My second amendment concerns the role of CCWater. I should point out that we are not actually asking CCWater to be an adjudicator. The amendment is supported by CCWater, as I understand it. It is just that in this particular area of charging schemes, it is not written in as a consultee, whereas in other areas it is. It is true that in practice most companies—the noble Baroness says all; I will take her word for it—consult CCWater. It would have been quite useful for that to have been in the Bill. However, for the moment, I will withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 134 withdrawn.

Amendment 135 not moved.

Clause 42 agreed.

Amendment 136 not moved.

Amendment 137

Moved by Lord Whitty

137:After Clause 42, insert the following new Clause—

“General duties with respect to water industry

In pursuit of its duty under section 2 of the Water Industry Act 1991 (general duties with respect to water industry) the Authority must take into account all information provided by section (Duties of undertakers to furnish the Secretary of State with information: annual review); and may consider such information when determining whether reopening a review of prices would further the consumer objective, set out in section 2(2A)(a) of the 1991 Act.”

Lord Whitty: My Lords, rather late in the day we are approaching a rather important issue, which concerns the powers of Ofwat to reopen a price review within five years if circumstances change or if information received from companies on their performance raises serious issues. Considering Ofwat’s role in a more dynamic market, this seems very important.

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At present, we set the price maxima for five years. Companies can reopen the five-year settlement if circumstances change; for example, if they need to expend more capital than was allowed for in the price review, they can go back in. Thames Water went back in to see Ofwat about additional money for the super-sewer. It was knocked back by Ofwat but it had the right to ask. I imagine that companies do not do it more often because if the company reopens the price settlement, Ofwat has the right to reopen it as well. It is not a big feature but I am arguing that there should be an equivalence.

Ofwat does not have the power to initiate a reopening. It uses informal powers, and has been quite successful in negotiating with some companies over the current five-year period for reductions in prices because of changed circumstances—mainly reflecting the fact that the cost of capital was significantly less in practice than had been allowed for when the price review was concluded. In reality, as my noble friend Lord Hanworth has pointed out more than once, that allowance for capital has permitted a significant degree of profit enhancement and dividend enhancement by companies, and it is important that Ofwat keeps an eye on this.

Amendment 137 would allow Ofwat to reopen the settlement if it thought that the way in which it was operating was no long appropriate to the economic circumstances, or that the company’s own behaviour gave it cause to reopen it because the terms of the settlement were no longer appropriate. Amendment 146 would provide some background for this. It would require water undertakers to provide information to Ofwat on a regular, annual basis on their financial affairs. This could be dealt with separately from the other amendment, but we have grouped them together for these purposes and there is an interrelationship. If this is a different provision from the very detailed cost breakdown that Ofwat now requires from companies in advance of the price review every five years, and if we move to a more competitive market, the details of that form of regulation may not have to be so onerous over time.

This amendment looks at how companies perform during the price period. It will provide a big picture of how the financial operation as a whole is working out. As we have constantly reiterated, there is a problem in this industry of a vertically integrated regional monopoly, with higher levels of gearing, dividends—they have been at over 90% of income over the past few years—and rates of return on assets, in a relatively low-risk industry, paying relatively low levels of taxation. There are issues about the totality of the finances of the sector that a regulator ought to be free to query. It certainly should have information on it. Your Lordships may have heard a recent programme about this on the BBC’s “File on 4”. I did not agree with all of it, but it pointed out, for example, that some of these companies have at least seven levels of executive decisions before reaching the real decision-makers at ownership level. That applied to Thames Water in particular.

It is important that Ofwat can challenge the way in which these companies conduct their financial affairs. Amendment 146 would provide it with the information for doing so and Amendment 137 would allow it to

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reopen the price settlement if it saw that there were serious and endemic concerns about the way in which a company was operating, or about changes in the cost of capital or the level of corporate internal transfer pricing and so forth. It is important that Ofwat understands the total system and it is important that it has the ability to reopen the settlement. Of late, water companies have received fairly bad publicity because of their overall financial structure. At the moment, the regulatory system cannot really address that and does not have the information needed in order to address it. This is a gap in Ofwat’s powers that needs to be filled. I beg to move.

