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This Bill, if a little late and perhaps a little rushed-certainly today-is an important and much-needed piece of legislation, which we continue to support. In just a few minutes, flood water has the
power to instil fear in people, damage property-almost beyond belief in some cases-and cause enormous costs for households and businesses. In mercifully few cases, it can also take lives. It is therefore right that Parliament should address this issue now, and Members on both sides of the House are doing their best to ensure that the Bill reaches the statute book and is not kyboshed by a general election. I return the thanks of the Secretary of State for his and his Department's work on the Bill, and commend to him the work of the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) and the Bill team.
The Secretary of State was right when he said that his Minister has an open attitude. It has had a practical and positive result. A series of changes have been made during the various stages of the Bill in this place, many of which were instigated by the Opposition, including the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh), who has made valuable contributions. That is exactly how Parliament should work, and I wish in a way that more of our constituents could see Parliament at work in such a forum and with such collaboration, instead of just the more knockabout antics at Prime Minister's Question Time.
I shall set out some of the positive changes. The Secretary of State mentioned the new provisions on building regulations and bad debt, but there were many others. I am pleased that the Minister paid attention to our request that the Bill clearly and beyond all possible ambiguity address all forms of flooding, specifically ground water, which has caused many problems in my constituency and many others. Other points were accepted in Committee, and if they are not in the Bill, they may be reflected in specific guidance-we had many useful undertakings from him on that.
I am particularly keen to welcome those measures which the Minister accepted that reinforced how flood defence and water management should work with nature, and not against it. For instance, we made changes to, and he accepted points on, the reinstatement of woodland as an important method of flood and water management. In a sense, it represents a change in philosophy away from always relying on hard defence to working with the landscape and nature. That is not only a more environmentally friendly approach, but a more effective and perhaps even a cheaper approach.
We also took an important step towards landscape scale planning, again reflecting the wider importance of the natural environment. In doing so, we allowed lead local authorities to collaborate explicitly over larger areas in the creation of their flood risk management strategies. That is important because obviously floods do not follow local authority boundaries, and actions in one area can have huge implications downhill or downstream in another area. That was an important set of changes.
Thanks to the hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan), we actually won a vote against the Government in Committee. That is a rare and welcome event, and I pay tribute to him for his long record in prompting such votes-there have been too few successes, but we had one on that occasion, and it has given added importance to regional flood and coastal erosion committees in approving Environment Agency work in their regions. I think that it will be an entirely beneficial amendment.
Then, of course, we had this enormous and important change on concessionary charging schemes or social tariffs-whatever we want to call them-which I am proud to say resulted from a Liberal Democrat amendment. Getting it on the statute book in good order and good time could have real benefits for thousands or even tens of thousands of our poorest and most vulnerable citizens, so it is an important step to have taken. As I said, I am proud that it resulted from a Liberal Democrat amendment.
A few concerns remain, however. The continuing confusion of responsibilities at the local level has not been entirely resolved. As the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) pointed out, the Bill gives drastic powers to bodies such as the EA, including in particular those in schedule 1, under which just about anything could be designated as an asset to flood risk management. After a designation, the owner-whether Network Rail, a farmer tending his crops or the owner of a private wall-would barely be able to touch their asset, let alone alter it, without seeking permission from the flood risk management authority. That power in the Bill is drastic and without qualification, although there is a right of appeal against designation. Nevertheless, our noble Friends might have to return to that in another place.
There were two major issues that received rather less discussion than they deserved and on which it fell to the Liberal Democrats to propose real change. The first was planning permission. We were unable to press it to a vote today, although we did press it to one in Committee. I was rather disappointed not to receive Conservative support on that occasion, because it is crucial that urbanisation and its contribution to flooding should be addressed and that the current, inadequate response of PPS25 to managing flooding be sorted out. Our amendment sought to give local authorities the explicit power to refuse planning permission to new developments on the grounds of flood risk in high flood-risk areas. I still think that it is an important amendment, on an issue that concerns many of our constituents, which should be returned to at a later stage.
The other issue, which we just about got time to discuss today, is insurance. I welcome the Minister's positive statement about how he will engage with the insurance industry on some of the issues. I would have preferred the Bill to have said that explicitly and to have included slightly firmer regulations. Again, I am disappointed that I did not receive Conservative support on that. Our noble Friends will have to- [ Interruption. ] There is a little chuntering from Conservative Members, but I remember widespread abstention only a matter of minutes ago on that very issue.
