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Lord Borrie: My Lords, does the Minister agree that serious droughts occur frequently, not just in 1976 but in many recent years; and is it not time that we moved from voluntary to compulsory water metering throughout the country?
Lord Bach: My Lords, my noble friend is right to say that droughts occur frequently and will continue to do so. Metering is an important issue on which there has been much publicity recently. It has an important role to play in demand management and helping to increase customer awareness of the amount and cost of the water that they use. We are leading on work for the Water Saving Group, which will take forward action for increasing metering in particular areas and improving understanding and the delivering of metering generally. But not every customer saves money from having a meter, so one has to make a decision on whether it should be compulsory.
Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, does the Minister recall that I asked a Question concerning the building of houses in an area where it is known that there is a water shortage? Will he tell me whether houses are continuing to be built, and is it true, as I have heard, that there is already a ban at this time of year on washing one's car with a hose because of shortage of water?
Lord Bach: My Lords, there has been a hosepipe ban in some parts of the south-east for some time, and it still exists. With extra housing the water position has
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been taken into consideration, and in their long-term plans the water companies are dealing with what they know is likely to happen in those areas.
Lord Livsey of Talgarth: My Lords, does the Minister agree that resource planning is inadequate in the context of climate change? It is an established fact that in many parts of the country, but particularly the south-east, sometimes only 40 per cent of the rain required falls. What has happened to plans for a national water grid to bring water from the north of England down to the south-east? Is it not time for long-term resource planning?
Lord Bach: My Lords, we are looking closely at whether there should be a national water grid. A great deal of water is already transferred within company boundaries, and there is some transfer between neighbouring companies, but we should not underrate the problems of a national water grid. Water is of course bulky and heavy and expensive to pump. It would need widespread excavations to build. We would have to be sure that it was a cost-effective solution, and we would also have to consider the environmental benefits. It is not an easy issue.
Baroness O'Cathain: My Lords, the Minister keeps talking about 25-year resource planning, but we are not actually in control of when it rains. Surely the answer, which the Government are skirting around the whole time, is compulsory metering. They do it for new house builds; why cannot they do it that way?
Lord Bach: My Lords, I know that there is strong feeling on both sides of the House about compulsory metering. We have heard it today. I have already given my answer. We encourage metering, but there are issues with it as well.
The Countess of Mar: My Lords, what proportion of water usage in the south-east can be attributed to the irrigation of crops? In view of global warming, what research is being done to encourage farmers to grow crops that are much more tolerant of dry conditions?
Viscount Simon: My Lords, on yesterday's BBC News, there was an item about water shortage that suggested that loos should not be flushed until absolutely necessary. Are there any plans to issue face masks?
Lord Walpole: My Lords, perhaps I may cheer the Minister up a little by saying that the ground water
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that we discussed in my supplementary question last time has recovered and is up to the level at which it should be. So there is some good news.
Lord Bach: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord. Desalination is an important part of the solution to the problem. Sometimes, it is to be favoured over new reservoirs for environmental reasons and because it is less costly. Desalination plants are almost certainly one of the major ways to deal with the problem.
The Attorney-General (Lord Goldsmith): My Lords, from the end of 2006 there will be a requirement not for all passport holders but, in the first instance, for all adult first-time applicants to attend for interview. A network of office locations for the interviews will be provided. It has been designed to strike the optimum balance between cost and ease of access. It will consist of 69 new offices, the locations of which can be announced when the current negotiations to provide them have been finalised. Different arrangements will be made for remote rural communities.
Lord Roberts of Llandudno: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer. Many first-time applicants will be young people on a very limited income who will perhaps need to lose a day's work and incur considerable expense to get to a passport interview office. How will the Government assist them? Also, how much will the 69 new offices cost, and how much training will be given to the staff? What is the final total likely to be?
Lord Goldsmith: My Lords, I cannot answer the last part of the noble Lord's question. As I indicated in my Answer, it is important to finalise the negotiations on the new premises. However, the design process has been such as to balance the proper requirement to keep down the cost with keeping down the average distance for the vast majority of applicants. The figures that have been calculated demonstrate that the costs will
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not be significant because of the placement of the offices. The average cost of journeys will be in the very low pounds.
Viscount Bridgeman: My Lords, will the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General tell the House what consideration was given to building on the Post Office's existing passport service before it was decided to seek private-sector support? I bear in mind the letter from the Communication Workers Union to Members of Parliament last month which referred to the,
Lord Goldsmith: My Lords, I do not have a copy of that letter, but I can tell the noble Viscount the position on the use of post offices. The Post Office, having originally bid, withdrew its bid for the work. It is important to note that the introduction of the interviews will not take anything away from the Post Office. First, passport applications will not be lodged at the new offices. Secondly, it will be necessary to have particular arrangements for the interviews to take place. Someone in a post office queue, for example, should not have to answer personal questions to prove that he or she is the person they are supposed to be. You would also need people who are trained. Granting a passport to this country is a job done by civil servants.
Lord Goldsmith: My Lords, I am sure that that is a sensible thing to look at, though I certainly cannot give a commitment that it will happen. I should make it clear that the location of the offices has been designed such that the average travelling time for all one-way journeys is 19 minutes. It need not be the sort of exercise that will cause someone to lose a day's pay at all.
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