriculture industry—namely horticulture—that habitually do not use irrigation licences for the seven-year period. There are other sectors of agriculture that would not use a licence on a regular basis as horticulture, in many ways, does.

If the Bill implemented that reduction in period, it would no longer be commercially viable for many businesses to continue to produce irrigated crops. It would not be possible to reduce a crop rotation to only four years, due to the risk of crop disease such as potato cyst nematode and due to the requirements of contracts made under the Assured Produce programme or with customers such as processors or supermarkets. The noble Lord, Lord Carter, will know that the Government are encouraging better assurance schemes, and I hope, therefore, that he will be sympathetic to the amendment, when I move it.

Potato growers from various areas, including Humberside and Lincolnshire, have supplied us with examples of the potential implications for their business. The schedules to the Plant Health (Great Britain) Order 1993 provide for the conditions under which the land can be declared free of potato cyst pest. For seed potatoes, DEFRA's guidance that must be adhered to prior to certification states that there should be a rotation period of a full seven years. Furthermore, the European and Mediterranean plant protection organisations provide a standard that should be used for soil testing for such diseases. That standard confirms that there are cases when land should be left free of crops for at least 10 years to ensure that it is disease-free. I have not pushed for 10 years; the clause refers to a period of seven years. With

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regard to the requirement of supermarket contracts, I must say that we have received examples of various contracts from growers, including a supermarket contract for onions that required a six-year rotation.

We can see no reason for the clause. The seven-year period is reasonable. In earlier debates, the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, argued against the fact of leaving unprotected usage up to seven years. She said that it might deny somebody else the right of access to that. The Bill is a check and a balance of how we have regard to one business to another, so I will be interested to hear the Minister's response to it. The Bill should make provision for longer periods to be negotiated, where required. The introduction of any such measure should be delayed to allow agricultural businesses to make necessary adaptations to their business. I beg to move.

Lord Livsey of Talgarth: Amendment No. 66 also stands in our names. The territory was covered earlier this week in a substantial debate, but I will make a few points to back up what the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, said.

There is no doubt that keeping the period at seven years would allow for effective crop rotation. Four years is too short. Sound rotational practice breaks pest and disease cycles and assists in the maximising of economic yield and the quality of the crop, which is crucial, particularly for supermarket contracts and suchlike. It also reduces the need to use pesticides, fungicides and herbicides and, therefore, reduces pollution. A seven-year licence assists the sustainability of the farming system within a rotation. That is an important point. Increasingly, we want sound crop practice that will result in a quality product. I, too, see no reason why the period is being reduced to four years.

Baroness Young of Old Scone: A few days ago, we set off at a gallop and—inappropriately—discussed the issue in connection with Amendments Nos. 51 and 64. I shall not take up the Committee's time, but I will refer to what I said then, inappropriately, and I hope that it will be taken into account, appropriately, at this point.

Lord Whitty: I am sure that the Committee recalls precisely what the noble Baroness said at that point in a complicated evening.

From the point of view of the Environment Agency, which is responsible for water management, seven years is a long time to allow an unnecessary sleeper licence to operate. The Bill gives a power but does not impose a duty. The clause does not say that the Environment Agency must revoke licences that have not been used for four years, it says that it may do so, in certain circumstances. In doing so, it must be reasonable and take all factors into account. If, for the purposes of water management, rotation, land restoration, soil recovery or disease control, there is a reason why the licence has not been used for more than four years, the Environment Agency should take that into account and would be acting unreasonably, were it to revoke a licence in that knowledge. Were it to act

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so unreasonably, there is a right of appeal, before any licence is revoked. Seven years is a long time for an unnecessary sleeper licence that prevents companies and households from receiving water and, by its existence, prevents the granting of any new licence. It is a long time to deny the Environment Agency access to that water.

Some of the concerns that have been expressed in this short debate are unfounded. All the situations to which the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, and others referred should be regarded by the Environment Agency as providing good reasons, but there are other situations in which it would be desirable for the Environment Agency to act before the end of seven years, as under current legislation.

The Duke of Montrose: My memory of the inappropriate discussion that we had the other day may fail me, but, as a farmer, I would like to ask what constitutes non-use in a given year. If a licence holder wished to protect his position, would he be able to turn the whole system on for a day? Would that count as use?

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: I might be able to help the Minister by asking a couple of questions. I am sure that his mathematics is better than mine, but he might be slightly at fault. He said that seven years was a long period, but the amendment would simply add another three years to what is suggested.

Lord Whitty: It is the other way round.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: I said that his mathematics was better than mine, so I accept that point.

The amendment should be borne in mind with the one that we discussed earlier about the ability of farmers to impound water for the purposes of irrigating their land. It is not a case of making one amendment or the other, but, if we made the first amendment, which encouraged the impoundment of winter water, the difficulties that farmers would get into because of their need for so much of the other abstracted water would be reduced, and there would be less pressure for this amendment.

Lord Livsey of Talgarth: The Minister maintains that he requires a reduction from seven to four years. He is advocating a catch-all situation, in which those who need a licence for seven years would be equated with those who hold sleeper licences that may, as he said, not be needed. It is important to distinguish between the two requirements. It ought to be possible for those granting a licence to take account of the important aspects that we have discussed.

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