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Water Bill

Volume 752: debated on Thursday 6 February 2014

Committee (2nd Day)

Amendment 109

Moved by

109: Before Clause 22, insert the following new Clause—

“Consumer objective

In section 2(2B) of the Water Industry Act 1991, after “interests of” insert “current and future”.”

My Lords, Amendment 109 is one of several before us today that are intended to tweak Ofwat’s responsibility into a more long-term aim on sustainability and resilience.

Ofwat is an economic regulator and currently its prime duty is to the interests of consumers—the consumer objective. But Ofwat has never been simply an economic regulator and since 2003—2005 in terms of implementation—it has had secondary duties relating to environmental and social sustainability. We will be having a debate shortly about whether those duties, too, should be primary duties.

Although historically it would be true to say that Ofwat has interpreted its economic regulator status somewhat narrowly, in practice it has always had a sustainability dimension—albeit at times that this may have been interpreted rather weakly. The five-yearly price review looks at financing long-term infrastructure as well as immediate business and householder water supply demands. In this Bill, there is yet more emphasis on social and environmental considerations. As the next but one debate will show, some of your Lordships want to take that further.

It is important to recognise that even the purely, or mainly, economic interest of the consumer—the need for water at affordable prices—is multifaceted and changes over different timeframes. As an economic regulator, Ofwat should act not only in the current interest of consumers, or the next-five-years’ interest, but in the long-term interest of both current consumers and future consumers. That duty fits more clearly with resilience and sustainability considerations or objectives. My amendment would make that clear. It would make it clear that Ofwat’s responsibility, as laid down simply in terms of consumers in the 1991 Act and repeated thereafter, should apply also to future consumers. We made a similar change regarding Ofgem in the Energy Act passed by the Labour Government in 2008. Ofgem has responsibility for future consumers. Some might argue that that has not made a dramatic difference to Ofgem’s deliberations, but at least that responsibility is clearly there. It has had the effect of holding it responsible for such longer-term issues.

In the water sector, we have five-yearly price reviews, six-year water catchment management plans and 25-year water resource management plans. They all require water undertakers to be concerned about the long term. However, it is also important that the consumer objective is seen in the long as well as the short term. That is what my amendment seeks to ensure. I beg to move.

My Lords, I rise to support this amendment. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, has underestimated the effect of the change to the primary duties of Ofgem in the 2008 Act, which states that the duties for present and future customers are one of the underlying bases of its commitment to sustainability. The problem that it faces is that the limitations of the sustainable action that should be undertaken have not yet been tested. I had the fun of suggesting to Ofwat that we could take it to judicial review to suggest that it was not fulfilling this pledge. That had an enormous effect on Ofgem. Ofgem should be commended for the strides that have been taken over the past six years to move from an organisation that saw sustainability as something outside its remit to seeing it as something that is very much part of its remit. The value of this—in an amendment first moved by the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, to which I added my name—is such that it has changed the culture of Ofgem. It is rather unfortunate that Ofwat does not have the same duty and therefore the same drive to understand that it has that responsibility.

My Lords, the purpose of Amendment 109 is to ensure that, in discharging its primary duty to protect consumers, Ofwat must take account of the needs of both current and future customers.

I agree that this is an essential objective. Water is an industry with unusually long planning and investment horizons. Our water resources management-planning processes require companies to plan, as a minimum, 25 years ahead and encourage them to plan over much longer timeframes. Although much of our current infrastructure will be expected to serve customers well for decades or even centuries to come, this is why we have introduced the new duty of resilience, which requires Ofwat to secure the long-term resilience of systems to the long-term pressures identified in the water White Paper, such as climate change, environmental pressures and population growth. It also requires Ofwat to ensure that the companies take action to meet the long-term needs of consumers by promoting appropriate long-term planning and investment; and by taking any and all relevant measures to manage water resources sustainably and reduce demand.

So let me assure the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, that I concur entirely with his aims. However, I consider his amendment to be unnecessary, because its effect would be to duplicate an identical existing provision in Section 2(5A) of the Water Industry Act 1991, which provides a definition of “consumers” for the purpose of the consumer duty. It clearly states that,

“‘consumers’ includes both existing and future consumers”.

I hope that this will satisfy the noble Lord and that he will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, for his support and agree with him that I was perhaps too dismissive in relation to the effect on Ofgem. Such a responsibility has had an effect on Ofgem and on the way in which its work, output and regulatory responsibilities are seen by the companies and consumers within the energy sector, so it has made a difference.

The arguments that the Minister has just put were very similar to those put initially by Energy Ministers in relation to the amendment to the 2008 Bill pursued by the noble Lords, Lord Oxburgh and Lord Redesdale. I cannot remember whether I openly supported them, but I certainly spoke to the then Minister—it was none other, I believe, than the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath—who agreed that the briefing that he had from his department was too negative and reflected the usual view of Whitehall that just because there were references to it in other documents you should not make it clear in the Bill. The Minister should perhaps go back to his own officials and say, “Well, yes, it may be that we can point to other documents, but people will look at the Bill”. They will look particularly at the front end of the Bill, if they get that far, which amends the 1991 Act—although that bit of it has not been amended yet by the Minister.