Dan Rogerson: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way at this late stage, as we did not have time to talk about this earlier. I hope that he agrees that the Minister might, when talking to the industry, want to look at ensuring that all payouts are made in a timely fashion. As the MP representing Boscastle, which experienced problems because some of the insurance companies were based overseas, I think that that is crucial, so if the Minister can address it when he talks about insurance, that would be useful.
I thank the Minister and the hon. Member for Vale of York for their important and constructive contributions to the debates throughout. Although he is not present now, I would like to give particular thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) for his wise and expert contributions. Once again, I would also like to thank Victoria White, Har Shone and Tom Jenkins for their expert advice in my office. My test for the Bill was a simple question that I put on Second Reading: will the Bill help Warden Hill? By that I meant: will it help those thousands of neighbourhoods all over the country for which we had to try to make a practical difference? After many hours of debate, I think that the answer is yes. However, by neglecting critical issues such as insurance and planning, I do not think that the Bill will help Warden Hill nearly as much as it should have. Nevertheless, it remains a positive and fast-improving piece of legislation. I am happy to offer support from the Liberal Democrat Benches for its continued passage through Parliament.
I welcome all aspects of the Bill, particularly as one of those who originally gave evidence to Sir Michael Pitt's inquiry and who was interviewed about some of the recommendations that we wanted it to come up with. That inquiry and its recommendations were excellent. As a consequence, the Bill will be welcomed throughout the country as a major contribution towards resolving the issues that need resolving.
Today we debated social tariffs, subsidies and cross-subsidies. The water industry is one where cross-subsidies through social tariffs are important, because all the capital investment and all the infrastructure changes that have taken place-and will continue to take place-constitute capital with a shared risk. Through their rates, poor constituents of mine subsidise, with huge sums of money, investments on the Fylde coast in Lancashire and in parts of Cumbria on the west coast, as well as other investments in other parts of the region, and quite rightly so. It is therefore important that what the Bill does should not be seen as a sop to a few people in some communities who are poor. The poor make huge contributions towards the capital infrastructure of the water industry, yet they are sometimes poorly treated, in the services that they get and the costs for those services. I welcome the Bill as striking a balance between affordability on the one hand and shared risk in capital investment on the other.
My final point is about affordability, which also affects insurance. We simply cannot leave that elephant in the room any longer. The lives of tens of thousands of our constituents are being ruined-and they will continue to be ruined in the years to come-by an industry that cannot deal appropriately with the issues
of insurance and shared risk. We need shared risk in insurance. Without that, we will not get the investment that we need to ensure that communities can be more resilient in future than they are now.
Nia Griffith: I welcome the social tariff. Earlier today I pointed out the parallel with the council tax. It is a great disappointment to me, though not a great surprise, that the Opposition Front-Bench team is showing such hostility to that clause. There are sophisticated ways of dealing with it. Graduated methods can be used. To repeat that the poor will be subsidising the very poor is not accurate. It is important to remember that there are more sophisticated methods than a blanket cut-off point. We are proud to introduce the measure, and I am glad that we have had support from the Liberal Democrats.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney) said, we need to recognise the extraordinary contribution that has been made over the years because there has been no relief from water charges. A disproportionate amount of people's income has been spent on essential infrastructure projects.
I shall speak briefly about Government amendment 54. The whole of schedule 3 is crucial because it deals with the idea that we must think about the future. Every time we build, we must think about what we are going to do with the excess surface water. One of the things that has worried me is that in some areas where there are unitary authorities, the same authority which, as the planning authority, will consider planning applications, will also comment on the flood risk and sustainable drainage systems.
We needed Government amendment 54 to strengthen the position of the Minister and to enable him to demand certain standards, introduce regulations and specify the consequences of failure to comply. That amendment is extremely important, particularly where the unitary authority is itself the applicant in a planning application. Without that ministerial intervention and check, the same authority could be acting as applicant, judge of a planning application, and the warder of flood risk.
I join hon. Members in saying that we are proud that the Minister has put in the community halls concession and enabled groups such as scout groups and the Urdd in Wales to continue to provide a good service without having to put all their money by for additional water charges, when they had other activities planned.
