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Volume 736: debated on Wednesday 21 March 2012


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they are taking to protect communities, food producers and habitats from the threat of drought in England.

My Lords, droughts happen in the natural order of things, and the Government’s reaction to the current dry spell is being planned for in detail with the Environment Agency and water companies. The Government recognised the risks early on and, since May 2011, the Secretary of State has held three drought summits to agree actions to manage the impact of drought. Water companies are working closely together to conserve public water supply, and government and key sectors are meeting regularly.

I thank the Minister for that reply. The effects of drought are now too apparent in some parts of the country. For example, the River Kennet has in part dried up already. Does that not reinforce the urgency of taking forward the Government’s proposals on water abstraction? The contents of the Queen’s Speech have been even more pre-briefed than today’s Budget. Why has Defra failed to land a slot for a water Bill that would mean that we could get on with urgent action on water supply?

My Lords, it is not for me to anticipate the contents of the Queen’s Speech, and certainly not to use the opportunity of this Question to do so. Noble Lords will know that next week we will consider a water Bill that deals with time-sensitive matters and which I hope will have the concurrence of the House. The noble Lord will have to wait to see whether the water White Paper is translated into legislation in the Queen’s Speech when it occurs.

My Lords, will my noble friend comment on reports in the press recently about the proposal for a main line to be run alongside the high-speed link connecting to Birmingham and beyond, which would bring water down from the north-west to the drought-stricken regions of the south-east?

My noble friend anticipates a Question on the Order Paper about a national grid for water. Of course, all those matters have been considered by this and other Governments. It has been found that the interconnectivity of water systems is far more cost-effective than building a mainline grid. Water is extremely energy-expensive to pump around. Unfortunately, it does not naturally flow from the north of England to the south-east.

My Lords, on that point, has much work been done on the use of operational and non-operational canals to assist in that transfer?

Yes, it has, and to a limited extent they can be used in the interconnectivity projects between water companies. The companies are sharing a great deal and have invested considerable amounts. There has been a recent investment in the north-west of England to relieve a drought there by pumping water from Wales.

Is my noble friend aware that in 1976, when a severe drought affected eastern England, comprehensive work was done even on reversing the flow of rivers. Could he usefully dust down those files and look at all the work that was done in that period?

I can assure my noble friend that these things are constantly under review. I do not know that any particular major projects will alleviate this drought period, but it is important that we make the most of the natural links that we have and the best use of the water that is available to us.

Will the Minister reflect that if he is going to brush down the files from 1976, to accompany them he must remember that not only did we have a Labour Government but we had Denis Howell? What plans does he have to resurrect the spirit of Denis Howell?

How can noble Lords be assumed to have forgotten? I seem to remember that when Denis Howell was appointed Minister for Drought, it did not stop raining.

Will the Minister ensure that water companies do not close existing storage capacity for developing housing and other things? In particular, will he get in touch with Thames Water, which is closing storage capacity in Reading?

I do not know the details of the particular case to which the noble Lord refers, but it is certainly useful to be advised of that. Thames Water is not in as acute a situation as some of the other water companies. Indeed, it is helping out water companies in Essex by transferring water from its area to Essex. This co-operation between water companies is a very good strategy, and one which the Government are anxious to encourage.

My Lords, may I confirm what the Minister has just said? I was a member of Denis Howell’s committee, and I confirm that it rained the moment we met and did not stop for weeks. One hopes that if we can form a committee again, the same sort of thing will apply. I congratulate the Government on recognising the importance of water, its usage and its conservation. It is more crucial than people in this country perhaps realise. However, would the Minister agree that in the interest of food security, irrigation is essential? It is going to be a major problem in many areas. I realise that the Environment Agency has the responsibility for maintaining the main arterial rivers. Many of these have been neglected in recent times, which is a matter of importance that needs to be considered. However, restricting water for irrigation for certain food crops would be catastrophic and would result in crop failure.

It is very good to have my noble friend volunteering yet again to deal with this matter on behalf of us all. There are considerable concerns in agriculture, particularly about establishing crops. However, farmers are used to dealing with the weather. They are by nature adaptable creatures. They are changing cropping programmes in some parts of the country, and they will change them in others. It is far too early to say what impact this may have on the food supply. All I can say is that the NFU and the Environment Agency are involved in the weekly bird table meetings that are held on this subject, and that is an extremely effective mechanism for getting the flexibility that we need to deal with this problem.