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Regulatory Reform (British Waterways Board) Order 2003

11.24 p.m.

Lord Whitty rose to move, That the draft regulatory reform order laid before the House on 28th April be approved [19th Report from the Regulatory Reform Committee].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the order will amend the Transport Act 1962 and the Transport Act 1968 by adding to, and clarifying, the British Waterways Board's statutory powers, and will enable the board to participate more fully than it can at present in the public/private partnership known as Watergrid.

Watergrid is a joint venture between British Waterways, the public corporation that runs the UK's 2,000 mile canal network, the water services and infrastructure management group Anglian Water Group, utility provider Bristol Water Holdings and Partnerships UK. It is one of the first projects to be taken forward under the Government's Wider Markets Initiative to create better value from public sector assets by utilising private sector expertise and funding. Watergrid will supply industrial, commercial and property development customers alongside the inland waterways with sustainable water solutions. These will include bespoke water treatment, wastewater treatment, recycling services and environmental consultancy based on individual customer needs.

The amendments proposed in the order will give the British Waterways Board additional powers to abstract, purchase, treat and sell water, and to treat and dispose of effluent. They will also clarify that the borrowing of a company formed by the board—but which is not its subsidiary—does not count towards the board's overall borrowing limit.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs consulted widely on the proposal last year. It was generally welcomed as a means of raising additional income for the waterways and of bringing more competition to the water supply industry. Following consideration of a number of detailed legal points in respect of the board's borrowing limits and its duties to maintain the waterways in a navigable condition, the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee concluded that the proposal to amend British Waterways' powers was an appropriate

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use of the powers under the Regulatory Reform Act 2001. I thank the members of that committee for the time they spent scrutinising the proposal and for recommending it unanimously to the House.

The equivalent committee in another place also concluded unanimously that the proposal was appropriate to be made under the Regulatory Reform Act, following detailed consideration of concerns raised about the adequacy of the consultation process, which were addressed to its satisfaction. The order was subsequently approved. I commend the order to this House.

Moved, That the draft regulatory reform order laid before the House on 28th April be approved [19th Report from the Regulatory Reform Committee].—(Lord Whitty.)

Baroness Byford: My Lords, before I turn to the order, I wish to record my deep concern and dismay that here we are, two minutes before 11.30 p.m., taking forward a statutory instrument when the new procedures of the House were to encourage us to finish at around 10 p.m.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, my understanding of the agreement of the House was that divisible business would be completed on the appropriate days by 10 p.m. For example, on Thursday evenings the legislative business is completed by 7.30 p.m., but the House often takes an Unstarred Question after then.

Baroness Byford: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for intervening. I infer from the shake of the head that I see from my left from the Clerk that that understanding may not be fully correct. The matter is not an issue that I wish to ram at the two Ministers opposite. It is a practical problem. We sat through and waited patiently while an important statutory instrument was taken through the House—one that should not have been taken at this time of night, a matter conveyed by other noble Lords. I am not getting at the two Ministers opposite, because unfortunately we are where we are.

However, I want to record that I am dismayed at taking the order and that I hope that those who are looking at reforming the House will bear in mind some of the words that others have said tonight. For example, last night we rose at 6.45 p.m. To do that and then to take two statutory instruments through at nearly 11.30 p.m. is unacceptable—not only to me and our Benches, and the Liberal Benches, but it is unfair to the Government Ministers who have to put the amendment through. I am recording my deep dismay that we are here also on their behalf.

The Minister was with us yesterday for a long debate on a very important Select Committee report. Today we had a four-hour debate on the countryside, and tomorrow we shall have a six-hour debate on the Water Bill. The usual channels should therefore examine the business and see whether we can avoid this

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sort of situation in future. As I said, I am not criticising the Minister. I just think that we have a practical problem that the House needs to address.

I thank the Minister for his comments. I appreciate that the order will enable the board to use private enterprise and private funding, a change that we would certainly support. Sustainable water solutions are also desirable. Nevertheless I have a couple of questions.

In the introduction to their report, the House of Commons Regulatory Reform Committee rightly said that the order would,

    "give the Board additional powers to abstract, purchase, treat and sell water, and to treat and dispose of effluent".

That gives rise to two questions in relation to the Water Bill. Is the Minister confident that Clause 29 of the Water Bill, on water resources management schemes, will not be affected by this order? Secondly, will Clause 7, which deals with the rights of abstraction for drainage purposes, not be compromised by the Bill? If he cannot answer that question tonight, I should be happy in the circumstances for him to write to me. Those are obvious questions as the House is currently considering water legislation. We wonder how that legislation might impact on this order.

On page 5 of the same report, the committee expressed some concerns. The report states:

    "However, we were concerned by the apparent lack of opportunity at the planning stages of the Water Grid project for groups such as English Nature and The Wildlife Trusts to raise environmental concerns. We suggested that had the Department provided certain relevant information to English Nature, The Wildlife Trusts and other interested environmental bodies, and given them the opportunity to comment on that information, their environmental concerns could have been resolved at an early stage. We considered it unfortunate that English Nature's concerns were properly addressed only when a parliamentary committee chose to seek further information about the adequacy of the consultation process".

The Minister said that the committee expressed a couple of concerns. I thought that I should record the fact that those were major concerns. We on these Benches are concerned about what input English Nature and the Wildlife Trusts might have. Our earlier debate also dealt at great length with the issues facing us as regards environmental legislation.

Paragraph 8 of the report goes on to state:

    "Both the Department and the Board have undertaken to make the information discussed above available on request, and to seek to address any outstanding environmental concerns that may arise as a consequence of such a request".

I heard what the Minister said. Having expressed their concerns about the lack of consultation, the committee nevertheless felt that the order should come before the House. I therefore support the order.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, I shall not repeat the issues raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, save to say that I noted the concerns of English Nature. I, too, have a query that I want to raise about how the order relates to the Water Bill.

The noble Lord will know that in our discussions on that Bill he defended the decision to keep British Waterways network of mini reservoirs outwith the Water Bill. By means of this order, the motives which

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I fully understand and agree with, British Waterways is being moved more into becoming the equivalent of a private sector water company. The Government do not have a good record of taking advice from English Nature, and I understand that they are resisting advice from the Environment Agency.

Having seen the order and having become more aware of the issues, I am surprised that the Government are not inclined to take the Environment Agency's advice to include all of British waterways water assets within the framework of the Water Bill.

The Earl of Northesk: My Lords, my apologies for attempting to prevent the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, from getting to her feet and delivering that oration.

I do not expect the Minister to answer the point that I want to make as it is beyond his remit. I apologise because the hour is late, but this is a desperately important issue. Notwithstanding the intervention of the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington, life in this House is becoming insufferable, given that increasingly the Government seem not to have understood what they have done in changing the hours.

I want to register an intense protest from the Back Benches that the way in which the Government are managing the phraseology, "We should normally stop at 10 o'clock" is causing deep concern. The Government should be aware of that and ought to address it.

Without in any way criticising the noble Baroness for her interpretation, I make the very obvious point that when a public Bill exceeds the 10 o'clock sort of limit and ends up being considered post 1 o'clock in the morning, we have to ask how realistic the reform has actually been. I merely wanted to make your Lordships aware of that issue.

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