HC Deb 20 July 1964 vol 699 cc203-13

Question proposed, That the Clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Ross

I appreciate that my very important Amendment No. 64 has not been selected, but I wondered whether or not we should consider the whole question of how all this operation is to be paid for. It would appear that it will be paid for by the local taxpayers; that is to say, this work of the river purification boards, which, as I see it, is certainly not related purely to the question of pollution as affecting the taxpayers themselves, has to be paid for by the ratepayers. They might be the ratepayers of a burgh that is nowhere near the river concerned, but the people getting the benefits are the farmers, who have been given legal immunity and allowed, for a licence fee of £5 a year, to take as much water as the licence allows during a certain period.

We have a "well-heeled" farmer amongst us, and I understand from my reading of the farming newspapers and periodicals that if a farmer gets about 1 in. of water at the right time when the early-potato tubers are of the right size, not only does he get a larger crop but one that is fairly palatable and will fetch a reasonable price. It is probably just as well that my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, West (Mr. W. Hamilton) has deprived us for a short time of his company—he is usually here, and was battling here over this Bill on Friday—because here is another subsidy for the farmers, but this time it is from the local taxpayers—the ratepayers.

From what we heard in our early debate today, people are already disturbed by the way the rates are increasing. I am sorry that the Secretary of State for Scotland is not here, because I see that the rates for Argyll are going up by another 1s. It is really not entirely desirable that this expense should be met by the local taxpayers. It might be reasonable in dealing with river pollution, although it is arguable even there, bearing in mind that industry benefits as well, and that industry is still derated in Scotland to a certain extent.

Here we have local ratepayers paying for the increased productivity of land which does not pay a penny of rates and for that reason does not even appear in the valuation roll. It is very difficult nowadays to know who owns what in Scotland. We have the same system now as that in England and Wales and rates are paid only on the actual farmhouse. Does the Under-Secretary think it right to carry over the financial provisions of the Act dealing with river pollution into this Bill?

There has been considerable argument, although the matter was skated over very quickly on Friday, whether this business should be self-supporting. The hon. Gentleman's anxiety to avoid work for the river purification boards is related to his desire to save money on the local rates, but there is another way of doing that—by making this work self-supporting or making payment an obligation on the taxpayer rather than the local ratepayer. It would be a much fairer way of raising the money. I had a good Amendment down on Friday in which I suggested a fee of £5 plus a sum related to the amount of water abstracted.

I see no reason why this expenditure should be passed on to the local ratepayer. The Under-Secretary no doubt will tell us that the local ratepayer will be reimbursed to an extent by grant. This might meet some of the cost for some people but it will meet it varyingly in parts of the country where the control areas happen to be situated. I hope that the Government will give some thought to this. We have not had much indication of the cost. It may be said that it will be small but it should be remembered that it will be related not to the whole of Scotland but only to a particular area. The 1951 Act already lays down that the cost is to be allocated according to valuation by various burghs and county councils.

I assure the Under-Secretary that probably the most valuable thing in some of these areas will be the agricultural land and the fisheries—and the agricultural land does not bear rates. It is unfair to pass the burden of spray irrigation on to all the ratepayers in an area when it should have nothing to do with the local rates. The expenditure should not be met in this way.

Mr. G. Campbell

In our discussion on Friday, when the hon. Member was outside, taking a brief lunch, I was able to give his hon. Friend the Member for Fife, West (Mr. W. Hamilton), on an earlier Amendment, a very rough estimate of the expenditure that we foresee. This was on the basis that probably three river purification boards would apply for control orders in the foreseeable near future. On that basis, after the licence fees had come in, the expenditure of all of them would be about £4,000 a year, or something over £1,000 each if the boards are roughly of the same size. I give that as an indication of the amount of money which we are considering.

12 m.

