Motion to Regret
That this House regrets that the Water Abstraction (Specified Enactments) Regulations 2017 (SI 2017/1042), the Water Abstraction and Impounding (Exemptions) Regulations 2017 (SI 2017/1044), the Water Abstraction (Revocations etc.) (England) Order 2017 (SI 2017/1046), and the Water Abstraction (Transitional Provisions) Regulations 2017 (SI 2017/1047) have missed the 2012 deadline set in the European Union Water Framework Directive which has required Her Majesty’s Government to explain their general implementation of the legislation to the European Commission; notes that the Regulations draw on a consultation exercise originally carried out in 2009 and then repeated in 2016; and considers that the delays cast doubt on the ability of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to handle the volume of secondary legislation that will result from the Brexit process.
Relevant document: 10th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee.
My Lords, I pursue this Motion to Regret the four water abstraction regulations that have been tabled for three main reasons: first, the policy implications contained therein; secondly, the pattern of delays in Defra dealing with regulations; and, thirdly, the wider capacity issues within the department to deal with future legislation.
The background to the Motion is the excellent report of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, which was published on 16 November 2017. As ever, the committee has carried out its responsibility with scrupulous attention to detail and to the public policy implications of the regulations. The report describes how the four sets of regulations have the combined effect of ending exemptions from the requirement to obtain a licence to abstract water. This has significant environmental implications as, in the past, unfettered water abstraction—for example, in the use of irrigation—has impacted on the flow of water available for other users further downstream. As the Defra Explanatory Memorandum makes clear, currently 5,000 significant water abstractions are exempt from licensing, compared to 20,000 that do have to have a licence. This creates an unfair playing field and allows unlicensed abstractors to put pressure on the environment and other water users.
Given the environmental importance of this issue and our understanding of the need for careful management of water catchment areas, particularly in the light of recent flooding crises, I would have thought that the Government would have been keen to act. Sadly, the opposite has been the case. As the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee has highlighted, these regulations have been tabled 14 years after the requirement to do so in the Water Act 2003, and five years after a deadline set by the EU water framework directive. Not only is this negligent but it put us at odds with our EU obligations, which could have led to the Commission bringing formal proceeding against us, which, in turn, could have led to taxpayers funding the Government’s defence. I have to ask: why did it take so long to act on this issue?
Over this period, the Government carried out two consultations on proposals to remove the licensing exemptions. The first was instigated in 2009, resulting from the Labour Government’s decision to consult on the need to comply with the EU directive. Not surprisingly, those who already had licences and those concerned with the environment supported the regulations, and, again not surprisingly, those who did not have licences were resistant to the proposals. When the new Government came in in 2010, they failed to implement the changes required as they decided that the business concerns were more important than the environmental concerns. It then took another six years for the Government to decide that a new consultation was necessary. As the SLSC report makes clear, this proposed a,
“light-touch, risk based approach to licensing … which is now being taken forward”.
Indeed, the impact assessment concentrates its concerns on the cost to business of making these changes. As the SLSC report concludes:
“It is clear that Defra’s concern to mitigate the impacts on business has been an important cause of the protracted timescale for removing these licensing exemptions”.
My first reason for pursuing this Motion to Regret is to highlight our concerns that business interests are being put before environmental interests and before the need for fair play between those who are already in compliance and those who seem to want to continue to act outside the system. Is this the way that the Government are going to go forward? If it is, it rather contradicts everything that the Secretary of State has said about putting the environment first, and the rather lofty ambitions of the 25-year environment plan, which will require some hard choices, considerable behaviour change and potential costs on the part of business. It would be helpful if the Minister could clarify whether the Government’s policy in the most recent consultation, based on prioritising business needs over environmental objectives, remains the same.
Secondly, I would like to raise the inconceivable delay in bringing forward these regulations. We are now 12 years past the Water Act 2003 and five years past the deadline for compliance with the EU directive. How can the Minister justify this delay? I raise this with particular concern, because it is not a one-off event. This is not the first time that the SLSC has criticised Defra’s treatment of secondary legislation. In July, the SLSC noted that the Marketing of Fruit Plant and Propagating Material (England) Regulations 2017, which transposed three EU directives, missed the transposition deadline of 1 January 2017. The Commission issued a formal notice to the UK in late January and, in response, the department set a revised transposition deadline of June. In the same week, the committee also noted that the Single Common Market Organisation (Emergency Aid) (England and Northern Ireland) Regulations 2017 were based on a short, two-week consultation in September and October 2016. That was done for good reason, but the committee questioned why, given the early October consultation deadline, it then took six months for the regulations to be laid.