The role of future consumers is reflected very early on in the Bill in defining Ofwat’s responsibilities. The flexibility shown by Ministers in responding to the amendments to the 2008 Bill proposed by the noble Lords, Lord Oxburgh and Lord Redesdale, should be repeated here. Perhaps the Minister could agree to go back to his officials. I do not suppose that he will tell me that he is going to do that, so I will withdraw the amendment now and allow him time and grace to do that, because I would like to see this matter addressed on Report. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 109 withdrawn.

Amendment 109A had been retabled as Amendment 122A.

Clause 22: Primary duty to secure resilience

Amendment 110

Moved by

110: Clause 22, page 63, line 20, after “resilience” insert “and sustainable development”

My Lords, I shall speak also to Amendments 111 and 112. I want also to express support for Amendment 113, which is in this group. The purpose of the amendments is very simple: to put in the Bill a duty on Ofwat to further sustainable development. This has not been a short debate; it started a number of years ago and follows on from debates that we had in relation to Ofgem, about how you bring the regulator to understand that its duties as an economic regulator also encompass the environment and issues going forward into the future.

The wording of the previous amendment—I will have to check this—referred not just to present and future customers but to acting for the good of present and future customers. This comes to the heart of the problem that I see in the Bill. We have a greater understanding of the changes that have taken place in the environment. I believe that climate change is a fact: anybody standing up to their waist in water on the Somerset Levels at the moment would believe that we live in a situation where the climate is changing. Of course, the problem is that, at a time when there are floods, the idea of drought seems somehow very distant. However, it was not very long ago that we were actively discussing droughts.

My noble friend Lord Moynihan is sitting in his place. I remember a discussion we had in the Bishops’ Bar about water, because there was a real possibility that London would not have enough water and the Olympics were coming up. My noble friend Lord Moynihan said, “That’s fine; we have an agreement with Thames Water that we will get water whatever happens”. I am not sure that the Olympics would have been the fantastic success that they were—and I must commend him on the work he did on them—if people in the surrounding area were having to deal with massive water shortages because we were throwing water without reservation at the Olympics.

This comes to the heart of the issue: that there has to be a change in our view of water. Water has very much been seen as a resource that could be dealt with because it just comes out of the tap and you pay for as much as you want. With a population that is growing so rapidly, however, and with the constraints we are facing in our urban areas, we are going to face real issues about the amount of water that we can actually use. Therefore, putting in the Bill the word “sustainability” would change the very nature of how Ofwat would go about its duties. It should look not just at the economic issues, because looking just at the price is a very narrow definition.

The cost of those floods is going to be substantial indeed, and the cost of droughts to water companies is incredibly expensive. Noble Lords will remember the time when Yorkshire Water actually had to tanker drinking water by lorry. That is an incredible expense which would have to be borne by the consumer. We may have had 220% of our normal rainfall pattern, but last year we were looking at one of the wettest droughts in history. It did not change the fact that the water companies still had real problems with the aquifers and the amount of water available.

I realise that the Minister is going to say that the duties of resilience that the Government have put in the Bill deal with my concerns. My problem with the duties is that, while the Minister and the Defra team have worked incredibly hard to make sure that those resilience duties are encompassing, resilience has a different concept of dealing with an issue, while sustainability is talking about how we can look into the future to deal with those issues.

The Government will probably reject this amendment. I always live in absolute hope that the Government will see the error of their ways—as the Labour Government did in 2008 when they moved forward in changing Ofgem’s duties—and come forward to say, “My noble friend Lord Redesdale’s amendment is quite perfect in every way. We will accept it and he is to be commended”. That would, of course, be the end of it, but I have a feeling that they might reject it. Obviously, after 23 years and however many thousands of amendments I have put down that have been rejected out of hand, they might well come forward with that position. However, I think there is a discussion to be had. It is central to this Bill that we change how the regulators view this, not just in economic terms but realising that there must be a holistic approach and we have issues to deal with.

I have not met anybody with whom I have discussed this issue who has not turned around and said, “Surely, sustainability of the water supply has to be the starting point, because without water being sustainable, we will actually die”. You cannot do without water for very long. It is a ridiculous position to say that this is absurd rumour-mongering; we have a Statement after noon today on the floods. Within a year or two we will have Statements on the next drought that we face. These things come and go. Just because we are not in a drought at the moment does not mean that it will not happen. Therefore, while the Government might be fundamentally opposed to sustainability, a discussion looking at some of the aspects that could be added to the resilience clause would be very helpful.

The issue I would look at most closely is water efficiency. That is a duty for the water companies but not for Ofwat. Ofwat sets the funding in five-year cycles. If it does not make it a main priority, the water companies will not see it as one. It is a bit like with local authorities: if something is not statutory at the moment, such as local museums, it gets cut. Without water efficiency being set as a priority, Ofwat will not make it one. I say this because water efficiency is actually down to the actions that we take as individuals. Everybody sitting in this Chamber uses far too much water. We are some of the most profligate water users in the world. We must change our behaviour and realise that water is a scarce resource. We probably have to train people to understand that they must change their businesses. I must declare an interest as I am the chief executive of the Energy Managers Association. Most energy managers see water as a major cost to their business and are doing a lot to reduce that cost. Of course, there is also a major energy cost. About 1 kilowatt of energy is used to get water to you and 1 kilowatt to deal with sewage taken from you. There is a massive carbon and energy cost in water.