The hon. Gentleman spoke as if this was something which was done entirely for farmers, but I am not sure that we can look at it like that. The farmers, particularly if they apply for a certain quantity of water and are allotted a considerably lesser amount, will feel that this is something which is done for a wider community, perhaps particularly—and rightly—to assist angling or other interests. Therefore, I do not think one can say that this is done entirely for farmers. Spray irrigation is a new technique which we wish to encourage. If, in certain areas, there is a shortage of water and control is exercised over the amount taken out, the farming community may well feel that this system whereby they cannot take as much water as they want for their crops has been devised to benefit others in the community as well.

On that basis, we think that it is reasonable that this expenditure, which is not very large, should be borne according to the river purification boards' finances. I think that the hon. Gentleman will agree, from what I have said, that it is not a large expenditure which is proposed.

Mr. Ross

The hon. Gentleman seemed to imply that the fanners, instead of being grateful to us for giving them this legal immunity and for creating a right for them under licence, were being deprived of something. Will he cast his mind back to the situation arising in connection with one river in particular which was mentioned in another place, where pumps are capable of withdrawing 15,000 gallons of water per hour? There are at present eight such pumps. The chances are that before many years have passed—I would say probably two—there will be 20 pumps capable of withdrawing 300,000 gallons of water per hour from the River Tyne in East Lothian. Think what effect that will have on the river and the fish.

The immediate benefit is going to agriculture. The hon. Gentleman has told us about the expense of the equipment. The one thing to which any expense accrues is the actual water. The water does not belong to any man. It belongs to the community. If it had been possible to build up a legal right over the years, the riparian owners in Scotland would have done so. But they have not got it. No doubt, if the land superiors had been enabled to hire out the water and charge it out to the tenants they would have done so. The Earls of Home would have been in the forefront of the water "racket".

The hon. Gentleman says that it is reasonable to suggest that the people in the villages and towns, in the large burghs and the small burghs, should pay for this. There is absolutely no justification in law or in ethics for making that suggestion. The only people who should pay are those who are going to profit from this arrangement, those with a direct interest in the water.

The fishing interests and the others are already concerned about pollution. Industry has already had a burden put upon it in respect of the water which it puts in. According to the hon. Gentleman's argument, industry should have passed that burden on to the local ratepayers. I dare say that my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton (Mr. T. Fraser) could give us plenty of evidence that industry would have been quite prepared to persuade him to that effect when he was drawing up the 1951 Act. But we successfully resisted that. A certain amount of the work of the local boards has been passed to the local ratepayer. But enough is enough.

Here we have an identifiable interest and a direct profit from what is being done, and it is most unfair to suggest that this burden should be passed on to the local ratepayers. It is a matter of principle, and the Government have not faced it. They say that it is only £1,000 a year per river. With respect to the hon. Gentleman, that amount may not be so trifling to some burghs where a 1d. rate will raise about £5. It may not be insignificant even to some county councils in certain parts of Scotland, as the Under-Secretary should know better than anyone. I hope that he goes back to his county council and says that he thinks that an additional charge of £1,000 is nothing at all.

I see the hon. and gallant Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Commander Donaldson) in his place.

Commander C. E. M. Donaldson (Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles)


Mr. Ross

I am sorry. I am not prepared at this moment to give way.

I hope that the hon. and gallant Gentleman and the Under-Secretary realise that this is no argument at all. I do not doubt that the Government have made up their mind. They want to punish the local ratepayers. But I hope that, between now and Report, the hon. Gentleman will reflect on this question and discuss it with his officials. He ought to change his mind about it. I know that it would mean changes in other respects, but it is not too late. There is plenty of time.

Mr. Manuel

I hope that the Under-Secretary of State will heed what has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross) and think again about this aspect of the matter. We have no real idea of how this business can develop. Major horticultural interests could use a great deal of water. By Clause 8, on the financial side of the Bill, we are adopting a new procedure, as I understand it, a procedure which does not apply to other users of water.

