Consideration of Lords amendments
“Flood risk management function”
I beg to move, That this House agrees with Lords amendment 1.
With this we may take Lords amendments 2 to 25.
It is a great privilege to bring forward what I hope will be, both figuratively and literally, the final Act of this Parliament. Bringing the Bill forward was a good choice; the business managers know my reputation for brevity.
The Bill benefited from further changes in the other place, and we are considering those this afternoon. In all, a further 25 amendments have been made in the other place, three of which are purely technical. Of the remaining 22, 18 resulted directly from the report of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee. We believe that all those changes are unobjectionable, and improve both this Bill and the Reservoirs Act 1975. We were more than happy to make the changes in the other place and we hope and expect that they will find favour in this House this evening.
I should mention briefly the issues outside the Bill on which I undertook to take further action. I undertook to address funding concerns for local authorities with the Local Government Association, and terms of reference for that work have been agreed. I also said that I would bring together the relevant interests to address concerns that had been expressed about the impact of flood risk on household insurance. I have had initial discussions with Members, including Opposition Front-Bench Members—I thank them for their courtesy in taking part—and with the Association of British Insurers with a view to having a wide-ranging discussion of this issue at a floods summit later in the year. That is indicative of the co-operative and open approach that we have taken to developing this legislation and I thank Members of this House and the other place and the bodies outside Parliament that also operated in that way. The result has been a Bill that was in very good order before it went to the other place; the scrutiny that it has received there, and the further amendments that have been made have, however, made it still stronger.
We should not lose sight of why the Bill is important. Floods can be massively disruptive to people’s lives and to businesses, sometimes for a prolonged period. The events in Cumbria in the autumn were a vivid reminder of that, and climate change is likely to make both floods and droughts more frequent. The measures in this Bill will make a real and tangible difference; that is why the Government made the Bill a priority. I commend the Bill, and the amendments made to it in the other place, to the House.
I welcome this opportunity to make my last contribution of this Parliament. I thank my small but perfectly formed Bill Committee team of two at my office—they know who they are. I also convey my thanks to the Minister for his team, the Department’s team and that of the Environment Agency in preparing the Bill and these most recent amendments.
On a note of sadness, I should say that this is my last contribution of this Parliament as the MP for Vale of York. The recommissioning and redistribution of the boundaries mean that I shall, I hope, be moving to higher ground after the election.
The Minister, gracious and charming as ever, has asked the House to support the amendments, which he calls “technical amendments”—as he knows, that gets our hearts beating a little faster. I take this opportunity to ask him whether the words “under an enactment”, inserted by amendments 1 and 2, have any special meaning, in this Bill and more generally. As for amendment 3, what procedure will be followed in this regard?
I understand that amendment 4 to clause 8 will be consequential to the amendments that we discussed and supported in Committee and in the remaining stages in this place. Obviously we would be grateful if the Minister would clarify the points about the Lands Tribunal and the upper tribunal.
Like the Minister, I would like to pause for a moment to talk about some of the issues to which we did not do complete justice in considering the remaining stages of the Bill in this place. He will be aware of our concerns and those of interested parties about the provisions relating to reservoirs. We remain unconvinced and would have liked the time to look at the reservoir provisions more carefully. I am sure that the Minister and the House will recognise that the provisions have serious cost implications, especially for those who have small reservoirs on farms and golf courses, and other third-party users. The increased cost of the obligations imposed is causing serious concern and alarm.
The Minister referred to adapting to climate change—or as some call it, adverse weather conditions. Across the country we have all at various times faced such weather conditions. There is a dilemma between wanting to store water to enable us to adapt to these conditions and the cost of creating more reservoirs.
I hope that, whoever forms the next Government, the House will have an opportunity to discuss a White Paper on these issues. We as a party are committed to publishing such a White Paper. The omission of food policy and food security as a material consideration in the flood risk management decision-making process is one that the Government will have cause to regret. The national and local flood risk management strategy is flawed, with too much emphasis on the Environment Agency and too many powers being given to it. We have argued that there should be much more co-operation with local communities through their elected representatives on the local authorities.