I very much hope that the Minister will agree to look at water efficiency and maybe even at adding to resilience the issue of catchment areas. Of course, that is the issue we are all talking about at the moment. If he did that, sustainability would not be an issue that I felt needed to be taken to the next stage. However, if the Minister decides that the Government have gone far enough and they will not take this issue any further, at the next stage I will obviously seek support from around the House to vote on this issue. It is core to the whole Bill. The White Paper setting out what would be in the Bill had water efficiency through almost every page, yet it is not mentioned in the Bill. That is a fundamental flaw of the Bill at the moment. I very much hope that the Minister will agree to have a discussion on this issue between now and Report. The rather surprising alacrity with which Committee followed Second Reading caught some of us a little unaware but I hope we will have time to have some of those discussions before the next stage of the Bill. I beg to move.

My Lords, I am always impressed by the fervency with which my noble friend Lord Redesdale promotes the cause of sustainable development. Who could disagree with him that the sustainable use of water is clearly desirable? But does the more specific mention of sustainable development in the Bill help towards those causes or duplicate what is already there and in previous legislation? Does it give a much clearer direction to Ofwat? None of us would dispute that the major issue that must be addressed is long-term sustainable management of water resources. None of us disputes that the new resilience duties on Ofwat are extremely helpful. However, my noble friend Lord Redesdale did not remind us that this issue of whether the situations of Ofgem and Ofwat are totally parallel was looked at by the Gray review in 2011, the advice of which was to reject that. I accept that the Government rejected much other advice—from the Cave review and others—so that is not a roadblock. However, it must be recognised that there are already duties on Ofwat to promote sustainable development.

I am always a little nervous about those who find themselves supporting sustainable development. The concept has three pillars: the economic benefits, the societal benefits and the environmental benefits, all of which must be interconnected. The argument put forward by my noble friend Lord Redesdale was almost entirely based on the environmental and water efficiency benefits. Those are very worthy and very important, but I have also heard sustainable development prayed in aid of some pretty harsh economic messages. Clearly, that is not an appropriate way to interpret it. Is the Minister really sure that this is going to help to clarify Ofwat’s roles? I am not as convinced as my noble friend Lord Redesdale.

My Lords, at Second Reading I said I was green with envy that the environmental regulators will now have the Bill rather than the legislation that I had to deal with as chairman of the National Rivers Authority when I was in almost continual friendly conflict—I emphasise the word “friendly”—with Ian Byatt the economic regulator. It was so friendly that I have two cartoons at home, which were sent to me by a notable newspaper, showing both of us in the boxing ring. In the first, we are engaged in a vigorous fight, and the second shows us collapsing together exhausted at the end of the exchange. We have made huge progress since then, and the existing sustainable development duty, as I understand it, is now being given statutory authority in the Bill. The clear steer that has been provided by the Government is now being given statutory effect in the Bill. As I understand it, Ofwat now has sustainable development as a central objective. It will have to take account of that. It will have to carry out its functions in accordance with the strategic priorities and objectives identified by the Secretary of State.

So while I entirely understand and, indeed, sympathise with the arguments advanced by the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale—and perhaps it is because we have made such a huge advance from the position with which I had to deal when the economic regulator just did not think he had any obligations to provide for the environment and blocked almost every proposal that came from Europe or from us—I would like my noble friend to clarify what is to be gained or lost if we accept the proposition put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, over what we have already in the Bill. I find it very difficult to understand exactly what benefit we would gain. If there is nothing to be lost by including it, I would not be against including it. Against the background of a huge step forward having been taken, I am seeking from my noble friend clarification of the benefits and possible downsides of having this written into the Bill in the way proposed.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Redesdale for raising this issue yet again. He has done so on numerous occasions, as have many other noble Lords. It is an important debate. It is quite clear that the Government are committed to sustainable development, but they believe that they do not need to elevate the primary duty of sustainable development for the regulator in the water industry because it has a secondary duty. What they are prepared to give is the new primary duty for resilience. I think we are going to carry on arguing about whether resilience delivers the environmental and social benefits that those of us who are concerned about sustainable development believe it does. The Government say it does and I am sure that the Minister will reiterate today that he believes that resilience will deliver the sustainable benefits that we believe are crucial for the regulator to deliver. There are others who believe that the resilience duty does not.

I would like to pick up on what my noble friend Lord Redesdale has said. We should try and move the debate on from arguing about what “sustainable development” and “resilience” mean to what we actually want to achieve. It is significant that my noble friend Lord Redesdale raised the issue of water efficiency. That is, bluntly, what we want to achieve—a more resilient future for our water industry which protects the scarce resources that we have, to the benefit of the environment and communities. I urge the Minister to reflect again between now and Report on a duty to promote water efficiency. I think that is a constructive way forward. There will be a difference between those of us who believe resilience is sufficient and those of us who would have liked to see a primary duty on the regulator. I do not think the Government are going to move, but I do think that a duty to look at the issue of water efficiency is a helpful way forward.

My Lords, I have tabled an amendment in this group which attempts to deal in a slightly different way with exactly the same issue as the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale. Which is the closest approximation to perfection I am not entirely sure, and whether either of them is perfectible in the eyes of the Government, I am not entirely sure.