Baroness Neville-Rolfe: My Lords, we should look very carefully at this proposal for an increase in regulation. Water and sewerage are long-term matters and the great need is to have investment in resilience, with the right and proper regulatory framework. Ofwat seems to have got tougher in recent times. It is right to have a five-year timescale or we will not get the investment that is needed for resilience. The entrepreneurs involved will assume that if profits go up, perhaps because they have improved efficiency, they will immediately get a call from Ofwat reopening the five-year settlement, triggered perhaps by articles in tabloid newspapers—the sort of thing that will not be good for investment in this vital industry.

Lord Moynihan: I support that view. I completely understand where the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, is coming from, but there is a serious potential risk here to the confidence of the investment community in the water market. I hope that my noble friend takes that into account when considering extending the reasons for opening up price reviews.

5.15 pm

Lord De Mauley: I thank the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, for his amendments. I shall deal with the amendments in reverse order, Amendment 146 followed by Amendment 137, as to some extent the latter builds on the former.

The new clause introduced by Amendment 146 would give water companies a duty to report every year to Ofwat and the Secretary of State about their performance, investment, tax, corporate structure and dividends. If obtaining these data is the noble Lord’s concern, I can confirm that all thisinformation is already freely available in the public domain. The effect of the amendment would be simply to duplicate existing reporting requirements. The cost of the additional administrative burden on water companies would ultimately be met by customers. All companies—not just water companies—are already required to report on many of these matters in their annual reports and accounts. Any additional water sector-specific reporting requirements are a matter for the regulator, which is ardent in pursuing them.

The noble Lord raises some important issues about the way in which the sector is run, regulated and structured. I believe that the regulator is already taking action to address these issues. Let us be clear about the direction of regulation in the water sector. Ofwat is

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already taking vigorous action to improve standards of corporate governance across the sector. It is putting pressure on water companies to strengthen audit arrangements, board member appointments and governance generally. Ofwat recently published the outcome of a consultation on principles relating to board leadership, transparency and corporate governance. The principles set out clear standards for what the sector must do and set a clear timetable for their introduction across the sector. The response from water companies has been positive and I welcome that.

Ofwat has also launched a similar consultation relating to holding companies, seeking to apply basic principles to holding company boards across the sector on issues such as risk, transparency and long-term planning. I believe that the proposed annual review would place an additional burden on companies for very little gain, so I share the concerns about it expressed by my noble friends Lady Neville-Rolfe and Lord Moynihan.

Amendment 137 builds on the clause which would be inserted by Amendment 146. It would place a new duty on Ofwat to take into account the proposed annual report by water companies to the Secretary of State. It would then give Ofwat a further power to consider this information when determining whether to reopen a price review. Ofwat already has the power to reopen a price review under the substantial beneficial effects clause of the water company’s licence or by making an interim determination. If a water company is profiting from factors outside its immediate management control that were not anticipated at the time of the price determination, Ofwat can reopen its five-year price settlement. So Ofwat has the powers necessary to revisit price determinations. However, given the importance of regulatory stability in keeping prices down for customers, it rightly utilises these with caution and considers carefully whether there would be benefit to customers.

We are at risk of talking about things as they were, not things as they are or will be. Ofwat is changing the way in which it regulates. It is seeking to change the culture of the water sector and to facilitate companies taking greater ownership of and accountability for delivery to customers, now and in the long term. Therefore, I am not persuaded that these further powers and duties are necessary and I hope that I can persuade the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I would not disagree with the Minister and the noble Baroness that Ofwat is toughening up its stance, including on issues of governance within the sector. I think that I am at one with the Government in hoping that we move away from the detailed, costs-checking form of regulation of the industry towards a more broad-based one which will be helped by a degree of competition within the industry.

