12 Jun 2003 : Column 343

House of Lords

Thursday, 12th June 2003.

The House met at eleven of the clock: The CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Sheffield.

Water Bill [HL]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Whitty): My Lords, I beg to move that the Report be now received. In moving this Motion, perhaps I may, with the leave of the House, clarify a rather unusual position that we have entered into on one particular aspect of the Bill. It relates to the issue of fluoridation.

There has been some discussion as to whether the matter should be included in the Bill. I can announce today that it is the Government's intention to bring forward in this House an amendment relating to fluoridation. We shall seek to have the Bill re-committed for the sole purpose of considering the proposed amendment. It is provisionally proposed that that business would be tabled for 9th July, and that the Report of that re-commitment, and Third Reading, would also be taken on the same day—all of that business being in the Chamber. The amendment will be fairly straightforward. I hope that the House will agree that, in the circumstances, since the amendment does not have a bearing on any other part of the Bill, that is the best way to proceed. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Report be now received.— (Lord Whitty.)

Baroness Byford: My Lords, I should like to record my thanks to the Minister. Fluoridation is a highly controversial issue, whether one is in favour of it or against it. This decision has given the House an opportunity to have a full debate on a matter on which many noble Lords will want to express their view. I am grateful to the Minister and to the Government for agreeing to take the amendment on the Floor of the House and not in Grand Committee. It is only appropriate that that is where it should be taken.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Report received.

Baroness Byford moved Amendment No. 1:

    Before Clause 1, insert the following new clause—

The Secretary of State shall have a duty to devise and implement measures to ensure that all entities and persons who use water do so without wasting it."

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, this amendment is a re-worded version of our Amendment No. 3 which was debated at length in Committee. It reflects a number of contributions made in that debate.

12 Jun 2003 : Column 344

We believe that it is essential to ensure that people have a duty to conserve water. At various stages of the Bill we have referred to efficiency and conservation. Both are important, but they are separate issues.

When the amendment was originally proposed, it was generally welcomed; however, there was a clear inference that it could be improved if we looked at it again—so that is what we have done. In Committee, the Minister indicated concern that a general duty laid on the Secretary of State would confuse the powers and duties already given to the water companies, Ofwat and the Environment Agency. I disagree.

We considered this last point carefully, and concluded that it is a fragile argument. Nonetheless, by expanding the range of the duty laid on the Secretary of State to include devising and implementing measures, we feel that we have overcome the objection. Moreover, the amendment as now worded makes it clear that all users of water are affected, be they private individuals, companies, or public bodies.

During debate on the matter there has been more than one comparison with other entities. I recall in particular the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, referring (at cols. GC65–GC66 of the Official Report of 27th March 2003) to sewage treatment, the integrated pollution prevention and control regime as it affects factories and the nuclear power industry. I feel that the water industry as it is placed today is little different from those.

The effects of climate change are a matter for informed comment and serious conjecture. In the past two to three weeks, at least one "expert" has been given air time on Radio 4 to dispute that what is happening now is caused by man's actions or has not happened in the past.

The Water Bill has to contain provisions to meet what may or may not be a rapidly worsening situation. We believe that conservation should be a watchword for life in the West in the 21st century. A month or so ago, "Thought for the Day" revealed that people in this country cast more light on their back garden decking than was used to power the Eddystone lighthouse.

I do not have the figures, but I am sure that the amount of water used to wash cars must have increased out of sight compared with the previous century, when cars had just come into being. The national preoccupation with regular baths and showers may be highly praiseworthy, but it does not lead to a frame of mind where water conservation is paramount. The proliferation of nurseries and the sale of plants and seeds in a wide range of shops makes it fairly certain that more and more water is going to garden use.

Industry and agriculture have put in place many measures to conserve water. While they have been thus occupied, other users—particularly domestic customers—have been merrily exercising our "right",

12 Jun 2003 : Column 345

as we consider it, to a growing if indeterminate share of a national resource which most regard as unending.