In March, the committee noted that Defra’s answers to its questions on the Commons (Registration of Town or Village Greens) and Dedicated Highways (Landowner Statements and Declarations) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2016 had misrepresented the position of user groups. The committee wrote to the Minister to bring the case to his attention. In his response, he acknowledged that the department may have given the committee the wrong impression. I would be grateful if the Minister could explain why these delays and mistakes are taking place and what is being done to address these failures. The prompt and accurate processing of secondary legislation is an essential part of legislative scrutiny and I hope he can confirm that it will be taken more seriously in the future.
Finally, I want to raise the wider issue of the department’s capacity to handle forthcoming legislation. We already know that 80% of legislation affecting Defra is derived from the EU level. The European Union (Withdrawal) Bill will give ongoing legal effect to the directly applicable legislation, which the UK will of course take on board. At the same time, the technical details, in the form of statutory instruments, will need to be crafted accurately and in a timely manner.
The noble Lord will know that the January 2017 House of Commons Library briefing found there are 922 regulations relating to agriculture, 1,122 to fisheries and 527 in the field of environment, consumer and health protection. While not all of these will be relevant to the UK, it is clear that Defra will have a significant amount of extra work to carry out between now and March 2019. At the same time, we already have promises for an animal sentience Bill, a fisheries Bill and an agriculture Bill—all of which are expected this year.
In November 2015, RSPB and Wildlife Trusts economists said that cuts to Defra’s budget would be equivalent to 57% in real terms over the course of two Parliaments. I accept that this has been partially mitigated as, in October, the Government confirmed extra funding for Defra in order to prepare for Brexit. At the time, the department said that it expected to hire an additional 1,200 civil servants to cope with its extra workload. However, a National Audit Office report published this month suggests that only half this number of posts had been filled as at November, and of course these posts are only intended to cover the work of Brexit, not the wider day-to-day running of the department. Is the Minister satisfied that Defra now has the resources necessary, at the right level of knowledge and training, to process the huge workload linked to Brexit, as well as the day-to-day work such as preparing primary and secondary legislation and rolling out the 25-year environment plan?
I look forward to the Minister’s response on these three challenges—the Government’s approach to regulating business in the context of environmental priorities, the need to address the delays and errors in the processing of secondary legislation, and the overall capacity of the department to deal with the upcoming workload.
My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, for putting down this Motion to Regret. I am able to support all of her arguments in this vital matter. The use and retention of water is key to the way in which the country is able to function, both in terms of domestic properties, farming and business.
As the noble Baroness said, the 10th report of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee back in November made it very clear that the Government have taken an exceedingly long time to reach the point where they feel they can move forward with secondary legislation—some 14 years after the parent Act. Currently around 5,000 significant water abstractions are exempt from licensing, while some 20,000 abstractions have licences. There does not appear to be any substantial reason why licences should not apply to all abstractors. This is clearly inequitable.
Keeping our rivers flowing must be a priority as overabstraction is damaging diverse wildlife populations. It would seem, from the Prime Minister’s speech last Thursday, that the Government have now woken up to this fact. Analysis shows that the economic and social costs of drought far exceed the costs of addressing the problem and that the rate of return on investment of improving river health is high.
Nearly a quarter of rivers in England are at risk from unsustainable water abstraction, with 14% classified as overabstracted, meaning that water removal is causing rivers to drop below levels required to sustain wildlife. Some 9% are overlicensed, meaning that the river would be overabstracted if licence-holders took all the water they were entitled to. This situation is critical and should not have had to wait 14 years to be addressed.
