HL Deb 22 July 1976 vol 373 cc980-3

4.41 p.m.

Third Reading debate resumed.


My Lords, if we are now returning to the calmer subject of the Drought Bill, may I, before the Bill gets a Third Reading, which I hope it is shortly going to get, say a word or two in support of the noble Baroness. The comments this afternoon have been rather critical, and I think have been directed not so much to the Bill as to the surrounding circumstances of the water shortage itself. In fact the Bill is going to be entirely helpful. Its purpose is to provide a refinement of the existing controls. Here I declare again my interest as chairman of the National Water Council. This refinement of control will assist the water authorities in the acute shortage areas to share out the reduced supplies in the best way possible until fresh rainfall comes to relieve us. It is certainly to be welcomed in every way in that respect. Of course the Bill cannot produce any more water, and even the noble Baroness's outstanding efficiency cannot do that for us. Only the rainfall itself can do that.

The main criticisms which were voiced, I feel, had some validity. The point was made by my noble friend Lord Hawke that perhaps this will educate public opinion not to oppose building of new reservoirs. I would very much hope that it will. Certainly in some areas, particularly in the South-West, there is an urgent need for that. With regard to the more esoteric comments about the meteorological forecasts, the noble Lord, Lord Wigg, and I have already had some exchanges on this, and I think the only thing we can agree on is that we really do not know. He has quoted Professor Lamb with qualified approval. The noble Lord, Lord Ritchie-Calder, referred to other people who make these researches, notably our Meteorological Office in Bracknell where there are first-rate meteorologists, and no doubt they will all be giving us the benefit of their advice.

Looking to the major problem to which noble Lords have been directing their comments today—that is, the security of future supplies—this is something we shall review in the greatest detail next winter in the light of the drought experience and in the light of the best advice that we can be given by the meteorologists. Having, as we have, a drought situation the like of which has not been seen in 250 years, we obviously must proceed with caution to try to find the right balance in the equation of security of supply on the one hand and cost on the other, because every additional million gallons that we provide in storage in order to secure supply will have to be paid for in future years in higher costs.

My noble friend Lord Barnby, who I am sorry to see is no longer in his place, complained about the high cost of water to industry. Well, of course, he is right; there has been an increase in cost. The more secure we make supplies the higher the cost will go. The fact is that we have still, even in a year like this, sufficient rainfall if we store more of it.

What we have to make up our minds about is this: do we have to store more, and if we do, how much more should it be? This is just what we shall be looking at. That is very simply stated, but, of course, it is a highly sophisticated judgment when we come to decide what should be done. I again thank the House for giving this Bill such a swift passage and thank the noble Baroness for her capable handling of it. It is going to be entirely helpful in enabling us for the next couple of months to share out the scarce supplies that remain.

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, I do not want to delay very long over this Bill, but there are one or two points I should take up. Most of my critics are not in their places. My noble friend Lord Wigg raised a number of points. The first one, I think among the most important, was the one about consultation with other Departments and other Ministers. I can assure him that all the Departments concerned, Industry, Agriculture—Sport, as he knows, is located in my Department—are in close touch, both at national and local level, so there is no shortage of consultation, both interdepartmental and with the water authorities.

When we come to the question of industry, to which I think most noble Lords referred, including my noble friend Lord Wigg, there is, of course, the general anxiety about the shortage of water. The noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford, dealt extremely well with this when he used the phrase "refinement of controls", which will be the object of this Bill. But having listened to the long Statement and the questions on it which interrupted this Bill, for anybody to feel that the Government are not acutely aware of the needs of industry and of promoting industry would be a complete misunderstanding of what we are trying to do.

An acute water shortage obviously can cause problems for industry. The powers in the Bill are designed to ensure that the burden falls as fairly as possible and also where the least damage will be done. This is why it must vary according to different areas and different authorities. Of course, if there is still a shortage of water this winter it is absolutely true that a new situation will arise, as the noble Lord, Lord Nugent, and others have said, and then we will have to look at new measures. But in the present situation the Government believe that this Bill can deal with it.

My noble friend Lord Wigg said that he hoped for the best but we should be planning for the worst. He is absolutely right. When we come to the long-term climatic research, there are no simple or quick answers. He said that he did not want any simple or quick answers. But what is absolutely true—I think the noble Lord, Lord Hawke, made this point—is that a situation like this pinpoints dramatically what can happen, and alerts both Government and public to the need for conservation of water and for long-term planning. We are closely in touch with and advised by the Meteorological Office, and we are taking full account constantly of the work being done by Professor Lamb at East Anglia and also the work being done in other countries referred to by my noble friend Lord Ritchie-Calder.

The noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford, was absolutely right when he mentioned some of the future problems, the need to look for supplies, and the questions of security of supply and cost. These are things that have to be weighed up. It is perfectly true that one can make elaborate contingency plans, perhaps in a more long-term manner, if cost is not a very relevant factor; but when cost is such a relevant factor we have to balance the possibilities or probabilities of emergency and try to get the right point. We believe we have got it right now, with this Bill. If the rains do not come, then we will have to look at the situation again. What the Bill does is to give the powers necessary, now and for the coming few months, and if the worst happens that will be the time when it does apply. This also gives us a basis for the sort of long-term planning to which noble Lords referred.


My Lords, before the noble Baroness sits down would she answer one question? As I understand it, the Government are giving full support, and quite rightly, to meteorological studies. What I am concerned about is that climatology should get similar support. I am not asking for a reply today, but would she consult with her colleagues to see that the work of Professor Lamb specifically, and others, is getting all the support needed in this situation?

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, what I intended to do was to write to my noble friend about this and go into it in more detail. I have dealt with it in a general way, both at Second Reading and now. I think it would be much better if I wrote to him and told him exactly what the relationships were.

On Question, Bill read 3a, and passed, and sent to the Commons.