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Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, may I just explain? I know that my colleagues were expressing support for the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer.

Baroness Byford: My Lords, I am being told to leave the matter alone. So often in this House we are told to

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leave matters alone. There is a time and place for everything. The way in which this news has been dealt out to us in the middle of a debate is appalling. I want to express my view on that and to express my distress at the attitude of Members opposite.

The Earl of Onslow: My Lords, the noble and learned Lord gets to his feet and explains why things should change. I do not object to change. In fact, he and I voted for sensible change together—we Welsh. What I object to is the way in which this has been done. By all means, appoint a new Lord Chancellor; then, you say: "We have proposals to do things in this sort of way". The matter is then debated properly, people have their say and it goes through the normal process.

What offends me very deeply is the high-handed, almost Saddamesque way of treating the British constitution. I do not think I have ever been so angry in the 30 years I have been in this House. I love this House. I love the constitution of this country. I love a balanced Whig arrangement. But to be treated like this! A Member on the Benches opposite said in a barracking way, "Shut up!"—in that lovely, old-fashioned House of Commons tradition that we all love and revere, but let us please not treat the constitution in the way it is being treated. Let us not treat this House in the way it is being treated. Let us not just play Pooh-sticks with 800 years of British liberty. I wish to test the opinion of the House.

6.59 p.m.

On Question, Whether the said Motion shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 23; Not-Contents, 81.

Division No. 5


Alton of Liverpool, L.
Brougham and Vaux, L.
Byford, B.
Colwyn, L.
Cooke of Thorndon, L.
Cumberlege, B.
Denham, L. [Teller]
Dixon-Smith, L.
Elton, L.
Erroll, E.
Fowler, L.
Freyberg, L.
Jenkin of Roding, L.
Marlesford, L.
Montrose, D.
Newton of Braintree, L.
Northesk, E.
Norton of Louth, L.
O'Cathain, B.
Onslow, E. [Teller]
Park of Monmouth, B.
Renton, L.
Trefgarne, L.


Acton, L.
Addington, L.
Alli, L.
Amos, B.
Andrews, B.
Archer of Sandwell, L.
Ashton of Upholland, B.
Avebury, L.
Barker, B.
Bassam of Brighton, L.
Bernstein of Craigweil, L.
Blackstone, B.
Borrie, L.
Bragg, L.
Brennan, L.
Brooke of Alverthorpe, L.
Brooks of Tremorfa, L.
Burlison, L.
Carter, L.
Christopher, L.
Corbett of Castle Vale, L.
Crawley, B.
Dahrendorf, L.
David, B.
Davies of Oldham, L.
Desai, L.
Donoughue, L.
Dormand of Easington, L.
Dubs, L.
Elis-Thomas, L.
Evans of Parkside, L.
Evans of Temple Guiting, L.
Farrington of Ribbleton, B.
Faulkner of Worcester, L.
Gale, B.
Gibson of Market Rasen, B.
Goldsmith, L.
Goudie, B.
Gould of Potternewton, B.
Graham of Edmonton, L.
Grenfell, L.
Grocott, L. [Teller]
Hardy of Wath, L.
Harris of Haringey, L.
Harrison, L.
Hayman, B.
Hogg of Cumbernauld, L.
Hollis of Heigham, B.
Howells of St. Davids, B.
Hoyle, L.
Hughes of Woodside, L.
King of West Bromwich, L.
Lea of Crondall, L.
Lipsey, L.
Macdonald of Tradeston, L.
McIntosh of Haringey, L. [Teller]
McIntosh of Hudnall, B.
MacKenzie of Culkein, L.
Mackenzie of Framwellgate, L.
Mar and Kellie, E.
Massey of Darwen, B.
Miller of Chilthorne Domer, B.
Milner of Leeds, L.
Northover, B.
Parekh, L.
Pendry, L.
Pitkeathley, B.
Rendell of Babergh, B.
Rogers of Riverside, L.
Rooker, L.
Russell, E.
Sainsbury of Turville, L.
Shutt of Greetland, L.
Symons of Vernham Dean, B.
Walker of Doncaster, L.
Warwick of Undercliffe, B.
Whitaker, B.
Whitty, L.
Wilkins, B.
Williams of Mostyn, L. (Lord Privy Seal)
Woolmer of Leeds, L.

Resolved in the negative, and Motion disagreed to accordingly.

12 Jun 2003 : Column 444

7.9 p.m.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, I had concluded moving Amendment No. 33 and had just sat down.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I apologise to the noble Baroness. The intervening excitement took away from the fact that she had finished speaking. No other noble Lord appears to wish to speak.

Amendment No. 33 deals with Clause 27, which introduces a new power for the agency to revoke, after 2012, any permanent licence causing serious damage to the environment, without payment of compensation. There would be a right of appeal to the Secretary of State or the National Assembly for Wales.

