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Volume 543: debated on Thursday 26 April 2012

8. What recent discussions she has had on the extent of drought; and if she will make a statement. (105410)

Drought is a natural phenomenon, so with the Environment Agency and water companies we have been drawing up a contingency plan. Since May 2011 we have held three drought summits and established the national drought group to co-ordinate action to manage the impact of the drought. Water companies are taking action to conserve the public water supply, and that is why we put resilience at the heart of the water White Paper.

I think the public must question the competence of the Government when it comes to drought orders, given that we are having one of the wettest springs on record, but does the Secretary of State know anybody, or of anybody, who is using their hosepipe in spite of the hosepipe ban?

I could be deluded into thinking that I had the power to make it rain on the basis of this week, but I know that no Government can make it rain. The Government saw the drought coming, warned farmers of the need to make preparations, and said that if we had a second dry winter we would be in a drought situation. The water companies have made the correct decision to introduce temporary restrictions for non-essential uses of domestic water supply in the parts of the country that are water-stressed.

Will my right hon. Friend update the House on what plans the Government have to create water interconnectivity between the regions of the United Kingdom, so that we have more of a national grid of water supply?

The Government made it clear in the water White Paper that we published last autumn that we want to see increased connectivity. Water companies are already joining up their sources of supply to help them to move water from areas of plenty to those of greatest need. For example, interconnection exists between United Utilities and the west-east link, and as my hon. Friend will have seen in the press, there is a bulk trading proposal between Severn Trent Water and Anglian Water. Local connectivity is the key, and Ofwat will bring forward proposals for the next price review that will encourage that.

I congratulate the Secretary of State on a shining and rare example of a successful Government policy. Since the drought was declared, it has been pouring with rain and she is in danger of doing a Denis Howell. Does she believe that people with boreholes should comply with any hosepipe ban in their area?

In her kind remark at the beginning, the hon. Lady recalled the plight of one of my west midlands predecessors, Denis Howell, who will be forever remembered as the Minister for Rain who tried to make it rain in 1976. He is fondly remembered.

I encourage people who have borehole capacity on their property to follow the example of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State and abide by the restrictions that apply to those who do not have a private supply of water. That is good practice.

There is some debate about the Under-Secretary of State’s hosepipe and whether it was left on. We know that the hosepipe ban has prompted—

Order. The hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) should not accuse another Member of misleading the House. That is improper. I say to him in all charity and kindness that, notwithstanding his great abilities and track record, in his capacity as Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Minister his role is to fetch and carry notes, and to nod as required; it is not to shout and heckle from a sedentary position. He will remain silent.

Order. I beg the hon. Lady’s pardon. Before we go any further, the hon. Gentleman should immediately withdraw the suggestion or allegation that anyone has misled the House.

That is the first time that I have been accused of misleading the House when I have described something as a matter of debate.

The hosepipe ban has prompted a borehole boom. Taking from the groundwater supply affects everyone, because that is the water that fills the reservoirs, rivers and aquifers used by the public mains water supply. The Secretary of State’s water White Paper that was published in December—her definition of “autumn” is slightly unusual—astonished the water industry, because it proposed delaying the reform of water abstraction until 2027. What plans does she have in the meantime to tackle unsustainable water use by the few to preserve drinking water supplies for the many?

The reform of the abstraction regime has, in effect, commenced. At the drought summit in May last year, the stakeholders in the industry agreed that we needed to take a more flexible approach to the present 30,000 abstractions a year to ensure that the water gets to everybody who needs it. The Environment Agency was praised publicly by the stakeholders at the third drought summit for the flexibility and transparency that have been achieved in the existing abstraction system. That does not mean that there is no scope for further improvement. As I said in the water White Paper, because of the challenge of climate change, we need to reform abstraction.

At the time of the last Environment, Food and Rural Affairs questions in March, there was not a cloud in the sky and the sun was shining, and the Secretary of State set out some important measures on drought. I congratulate her on the wettest month in recent years. Notwithstanding that, groundwater and aquifer levels are still low, posing some threat to farmers and habitats in Norfolk. Will she take this opportunity to encourage families around the country to use water judiciously in the home and house to prevent the risk of drought this summer?

My hon. Friend makes some very helpful points. Although we have had really heavy rainfall this month, that will not be enough to make up for two very dry winters in a row, so it continues to be important that everyone takes responsibility for saving water. The current conditions allow water companies and farmers to top up the reservoirs, which is a good thing, but it is important that we continue to make all the efforts we can to conserve water.