The Minister is right that Ofwat has emergency or overriding powers. The fact of the matter is that it has not used them and would have to meet some fairly stringent criteria so to do.

The Minister rightly admonishes me for looking backwards rather than forwards, but we have to look backwards to the immediate past. We have had two

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five-year price reviews. At the beginning of those reviews, the cost of capital, which is a huge part of the actual expenditure of the industry, was seriously overestimated over a period of 10 years, and prices set accordingly. During that period, the capital value of water companies went up substantially; the dividend payments went up substantially and a number of them were taken over, sometimes two or three times. Somebody made a significant amount of money out of that; it was not because of the increased efficiency of the industry, although the industry did make some efficiencies. It was a fortuitousness similar to when Ofwat, with what it thought was the best information at the time, set the allowance for capital; that allowed a much bigger profit than one had assumed at that time.

Under its existing powers, Ofwat did not judge, nor did successive Secretaries of State seek to nudge them to intervene. If the public knew that the system of regulation did not allow them to do so, they would be pretty appalled. I therefore think we need to do something. The Minister might not like my particular proposals—and they certainly are not perfect—but Ofwat needs to know what the unforeseen financial consequences are of the companies’ operations. It needs to have some ability to intervene on behalf of consumers—business as well as individual consumers—if it thinks that something has gone seriously wrong. At the moment, those powers are not sufficient.

I would like to see a measure like this on the statute book; I would not envisage that Ofwat would very often use it, but the experience of the past 10 years—it may well be exactly the opposite experience in the next 10 years as far as the cost of capital is concerned—leads me to think that there is a gap somewhere in Ofwat’s powers. We need to address that somewhere in this Bill and I am sorry that the Minister is not prepared to take it away and look at it in this context. I will withdraw the amendment, but this is something to which we might need to return in a slightly different form. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 137 withdrawn.

Clause 43: Modification of appointment and licence conditions

Amendments 138 to 145 not moved.

Clause 43 agreed.

Clause 44 agreed.

Amendment 146 not moved.

Schedule 7: Further amendments

Amendments 147 to 152

Moved by Lord De Mauley

147:Schedule 7, page 174, line 42, at end insert—

“3A In section 2A (strategic priorities and objectives: England) (inserted by section 24), in subsection (4)(d), for “licensed water suppliers” there is substituted “water supply licensees and sewerage licensees”.

3B In section 2B (strategic priorities and objectives: Wales) (inserted by section 24), in subsection (4)(d), for “licensed water suppliers” there is substituted “water supply licensees”.”

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148:Schedule 7, page 174, line 45, at end insert—

“4A (1) Section 10 (transitional provision with respect to replacement appointments) is amended as follows.

(2) In subsection (2), for “and (4)” there is substituted “to (4)”.

(3) After subsection (3) there is inserted—

“(3A) To the extent that charging rules issued under section 144ZA relate to charges imposed or security required by a relevant undertaker under section 185, those rules are to apply in relation to the new undertaker as if the appointment or variation had come into force.”.”

149:Schedule 7, page 201, line 1, leave out “(1A)(a)—” and insert “(1A)—

( ) in the opening words, for “the licensed water supplier” there is substituted “the water supply licensee”;”

150:Schedule 7, page 201, line 2, leave out “sub-paragraph (i)” and insert “paragraph (a)(i)”

151:Schedule 7, page 201, line 7, leave out “sub-paragraph (ii)” and insert “paragraph (a)(ii)”

152:Schedule 7, page 203, line 1, leave out paragraph 111

Amendments 147 to 152 agreed.

Schedule 7, as amended, agreed.

Clauses 45 and 46 agreed.