As we heard, the Government conducted a consultation in 2009 and then again in 2016. I wonder if having consulted in 2009, the incoming Government did not like the responses and shelved the document. I have looked at the responses to the 2016 consultation. Farmers and the mining and quarrying industries were the highest responders, but some responders did not reply to all questions, as they did not all apply to them. Somerset has farming, mining and quarrying industries that are highly dependent on water abstraction. I found the responses of the water level management contributors most interesting, as I live close to the Somerset Levels. The internal drainage boards are only a small section of responders, but they are extremely important.
I was also interested in the response to Question 3 on excluding compensation provisions for future abstractors, with all six environmental groups agreeing with the proposal and all seven in the quarrying and mining sector disagreeing. I understand the Government’s dilemma in trying to please everyone. But water, as we know, needs to be both harvested and protected for the environment. The Government must transpose the water framework directive in full, establishing mechanisms and sanctions to enforce its implementation, even if we leave the EU. The 2027 deadline to increase the proportion of water bodies in good ecological status should be upheld.
The Government’s Brexit White Paper guaranteed that this important piece of legislation and its 2027 deadline would be transposed into UK law. Will the Minister now confirm that this will happen? In its Water for Life White Paper, Defra set out its intention to reform the abstraction regime to ensure sufficient water for wildlife and economic growth. The resulting legislation to make this a reality was due this spring. But in April 2017, the Minister confirmed that new legislation was on hold due to insufficient parliamentary time to take it forward.
In 2016-2017, Britain experienced the driest winter and early spring for more than 20 years according to the Met Office. But Parliament appears not to have been able to allow time for the Government to implement the vital legislation covered in the Water for Life White Paper.
As well as wildlife and biodiversity, water abstraction featured in last week’s 25-year environment plan. The Government aim to amend licences in cases of unsustainable abstraction; encourage water trading and storage; introduce more low-flow controls to protect the environment; and replace seasonal constraints to allow extra abstraction at high flows. They will be extremely busy and it will be good if all that comes to pass.
In many parts of the country, severe drought is a real issue, but in others, the problem is flooding. Managing water flow, storage and movement is key to all those areas affected. Not taking action on the directive for 14 years seems to these Benches to be dilatory in the extreme. I look forward to the Minister’s response on this important matter.
My Lords, I should perhaps declare an interest as a farmer in Suffolk. I do not think that we use any irrigation on our crops because the land is pretty heavy and wet—but I will correct that in the future if I am wrong.
Tonight is a slightly odd circumstance for me and for the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, who is in his place opposite. He and I took the Water Bill through the House back in 2003. I remind noble Lords who are contributing today that one of the things that we did with that Bill was to exclude small businesses from having to have a licence control certificate if they took less than 20 cubic metres a day. I think that that is still the position today.
I, too, pay tribute to the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee. When I was in the same position as the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, as shadow Minister with the agriculture brief for 10 years, I relied on the committee a lot and I was very grateful to it for bringing certain things to my attention. The delay that it referred to at the end is certainly accepted as far as I am concerned—and I am sure will be by my noble friend the Minister when he comes to respond.
I will refer to one or two things within the section that we are dealing with. In fact, the Act came into being in 2003. If one were casting aspersions at the present Government taking a long while, I cannot remember why on earth in 2003 we did not move it on quicker and have the consultation earlier. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, will be able to remind me. There was quite a long time between the Act coming into being and going out to consultation in the first place. Again, the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, or the noble Lord will have more information than I do.
Anyway, the consultation went out. I gather that the 2009 consultation had 41 responses, which reflected on the complexity and the reasons why there was a need for further delay. Interestingly, the 2016 consultation had 86 responses. I am quite intrigued to know from the Minister the kind of responses that they had. The noble Baroness on the Liberal Benches referred to many responses being from the farming community—you can understand that—but also from other businesses. The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, suggested that it was from businesses, but my understanding is that some of those responses and concerns came from navigation authorities, canal and river trusts and internal drainage boards, along with the minerals industry, which I know we dealt with at the time. So clearly there have been more responses this time, which may be why the Government—although I am not defending them—took longer to try to make sure that we get the right piece of legislation before us.
I too welcome the 25-year environment plan. It raises the whole issue of the earth’s natural resources, whether water or soil. It does not really matter what it is; they are very precious commodities. Looking back 10 or 20 years ago, we were aware of them but not to the degree that they are really so relevant today. I am grateful to have the opportunity to speak in this debate and raise one or two issues.