We do have an issue. The noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, stated the current situation correctly. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, that, since 2003, Ofwat has had a sustainable development responsibility but it is a secondary objective. What these amendments attempt to do is to put it on a par with the economic objective for consumers. There is an economic, a social and an environmental dimension of sustainability which goes wider than that responsibility to consumers, now and in the future. The reason why relations and general coherence are better than the early days which the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, described, is that Ofwat has recognised that it is more than an economic regulator, and the Environment Agency has recognised that it has economic objectives as well as environmental objectives. Some of those have become a little controversial in recent days, in that, for example, flood defence priorities are determined largely in terms of economic effect. Both agencies now have all three—certainly environmental and economic objectives—which they routinely integrate within their operations. For that reason it is slightly odd that there is a differential between the objectives to consumers on the economic side and the objectives of sustainability on the other side, in terms of Ofwat’s requirements. The Government have made two attempts at convincing those of us who are interested in this subject through some very well written briefs. They were much more understandable than the Bill itself, or indeed the Explanatory Notes. By and large, I understood those briefs; they have nevertheless failed to convince me. They are arguing in terms that are now obsolete. They argue that the economic regulator is Ofwat and the environmental regulator is the EA. They both overlap and they need to operate a coherent approach to this in relation to sustainability.

The Government have moved significantly, as the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, was hinting, in stretching the definition of “resilience”. Resilience is a jolly good, robust term. We all approve of resilience, and long-term resilience is clearly a responsibility of Ofwat and indeed the EA, in relation to water resources and their delivery. It is not quite the same as sustainability. It is part of sustainability but it is not the totality. The noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, have both pointed to the energy efficiency dimension, which, let us be fair, has been lacking until at least very recently in some of Ofwat’s priorities, when it allows expenditure during the price review. It is that which worries people—that this issue will fall out.

The Minister told me the other day that resilience includes social resilience; it presumably therefore includes issues of affordability and access as well as environmental and social issues. That may be so but the normal meaning of “resilience” is protection and upgrading of the assets that you have, and which need a long-term permanence to protect them. The Government are in danger of stretching the term rather beyond what the Oxford English Dictionary would term as resilience.

We might be able to work around this. I ask the Minister not to take an absolutely hard line on the amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, now because there are anxieties. I do not agree with what the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, said about this being dealt with elsewhere but I do agree largely with what the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, said. The Government have to come back to us with something to make it clear that there is a sustainability dimension to Ofwat’s activities.

Let us be frank: some of the suspicion out there, in view of recent months, is that there are forces within the Government who regard any reference to sustainability or sustainable development as part of what the Prime Minister allegedly referred to as “green crap”. I am not sure whether that has been mentioned before in this House and if it is out of order, I will withdraw it. However, it has been widely reported. If the Government being so illogically resistant to the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, is seen to be part of the attack on green measures, then I regret that. The Government have to reassure the many people who are interested in the long-term future of water supply and the ecological and economic sustainability thereof. Given my support for the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, I hope that the Government will recognise that they need to do something on this front. I look forward to hearing from the Minister both today and in the period between now and Report.

My Lords, I turn first to Amendments 110 to 112, in the name of my noble friend Lord Redesdale. I thank him for them, as I thank my noble friends Lord Selborne, Lord Crickhowell and Lady Parminter and the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, for their comments on these amendments, which would extend the new duty of resilience so that it became a dual duty of resilience and sustainable development. Of course, as my noble friend knows well, Ofwat has had a stand-alone statutory duty to contribute to the achievement of sustainable development since 2005. The Government have reinforced the importance of this duty by providing clear statutory guidance that sustainable development is central to everything that Ofwat does and must be fully embedded throughout its regulatory decision-making. We also require an annual report from Ofwat on its contribution to sustainable development.

I know that my noble friend Lord Redesdale has a long-standing interest in this issue, and I am particularly grateful to him for his assiduousness in pursuing this. He wishes, understandably, to see meaningful changes to culture and practice in economic regulation in water. These changes are already taking place: by correcting the historic bias towards capital investment, for example, the current price review looks set to achieve a much more equitable balance between capital and operational solutions than has previously been the case. Similarly, Ofwat has been working with the industry and Infrastructure UK to halt the stop-start pattern of work, sometimes described as “cyclical investment”, that has been a cause for concern in this sector for many years. Again, we are seeing measurable changes in behaviour. Ofwat has recently given permission to water companies to bring forward £100 million of investment into 2014 to smooth the investment profile and benefit the wider water supply chain.

My noble friends Lord Redesdale and Lady Parminter suggested a water efficiency duty for Ofwat. My noble friend Lord Redesdale referred to the fact that the water companies do indeed have a water efficiency duty. Ofwat has an obligation to ensure that the companies can perform their functions.

Having said all that, we are not and must not be complacent. That is why we have created a new duty of resilience, designed to address the specific issues relating to the long-term pressures facing the water industry. The resilience duty encompasses all the activities that water companies can undertake to manage those pressures: from investing in the additional water storage, to tackling unsustainable abstraction, to focusing on environmental management across the catchment. This duty recognises the need to address the pressures caused by climate change and population growth, and to protect the natural environment on which our water sector relies.

In response to concerns raised by people such as my noble friend, I am delighted that we have already amended this duty in another place to be absolutely explicit about the need to manage water resources sustainably and to manage demand to alleviate pressures on those precious resources. I think that I can say that our amendments have been welcomed, for example by the coalition of environmental NGOs with a particular interest in this area, the Blueprint for Water, with which my noble friend has been closely involved. I met this coalition recently, and it expressed itself satisfied with what we had done in this regard. I therefore hope that I will be able to persuade my noble friend that, given the changes already made, further amendment of the kind he proposes is not required.

