Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 160 - 179)

WEDNESDAY 10 JANUARY 2001

MR S THOMAS, MR D MARKHAM AND MR P GILLILAND

Mr Donohoe

  160. I understand that there is a statutory obligation on the Department to meet with you. Is that the case?
  (Mr Gilliland) We are statutory consultees on a number of issues and they are required to consult us on those issues, for example, where there is a pollution incident.

Chairman

  161. That is a yes, is it?
  (Mr Gilliland) Yes, but that does not equal a statutory requirement to meet us in terms of general liaison.

  162. They can consult you but not meet you.
  (Mr Gilliland) But it would be sensible.

Mr Donohoe

  163. You think that would be sensible and should take place.
  (Mr Gilliland) Yes, it should have done. I have to say that some of the information we would have sought and some of the benefits to be derived from a liaison meeting are set out in the Business Plan: a forward look in terms of work and targets. It could have preempted some problems as well in terms of timetables when our input would have been required in terms of deadlines, identifying where we might have been able to collaborate, identifying where we may have been able to input into training more effectively.

  164. Rolling all this together, would you say that although you have a statutory right to consultation they actually frustrate that process as it stands and that you would want that improved and lengthier times to be given between notice of meetings and meetings actually taking place?
  (Mr Gilliland) Yes, we would like to see it happen. Yes, it has improved in the two and a half years of the MCA being in existence. There is room for further improvement but there are current initiatives going on at the moment where we are working quite closely with them, although again, deadlines are given which are unrealistic. Short notice is given for responses or input. My judgement, for what it is worth, is that I think that having seen an improvement it has happened since early last year and that is down to too few staff covering the issues.

  Mr Donohoe: What representations have you as an organisation made to Government about these inadequacies of the relationship between yourself and the MCA?

Chairman

  165. Have you told Ministers that you have the right to talk to these people and to be consulted and so far it has not worked?
  (Mr Gilliland) No, not that I am aware.

  166. Do you intend to do so?
  (Mr Thomas) Having discussed this, there is a feeling that it is beginning to improve and has continued to improve and there is a feeling that the sorts of negotiations which have been going on recently are on a positive enough trend that we do not feel there is a sufficient need to do as you suggest, is a fair interpretation of where we see the position.

Dr Ladyman

  167. Our inquiry is into all the agencies which report into the DETR and that includes the Vehicle Certification Agency and the Vehicle Inspectorate. The Vehicle Certification Agency has responsibilities for the recycling components of cars. The Vehicle Inspectorate has responsibilities to do with environmental pollution produced by cars. Is English Nature consulting with either of those two agencies on environmental issues?
  (Mr Thomas) I am pretty certain I can answer with an emphatic no to that.

  168. Should you be?
  (Mr Thomas) I have never thought about it before but if you were to ask me about the importance of all government departments linking up with common targets, sustainable development, overarching targets which we all aim towards, then you would have thought that the recycling issue in particular and air pollution as well, if other government agencies have any serious impact on those targets and we are promoters of those targets, then we ought to be. There is a logic in what you say.

  169. Whereas they may defend themselves by saying you have not asked to be consulted, you would argue that these agencies should have approached you for input on the subject.
  (Mr Thomas) No, I do not think I would argue that. If being a public body we do make an assessment of whom we should engage with, if we look we have 32,000 owners and occupiers, we have the Environment Agency, we have the Highways Agency, other regulators and we make a judgement about who has the most significant impact on the outcomes that we seek, favourable conditions, sites of special scientific interest, the bodies you talk about, given our limited resources, possibly come too far down the list for us to have diverted sufficient resources. It is not a matter of whether we should, it is a matter of whether or not we—

  170. Coming back to the issue you raised of departmental targets all needing to fit together, in so far as the environmental aspects of your work are concerned, such as where you have some proficiency to advise us, how well coordinated are those targets within all of the agencies?
  (Mr Thomas) Within all of the agencies?

  171. Within each of the agencies. Do they actually give some impression to you that they have actually tried to marry up their targets into a strategy?
  (Mr Thomas) We have seen some very positive movement in two areas that I am aware of. Definitely the Highways Agency and the adoption of biodiversity action plan targets, the adoption of environmental management schemes would definitely be things which I would say do make that link. The other thing is the Green Government, Green Ministers type of initiative where we are beginning to see Ministers within each department who are able to provide that sort of topdown push to the various agencies. It may be that those have not filtered through. If, for example, the Highways Agency have agreed to consider when disposing of their estate, getting rid of land, if it is of conservation value they will consider giving the first offer to conservation bodies and that is where we are beginning to see these targets filtering down from the top. The Highways Agency, which is the one we have dealt with, taking your earlier point that we have not dealt with these other agencies, we have begun to see some sort of cross-cutting.
  (Mr Gilliland) With regard to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency things have certainly improved over the last two to three years. Nature conservation issues have been taken on board more although that has been driven by what needs to be taken account of in terms of legislation. Legislation in relation for example to pollution issues, port waste management issues.