The length of time for consultation in 2009 obviously brought back feedback. As I said, there were 86 responses in 2016. I understand from the latest consultation— perhaps the Minister will be able to tell me—that the Government are looking at flexibility on the volume limits, at flow controls and the benefits to the wider conservation values, and to reflect business needs, particularly in dry circumstances. That would particularly apply to farming.
I hope that in bringing this Motion to Regret the noble Baroness is not wishing not to allow these statutory instruments to go ahead, because clearly we have reached an important stage. It is very easy to say that it should have happened earlier. I would agree, but if we get a better outcome than we might have done earlier, perhaps the wait has been has been worth while. From my point of view, the importance is of soil and therefore of water. Some areas, such as the south, are so dry at times that they are nearly as dry as it is across in Africa. I know that my noble friend Lady McIntosh, who is sitting behind me, has had recent experience of heavy flooding. There is no one size that fits all. Clearly, the way we use water, irrigation and the way we conserve water in this country is hugely important. I look forward with interest to hearing what my noble friend has to say.
I am delighted to contribute to this debate. I welcome any opportunity to speak about the environment, in particular its relationship to agriculture. My most relevant interest to the debate is the work I do with the Water Industry Commission for Scotland and the fact that I am an honorary vice-president of the Association of Drainage Authorities.
I agree with everything that my noble friend Lady Byford said. I will make some additional points. The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, said that this was a long time. Fourteen years is indeed a long time, but seven of those years were under the stewardship of a different Government, who had every opportunity from 2003 to 2010 to bring forward the regulations. It would be interesting to know for what reason they did not have the chance to do so. The noble Baroness also said that she felt that the Government were placing more importance on the business community than environment concerns. I disagree. The statutory instruments before us clearly show the extent to which business interests, the various uses of water and the environment are intrinsically linked.
I will follow up one of the questions the noble Baroness raised with my noble friend the Minister as to what the position is on abstraction policy, in the sense that the Government made a very clear commitment when I was in the other place. We need to set out our stall as to what the abstraction policy will be. As my noble friend Lady Byford said, there have been stresses. The number of licences that have already been issued in East Anglia show how they are more subject to water stress, as opposed to areas such as Yorkshire where we seem to go from lots of flooding one minute to near drought the next. It is incumbent on the Government to come forward with a revised abstraction policy.
I would also be interested to have confirmation that the 25-year environment plan also covers the farming and agricultural aspects. It was of real concern to farmers and agricultural industrialists that there would be two separate plans competing with each other. It would be very neat if all the farming issues could be addressed under the 25-year plan.
I particularly welcome the fact that the Government have stated that the regulations comply with the requirements of the water framework directive but without gold-plating. I do not know whether my noble friend is in a position to say this, but I am very exercised as to what the arrangements will be when the water framework directive and other daughter and sister directives that are currently being revised are approved before or just about the time we propose to leave the European Union. Is there any way the department can let the House know before the agriculture and environment Bills come through? That will be very helpful indeed. My take on this is that we will comply with the new commitments, but my concern is that Ofwat will agree a price review before that time that will apply for the next five years from 1 January 2019. If we are to sign up to these new commitments we ought to give the water companies the chance to put this in their five-year plans. I note that the cost of introducing and applying the regulations will be £89.6 million, with the benefits estimated at only £15.3 million. The costs are substantial.
I have a particular question on the impact assessment. With drainage boards being so prevalent across North Yorkshire, this is of particular interest to me. On page 34, paragraph 6.44 says that Defra is in,
“ongoing discussion with IDBs about their abstraction and none of these discussions has led us to believe that there will be curtailment”.
So it goes on, but it says that there is a certain degree of “uncertainty” owing to the “complexity”. At this late stage, it would be very helpful to know exactly how the regulations will impact internal drainage boards. If it is possible to know that today, that would be very helpful indeed. It would be helpful to know on what date the statutory instruments will come into effect. With those remarks and those questions to my noble friend the Minister, I would give swift passage to these statutory instruments.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend on raising this issue and on the forensic way in which she approached the analysis of the regulations before us and the history of how we got to this position.