Turning to Amendment 113 in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Whitty and Lord Grantchester, the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, has argued that elevating the existing sustainable development duty to primary status would help us to achieve a wide range of important objectives. Let me be quite clear: the Government support those objectives. As I said in the debate on the previous group, we want to see the regulatory regime for water recognise more clearly the needs of future, as well as current, consumers. We recognise the need for a strategic response to climate change, and we firmly believe that catchment management and demand management should form a mainstream part of water company activity.

The Government commissioned the Ofwat review to consider the case for elevating the sustainable development duty as proposed by the noble Lords. Having looked carefully at the arguments, David Gray concluded that he simply did not believe that the creation of a primary sustainable development duty would have the effect that its proponents were looking for. Despite the scepticism of the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, therefore, while we—and I speak for the entire Government—remain fully committed to the principles of sustainable development, we do not believe that the amendment is the best way to achieve the objectives that the noble Lords wish to see. I also believe that we should recognise where changes have already begun to take place. I have already spoken about the way Ofwat’s new price review methodology, to which the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, referred, has addressed the industry’s perceived preference for capital investment, resulting in the companies bringing forward business plans that propose a much more even split between capital and operational expenditure, such as demand management activity.

During our particularly constructive Second Reading debate, a number of noble Lords highlighted the importance of taking a proportionate approach to changes to Ofwat’s duties. Of course, it must be right that we should occasionally amend the duties to ensure that they remain up to date with the Government’s policy priorities. This is what we have done in the case of the resilience duty, in order to reflect the core policy message of the water White Paper on the need to build the long-term resilience of the sector. We have amended this provision in another place to emphasise that this must include the sustainable management of water resources. However, I agree that we must demonstrate restraint in applying new duties to the regulator; and the changes that we have already proposed strike the appropriate balance. I must therefore ask my noble friend to withdraw his amendment.

My Lords, yet again I am not disappointed in my expectation that I will not get anything out of the Government. However, it seems almost a waste of a parliamentary process to have a White Paper which is full of water efficiency proposals and then to say, “We’ve had enough duties”, so that something which all noble Lords believe should be an objective is not moved forward on.

The noble Earl, Lord Selborne, and the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, raised very interesting points. I will make two points. First, the battles that the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, undertook, which were incredibly valuable, are not now taking place in the same way. Most groups agree that there has been a shift from the regulator against the balanced approach to economic environmental regulations. The noble Earl, Lord Selborne, raised the Gray review. I met Mr Gray to discuss this; one of his recommendations was that it is fine, because the Environment Agency leads on policy on this area, and therefore deals with this issue. Since the review, however, the Environment Agency has lost that ability, so it is out of kilter. Things have moved on so that the balance which the regulator has to take—and I understand the difficulties it faces between price, social cohesion and environment, which is tricky—has to be dealt with. However, the problem is that the regulator is seen as not meeting that objective.

The Minister talked about meeting with the NGOs. I believe he met with the RSPB and the WWF, but those are not all the NGOs that make up Blueprint for Water. I have discussed this with Blueprint for Water, and meeting with one, two or three NGOs out of a group of them is always slightly difficult. The whole group does not believe that, but those two NGOs will speak on their behalf. Therefore the Minister’s view that the Bill does not need amending to expand the role of resilience, even though it was amended in the other place, was unfortunate. It leaves no option when we come to the next stage but to try to force through sustainability as a solution to that problem. That may not be the simplest way of dealing with this issue, but, as was proved by Ofgem’s change in attitude, it does have an effect. Therefore it is rather unfortunate that the Minister has not agreed even to have discussions on this. Although I shall withdraw the amendment, I hope to bring it back at the next stage because this is a core issue.

This is not a political matter, which is why I very carefully did not ask the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, or any other noble Lords to put their names to this amendment. This is about whether we believe that water should be a sustainable resource and whether there is somehow a political lever. Most people in this country do not believe that water should be dealt with in a political context; it is about whether we have it or not and whether the regulator makes sure that we judiciously use this resource. If that means that I am a wishy-washy liberal, I sit on these Benches so I am quite happy to be described in those terms—and not as one of abuse. However, the Conservative Party talked about being the “greenest Government ever” and the coalition has moved forward on many of these green policies, so I find it incredible that we are bringing politics into this area. Therefore I hope that the Government will think again about a water efficiency duty. On that basis, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 110 withdrawn.

Amendments 111 and 112 not moved.

Amendment 112A

Moved by

112A:Clause 22, page 63, line 33, at end insert—

“( ) In support of the measures indicated in subsection (2DA), the Secretary of State shall be authorised to allow metering of water supplies both in areas of water stress and areas of potential water stress and additionally in areas where metering might generate other social benefits.”

My Lords, I add my thanks to the Minister for his courteous and helpful replies to questions raised at Second Reading, and in particular for the publication today of a new briefing note from his department about the bodies involved in the regulation of water, which I hope may go some way towards dispelling the concerns that were expressed in the previous discussion. I have not had time to digest it yet but look forward to reading it.

I have commented previously that my experience of water matters comes from a different jurisdiction, and that I expected to find some differences in this jurisdiction. That said, I had not expected the convoluted morass of uncodified legislation and regulation that surrounds the water supply in this country. My only comfort is that someone as experienced in water and legislative matters as the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, is as frustrated as I am.

