HL Deb 04 March 1999 vol 597 cc1896-900

9.41 p.m.

Lord Dubs rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 22nd February be approved.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the purpose of the draft Water (Northern Ireland) Order is to strengthen the law to combat water pollution and conserve water resources and to promote the use of waterways for recreation. The order will up-date and extend the Water Act (Northern Ireland) 1972.

I should like to draw your Lordships' attention to an interesting historical point. The 1972 Water Act was one of the last pieces of legislation to be passed by the old Stormont Parliament while the Water (Northern Ireland) Order may be one of the last measures relating to Northern Ireland to come before this House.

I believe that it may be helpful to the House if I say a few words about the detailed provisions. Articles 11 and 21 will enable the Department of the Environment for Northern Ireland to make schemes for fees for applications for discharge consents and abstraction or impounding licences.

The powers in the 1972 Act to make regulations to control water abstraction have never been invoked because of Northern Ireland's abundant natural supplies of water. The need for such regulations is at present under review. The opportunity has been taken in Article 20 of the order to revise the powers in the 1972 Act to include protection for existing rights and to enable the impounding of water to be controlled.

Article 9 and Schedule I to the order provide new procedures for dealing with applications for discharge consents. For example, applications for revised consents will also have to be advertised and a public inquiry may be held to consider representations in response to the advertisement of applications. Article 12 will enable enforcement notices to be issued to specify the measures which must be taken to ensure compliance with conditions imposed on discharge consents.

Article 14 extends the powers to make regulations to prevent pollution to cover sources such as agriculture and industry. Where polluting matter has been discharged into a waterway or water in underground strata, Article 17 will enable the Department of the Environment to serve an anti-pollution works notice on the person responsible. The works notice will require him to take anti-pollution measures to remove the polluting matter. A notice may also be served to prevent pollution occurring. The water provisions of the order do not directly implement any EC directive.

Part III of the order addresses an increasing demand for recreational facilities and inland navigation. The success of the Shannon-Erne Waterway, restored in 1994 as a joint venture with the Republic of Ireland, has stimulated interest in canal restoration. The powers of the Rivers Agency of the Department of Agriculture under the Water Act (Northern Ireland) 1972 were limited to minor works.

Articles 41 to 45 enable that department to undertake works to promote the recreational or navigational use of any waterway. Article 46 provides for projects, such as the restoration of a derelict canal, to be taken forward in partnership between the department and other sponsors who may be able to draw on alternative sources of finance such as the National Lottery or EC funding. Such partnerships could extend under Article 47 to authorities within the Republic of Ireland in the case of a major improvement on a cross-border waterway.

The department may acquire land within Northern Ireland for those purposes, either by agreement or by vesting using the procedures in the local government legislation. Any canal restoration project would require the preparation and publication of an environmental impact assessment in accordance with EC obligations.

Article 49 authorises the department to make orders to regulate recreation and navigation on any waterway, and under Article 50 charges may be made for the use of facilities on waterways and licensing of craft. In exercising those powers, the department would consult with local interests on waterways.

The order will provide additional powers to protect surface and ground waters and promote recreational use and navigation of waterways. It will also facilitate the transfer of recreational and navigational powers, initially to the new department of culture, arts and leisure and then, under an agreed phased programme, to the cross-border implementation body on inland waterways. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 22nd February be approved.—(Lord Dubs.)

Lord Molyneaux of Killead

My Lords, Article 7 of this order deals with pollution and the penalties for pollution of waterways. I accept that accidents can happen in the best of circles and any action designed to deal effectively with industrial undertakings and others who repeatedly offend against the law must be welcomed.

However, the Department of the Environment has an internal problem by reason of the fact that certain sections of the department and certain of its employees have, on occasion, caused serious pollution damage to fish and sometimes livestock. In the eyes of the law and in the context of this amending order they are guilty of an offence and liable to the penalties defined in Article 7(7)(a) as, imprisonment for a term not exceeding 2 years or to a fine or to both"; and in Article 7(7)(b) as, imprisonment for a term not exceeding 3 months or to a fine not exceeding £20,000 or to both". I do not expect the Minister to give details tonight, but I am tempted to ask what penalties or sentences have been imposed on officials of the Department of the Environment who have on occasion admitted that they caused pollution on a significant scale? I am not advocating draconian punishment; but it must be accepted that those offenders have not set a good example to others. In a real sense they are weakening the authority of the department itself.