I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, who was my opposite number for a large number of years. I was responsible for taking the 2003 Act through this House, in the teeth of her forensic analysis, and we came to a compromise, in effect. I asked my officials at the time why on earth there were still licences which provided for unrestricted abstraction and why there were significant exemptions. Logically, neither of those should have existed if we were going to have a rational approach to the management of water, particularly in the upstream areas which have such a dramatic effect downstream, both in relation to agriculture and to droughts and floods.
The answer was that, as far as the exemptions were concerned, there were relatively small companies—farmers, miners and quarriers—who would be very severely affected by removing the exemption. We accepted that argument, and we also accepted at the time that there was the possibility of technological solutions, in particular in mines and quarrying but also in relation to farming, primarily if the Government could be somewhat more encouraging of storage of water for those parts of agriculture which were likely to be hit by shortage of water at particular times of year and where the intensity of water use, unfortunately, usually coincided with the least precipitation and the least access to water—namely, the summer months.
While the mines and quarries, I am informed, have actually restricted and reduced their use of water, and some farmers have restricted their use of water and some storage has existed, actually, government policy never, under any Government, came closer to encouraging, as part of an agri-environment scheme or whatever, that storage of water would be provided. This was particularly important for the horticulture sector, and it has not happened.
The reason we did not immediately move to consult on ending the exemptions after the passage of the Act was principally that we needed time for those changes to take place. The Labour Government did, of course, consult in 2009, and part of the result of that consultation was that not enough had changed for the industry to be prepared to accept the change.
Most of the House will have completely forgotten this, but for one very brief period during the coalition Government I sat on the Front Bench when water legislation was being introduced at that time. That was mainly about introducing competition within the water industry, which has not gone quite as smoothly as it might have done and as we all hoped it might at the time. At that time, we also received assurances from the Government that we would have a strategic approach to abstraction. Indeed, there was some hope of new measures at the upstream end of water, which might involve water trading and possible trading of licences, so that we could gain efficiency at that end in the same way that we are trying to gain efficiency by introducing a degree of competition at the retail end. None of that has happened either, as the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, has just said.
Effectively, the coherent approach to abstraction reform has been put well and truly on the back burner. All we have, therefore, is these regulations to do the easiest bit of it, albeit that it is a slightly painful bit for some abstractors—namely, to end exemptions. It seems to be sensible that we do that. It is, however, now 14 years on, as people have said, and we have also missed the deadline under the water framework directive.
Generally speaking, the water framework directive is regarded as a good exemplar of European legislation because effectively it is outcome related and is not overprescriptive, but it is a relatively good piece of European legislation, one which we would have thought we would be very happy to comply with. We have actually failed to comply with it in a number of important respects, some of which are being put right by these regulations tonight.
The problem before us is that there has been delay. Some of that delay has been justified. I would argue that, even under the Labour Government, we took too long to get back to it, and we have had another 10 years—or seven years—since then, which has led to even further delay. The bigger point is that we are only doing a tiny bit of what is needed for abstraction reform; we are only tinkering with the management of water upstream that is going to be needed, and we have a clear indication from the Government that that has actually been put back for a number of years because of the legislation which will arise as a result of Brexit and the burden that that puts on Defra. It seems to me that that is worrying.
The final clauses of my noble friend’s Motion indicate that the way this is being dealt with shows a lack of capacity in Defra to deal with the post-Brexit regulatory framework. I have some sympathy with the Minister because, clearly, he is representing a department which is under great strain and which covers the largest single batch of regulations that are going to be transposed in the withdrawal Bill, which we will shortly have the pleasure of considering in this House. It will therefore have to decide which of those regulations will be transposed and, crucially, how they will be enforced. Hitherto, although in this context the Commission did not really threaten infraction proceedings, they have been enforced by European legislation. We will need to know what the new body that Michael Gove proposes is going to look like. I hope we will know that fairly soon. Moreover, we will need to know and be confident that, when it comes to the regulations in this field and the interrelated field of the CAP—water management is potentially a major part of agricultural and land management policy in terms of catchment management in the future—we have a department and agencies which are able to get round to having a coherent and holistic approach to the water system, particularly in this context to abstraction reform.