My reason for raising this issue again is that this complexity must impose a significant bureaucratic burden and cost on the industry, not to mention the department. I suspect that the only people who benefit from this are specialist advisers and lawyers. I believe that there is an urgent need for codification. Will the Minister say whether this is something we can look forward to when the present Bill is passed?

Various contributors to the Second Reading debate commented that the Bill was distinguished as much for what it did not include as for what it did. This is my reason for introducing this probing amendment, which I shall certainly withdraw when we have had our discussion, on a topic on which the Bill is virtually silent and which has been raised by a number of those who have written or spoken to us—namely, metering private water supplies. It is appropriate to discuss this topic at this stage as it is not something that you can discuss within the structure of the Second Reading debate. However, many of those outside who read our proceedings would regard it as odd if discussion on a Water Bill did not include at least some reference to this topic.

I found the silence of the Bill on this issue even more surprising when I discovered a report of which I had been unaware—perhaps I should have been aware of it—commissioned by Defra and published in 2009, entitled, The Independent Review of Charging for Household Water and Sewerage Services by Anna Walker. This seems to me an exhaustive and thoughtful report which could have formed the basis for part of the Bill. It includes a very thorough discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of metering private water supplies and was the outcome of extensive and wide consultation. It also gives considerable attention to the concomitant problems of water poverty that go hand in hand with energy poverty. It seems to me that the only respect in which the conclusions of the report are marginally less relevant today than when they were published is that in the intervening years we have become even more painfully aware of the challenges of water stress and the rate at which our weather patterns are changing.

Walker’s consultations gave a clear message that two views are strongly held by the public. One is that metering is the fairest way of charging for water. Another equally strongly held view is that metering should be voluntary for existing householders. She noted, however, that the majority of householders found that their water charges fell after meters were installed. The report makes the point that the overriding argument for metering water supplies and charging by volume is fairness. There is no other commodity for which we do not pay according to use, particularly when that commodity can be in short supply. I am told that we are the only country in Europe that does not charge for water by volume. That is not something that I have been able to verify independently, but it seems plausible. Metering has the benefit of making people realise that water is not a free good of which there is a boundless supply. Before and after comparisons suggest that demand tends to fall by 15% to 20% after meters are installed. This may mean that expensive improvements to the system that would otherwise have been necessary are not needed. The main disadvantage of metering is that meters can be costly to install, and inconvenient and costly to read. Typically, they are located at the bottom of shallow holes at the edge of the properties where there is connection to the public supply.

However, metering technology is changing and smart meters can transmit usage information to water suppliers and alert householders to leaks or other unintended releases of water on their property. Over the next few years, costs for meters can be expected to fall and the means of reading them remotely will improve. I declare an interest as a director of a company that works in the area of smart meters.

So where do we stand today? I am not going to delve into the plethora of regulations that cover water metering. We are in a situation in which we may in future need to be much more nimble in dealing with challenging and novel weather, and where new technology is becoming available to help deal with it. One possible way forward is to separate the authority to install a water meter from the authority to use it for charging—an important distinction—and to make it easy for any supplier that wants to install meters throughout a particular area to do so. The reason for this is that installing meters for a whole street or area is much less expensive than doing it piecemeal. Water suppliers could equip a whole area but then use meters to charge only those who had opted in. However, the presence of a metering capability in an area would improve resilience and allow a more rapid response to a change in water stress conditions than is possible at present.

My question for the Minister, therefore, is in tune with present government initiatives: why not completely or significantly deregulate the installation of water meters and allow suppliers to install them when they wish, while continuing to regulate their use for charging? The need to be more agile in response to changing conditions and the availability of more effective and cheaper technology means that such an easing of red tape would have benefits both for suppliers and consumers. I beg to move.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, for his probing amendment. My Amendment 133, also in this group, seeks to amend the Water Industry Act 1991 to allow water companies to introduce compulsory metering, if supported by their customers.

Current legislation means that water companies are able to introduce domestic water meters on a compulsory basis only where the Secretary of State has determined that either the whole or part of their area is an area of serious water stress. My amendment would simply remove this barrier, allowing water businesses to do what they felt was in the best interests of their customers and increasingly scarce water resources.

We know that metering gives consumers greater control over their water consumption and so can improve affordability. It also helps water companies to target households using large amounts of water, provide water efficiency support and tackle leaks. On that point, perhaps I may say how welcome it is that this Bill transfers the responsibility for supply pipes from customers to water companies as this should help to drive down leakages. The case for smart metering, combined with advice on how to reduce water usage, and social tariffs that minimise affordability issues for disadvantaged heavy-use households, is strong, and has been well made by the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh. As he has said, the independent Walker review in 2009 recommended a widespread switchover, as, indeed, did the EFRA Committee in the other place.

We know now that some water companies denied pursuing this course of action by current legislation want it. The chief executive of Northumbrian Water, Heidi Mottram, supports it. The company knows that it has to plan its businesses for the future, when climate change and other constraints may well impact on areas not presently water stressed. Given the opportunities in this Bill to trade water, they want all the tools they can get to maximise the precious and increasingly valuable resource that water is.

This seems to be a reasonable amendment. All it would do is give companies the right to speak to their customers and manage their businesses to their benefit, with increasingly scarce water resources. It does not force, rather it enables water companies to consider the wider social and environmental benefits that metering brings.