On Second Reading, I made the point that other users of water, particularly industrial users, had their water metered and they paid on the actual consumption. We are here departing from that well-established method, well known to water boards and local authorities. We say that, when a licence is granted and the £5 fee is paid, a quite substantial horticultural or agricultural interest could draw water to the extent of 15,000 or 30,000 gallons per day—

Mr. Arthur Lewis (West Ham, North)

An hour.

Mr. Manuel

—and pay the same amount as the small man with a very small holding who is, perhaps, building up his business. They get the water on the same terms.

Does not the Under-Secretary agree that water which is taken from a stream or river should be metered, as is done with other users? It should not be forgotten that in catchment areas where control orders will be made, the water might ultimately have gone into a water undertaking's reservoirs or holding tanks. I should like the Under-Secretary to consider the proposition that there should be a scale of licence fees, ranging from, say, £5 for minor abstraction of water up to the figures mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross) of 15,000 gallons per day.

As I have pointed out earlier, later applications by small users might be precluded because other people have already taken the water. Great difficulty might be caused if, at the end of a year, the supply of water ceases for somebody who has acres under glass for horticultural purposes, who might be told, "We are cutting down your supply, because we have 12 more applications and we cannot allow you to have the quantity of water which you have abstracted hitherto." Possibly, therefore, we should consider, above a certain abstraction rate, a scale of fees related to actual consumption.

Mr. G. Campbell

In reply to the hon. Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross), the Bill does not seek to confer a right upon riparian farmers. For clarity, I repeat that there is the right for a riparian proprietor to take water for primary purposes. I have said that the abstraction of large quantities of water is open to doubt. I have not gone beyond that, because although farmers have in recent years used large quantities of water for spray irrigation, no one has challenged that right. There has been no case to enable us to know the law in this regard. All that I have said, therefore, is that the taking of large quantities of water is open to challenge, but that there is this basic right for riparian proprietors.

I must point out to the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Manuel) that it is visualised under the Bill that a system of measuring the water would be used when a licence had been issued.

Mr. Manuel

Not for payment.

Mr. Campbell

No, but it would have to be measured by some system. The hon. Member suggested a system of payment in proportion to the amount of water abstracted. There would be great difficulty about this. First, depending upon the circumstances each year, the quantities made available to each applicant could differ from year to year.

Mr. Manuel

That happens today.

Mr. Campbell

Secondly, under Clause 7(1), in conditions of shortage of water, a river board could reduce the amount of water permitted under licence. All this would make it difficult to have a system of payment proportional to the quantity taken.

In passing, the hon. Member indicated that he did not foresee that a farmer who had a large area of crops under spray irrigation would be told in one year that he must considerably reduce his abstractions because of new applicants. We do, however, foresee such a situation under the Bill. That is what could happen. That is why that farmer may well feel that the Bill is not going all his way. That, indeed, is the situation which could happen under this Bill, and, it seems to me, will be likely to happen in certain circumstances where there is a large number of applications and a water shortage, or a combination of both.

12.15 a.m.

I think that both hon. Members mentioned the pumps which can abstract very large quantities of water at the moment. The main purpose of the Bill is to make sure that, in circumstances where water cannot be spared from a river, those pumps will not be able to take so much water. That is under the licensing system of control orders. Therefore, the farmer who may have this equipment already will find himself being able to withdraw much less water than, perhaps, he had hoped to be able to do.

Mr. Manuel

The hon. Gentleman will remember that on Second Reading I drew attention to the facts that there would be difficulty during periods of drought, and that there are periods when vast quantities of water run to waste, and that I argued that provision should be written into the Bill to make it obligatory to have holding tanks or reservoirs on the farm. This would solve the problem. If the hon. Gentleman would grapple with that problem, instead of allowing a farmer to build up a big business and then say to him, as he just now has said, that he is going to cut him off from what he has built up—

The Chairman

Order. I am a little uncertain how this discussion can be included in the debate on the Question, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill".

Mr. Manuel

I am very sorry if I have infringed the rules of order, but I thought, Sir William, that we were dealing with payment, and under the Clause any moneys not met by the fee of £5 have to revert to county councils and large burghs under the 1951 Act.

