HL Deb 09 December 1996 vol 576 cc865-7

2.45 p.m.

Lord Dubs asked Her Majesty's Government:

When they will announce extra powers for the Environment Agency to require the water companies to draw up long-term sustainable water resources plans and drought contingency plans.

The Minister of State, Department of the Environment (Earl Ferrers)

My Lords, Her Majesty's Government are at present considering proposals from the Environment Agency for new powers to require water companies to draw up and submit drought contingency plans and to publish water resource plans. A consultation paper will be published in due course.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. Is he aware that today six environmental organisations have published a booklet entitled High and Dry, dealing with the impact on wildlife of taking too much water from our environment? Has he had an opportunity to look at that booklet and, if so, what is his response?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I am deeply grateful to the noble Lord for asking the penultimate question. I have not had an opportunity to look at the booklet and therefore I am unable to give him a response. I doubt whether, even if I had looked at the booklet, I should have been able to give a considered response at this time. I shall certainly look at the publication.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

My Lords, will the publications which the Minister promised in reply to the Question include a planning policy guidance note? If not, would it not be a good idea to have such a document on the subject of water resources?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, after last year's drought my right honourable friend the Secretary of State said that an inquiry would be made into water resources. That was done and the findings were published in a booklet called Water Resources and Supply: Agenda for Action. We stated that the Government would bring forward modifications to the legal framework for water resources and supply if scope for further refinements were to emerge. The Environment Agency has made suggestions and we propose to issue a consultation document on them. As a result of the responses to those suggestions we shall decide what action shall be taken. However, whether that includes guidance or codes of practice remains to be seen.

Lord Crickhowell

My Lords, if new arrangements are to be put in place—and even if they are not but plans emerge from the water companies and the Environment Agency for the better control of water resources in the environment—will my noble friend ensure that the financial regulator is kept fully involved in the discussions and that the steps and measures taken by the regulator do not result in a conflict which prevents essential environmental action being taken?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I can assure my noble friend that the regulator will be involved. I cannot, of course, give him an assurance that there will be no conflict. I hope that if there is conflict it will be resolvable.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, will Parliament be informed before these powers are put into operation?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, yes. The whole purpose is to consult and to see whether people believe that there are reasons for altering the existing framework. We believe that the framework is right but that adjustments may be required. We want to discover what the industry as a whole feels.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, does the regulator have powers to set environmental standards for water companies? If not, why not?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, that is a matter for the Environment Agency.