My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister and the department for the very helpful briefing notes we have been given, and for the opportunity to explore the Bill with him and his team. I fully endorse the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, on Amendment 133. I also firmly support the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh. I declare an interest in that I chair the management board of a rural estate that has an extraction licence.

At a time when the management of water is such a critical issue, I would go even further than this amendment. I think that a timetable should be set, by which time all consumers of water are charged for the volumes they use. These amendments mark a step towards that objective. I cannot understand the reluctance to expand the use of water meters. I know that there is an installation cost involved and that it will take time. The potential costs of installation could be fairly significant, as the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, pointed out, and of course meters have a limited life and will need to be replaced over time. However, these costs need to be set against the fact that metered customers use between 10% and 15% less water. Some will use more and some less, but the overall net benefit of a saving of 10% to 15% is massive.

The current policy of allowing companies to apply for the right to install water meters in areas of water stress has a certain logic. However, we have seen vividly over the past two years the dramatic impact of extreme weather events, whether they are the result of climate change or whatever. Flooding in winter and drought in summer could become much more frequent occurrences than has been the case historically, and water stress could become a reality well beyond the south and east of England. Even using the existing definition, we are likely to see a requirement for increased water use. Better, I would suggest, that we should extend the option of charging now in anticipation of the inevitable pressures on supplies, as mentioned earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale.

I come back to the issue of managing water. The well-known maxim, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it”, seems to apply very precisely to the subject of water. As I have mentioned, I chair an estate. We are now well advanced in the process of installing meters in every household and enterprise across the entire estate. We know where every litre goes and we can charge appropriately. We are also able to monitor, remotely in the office, how much water is being used, where and by whom. It is very effective and much more efficient. The water industry needs to become much smarter in its management of water, and measuring is essential. I understand that Anglian Water now has around 90% of its customers metered, not through compliance but because it makes sound economic sense. Other companies, particularly in the freed-up market that we are trying to achieve through this Bill, need to be encouraged to do the same.

I would like to make one final point. It costs all of us £14 every year to cover the costs of unpaid water bills. It is a fact of life that if we do not appreciate the value of water, we are likely to be much more indiscriminate in our use of it. We should take the opportunity in this Bill to further establish the principle of charging for water use. The Walker review, which has already been mentioned twice, firmly endorsed this approach, and I hope that the Minister will give this proposal his serious consideration.

My Lords, when preparing to speak to this amendment, I was going to support the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, but having listened to the debate so far, I find myself supporting both amendments. I support in particular the part of the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, which states that,

“the Secretary of State shall be authorised to allow metering … in areas where metering might generate other social benefits”.

I was talking to somebody outside who, on asking what I was doing here and learning that I was involved in the Water Bill, said that they were on the board of a water company, which had been stopped by Ofwat when it tried to roll out meters across its area. I hope that I have this right—listening to the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, I think that I have—but the reason was that the company was not in an area of water stress. This seems unbelievable. If true, and I have no reason to doubt it, what gives Ofwat the right, or the power, to stop the rollout of meters when we all recognise the advantages that we have talked about, such as reducing demand, cutting costs for consumers, promoting fairness et cetera? If Ofwat has that power, what are the Government going to do to—I was going to use the word “curtail”, but let me use the word that the Minister used in a previous amendment—amend Ofwat’s powers in this regard?

My Lords, I am sure that the Minister will help my noble friend Lord Cathcart, but the short answer is that, unless a water company is operating in an area of water stress, it needs the Secretary of State’s permission to introduce a universal metering programme. As the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, has pointed out, that is an unhelpful provision. I am sure that we all agree that, if we could move faster on metering, we would see some of the long-term objectives of the Bill delivered much more quickly.

The White Paper, Water for Life, to which we referred so much at Second Reading, gave one every encouragement that the Government would be promoting universal metering. It points out how universal metering changes our attitude to water, as the noble Lord, Lord Curry, has reminded us. Metering helps you determine where the leaks are, particularly when they are within your property—you suddenly take a great deal of interest when it is going to be reflected in your bill as opposed to that of society as a whole. It allows you, without in any way raising the spectre of de-averaging, to introduce all sorts of innovative incentivisation such as summer schemes, where you pay more on a summer tariff than on a winter tariff, and water reduction devices.

All these measures can and have been achieved once universal metering programmes have been introduced. In the Southern Water area, because we are a water-stressed area, these measures have been introduced and the water industry is looking with a great deal of interest at a number of the lessons which have been learnt from this programme. It is clearly correct that water use goes down. That is the first and most important message, but as the probing amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, points out, there are many other societal benefits. It is a no-brainer and we need to go for it.

I thank my noble friend for correcting my wrong conclusion that the power lies with Ofwat. I should probably change my question to ask what the Secretary of State is going to do to change his attitude in this regard.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, and my noble friend Lady Parminter for tabling these amendments, which give us an important opportunity to discuss the role of water meters. In many ways, the debate follows on from the comments of my noble friend on water efficiency in the context of sustainable water supplies, which is the context in which noble Lords have addressed these amendments.

I will take the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, on codification and simplification back to the department. I noted that, as he made those comments, the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, with her wide experience was nodding behind him. Noble Lords are very good at holding the Government to account in this regard, and so they should.