We have three issues. The first is delay. The second is: why have we put water reform on the back burner? The third, and probably most crucial, is whether the Minister is able to convince us—and, indeed, all stakeholders in this area—that Defra will be able to deal with the wider problem of regulations that will need to be transposed and the new systems of enforcement and monitoring that will need to be established post Brexit. I fear that Defra is not in a position to do that. It is not the fault of Ministers or civil servants in Defra or the agencies which report to Defra; it is that, unfortunately, Defra is pretty low down the pecking order in Whitehall. I heard the figure quoted today of 57% of Defra’s resources in terms of staff and finances being cut. It has a major job in inventing, post Brexit, a new English, and potentially British, agricultural policy, and it has this whole backlog of regulations to deal with before the regulations are transposed under the withdrawal Bill.
I say to the Minister that I greatly enjoyed being a Minister in Defra. I would not enjoy it now or in the next few months—and years. I hope, however, he will be able to assure me that I am wrong, that Defra does have the capacity and if it does not have it now, the Treasury will be generous in providing it, and that as soon as practicable it will be going back to the issue of holistic reform of the abstraction system. If I get that from the Minister tonight, I will go home happy.
My Lords, first, I declare my farming interests, although I rather think that in the Vale of Aylesbury we have never needed a water abstraction licence or otherwise. I acknowledge the vigour with which the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, set out her concerns, and I value the contributions from noble Lords across the House. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville, that water is one of our essential natural resources. Our ambition for clean and plentiful water for both the environment and people is a key goal of the Government’s 25-year environment plan. I say to my noble friend Lady McIntosh that with 75% of the land in this country farmed, surely it is the case that farming and an enhancement of the environment are mutually compatible. That is how we see the way forward.
It is the Environment Agency’s task to ensure that water is managed and used effectively and sustainably. Managing water abstraction is particularly important in times of dry weather to manage the impacts of drought. The abstraction licensing system is one of the agency’s key tools to manage water resources and to secure the amount of water available for businesses and the environment.
The vast majority of abstraction has been licensed since the 1960s. This has meant that about 20,000 significant abstractions and those with the most potential to damage the environment were already licensed. This includes abstractions used by the water companies, industry, the energy sector and most of the agriculture sector. We are therefore largely compliant with the water framework directive requirements regarding prior control of abstractions. The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, rightly spoke of sustainability. Since 2008, the Environment Agency has changed more than 270 of these abstraction licences to prevent more than 30 billion litres of water per year being removed from the environment where this abstraction is unsustainable.
Through the statutory instruments we are discussing, we are commencing and implementing some provisions in the Water Act 2003 to remove abstraction licence exemptions for some further activities. Hearing the Minister and the shadow Minister who dealt with the Water Act 2003 speaking about it as if it was yesterday shows the great importance of hearing the experiences of those times, as well as why your Lordships’ House is an important place. The work that we are undertaking now will ensure that we more fully capture all significant abstraction in the licensing regime. This will mean about 5,000 comparably less damaging abstractors will be licensed. I was interested in what the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, said about the issues that came up in 2003 about mines, quarries and agriculture, highlighting the importance of proper deliberation on these matters.
I accept that we and previous Governments—I can say this because the previous Governments are represented here—could have made a more expeditious advance on these instruments. I am sure the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, will not mind me referring again to this—I think it was already referred to—but it was the Labour Government who, during that seven-year period after 2003, had their initial consultation only in 2009. But I will not dwell on that because I should take this opportunity to explain some of the reasons why it has taken some time to complete this complex legislation. The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, indicated some of these issues.
These changes are part of an evolution of complex water abstraction legislation, stretching back to the 1960s, which affect existing lawful entitlements. Bringing them into regulation while avoiding disproportionate and unnecessary business impacts needed careful implementation. I say to your Lordships that central to all this is ensuring the wise use of water—that we regulate only where it is necessary for environmental protection or enhancement—and being equitable to all abstractors. We did not want to find ourselves in a situation where we were unnecessarily regulating businesses that contributed strongly to the economy of our country, but which could then not function because they did not have access to the water they needed.