I was delighted to take part in the Committee stage of the Bill. I asked to serve on the Committee and was allowed to do so. Having also taken part in the pre-legislative scrutiny, I have seen the progress of the Bill from its earliest days. We know that there were many questions about whether it was needed, not necessarily about
whether the timing was right. Some of us would argue that it should have been introduced sooner. With the Cave review, the Walker review and the draft Bill, which was always there and unlikely to be carried through in its totality, there were always those who would urge caution, delay and so on.
The Government were right to introduce the Bill. Like the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood), I pay tribute to the Minister who took it through. The essence of good legislation is not what happens in the Committee, but what happens outside it. We had useful discussions, and as a result, the Minister listened. Although we are still in play, we have a better Bill which will, in due course, be fit for purpose. It will need to be amended and enhanced, but we knew always that.
To my mind, the simple way to look at this is whether we have aligned better the legislative framework, the responsibility of those who have to take action, and the funding mechanisms that allow those actions to take place. I believe that we have. Some criticisms could be made, and we could have done some things differently and better; and no doubt the other place will look further into such matters. I hope, however, that their lordships will be very careful not to wreck, unduly delay or send back this Bill, because my people in Gloucestershire need to know that they are better protected than they were before the Bill started its parliamentary passage. They need to know that what happened in 2007 will not happen again-not, of course, that we can stop the floods, but we can rectify some of the things that went wrong.
Although I was not there in person to see the beatification of my hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan), I am glad of the opportunity to say before he leaves this place that he will for ever be known as someone who has managed to defeat the Government and bring them to their senses on an issue that I still do not understand, but am sure is of great import, and will ever remain so.
Stephen Pound (Ealing, North) (Lab): I am not sure which great parliamentarian it was-it might even have been you, Mr. Speaker-who said that when the House is united, it is invariably wrong. May I say that tonight's business disproves that maxim? Although I will not attempt to exceed the slavish loyalty of my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), I would like to say that we have seen the extraordinary circumstance today that there is widespread recognition both within and outside this place that we have achieved something of considerable moment.
The hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) said virtually the same thing. He raised some points and additional issues that will have to be considered in the other place. The responsibility of Ofwat for the individual is well delineated in the Bill, but the responsibility for community groups needs to be re-examined. Above all, however, we have produced a very good piece of legislation.
It seems less than a year ago that my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mr. Hall) first raised on the Floor of the House the circumstances relating to community groups in the United Utilities area. I speak particularly with reference to clause 43. I speak of one of those dramatic occasions when we realised that over the length and breadth of this land, scout groups, Church groups,
sports clubs and community groups of every shade would not just be affected by the actions of some utility companies, but could be bankrupted and driven out by them. In my own area, Greenford and District scouts were affected, and an individual scout HQ was faced with a potential bill of £700 or £800 a year. That was impossible.
From that original clarion call and stirring cry from Weaver Vale, a meeting in Portcullis House was arranged, which 74 Members of Parliament attended; that must be close to a record. We met in Nobel house last summer-a great office built on the profits of the explosives industry. There we met again my hon. Friend the Minister, who juxtaposed that explosive past with an emollient, gentle, positive and productive present. In fact, during the course of those meetings, he revealed to us that within the heart of his constituency, at the top end of the Swansea valley, is the oldest continuous scout group in the UK-Ystrad Gynlais. He won himself many friends.
I speak from the proud position of being one of the co-chairs of the all-party parliamentary Scout Association group-a position I aspired to for many years and have now held for 13. I would particularly like to pay tribute to the Scout Association and its people, such as Dr. Stella Creasy, who was a constant source of activity and activism in raising the issue here, and Sophie Richings, a young leader from Enfield who went to all three party conferences. I was able to attend only one: I could not afford the champagne at the other-and frankly, I did not have my sandals with me, so I missed the Liberal Democrats.
I also want to mention Derek Twine, chief executive of the Scout Association, and David Shelmerdine, who will retire this month after more than 30 years in the association. He has seen the Bill go through, thanks to the Secretary of State and the positive work, engagement, good parliamentary skills and human decency of the Minister who has been dealing with the Bill today.
That the draft Gambling Act 2005 (Operating Licence Conditions) (Amendment) Regulations 2010, which were laid before this House on 15 December, be approved. -(Mrs. Hodgson.)
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