I will start by laying out the Government’s position in relation to water meters. We are seeking to strike a careful balance. I note that noble Lords feel that we have not struck the balance quite correctly, but I will outline our position. We agree that meters provide a fair way to pay and we want companies to do more to promote metering to those who would benefit. However, we are also conscious that universal metering could lead to increased bills for some struggling customers, which is a point that the noble Lord, Lord Curry, referred to. I thank him for noting that, even if he then went on to say that he did not really agree with it. That is why we do not wish to impose a blanket approach to metering across the country.

This balance reflects the current legislation. Section 144A of the Water Industry Act 1991 ensures that any customer can request a meter from their water company. The company must then fit a meter, which it does free of charge. All the companies also allow their customers a cooling-off period of one year should they wish to revert to paying according to rateable value. As a result, there is a permissive position there. On the very rare occasions where fitting a meter would be disproportionately costly, the company offers an assessed charge, based on an assessment of the water actually used by that household.

However, Section 144B restricts the power of water companies to impose universal metering across all of their household customers, which is the issue that we are addressing here. There are circumstances, as noble Lords have noted, in which this restriction does not apply, which are set out in the Water Industry (Prescribed Conditions) Regulations 1999. For example, companies whose areas of appointment have been designated by the Secretary of State as areas of serious water stress—based on advice from the Environment Agency—may impose metering. They may also do so where the household has particularly high water use for a number of specified reasons, such as filling a swimming pool.

As my noble friend indicated, the purpose of her amendment is to add another reason to allow unrestricted metering. That would allow all water companies to meter all their customers, if they considered that this would enable them to meet their statutory duty to supply water or their statutory duty to promote the efficient use of water. About 41% of all homes already have a meter, and we expect this to rise to 50% by 2015. Anglian Water and South West Water already have 70% metering. A number of companies in areas of serious water stress are in the process of rolling out universal metering or have plans to do so. These include Southern Water, Thames Water, Sutton and East Surrey Water, Affinity Water and South East Water. Noble Lords have made a powerful case for why these developments are taking place.

However, we must recognise that the costs and benefits of metering vary from region to region. The evidence suggests that benefits on a scale that outweigh the costs of metering will only be found in areas where incentivising reduced water usage is of critical importance—that is to say, water-stressed areas, where universal metering is already a possibility. As I have noted, we are concerned that there are costs associated with implementing universal metering, which are funded through the bills of all customers in the region. We have always been clear that, with climate change and population growth, the case for universal metering may change, but it may do so at different times for different areas.

The amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, would ensure that the Secretary of State has powers to allow metering of water supplies in areas that are currently or may become water stressed and where metering may generate other social benefits. I confirm that the Secretary of State already has these powers. He has the power to issue the prescribed conditions regulations, as I have already mentioned. For example, at present under the regulations, water companies in areas classified as seriously water stressed must evaluate whether compulsory metering is the most effective way to address their supply-demand balance alongside other options when preparing water resource management plans.

The Secretary of State recently asked the Environment Agency for updated advice on the designation of serious water stress. The new methodology defines serious water stress as occurring in areas where either the current household demand for water is a high proportion of the rainfall which is available to meet that demand or the future household demand for water is likely to be a high proportion of the rainfall available to meet that demand.

The Secretary of State already has the power to revise and reissue the prescribed conditions regulations—clearly, my noble friend Lord Selborne knew that—but I assure my noble friends Lord Cathcart and Lord Selborne that we hear what they say in this regard. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State would of course revise and reissue these regulations if he believed that allowing universal metering to be rolled out in a larger number of areas would lead to social benefits. We will keep these regulations under review. However, as I have said, I have already set out that at present we consider that the existing regulations strike the appropriate balance.

I heard with great interest what the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, said about smart meters and his other proposals. In relation to the installing of meters, restrictions on the power of companies to charge by meter do not extend to their power to fit a meter. Any company may do that and some, such as Anglian Water, have a policy of doing so for the reasons that the noble Lord laid out. We recognise fully the important role that water meters can play. I hope the fact that I have been able to spell out in more detail the Government’s position on this has assisted noble Lords and that they are willing to withdraw their amendment.

I thank all noble Lords who have participated in what has been a very useful discussion about metering. Can I just be clear in my understanding that it is the Government’s position that water companies already have the authority to install water meters anywhere they choose and that the only restriction is on charging?

As the noble Lord is aware, the emphasis at the moment is on water-stressed areas, which are more widely defined in the reissued regulations that I have just mentioned. I also mentioned that a customer can ask for a meter. I note that there is a bit of a gap between that position and the position for which noble Lords are arguing. If I have stated that incorrectly in any way, I will make sure that the noble Lord has a letter about it. It would be useful anyway if all this was laid out clearly to noble Lords who are interested in it, because it is obviously an area that concerns people and they want to have it clear in their minds.

That is extremely useful. If the Government are prepared to move at all on this area, it might be valuable for the Minister to hold a small meeting, as he has done most helpfully on various topics in recent weeks, to discuss whether the existing legislation covers the desirable possibilities or whether there is something that might meet the concerns that have been expressed here and would also be acceptable to the Government. We do not want—dare I say it—the water horse to bolt too soon.

We cannot be having that. On behalf of my noble friend Lord de Mauley, I can say that we would be happy to facilitate such a meeting.

Amendment 112A withdrawn.

Clause 22 agreed.

Amendment 113 not moved.

Clause 23: General duty as regards undue preference in the provision of services

Amendment 114 not moved.

Clause 23 agreed.

House resumed.