I referred earlier to the possible impact of the reservoir safety clauses on small farm reservoirs and those belonging to third parties. The Minister is aware of our ongoing concerns. I have referred to the fact that the Bill gives too much power to the Environment Agency, and to the implications of clause 38.
I should like to place on record our disappointment that the natural hazards team has not reported as widely and done as full an audit of critical infrastructure as we would have wished. We had a good debate on SUDS— either the sustainable urban drainage or the sustainable drainage systems. We still need to identify who owns them and who will be responsible for maintaining them.
We are still waiting for the publication date for the transfer of private drains—the lateral drains and sewers. This would be a good moment for the Minister to announce when the regulations and guidance will be issued. That is something on which we can perhaps campaign and have a proper debate, especially for those small privately owned drainage companies, which are largely family firms, who feel that they will lose out and that they have not been properly consulted. I hope that the Bill will put down a marker that we need regular maintenance work not just by the internal drainage boards but by the Environment Agency.
We wish the Bill well. We know that we will return to the content in some measure with a White Paper. I am delighted that the Minister has taken on board our concerns and is calling the forthcoming discussions not a floods insurance summit but a floods summit. I hope that we will have a dry period in which to campaign in the forthcoming general election. We thank all who have been involved in the Bill on both sides of the House. I know that the Minister is not planning to retire from the House so we wish him well in the campaign. I am sure that that will be reciprocated. I thank him for the gracious manner in which he has skilfully steered the Bill through.
May I too congratulate the Minister on the successful passage of the Bill? He has done exceedingly well in steering this important Bill through the House. The other place has demonstrated its ability correctly to witness, scrutinise and improve what was already an important Bill. In my constituency—both in the city of Hereford and in Ross-on-Wye—we have seen tremendous floods that have affected people’s day-to-day lives. I am grateful for the investment made in flood defence schemes in the city and in Ross-on-Wye. They are important. The Minister is right to say that these events will occur more frequently in the future as a result of climate change and global warming. The Act that we hope will be in place this evening will be a great asset and of great assistance to our nation for the future. I congratulate the Minister on his role in this.
I reciprocate the comments of the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) and thank her for engagement with the issue. My officials will read the Hansard report of the debate and will read her thanks to them. They have been open and engaged and I thank them for that. I also ask the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch) to take my thanks back to his colleagues for their engagement in terms of finding the best way through.
We had a great deal of debate about reservoirs. The issue has been aired in the other place, the Chamber and in Committee, but we have settled on this position as a result of consistent engineering advice based on a risk assessment approach. Partly because of our engagement with the hon. Lady and others, we have some flexibility to revisit the issue of over-capacity to take on some of her concerns.
On future legislation, we are in agreement. We see the need for additional engagement. Beyond Pitt’s recommendations, we have the Cave report and Anna Walker’s report and so much besides. We will have to have some consolidating legislation and I am pleased to say that we are already working up some proposals internally to try to bring forward something at the earliest opportunity. As always, this will be subject to parliamentary time but we would share the hon. Lady’s aspiration to have another water Bill before the House as soon as possible.
I can confirm what I have said previously about drains: the transfer will go ahead next year. As for the regulations, I heard a whispered aside from behind me that they are in the pipeline. I can confirm that they will be available by the end of May. They are being drafted and are in a good state.
We say “enactment” in the amendments because we do not want the power to create an entirely new function. The functions should be defined in statute before the order is used to define them as risk management functions. On the Lands Tribunal and the change to the upper tribunal, other legislation has made the change, and the amendments merely reflect that.
I thank the hon. Member for Hereford for reminding us why this Bill is so important to his constituents and to others throughout the country. At the risk of making this sound like an Oscar speech, it would be remiss of me not to thank those external organisations that have engaged with us in this process, those in the other place who have added so much to the Bill, Front and Back-Bench Members, Committee members and members of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, who have carefully constructed the Bill. It is all a tribute to them, and to my Bill team who have unstintingly given their time and efforts to turn this into a good Bill. It will make a difference, and it will deliver Sir Michael’s Pitts recommendations. There is more work to do of course, as there always is, but this is a singular step forward, and we should all be proud of the work that has gone into the Bill.
Lords amendment 1 agreed to.
Lords amendments 2 to 25 agreed to.
Sitting suspended (Order, 7 April).