HL Deb 02 November 1976 vol 376 cc1071-4

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government when, in view of the statement made by the chairman of the National Water Council with regard to water supplies, they propose to repeal the Drought Act 1976 and lift restrictions on the use of water for commercial cleaning purposes.


My Lords, we need to keep the powers of the Drought Act in reserve, but those powers enabling water authorities to restrict the use of water for non-essential purposes are of limited duration. However, water authorities are already relaxing restrictions or treating cases of special hardship sympathetically.


My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness the Minister for her Answer. Could she assure us that an Act of Parliament of this nature will be taken off the Statute Book as soon as it ceases to be relevant to day-to-day affairs, rather than for it to be left there? Secondly, is she aware that local water authorities are requiring that individual applications be made for the easement of prohibition orders in those industries to which I have referred in my Question; that is, the cleaning industries?

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, with regard to the first part of the noble Lord's supplementary question, I cannot possibly either put any date to the repeal of this Act or give any hope that it will be repealed. The noble Lord will remember that at the time we introduced this Bill many noble Lords thought that action should have been taken sooner, and it seems to me that it would be incredibly foolish to repeal an Act of Parliament when we might need to use it in the future. It should be there in reserve. On the noble Lord's second point, I may say that where restrictions are being taken off by water authorities, which has been happening in many areas, that is a general taking off of restrictions. Where the restrictions still apply and there is a case of special hardship, the individual firm must apply to the water authority. That seems to me to be quite in order and has in fact been happening.


My Lords, would my noble friend agree that in an island such as this, with our huge rainfall, it is absolutely disgraceful that after a few weeks during which there has been a lack of rain we find ourselves in the shocking position we were in a few weeks ago; and would she try to ensure that there is now an effort to conserve water on a far greater scale than we have ever attempted before?

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, it is difficult for me to say that what was almost an act of God is an absolute disgrace. On the second part of my noble friend's question, I would point out that it is also true that when the chairman of the National Water Council, the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford, made a statement recently he stressed the need for us still to conserve water. That is why the restrictions are being lifted with some considerable caution and why, at the same time, people are still being asked to be as economical as they possibly can be, because we do not know what lies ahead.


My Lords, since this has been the worst drought for 250 years, does the noble Baroness realise that the whole House will admire her far-sightedness in retaining permanent powers which may well be needed as soon as the year 2226?


My Lords, is my noble friend aware—I am sure she is—that owing to the very long, dry spell that we had, there are still many reservoirs only partly full and a large number of aquifiers which are showing no response yet to the recent heavy rain?

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, that is absolutely true. That is why we are still asking for the greatest possible economy and why, in the area of the Thames Water Authority, for instance, because it is taking so long to replace the under-ground water sources, it is still necessary to maintain restrictions, despite the torrential rain we have had recently. Although the drought may be at an end, the water shortage is not.


My Lords, will my noble friend not accept that, as indicated by the noble and learned Lord opposite, this drought has been very exceptional indeed; but has it not taught the Department and the nation as a whole the lesson that we should look upon water resources as a whole? Instead of our having the independent authorities that we have now, would it not be possible for some thought to be given to establishing a national grid scheme, somewhat on the lines of the gas and electricity industries, in order to see that the rivers, which have so much water which flows to waste, as it were, are harnessed to meet any future emergency?

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, my right honourable friend the Minister for Sport and Recreation and recently the Minister for Drought, will be making a Statement on the water supply prospects very shortly.


My Lords, has all this anything to do with the low temperature of the Chamber today?


My Lords, does my noble friend recall that during the Second Reading of the Drought Bill it started to rain outside in torrents, with accompanying thunder and lightning? If ever there should be a recurrence of the severe drought and this Act should ever lapse, that might be a suitable moment to reintroduce it.


My Lords, there is one final question. Would not the Minister agree that it seems unfair that two industries, car cleaning and building, are the only industries to be affected by total prohibition?

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, there is, I agree, an element of rough justice about this. But if the noble Lord will cast his mind back to the time when this prohibition was brought in, he will recall that we were in the middle of a severe drought in which agriculture and domestic water supplies were very badly affected. We had at that time to decide our purposes and these two industries were non-essential in this respect and were conspicuous at a time when it was necessary to secure maximum economy and the greatest co-operation. My right honourable friend will certainly be looking at exactly what happened during the operation of the Act during the drought.


My Lords, would the Minister agree that it is high time that England should pay for the water it gets from Wales?


My Lords, with the permission of the House may I answer the noble Lord, Lord Derwent? The temperature of the Chamber has been observed, engineers have been told, and we are hoping for a little warmer temperature later.


My Lords, I have noticed that the Government Chief Whip always moves very quickly.

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