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Lord Williams of Elvel: My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Viscount, Lord Ullswater, for introducing the Bill to your Lordships with commendable clarity. As is customary, I have to declare an interest--which I am afraid is becoming rather boringly familiar to your Lordships--as President of the Campaign for the Protection of Rural Wales. However, the views that I shall express are the views of my party rather than the views of CPRW.
Let me say at the outset that we welcome the Bill. Admittedly, it may well be in reality a series of Bills gathered together, as modern custom has it, into one rather indigestible compendium. It may also be, as I shall go on to argue, a Bill which could have achieved much more than it sets out to do. Nevertheless, after all the backtracking that we have seen--the failure to produce a paving Bill which was announced in the gracious Speech at the beginning of the last Session of Parliament, the gratuitous murder of the Hedgerows Bill in another place, the half-hearted support given to the Norrie Bill on national parks (which was a government Bill in all but name but again had its throat cut mercilessly in another place)--it comes as something of a welcome relief that the Government have at least brought forward a Bill and have had the honesty to do so openly in their own name rather than resorting to the rather dubious process of trying to meet their commitments by hand-outs to their supporters and then washing their hands of the consequences. Therefore, as I said, we welcome the Bill, or this series of Bills.
Before I address the measures put before us in detail I have two general comments to make. First, I emphasise that we do not believe that the Bill goes nearly far enough in many important respects. This seems to us to be a process of walking backwards on a beach before what is certainly a rising tide, the rising tide being public indignation about the state of our environment and its future. In other words, the approach that the Government have adopted is minimalist.
Our agenda is quite different. We believe not merely that we should take the minimum necessary steps but that we should regard the whole range of environmental policies as a great opportunity for this country. After all, in the past century we have built bridges, constructed railways, harbours, airports and palaces all round the world. We no longer do that. In the next century the way is open for us to develop and export the clean technologies of the future, the new equivalent, in the aftermath of the Cold War (to use the words of the prophet Isaiah) of beating swords into ploughshares and
My second comment is this. It is no good pretending that environmental protection is without cost. That is absurd. But the cost that we have been conditioned to consider is the narrow definition of an expense to the profit and loss account rather than the cost to society as a whole. As far as I know, and I have certain experience of these matters, there is no system of accounting practice anywhere in the world that has even started to measure the environmental effects of economic activity in a way that can build those costs systematically into a profit and loss account. We are stuck with accounting concepts that are 100 years old and were developed before environmental diseconomies were ever thought of. It is that which makes the kind of cost/benefit analysis to which the noble Viscount referred and which is suggested in the Bill such nonsense. It is out of date. It is using the abacus in the age of the computer. We have to move on to systems of accounting that reflect reality, and if the City of London does not like it, that is tough on the City of London.
Let me now turn to the Bill itself. So far as concerns the environment agencies, my noble friend Lord Carmichael will deal with the Scottish agency when he speaks later. We shall, I should add, argue for a separate Welsh agency which, given the rather ruthless imposition of a new local government structure in Wales, seems to us to be necessary to reflect what the noble Viscount referred to as the distinct nature of Wales. Nevertheless, my comments on the English agency are of general application.
Of course we support the principle of an environment agency, but if we are to support it in detail there are many questions which the noble Viscount will have to answer. For instance, we accept the case for a national waste regulation strategy, but we are far from convinced that it can operate without a close connection, at least, with local authorities. How will it fit in with the related functions which will stay with local authorities, such as planning and environmental health, let alone the new responsibilities which the Bill seeks to lay on local authorities over contaminated land? Will we now, instead of complaining to our local authority, have to complain to Whitehall--presumably on some sort of cones hotline--when rubbish drifts into our front gardens? If that is the Government's intention, then they had better say so and we will argue it out.
The next difficulty is to know the precise remit of the agency. Nowhere do I find expression of the principle that the polluter pays. Indeed, the incorporation of the cost/benefit provisions in the Bill defy that principle to the point where it becomes the polluter pays only if he can afford it or does not have an accountant ingenious enough to fiddle the figures. That does not seem to me to be a sensible principle on which to base a policy.
Furthermore, there is apparently to be no obligation on the agency to prevent or minimise the pollution of the environment, in spite of it having a duty to promote conservation. It seems, to say the least, an odd lapse, if lapse it is rather than deliberate intention.