Clause 47: Maps of waterworks

Amendment 153

Moved by Lord Whitty

153:Clause 47, page 102, line 40, leave out subsection (1)

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I will not detain the Committee too long on this one. When I saw this provision, it jumped out of the page at me because the Bill seems to delete the requirement to provide mapping of flood vulnerability. Having now checked the impact assessment and checked with the Environment Agency, I see that it is clear that the particular clause is not inappropriate in the circumstances, but I thought I would use this opportunity to ask the Minister to tell us, perhaps in writing, what maps are now statutorily required for flood risks.

This issue will arise significantly when we come to discuss, as we will do in the next day of Committee, Flood Re and the properties that are to be covered by that system. The issue also arises in terms of resilience and, for other bodies, in terms of planning decisions, as well as in issues for the insurance industry that go wider than the Flood Re system. While the section that is to be deleted may be redundant, it is important that we ensure that the resources that the Government give the Environment Agency and other bodies are sufficient to provide detailed, robust and accessible maps defining the flood risk around the country.

There is some urgency to the issue because I know that there are, to put it neutrally, constraints on the Environment Agency’s resources in this area. The agency is, probably rightly, trying to focus what resources it has on front-line services. However, if you focus on front-line services in a diminishing budget, you inevitably cut backroom services, some of which are in this area of mapping and prediction—which is done by the

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Environment Agency but often in conjunction with the Met Office—of where flood risk is likely to arise in future. As I said, I do not expect a detailed argument from tonight’s discussion, but I would like, before we proceed further with the Bill, an indication of what mapping is required and what resources are there to carry it out. I beg to move.

Lord Knight of Weymouth (Lab): My Lords, briefly, I support my noble friend Lord Whitty in his challenge to the Government and, to some extent, the Environment Agency. At the moment, my home down in Dorset is technically under a flood alert. I can look at maps on the Environment Agency’s website and the detailed data on river levels at the station near to my home which, during this sort of scenario, are updated every few hours. In conjunction with looking at the Met Office website—because I am an experienced watcher of these things—I can predict pretty accurately whether we will flood. I am willing to put on record that I do not think we will flood over the next 24 hours. We put our floodgates up—some of them, but not all of them—but that is mostly because we could not be bothered to take them down from the last time.

This whole business is obviously very worrying for householders. I pay tribute to the Environment Agency for making all the data available so that people like me can, assuming we are online and confident enough to use those tools, make that judgment. However, it is really important that those resources are sustained and, as technology and resource allows, are improved as more and more householders, given climate change, worry more and more about their resilience for flooding.

Baroness Northover: My Lords, when I heard the earlier debate about consolidation and clarifying legislation, I thought that this was a case in point. The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, rightly spotted that, too. This amendment allows me to put something on record. The issue is about duplicate records. Our plan is to repeal Section 195 on the basis that a single record is all that is required. The Environment Agency is not aware of any request having been made for the inspection of the duplicate record required by Section 195. Of

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course, it will continue to maintain its primary and comprehensive sets of data, including maps. I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Knight, that public access to this information can be obtained under the Environmental Information Regulations 2004, or for that matter under the Freedom of Information Act 2000. This is a small efficiency and cost saving to the Environment Agency, without detriment to necessary data collection, maintenance or public access. I will write to the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, with details of the data held by the Environment Agency. On that basis, I hope he will be happy to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Whitty: I thank the noble Baroness for that and her determination to write to me setting it out. The importance of this is that these maps are there but will change. They will change as a result of development activities, because of climate change and our experience of floods that are supposed to happen once in every 200 years in the Somerset Levels—to return to that topic—but have happened in two years. It is vital that mapping resources are there and accessible to everybody, as they clearly already are to my noble friend Lord Knight. Not everybody has that level of accessibility. We need it, and we need to be assured that the resources can be updated and improved as information changes.

I thank the noble Baroness and the Minister for their patience this afternoon. We will meet again shortly, dealing with floods, in particular. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 153 withdrawn.

Clause 47 agreed.

Clause 48 agreed.

Schedule 8 agreed.

Clauses 49 and 50 agreed.

House resumed.

House adjourned at 5.31 pm.