To begin with, we had insufficient knowledge about these abstractions because they were not regulated. Different sectors had varied concerns. We worked with each sector on an individual basis to develop a policy that met our primary requirements for the protection of the environment, through a fair abstraction licensing regime, while allowing these businesses time to adapt and continue. My noble friend Lady Byford, with her considerable experience on these matters, will identify that the sectors affected ranged from navigation authorities such as the Canal & River Trust to farmers using trickle irrigators and the mineral industry, which removes groundwater from mines, quarries and large engineering works so as to extract minerals safely without groundwater seeping into its works. The Government have also made changes to the internal drainage boards that will benefit them. The work we have done with them has borne fruit and is very helpful.
The instruments bring these sectors and others into the abstraction licensing regime, which will allow the Environment Agency to manage all the water in a catchment. It is important that we look at these things on a catchment basis. The first cycle of river management plans required by the water framework directive were published in 2009. This is what showed us that we needed to know more about the exempt activities and how they contributed to overall abstraction pressures. We did research to identify the numbers and locations of these activities, consideration of how the policy proposals impacted on businesses and the environment, and further economic appraisal of the policy changes that arose following the initial consultation in 2009.
A key policy change was the Government’s initiative in relation to dealing with cases of serious environmental damage caused by abstraction. This required consultation in 2012 and the development of new guidance to facilitate the changes. We then included a commitment in the 2015 river basin management plans to remove the exemptions and we consulted further in 2016. To ensure that the final approach was proportionate, time was also required to develop the policy and legislation to allow abstraction exemptions to continue for numerous low-risk activities. For example, provisions in these instruments continue abstraction exemptions for small-scale temporary construction works. Had we introduced the legislation without making this exemption, there would have been substantial business impacts on the construction sector. We estimate that 20,000 of its abstractions per year would have had to be licensed, without benefit—I emphasise, without benefit—to the environment.
My noble friend Lady McIntosh and the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, referred to further plans. Removing abstraction licence exemptions is indeed only part of the story, so I hope that I might enable the noble Lord to return home with a certain amount of cheer. The Government recently published their updated approach to managing water resources. This abstraction plan explains how we will implement reform of the abstraction licensing system over the coming years. The plan outlines three main approaches. We intend to make full use of existing regulatory powers and methodologies to address abstraction that prevents us meeting environmental objectives; we will develop a stronger catchment focus to protect the environment and improve people’s access to water; we will also digitise and move the abstraction service online, and bring regulations in line with other environmental permitting regimes.
I hope noble Lords will be reassured that the Government are taking action to improve the abstraction licensing system and wanted to take the right time to get the balance right between avoiding unnecessary regulation and ensuring environmental protection. I emphasise to the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, that the top priority is environmental protection.
I confirm to the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville, that the 2027 deadline to achieve good ecological status in water bodies under the water framework directive is transposed into domestic regulation and that these regulations will be preserved under the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill after exit day.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, has broader concerns about the department’s ability to deliver EU exit legislation. The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, enjoyed his time in government, and I echo that it is an enormous privilege to be a Minister of Her Majesty’s Government, but it is also a continuing privilege to be a Minister in a department which has so many affairs and interests that affect the daily lives of everyone in this country. Wrestling with those challenges and seeking to do the right thing is an enormous privilege. I can give him comfort tonight that the whole of the ministerial team and all officials are working extremely hard and effectively on the nation’s behalf.
The noble Baroness took me and the department to task, and that is her right. There is always room for improvement, but I think that we generally have a good track record on regulation, although she mentioned a number of things that I will give closer scrutiny to. We have made good, strong progress in identifying legislation that will be required to deliver EU exit. The Secretary of State has already written to the chairman of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee setting out the principles under which the Defra programme to make the necessary corrections to all EU-related legislation under the withdrawal Bill prior to EU exit is being developed. He indicated in that letter that this will require around 95 SIs to correct 854 existing core pieces of legislation. I acknowledge that that is a considerable task.
