HC Deb 18 July 1963 vol 681 cc826-33
Mr. Bullard

I beg to move, in page 25, line 32, after "land" to insert: or in relation to the quantity of water extracted". I can deal with this matter briefly. I move the Amendment to help my right hon. Friend, his Department and the river authorities which may have to administer the licensing procedure under the Bill.

In Committee we discussed the question of small wells, particularly on farms, and the need for them to be licenced. I am sure that my right hon. Friend has been genuinely trying to have a proper rule written into the Bill whereby the unnecessary procedure of licensing small wells on farms and in small industries can be dispensed with. To licence them would be not only a big administrative job but would be attempting to deal with extremely small abstractors.

Some of the abstractions about which I am speaking might take place in very remote places, perhaps where wells have been used for many years for watering cattle and agricultural purposes. It would be an improvement to the Bill if a more carefully worded provision were inserted to define accurately these lower limits of abstraction. The Amendment seeks to give river authorities power to ask the Minister to make an order allowing them to exempt wells from which less than a certain quantity of water is extracted over a certain period, say a year or a month or whatever time my right hon. Friend may have in mind.

I gather that my Amendment is not very well worded. I am not surprised at that because hon. Members who deal with these matters are not always the best legal draftsmen. I hope that my right hon. Friend will not hold it against me if the Amendment is not worded to perfection. I hope that he will see the sense of it and will accept the principle involved. It may be suggested that a de minimis provision such as this is already provided elsewhere in the Bill. I hope so, but I want to have it made abundantly clear that powers exist whereby river authorities need not go to all the trouble of licensing small wells.

To be frank, many of these small wells will never be licensed, whatever happens. A great many of them are either unknown or partly known. The river authorities will have an almost impossible task looking for them, and I can assure my right hon. Friend that should a prosecution take place of a person who has not paid a £1 licence fee for such a well there will be uproar in the area. I am referring to places where water has been drawn out of the ground in the same way for donkeys years, probably for watering cattle. If the Minister intends to ensure that poor old wells like this are to be licensed there will be more than just a stir in the countryside. The Government should not tempt the countryman to rise up in support of his fellows, for that is what he would do if an attempt were made to prosecute someone for using one of these remote wells without being licensed. It would be much better for my right hon. Friend to clear this point up here and now rather than run a considerable risk of disturbances breaking out in the countryside.

Mr. C. Hughes

The hon. Member for King's Lynn (Mr. Bullard) conjured up a picture that terrified me, but I am sure that it will make the Minister think very carefully. The hon. Gentleman said that river authorities might have to appoint a staff of inspectors to go round the countryside looking for these wells. Might it not be cheaper, in the long run, to exempt the wells rather than pay additional salaries for inspectors? There is a great deal of substance in what the hon. Gentleman has said, and what is true of East Anglia is even more true of Wales. Time and again in our discussions we have referred to the mountain wells, and in the Standing Committee the Minister said that if he could he would at some later stage introduce a form of words to give hill farmers some protection.

The hon. Gentleman has made his case succinctly and clearly, and we on this side would support him. What he asks is not unreasonable. Many of these small wells in the countryside are not frequently used, the amount of water abstracted is very small, and I should have thought that it would have been in the interests of both the river authorities and the farming community to exempt these wells.

Mr. Jasper More (Ludlow)

It was with great pleasure that I have heard the hon. Member for Anglesey (Mr. C. Hughes) support this Amendment. There may be a problem in rich counties like Norfolk and Anglesey, but how much greater is the problem in a poor county like Shropshire, where we have hundreds and thousands of small farmers who have relied for generations on their wells and who have for years now been looking to my right hon. Friend to stimulate our local authorities to provide the water supplies that will give us taps, and so on. Many of us, alas, still have years to wait for that and, in the meantime, we must rely on our wells.

Nothing has caused more irritation to the farming community than the idea that they would have to pay this £1 tax on wells on which they have habitually relied for their water supplies, and I think that this Amendment is very reasonable. I do not know, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, whether I am in order to refer to its drafting, but if there is imperfection in it I suggest that there might now be made a manuscript Amendment and that it might be accepted by you in order to enable my hon. Friend's proposal to be accepted—

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir Robert Grimston)

I must make it clear that I am not accepting manuscript Amendments.

Mr. More

I bow to your Ruling, Mr. Deputy-Speaker.

In our discussions, we have realised that although the principle of minimal acceptable flow may appear to be all pervasive in the body of the Bill and applicable to all our rivers, it will not be applied to our mountain streams and small tributaries. We need to be practical here, not only about our streams but about our wells. During last winter those of us fortunate enough to have piped supplies might have found them frozen up, and those providing their own piped supplies may have found themselves in the same position. They all had to resort to the pump.

We shall not extract a great many gallons in any one year, so is it reasonable that we should either have to pay for this or have to go through formalities to avoid payment? If the whole problem could be solved on our behalf by the method the Section already outlines, and by reference to the quantity we are likely to abstract, would not that be simpler for us and, as my hon. Friend suggests, also be a great alleviation for those who will have to administer this Measure?

8.15 p.m.

Sir K. Joseph

I almost thought during the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for King's Lynn (Mr. Bullard) that we were in France—the sound of massed tractors advancing was most intimidating—but I recognise…

Mr. Bullard

I think that in France the farmers dump the potatoes down the lift shaft of the tax office. I rather think that in this case it will be the inspector who will go down the well.

Sir K. Joseph

As long as it is not the Minister.