Even if a general anti-pollution duty is laid on the agency, we still shall not be very much further on its remit. This, the noble Viscount said, will be set by ministerial guidance "from time to time", as the Bill has it. In other words, Parliament is being asked to pass enabling legislation setting up a quango with a general remit and allowing Ministers to tell it at some later stage what it is meant to be doing specifically and how it is meant to do it. Nobody can say that that is a satisfactory state of affairs. In fact, so unsatisfactory is it that I have to tell the noble Viscount that I do not see how we can take the Bill into Committee without sight of at least the initial guidance that Ministers propose to give the agency. Alternatively, if the Government have no clear idea of what guidance they will give, they ought to develop one pretty quickly. I therefore formally request the noble Viscount to place a copy of the initial guidance in the Library so that we can read it and have an informed debate on all aspects of the agencies that the Government propose.
Nor, I have to say to the noble Viscount, are we particularly happy with the scope of the proposed agency. We believe that there are other powers and functions that could with profit be transferred or given to the agency to give it a wider and stronger brief; and these we shall be setting out in Committee. But above all we shall seek to remove the conflict of interest that is built into the Bill itself. The agency's job is to fight pollution, to protect the environment and to promote sustainable development. It cannot do these things if it is constantly going to test their outcome against business costs. There are plenty of channels for business to use if it finds protecting the environment too burdensome; and if there are complaints they will be dealt with elsewhere. But they cannot be dealt with within the agency itself; the agency cannot be judge and jury in the matter in the way the Bill suggests.
Part II of the Bill, as the noble Viscount pointed out, deals with contaminated land and abandoned mines. Much of that is welcome, in particular the recognition by the Government that we need a framework within which local authorities can identify contaminated land, assess priorities for action and bring about remediation. Nevertheless, without a proper programme of site identification there will be no means of locating immediate threats to public health and the environment, and the Bill does not provide that. A database of historical land uses would seem to us to be the only way to proceed, although I would be the first to concede that it would not be easy or cheap to compile. On that I have to be quite clear.
There is a further difficulty with minewater control. The present exemption from pollution control, as the noble Viscount pointed out, will remain in force until the end of 1999. This would seem to us to be too long. It will mean that the prevention of pollution from many abandoned mines may well become a charge on public
Part III of the Bill, dealing with national parks, is particularly welcome after all the efforts of the noble Lord, Lord Norrie, and, if I may say so in all modesty, myself, in chivvying the Government into action. But here again there are a few caveats. The Government, in their response to the recommendations of the Edwards panel report, quite clearly agreed to introduce legislation to refer expressly to quiet enjoyment. I cannot for the life of me understand why they have not honoured that commitment. National parks are experiencing serious problems with off-road sports such as motor-cyclng. In most cases those problems are outside the control of the associations or councils which govern those sports. Why not legislate for what is a perfectly reasonable objective and one which the Government themselves accept? Furthermore, we believe that national parks should be protected from major developments. We understand that the parks are living communities and should not just be preserved in aspic. Nevertheless, there is no sense in having a park at all if it is going to be developed into just another industrial estate.
Part IV of the Bill seems to be something of a rag-bag of measures put in as afterthoughts. But it poses something of a problem, as indeed do other parts of the Bill; and it is a problem that will no doubt be considered by the Delegated Powers Scrutiny Committee of your Lordships' House in due course. I refer to the order-making powers conferred on Ministers--on hedgerows, for instance, to which the noble Viscount referred. I very much doubt whether your Lordships will be entirely happy with the extent of the Henry VIII provisions in the Bill and I look forward with considerable interest to the report of the committee, which I imagine will be available to us before we move on to the next stage.
I have one final point to make, again of a general nature. The Long Title of the Bill is, in my view, widely drawn--and I may say that my view is supported by advice that I have received. It probably had to be so drawn to allow the many disparate measures in front us to be included in one Bill. But that will allow us not just to react to the Government's agenda but to set our own. We should like to see a much wider-ranging Bill clearly aimed at the protection of the environment. This can be done in a number of ways which we shall explore when the Bill goes into Committee. On that note, I am therefore able to assure the Minister that we shall be not just a critical but a constructive Opposition, in keeping with our general verdict on the Bill which the Government have put before us today: not bad; a bit of a curate's egg; could have been worse; but could be a lot better. We shall do our best to make it so.
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