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Lord Sutherland of Houndwood: My Lords, I wish to support the amendment on the grounds that, in any large quarrying footprint, different areas of the quarry may be worked at different times but all within the same investment horizon. The reasons for a section of a quarry not being worked, with the result that it may require a separate licence, may be beyond the control of the company in question. None the less, the investment assumes that that section can be worked without further impediment. I therefore support the amendment.

6 p.m.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, we have debated the matter at great length before; I am grateful to both noble Baronesses for quoting large chunks of my speeches on the subject. But the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, is asking me a whole range of questions about why the existing seven years will be reduced to four years. I cannot answer most of her questions.

We are moving into an era in which we need tighter control of water resources. Therefore, if there is a damaging sleeper licence, it would be sensible to be able to intervene earlier than previously. We hope that the number of occasions on which that would occur

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would be relatively small. As I said, the Environment Agency would not be acting reasonably were it to revoke a sleeper licence when the non-use of the ability to abstract was because of a shift in part of the quarry that was being used, or for other planning purposes.

This part of the Bill provides for where the revocation can be made without compensation. The circumstances in which that may arise will be limited: to where the existence of that sleeper licence caused environmental damage because failure to abstract had caused problems down stream, or whatever; or where it had damaged the interest of another abstractor; and where it was unjustified on grounds of the type referred to in the debate in relation to the quarrying and farming industry.

It would of course also be unreasonable for the Environment Agency to act were the provision to be part of the undertaking's drought plan or water resource management plan, which itself would have already been agreed by the Environment Agency. It would be somewhat bizarre were the Environment Agency to act to revoke something that was part of a plan to which it had already been party.

The number of circumstances in which that has arisen under seven years has been relatively limited; the number that would arise under four years would therefore be limited; but it could exist and cause serious damage to another abstractor or to the environment further downstream. Therefore, we need to provide for the Environment Agency to act without fear of being faced with substantial compensation claims as a result.

However, the instances referred to by the noble Baronesses, Lady O'Cathain and Lady Byford, and by the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, would not fall within that category. In those circumstances, it would not be reasonable for the Environment Agency so to act.

I know that we are going over ground covered in Grand Committee, but I hope that the noble Baroness will accept that explanation and the need to have tighter controls over damaging sleeper licences, but not give the Environment Agency carte blanche to intervene where the non-use is part of a sensible planned use of resources of the type described.

Baroness Byford: My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, perhaps I may press him a little further. If someone is causing damage, my understanding is—perhaps the Minister can clarify this for me—that the Environment Agency has existing responsibilities under which, if someone is damaging the environment or doing something that he should not be doing, the agency can act straight away. That issue is entirely separate from that of the period of licence renewal being reduced from seven to four years.

I find the Minister's argument illogical. I hope that I am not the only noble Lord currently in the Chamber who is confused. We are dealing with two separate issues. No one in the House has suggested that where damage is being done, action should not be taken straight away against someone damaging the water

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course, the environment, or whatever. I should like to make that clear, because if the Minister thinks that we want to defend people who damage them, I have obviously not expressed our position clearly.

My various questions were to raise why the Government wish to reduce the number from seven to four: why that number rather than any other ratio? I know that I asked many questions. If the Minister is not able to answer them immediately—I accept that he probably is not—I should be grateful for a general steer. I should then be quite happy for him to respond later. But, for the sake of the House, I want to clarify that we are dealing with two separate issues that have unfortunately been merged. One is damage, and I am sure that all of us would say that it should be dealt with immediately. If it is not dealt with properly, that licence should be revoked. The other issue, to which my noble friend's amendment relates, is the reduction of a sleeper licence from seven years to four years. I hope that the Minister can clarify that.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, there is no mathematical formula that shows that four years is the exact figure. The Environment Agency has some powers to intervene in the case of emergency damage but not when there is a long-term effect from a failure to abstract water at a particular point for no good reason or no reason that is justifiable in terms of the management of the facility or the use of the water. After all, the revocation of a licence that has not been used effectively releases increasingly scarce resources for somebody else to use.

It seemed sensible to reduce from seven to four years the period of non-use, potentially damaging use or, at a minimum, failure to allow the water to be used by somebody else. We consulted abstractors on the matter in 1998, when we discussed the general approach to water planning. By and large, a reduction was felt to be sensible. I cannot justify four years mathematically. If either noble Baroness requires further information, I will, of course, write, but there is no more precise answer, except to say that it was generally regarded as a reasonable move.

Baroness O'Cathain: My Lords, I thank the Minister. I had a certain amount of sympathy with him, when he was confronted with the questions asked by my noble friend Lady Byford. I thought, "My goodness. How many more?". I asked her sotto voce, and she said, "Probably 20. Maybe more". We know that there is no way that the Minister could reply to those questions at this stage. However, I must say, sparing my noble friend's blushes, that it shows the amount of research that she does. She gave us a clear picture of the sort of problems that could arise.

I reiterate what was said. There is no question of damaging the environment. Anybody who damages the environment must be penalised there and then. I do not intend to divide the House on the amendment, but I certainly intend to bring the matter back. In the mean

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time, I want the Minister to consider a couple of questions from me, as opposed to my noble friend. The Minister has discussed the matter with abstractors, who seemed generally to accept the reduction from seven to four. I ask him specifically whether they have looked at the matter on a regional basis.

I come back to a point that was made either at Second Reading or in Grand Committee: the average amount of water per head in the South East is less than that per capita in Sudan or Ethiopia. We have a massive water shortage in the South East. By the very nature of the climatic conditions that prevail in the South and South East, we are more likely to be in drought situations. I am sure that few people living in certain parts of the country—the North East, the Borders or up there in the Lake District—are subjected to hosepipe bans. I remember many such bans, fortunately not in the past few years. With the additional threat—I use the word advisedly—that a lot more housing will be situated in the South East—something like 46,500 new homes—there are bound to be problems with water resource management plans. The sleeper licence is absolutely imperative for drought planning.

Although the Bill is environmentally skewed—rightly—we should not forget that one of the big things about water is that we must produce clean, usable water for everybody in the country on a regular basis. If we decide to do away with sleeper licences or reduce them to four years, we could fail in our duty to do that. The Environment Agency would be found to have failed. But because the Environment Agency is an agency for government, it would come back to the Government. As a director of a water company, it would be quite nice not to have to face the brouhaha of the local population when it is reduced to standpipes and hose-pipe bans. We would be able to say, "Oh, it is the Government's fault". But, of course, everyone says that anyway.

If there is a drought, I should like the Minister to give some consideration to what the Government would be able to do. Would they be able to revitalise an abstraction licence and give a quick—within a day—abstraction licence to a water company? Indeed, would they be able to reactivate that? I am not so sure that they would. I must say—rather flippantly—that if the people who have given advice to the Minister, whether officials or other abstractors, have said, "Well, probably, four years is the maximum we need", are they such brilliant weather forecasters that we can rely on them to reveal where we should go for our holidays for the next seven, eight or 10 years? I know that is a slightly flippant comment, but in the circumstances it is a very serious issue. I shall not seek the opinion of the House today but I hope that between now and Third Reading, the Minister will give some thought to the points raised—certainly those raised by my noble friend—and revisit this issue. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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