Despite this cheerful beginning to what I have to say, I recognise that there is here a problem that could, if badly handled, cause great distress and great resentment. I appreciate that, and not for one moment are we asking the House to reject this Amendment or asking my hon. Friend not to press it because of any fault in its wording. Clearly, had I thought the Amendment necessary for the improvement of the Bill, but that it failed through some form of words, I would either have spoken to him or put down something myself.

There is here quite a point of substance. As the House knows, the Proudman Com- mittee believed, and reported, that our underground water resources are absolutely essential to a sensible conservation policy. As a result, we have put into the Bill a control or licensing system for all underground water in general. This provision merely extends to the whole country the more or less emergency and ad hoc powers already in our existing legislation, under which the farmers' wells in some areas—I believe in parts of East Anglia—are already under a control system.

The reason why some wells are already under a control system is that in parts of East Anglia, I believe, they penetrate to a very important water-bearing stratum which is depended on, or will be depended on, by many other abstractors, existing or potential. It is consequently necessary to apply some form of control. There are many other areas—in fact, over the vast bulk of the country—where such emergency powers under present legislation have not had to be invoked to control the use of underground water, and in just the same way I would expect that when the river authorities come into being they will use their powers under Clause 25(2,b) to exempt from licence and control—and, therefore, from charging—those parts of their area where the wells of farmers only draw water from a shallow stratum or one that is not significant for the water resources of the area as a whole. I would hope, therefore, that by means of the use of Clause 25, all these understandable requirements of my hon. Friends the Members for King's Lynn and for Ludlow (Mr. More) and the hon. Member for Anglesey (Mr. C. Hughes) would be met.

If the river authorities do not invoke their powers, there is an Amendment on page 26, line 34, which gives power to citizens to ask the Minister to intervene.

In other words, it will be open under the later Amendment for the Minister to be requested to require the river authority concerned to set in motion the procedure under Clause 25. I think therefore that on these grounds my hon. Friends need have no fears that farmers' shallow wells will be put unnecessarily under the licensing or the charging system. I am satisfied that the Bill is adequately drafted to meet the case, but I will undertake as an added reassurance to hon. Members, if it is their wish, that prior to the second appointed day I will specially remind river authorities of the importance of surveying their areas so that they may consider the use of Clause 25 for this purpose at the earliest opportunity. I must with all caution say that they will have to do a certain amount of work before they can responsibly use Clause 25, but I will ask them to get on to that work as one of their earliest responsibilities so that they can relieve farmers of unnecessary anxiety.

Mr. Bullard

I had hoped that my right hon. Friend would have said a little more about his objections to the method of quantity.

Sir K. Joseph

My hon. Friend is quite right. I should have mentioned it. My objection to his method is that it would allow a given quantity, whatever it might be, to be drawn from areas where all underground abstractions might be very serious in their effect on the water resources of the whole river authority area, with consequent repercussions on their investment programme. What I am anxious to do is to save the river authorities from having any exemption imposed upon them, regardless of the significance of the strata being drawn upon by the wells. That is why I think that the powers of Clause 25 are a safer way of securing the same object.

Mr. Bullard

I thank my right hon. Friend and beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Corfield

I beg to move, in page 26, to leave out line 14.

It would be convenient if the House would agree also to take Amendments Nos. 29, 120 and 123.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

That will be convenient.

Mr. Corfield

This series of Amendments arises from an Amendment which was withdrawn in Committee by my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) on my right hon. Friend promising to consider whether it would be possible to ensure that statements of minimum acceptable flow should be sent to those people who registered for that purpose and paid a small charge. This is the starting point of these Amendments. The first and second Amendments follow from the addition which we hope will be made to Schedule 6, because the paragraph in Schedule 6 concerning the minimum acceptable flows would otherwise be incorporated in the procedure under Clause 25 where it is clearly not suitable.

Amendment agreed to.

Further Amendment made: In line 17, at end insert: and (c) paragraph 4(g) of that Schedule were omitted"—[Mr. Corfield.]

Mr. Corfield

I beg to move, in line 34, at the end to insert: (7) If, in the case of a source of supply in a river authority area,—

  1. (a) it appears to the Minister, after consultation with the river authority and the Water Resources Board, that the question whether the restriction imposed by section 23(1) of this Act is needed in relation to that source of supply ought to be determined, but
  2. (b) no application for an order under this section has been made,
the Minister may direct the river authority to submit to him a draft order under this section with respect to that source of supply. (8) Part I, and, where applicable, Part IV, of Schedule 6 to this Act shall have effect in relation to any draft order submitted to the Minister in pursuance of the last preceding subsection, subject to the modifications specified in subsection (5) of this section and to the further modification that paragraph 8 of that Schedule shall apply in relation to any objection received by the Minister from the river authority as it applies in relation to an objection received by him from a person on whom a notice is required by that Schedule to be served.

Mr. Corfield

This, again, arises from an undertaking given in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop). The House will remember that there is a provision by which the Minister can instigate the procedure for the revocation or modification of a licence. This procedure is parallel to it, where the Minister can instigate the bringing forward of proposals to exempt from licences under Clause 25. It is analogous in many respects to some of the planning procedures, but, as the Minister is making the suggestion rather than the river authority, it does necessitate enabling the river authority itself to be an objector.

That is provided for, and so is the need for my right hon. Friend, in the first place, to consult with the river authority and the Water Resources Board before bringing forward this procedure.

Amendment agreed to.