This amendment would extend the provision to some time-limited licences. However, such time-limited licences will already have been subject to rigorous scrutiny by the Environment Agency when they were issued. It is fair to say that the holders of such time-limited licences are entitled to confidence in the agency's decision. It is right that the agency, in turn, should carry the responsibility if the decision subsequently requires review before the licence expires.

There should be no cases where such serious environmental damage arises from a time-limited licence. The essence of a time-limited regime is that it facilitates gradual small-scale adjustments needed to deal with changing environmental factors such as climate change. In the unlikely event of serious damage arising from a time-limited licence that was based on Environment Agency conditions, it is right that the holder should be entitled to receive

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compensation on the basis of a licence that was granted by the Environment Agency's decision in the first place.

Government policy is to encourage the holders of permanent licences to agree to their voluntary conversion to time-limited status, as we debated earlier. One of the attractions of doing so is that holders would have both notice and compensation were those licences to be revoked. The amendment would cut across the incentive to convert to time-limited licences. For those reasons, I hope that the noble Baroness will not pursue the amendment.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. It was much clearer than his reply to a similar amendment in Committee. I hope that his optimism about people converting to time-limited licences is borne out. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Byford moved Amendment No. 34:

    Page 32, line 26, at end insert "; and

( ) the licence holder has been informed of the nature of this serious damage and allowed a minimum of six months to devise a means of reducing it to the point where it is no longer serious."

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, this amendment requires that a licence holder has been informed of the nature of the serious damage and allowed a minimum of six months to devise a means of reducing it to the point where it is no longer serious.

Will the Minister define "serious" as used in Clause 27(1)(d)? In Committee, he said:

    "The definitions of 'serious damage' under this clause and elsewhere will be set out in detailed guidance".—[Official Report, 3/4/03; col. GC 178.]

After our discussions earlier today, he will not be surprised that I shall push him to define it here rather than wait until regulation. I should hate to think that the comment is founded upon the Government's inability to provide a definition—though I note that Hansard uses the plural, "definitions". If it is not possible for the Minister to tell us today what is meant, I have no doubt that it should be done later, because it affects the clause directly. The clause would otherwise become a meaningless jumble of words, the net effect of which is to allow the authorities to revoke abstraction rights without compensation.

In reading Hansard, at cols. GC 176–179 of the Official Report of 3rd April 2003, I was struck by the stress placed by the Minister on the costs to the agency. He confirms that compensation is such a cost that it is part of the administrative cost, and that it has to be recovered if the agency is to fulfil its duty of recovering all its costs from abstractors. He extols the Government's clause because it,

    "limits the number of occasions that compensation would be payable. Therefore, it would reduce the degree to which any charge would fall on other abstractors".

12 Jun 2003 : Column 446

Yet, two sentences later, he says:

    "The clause . . . would reduce the burden on the Environment Agency's budget because compensation would not be payable in those circumstances".—[Official Report, 3/4/03; cols. GC 177–178.]

I am sure that the agency has formulated a definition of "serious"; and that it must at least have estimated the number of abstractions that are causing "serious damage" and should not attract compensation. Will the Minister tell us whether that is a matter of five, 10 or 20 claims, and the estimate of revocations that under the clause would not qualify for any payment? Will he also provide the estimated savings that will result?

I have again received a briefing from the National Farmers Union, which states:

    "The use of the phrase 'serious damage' is not yet strictly defined and, as such, the NFU feels that abstractors are unable to make a judgement on whether their present abstraction activities are causing this level of damage and what remedial action can be taken. The withdrawal of an abstraction licence should surely be the ultimate sanction, backed up by robust and transparent evidence of the quantifiable damage, especially when the right of the abstractor to compensation for such an action is to be questioned. The NFU welcomes the suggestion that an arbitrator should be employed to settle any dispute arising from the withdrawal of an abstraction licence(s) under those circumstances".

I beg to move.

7.15 p.m.

Lord Hardy of Wath: My Lords, I am uneasy about the amendment. If it would mean that damage, which could be serious, could continue for six months—therefore having an even more serious effect—I should be uneasy if it were carried.

I have no commercial interest, but I am involved in several conservation organisations, including the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, of which I am president. I am aware that in many parts of the country, a great deal of damage has been done, with the loss of wetland habitat during the past 40 to 50 years. If present levels of abstraction of water continue, damage will continue in many parts of the country.

To allow serious damage to continue for six months—or even six days—can be harmful. Of course, there may be argument about what is serious. Some members of the National Farmers Union may not consider certain action serious, where ardent conservationists would. I trust that the Government will not be generous to the amendment, if it means that damage that is recognised and understood is allowed to continue while someone is given six months to find a way to reduce the level of damage to slightly less than it was before.

One major purpose of the Bill is to serve the cause of conservation and the English environment. That needs protection; as I read it, the amendment could be utterly counterproductive.

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