The Daily Telegraph gardening supplement of 17th May produced a league table of English counties ranked according to their horticultural worth. It was compiled from a number of essential elements, one of which was rainfall. Cumbria scored 10 out of 10; Cornwall 9; Lancashire 8; Devon 7; and Somerset 6. However, all the remaining 33 counties were awarded 5 or fewer, and Essex, Norfolk, Cambridgeshire, Lincolnshire, Suffolk, Warwickshire, Bedfordshire, Northamptonshire and Nottinghamshire all rated merely a single point.

The Government have stated their intention to encourage the building of some 400,000 new homes. They are also consulting on massive airport construction. They have pointed to new hospitals and prisons, all of which will use vast quantities of water. The Secretary of State must have a duty to ensure that every person in every role and position that they occupy has a duty to conserve water. What better place to express that duty than at the start of this important Water Bill 2003? I beg to move.

11.15 a.m.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, we on these Benches support the amendment. We believe that it is right to put this commitment at the front of the Water Bill. The Water Efficiency Awards 2003, mentioned last week in your Lordships' House, showed again the enormous effect that small efforts on the part of individuals and creative innovation on the part of industry can have.

In Committee, we discussed such measures as the labelling of water appliances, and these Benches brought forward an amendment on the subject. The change of lifestyle referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, is a long-term issue, but it is correct to encourage the work to start now, with the Secretary of State having a duty to ensure that it continues and results in water being conserved in the longer term. Later in the Bill, our Amendment No. 155, addresses the duty of other government departments to do their bit for water conservation. However, it is appropriate to have this new clause as the starting point for the Bill.

Baroness O'Cathain: My Lords, I support my noble friend Lady Byford in this amendment. It is important that the matter should be stated clearly before we get into the nitty gritty of the Bill. I wish to flag up another issue to which I shall return on Report: we do not value water in anything like the way we should. For example, we think that water comes out of the sky, is in the rivers and the sea, and should be free. Perhaps there is a charge because it must be treated and flow through pipes, but we do not realise what a scarce resource it is. We must use every instrument at our disposal to try to ensure that we do not waste water. It is not just for the chattering classes to think about resources, annual rainfall and methods of getting water through the

12 Jun 2003 : Column 346

system to homes, offices and factories. Rather, we should impress on everyone that water is a valuable commodity.

The current method of charging for water, another issue I shall raise, means that most people assume that water charges are another tax rather like council tax. Generally speaking, water charges are based on the value of the property. There is therefore no incentive to use more, or worse still, to use less—no incentive at all. Unless all governments grasp the nettle, do what is done in every other major developed country and bring home the fact that water is a very scarce resource which must be paid for according to use, we shall get nowhere.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, we discussed similar amendments in Committee when I said that I sympathised with the objective and would consider whether an amendment was necessary. I endorse the overall sentiments expressed so far. However, the new clause is widely drafted and refers to a duty to develop,

    "and implement measures to ensure that all entities and persons who use water do so without wasting it."

That means everyone throughout the water cycle. It is the responsibility of the Secretary of State to ensure that none of us wastes water. It would be difficult to provide that general duty on the Secretary of State without giving the means to implement it, and I suspect that some of the means would be subject to civil liberty considerations. Public authorities are a different issue, and later on we shall consider an amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, that partly relates to that. Measures, are already in place, or are provided for elsewhere in the Bill, to further water conservation in that respect. For example, Clause 76 introduces a new duty on water undertakers to further water conservation which will expand on their existing duties to maintain an efficient water supply system and to promote the efficient use of water by their consumers.

I understand that the Water Industry Act 1991 already has various relevant provisions, including sanctions against the waste, misuse and undue consumption of the water supplied by undertakers. The Water Supply (Water Fittings) Regulations 1999 also place controls on certain water fittings and appliances for that purpose.

We considered carefully in Committee amendments to impose a duty on the Environment Agency to ensure that all abstractors use water efficiently. As a consequence, we are bringing forward a government amendment which will extend Section 6 of the Environment Act 1995 to make it clear that the agency has a duty to secure the efficient use of water resources. Therefore, existing legislation and this Bill already provide sufficient requirements with regard to the role of public agencies. This amendment goes somewhat

12 Jun 2003 : Column 347

further without necessarily supplying the means to achieve it. I believe that it goes a step too far, albeit that I agree with the sentiments expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, in relation to the general approach to water in this country and in other developed countries.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page