The Chairman

I think I can help the hon. Member. That came under Clause 3. This Clause, Clause 8, deals with expenses.

Mr. Manuel

Yes, expenses incurred by the Secretary of State, but I refer to the Explanatory and Financial Memorandum to the Bill, and that says: It is impossible to forecast precisely the increase in expenditure which may be incurred by the Secretary of State or by the county and large burgh councils in the areas of river purification boards under this Bill, because this will depend on the number of control orders made. Any administrative expenses of a river purification board remaining after allowing for revenue from licence fees will form part of the expenditure to be met, under the Rivers (Prevention of Pollution) (Scotland) Act 1951, by the county and large burgh councils in the board's area. This may involve a slight increase in the Exchequer Equalisation Grant, if any, payable to those councils … under Clause 8. I was trying to relate the provisions which would fall on the local authority because the licence payable did not meet commitments.

Mr. G. Campbell

I remember the hon. Gentleman making this point about storing water, and I replied to it, and agreed with the desirability. The effect of the Bill should be to encourage farmers to store water for the times when they need it. There is nothing in the Bill inconsistent with that. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman would expect even further subsidy to be given to the farmers for that purpose.

I pointed out to the hon. Gentleman that there is a scheme under which farmers are assisted to some extent for that, and, therefore, he would not expect some further scheme for this. The essence of his argument and that of his hon. Friends is that the farmers should not be financially assisted any more. I think that that is the answer to his point.

Mr. Ross

I do not know that the hon. Gentleman ever got down to answering any points on the Question, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill". The Clause says: There shall be paid out of moneys provided by Parliament … any expenses incurred by the Secretary of State … and increase attributable to the provisions of this Act in the sums payable under any other enactment". Is the hon. Gentleman prepared to answer any of the points put forward which were relevant?

Mr. Campbell

I was under the impression that I had answered at some length all the points put forward arising from the Clause. I do not need to read the Clause over, because it is very plain. Interesting points were raised about the amount of expenditure expected, and other points, and I thought I had answered them all.

Mr. Ross

I have heard many a Minister being out of order, but have never heard one so consistently out of order as the hon. Gentleman was on this Clause. The Clause takes us back to the 1951 Act, which tells us that the expenses of a river purification board, so far as they are not defrayed out of revenues of the board under any enactment other than that section, shall be defrayed by the councils of the counties and large burghs. Subsection (2) means that there will be in respect of expenditure by the local authorities an increased demand on the equalisation grant.

I have not yet been convinced by the hon. Gentleman that this is right. He has not addressed himself to the argument. He began telling us what the rights in relation to primary water were and said that we were not giving any more rights to the farmer. When a farmer has only the right under common law in Scotland to take out of any river that runs through his property water for his own household for food and drink and for his beasts for food and drink, that is a very different matter from taking 15,000 gallons an hour for spray irrigation.

I suggest that the revenues that would defray the expenses arising under the Clause could well be taken in respect of the new right that we are giving. We have not had an answer to that. We have had no justification for passing this expense on to the ratepayers of county councils and large burghs. They are the people who have to pay. It is laid down that the expenses shall be defrayed by the councils of the counties and large burghs whose districts are comprised wholly or partly in the river purification board. There has been no justification for this in respect of spray irrigation.

Mr. G. Campbell

I tried to explain earlier that the Bill attempts a balance between various interests of which farming is one, and that was the reason why we felt that this limited expenditure could reasonably fall in the way the hon. Gentleman has described—a large part of it upon the local authorities under the arrangements for financing the river purification boards. But I was not so optimistic as to think that I should be able to convince the hon. Gentleman of this because I knew that he would have strong views on it. I have tried to deploy the arguments as well as I could, but I never raised my sights on this point so high as to think that I should be able to convince the hon. Gentleman. However, I feel that I have explained the reasons why we think that the Clause is right and that I have answered the points that were raised.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.