Earl Attlee

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his full explanation. The other night-1 make no complaint—I took out a little bit of light reading—a consultation paper on ground water. I was interested to note that ground water was mentioned by the Minister and, again, I make no complaint. The noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, raised an interesting point regarding pollution by public bodies and I shall be interested to hear the Minister's response in that regard.

The Minister referred to provisions for water-based tourism and leisure. I covered the opportunities for tourism in a debate that we enjoyed last week. I reiterate that there is a great future for tourism in the Province and a lot of opportunity; water-based tourism will be an important part of that.

Article 50 provides for charges relating to water-based leisure. My question is on what basis will these charges be made? Will they be merely to cover the costs of collecting the fees? Will they be to make profit? Will they be to fund capital works, perhaps improvements in new locks and towpath enhancements? Will the funds received be ring-fenced or will they go to the general budget? In particular, what improvements will be seen by users of the waterways as a result of the charges that they will pay? I believe it is partly for safety improvements. Are there are significant safety problems on the waterways? If there are, when does the Minister expect that these will be overcome?

The order refers to the Laganside development. I first saw the development in 1997 as a result of a visit organised by the noble Lord, Lord Eames. My noble friend the Duke of Abercorn has been heavily involved in this development and I was extremely impressed by it. Article 59 provides for the Laganside to issue byelaws, and they seem to be very extensive to say the least.

There is a problem and it is related to the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, regarding regulation. There has been a similar problem with the Civil Aviation Authority, where they both provide the safety regulation and operate the National Air Traffic Services. That problem is being addressed, but we have a similar difficulty with regard to water supply.

Some time ago the Minister issued a consultation document on water and sewerage services. On page 23 of that paper, he says: The existing agency arrangement has the benefit of guaranteeing close political control of these essential public services". We agree with him in that. It continues, "However"—and this is the salient point this option is difficult to sustain because of the desirability of having greater separation between the environmental regulator and the service provider". The problem as I see it is that the environment department is responsible for the heritage services department and also the water service. I fully accept that this is not in the same league as the Civil Aviation Authority in terms of a problem, but it is an important consideration and I look forward to hearing the Minister's comments on that point.

Apart from those observations, I am content with the order.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, I am grateful for the comments that have been made and the constructive way in which noble Lords have approached this order.

One of the questions which underlies the various contributions that have been made concerns the relationship between the water service and the Environmental and Heritage Service. The poacher and gamekeeper analogy is probably the one that noble Lords had in mind.

Specifically in relation to the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, about penalties on DoE officials, perhaps I may say this. The water service, as part of a government department, has Crown immunity and cannot be prosecuted under the order for the offence of water pollution. However, the consultation paper to which the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, referred and which I launched last year, Water and Sewerage Services in Northern Ireland, put forward options for new structures for the water service which could result in it being outside central government and open to legal proceedings under the order. After devolution, that will of course be a matter for the Northern Ireland Assembly. In any case, the proposed new arrangements for departments in Northern Ireland will also go some way towards dealing with the point, because in the new proposals the Environment and Heritage Service will remain with the Department of the Environment—that is to say, the new-style Department of the Environment—whereas the water service will transfer to the new Department of Regional Development. Therefore, in any case, in so far as EHS monitors or oversees the water service, it will in future be in a separate department.

Perhaps equally, if not more, important are the proposals contained in the consultation paper to which I referred. As I said, it will be up to the Assembly to decide whether it wishes to implement any changes in water and sewerage services. I very much hope that it will. Given the responses that we have had so far to that consultation document—that is to say, the ones of which I am aware—I believe that there is broad support for the approach of taking the water service at least one step away from the present DOE and therefore making it liable, as I said, to possible action for the offence of water pollution. It would also be seen to be a more independent way of overseeing or monitoring the work of the water service.

The noble Earl, Lord Attlee, also asked about the basis for tourism charges—for example, charges on the waterways for using locks, and so on. I can confirm that all those charges would be ring-fenced. The income would only be used for the purposes for which it was collected; namely, for the improvement of locks or generally for improving the particular facilities of which the tourists were taking advantage in using the waterways. I am not aware of any particular safety problems, but perhaps I may look into the matter and write to the noble Earl giving him further information.

I am grateful for the very constructive comments that have been made. As I said, I shall write to noble Lords with fuller information. I commend the order to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.