I say to noble Lords, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, and the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, that as of 31 December, Defra has recruited around 950 additional staff, including fixed-term appointments and interims, to support its comprehensive EU exit programme of work, of whom more than 800 have already taken up their post with the remainder progressing through our pre-appointment process. I am extremely proud to work in a department with outstanding officials in all the policy areas that I personally have responsibility for. As your Lordships know, as the only Defra Minister in the Lords, I have to seem to be extremely knowledgeable on all matters in the department, as the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, will well remember. All the officials that I have the privilege of meeting and working with are exceptional. I acknowledge that there is an enormous amount of work for Defra. It is my intention to keep the noble Baronesses, Lady Jones and Lady Bakewell, abreast of all the developments that I can possibly discuss so that they are aware of the issues that we are seeking to wrestle with.
I thank noble Lords for their contributions. I know the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, will not be satisfied with all that I have said, but I hope that with the interventions from the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, and my noble friend Lady Byford there is a background to all of this. There is continuing work to do. The Government have a plan on water abstraction and significant plans in the 25-year environment plan.
I should emphasise again the 25-year environment plan, because it has come up so many times. This is a continuing task—it is not about arriving in 2041 and suddenly deciding we need to fulfil the plan. The plan will be worked on day in, day out, as we work to leave the environment in a better place. Clearly, the good custodianship of the water supply is one of our prime duties and something that the Environment Agency has responsibility for. The agency is working extremely hard, and we in turn are working with it. I am most grateful to the noble Baroness for this opportunity.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for their contributions, and in particular the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, and my noble friend Lord Whitty for their wholehearted support of the position that I put forward. All noble Lords owe a debt of thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, and my noble friend for a very enlightening history lesson going back to 2003. I absolutely agree with the Minister’s comments that it is very helpful to have people who were there at the time to put us straight on a few things when we look back in history and try to understand what happened.
I also agree with my noble friend Lord Whitty that the end result of all that was that over and again a coherent approach to abstraction was put on the back burner. We had the opportunities to take the issue forward and to have a more holistic view of water extraction and water management in the round—but time and again we did not find the time or make it a priority to take that forward. I will also say—and I think the contributions this evening have echoed this—that we are now far more aware of the importance of water management than perhaps we were back at that time. It is not just something for the experts: there is a much wider public concern about what is happening in terms of water management in the UK. We have been given examples of floods and droughts—we all see it, know it and feel it, which I think focuses our mind on the fact that we really need to be doing more about it.
We will have opportunities to debate this going forward, and I welcome some of the issues that the Minister mentioned. He mentioned the new abstraction plans that are coming forward, which are contained in the 25-year environment plan. I mentioned that I was concerned about the overemphasis in delays on business interests. Some people queried whether or not that was true. I would only pray in aid on all that the analysis of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, which said:
“While the Department clearly had to consider the way in which businesses would be affected by the changes proposed, we see no reason why its reflection on the consultation process in 2009 needed to take the best part of a decade to be turned into detailed implementation”.
I share that analysis at the end of the day, despite what the Minister said about the environment being put first. The party opposite says that regularly, and we all want to believe it, but we also have to look at its actions as well as its words, and the proof will be in the telling as time goes by. So the Minister did not exactly reassure me on that—but maybe he said as much as he was able to.
I also thought that he was rather grudging in his acknowledgment of the fact that there had been a delay. I think he said that there could have been more expeditious progress. Well, that is a bit of an understatement of the facts. I think that everybody can see and acknowledge that there is no justification for the delay, whatever the reasons, and that it could have been dealt with more speedily.
The Minister sought to reassure me on the issue of capacity, but I am concerned that the recruitment now taking place is focused on Brexit. The department has taken a big hit in terms of staff reductions in the last 18 months. The new recruits are very welcome and I look forward to working with them, but they will be focused on Brexit rather than the bread-and-butter stuff that we are dealing with here, which is some of the business-as-usual work that still needs to take place. The Minister said he would go away and look at why some of the other delays that I mentioned had taken place. We need to keep our foot on the accelerator to ensure that the work is kept up to date.
The Minister said at the end that he did not think I would be satisfied by all that he had said—and, unsurprisingly I am not. Nevertheless, I welcome the dialogue and discussion, and I think that he gave fair and honest answers. With that—and bearing in mind the lateness of the hour, since I know we are going to be debating these issues for many months to come—I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.
House adjourned at 8.40 pm.