Chairman

  172. I am sorry, permission to use what?
  (Mr Gilliland) Legislation requiring better management of port wastes etcetera. The situation has improved but it has been driven by regulatory requirements. The MCA would claim that proactively they have also become greener, but I think there has been limited movement in terms of their proactive stance to take on board nature conservation issues. For example, one of the key areas that we would have sat down and talked to them about which was coming on stream last year was the biodiversity action plan because there was a large number of marine habitat and species plans being published last year. I suspect I could sit down with some colleagues in MCA who have never heard of the biodiversity action plan. Yet it does inform a lot of our response and input into work that they do.

  Chairman: If they have not heard of the employment laws it is quite possible they have not heard of the biodiversity plan.

Dr Ladyman

  173. Would it be a general impression of all of you that these agencies are responding to green changes in the law rather than being proactively green converts?
  (Mr Thomas) Speaking for the Highways Agency, I would say that they are going beyond that. They are complying with the law but take the example of the A30, they could have done something else. There was no reason to make them do that. One of the interesting things I did not mention earlier is the shift in towards the emphasis on making better use of the existing network has real benefits for us and that again is a cultural thing which we are beginning to see the evidence of. They are going beyond the compliance bit.

  174. Let me put you on the spot now. If there is a green bad boy amongst these agencies, who is it?
  (Mr Thomas) I am not going to put my hand up for the Highways Agency on that one and the only other one we have actually provided evidence on and deal with regularly would be the MCA. Infer what you will.
  (Mr Gilliland) A two horse race. I would say on the MCA corporately that we have had to drag them along a little. At the individual officer level there are some very committed individuals who think the way we do environmentally. My impression is that they are constrained from being proactive because there is so little room for manoeuvre in terms of proactive work and that is because there are so few individuals trying to cover their remit.

  Chairman: Yes, but I think I should make it quite clear that the Committee is not criticising individual members of any of the agencies. If there is a problem with the structure and/or the funding and/or the general management techniques then that is very important for us. It does mean that we will occasionally say slightly disobliging things.

Mrs Gorman

  175. I should really like to ask you whether you think the Spanish fishing fleet or the odd oil spill does the most damage to the marine environment but I do not know whether that is quite within the remit of the Agency.
  (Mr Gilliland) Hobson's choice. They are both bad boys.

  176. In relation to the Agency, how do you see their work in dealing with the dumping of sewage and industrial waste, which of course does affect the environmental ecology, the marine ecology? Do you think they are good at it, they do not take enough notice of it or they are effective or what? Do they consult you about it?
  (Mr Gilliland) The dumping of sewage sludge waste at sea was phased out a couple of years ago and should have ceased.

  177. So it does not go on any more.
  (Mr Gilliland) Indeed. The dumping of any material which falls into the category of placing a material on the sea bed is actually dealt with by MAFF, specifically the section of MAFF which operates under the Food and Environment Protection Act. It is not really within the MCA's remit and I have to say in relation to MAFF that they do consult us quite well.

  178. Given the broad spectrum of responsibilities of the Agency, which includes looking after the safety of seafarers and responding to maritime emergencies and all the rest of it, do you think that their level of concern about the risk of pollution, particularly in relation to marine matters, is quite good? It talks here about their role in the control of ships which dump at sea and so on. Do you feel they are doing a good job? Do you get any impression of that?
  (Mr Gilliland) It is certainly a difficult remit in having to deal with all the way from health and safety issues, seafarers, to environmental pollution. We recognise, and this often is the case in the actual events or exercises, that where there is a search and rescue element, that takes precedence over the counter-pollution element. I do not know whether, because of the amalgamation of the various bodies, there is a culture within the MCA that the environmental protection side comes to the bottom of the list but it is safe to say that it must be difficult to fight with the other remits within the MCA. On the counter-pollution side, which is the side I know and deal with, they do a good job and it is improving, but there is room for improvement particularly on the proactive side. Obviously they have to prioritise and they are very good at and have a long history of dealing with the reactive side and responding to pollution incidents. There is less of a culture and less room for movement on the proactive side of following up detention figures in terms of policy, of finding time to sit down and produce guidance on how best to respond to pollution incidents, although that has now effectively been done through the national contingency plan. It has improved. There is room for improvement. My view is that it is particularly enabling them to spend more time on proactive work which is where the improvement could come.

Mr Stevenson

  179. You expressed concern about the 25 per cent of inspections done by the MCA on ships entering British ports. Could you just elaborate on your concerns a little? Secondly, what proportion do you think should be inspected? What sort of system should there be for inspection? Have you done any estimates of the costs of those improvements?
  (Mr Gilliland) In fairness I should say that the 25 per cent figure comes from what is called the Paris Memorandum of Understanding which is signed up to by all the EU states and a number of other states such as Canada.


 
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