Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page


Lord Williams of Elvel: Are we now to assume that the Secretary of State will appoint the chairman of SEPA and that he will not be elected by the members, who I agree under the terms of the Bill will themselves be appointed by the Secretary of State? Are we to assume from what the noble Earl has just said that because the chairman of SEPA will be a high profile public figure it is important that a Conservative Secretary of State for Scotland should appoint such a person, and should perhaps give him a generous contract? Are we not to say that a future Labour Secretary of State for Scotland can reverse that appointment? Are we saying that the appointment will be made by a Member of Parliament for somewhere or other who happens to be Secretary of State for Scotland and that when the Bill becomes an Act the appointment will not be reversible?

The Earl of Lindsay: I do not know the terms and conditions of the appointment. However, whoever is the Secretary of State at the time will have the power to appoint the chairman, the deputy chairman and the other members of the SEPA main board.

Lord Williams of Elvel: I am grateful to the noble Earl. I do not want to prolong the discussion, but before the Bill leaves your Lordships' House, let alone this Committee, will we know the terms and conditions of the appointment of the chairman of SEPA?

The Earl of Lindsay: I shall certainly endeavour to get all the relevant information to the noble Lord so that he can consider it.

Lord Elton: I hope that my noble friend will not be persuaded that, as in America, if there is a change of government there should be a change in chairmen of all the agencies dependent on the government, as there is of sheriffs and so on the moment the whistle goes. We all know of the steady process of erosion of appointments made by one party by its successor, but that is at the end of the term of the contract of employment. I watch the noble Lord's face with great interest as I make these remarks because it shows me his view of how the politics of this country work. It is not the same as mine.

The Earl of Lindsay: The appointment is for a fixed term, but there is provision in the Bill to remove the chairman should that be necessary.

Perhaps I may turn to the other amendments in the group as we have quite a lot of ground to cover. Amendments Nos. 138, 139 and 141, and 159 to 161

26 Jan 1995 : Column 1198

would require SEPA to hold its meetings in public, and to make any minutes of such meetings and any of its records available for inspection free of charge, and to make copies obtainable on payment of local photocopying rates. Amendment No. 173 would place a duty on SEPA to be transparent in meeting its statutory requirements in relation to public access to information.

I sympathise with the underlying aim of the amendments: to make SEPA's decision-making process more transparent in order to gain the confidence of the public. Nevertheless, Amendment No. 138 would prevent SEPA from holding any meetings in private to discuss matters in confidence; for example, where important commercial issues are at stake. Because of such considerations I believe it is right that the agency itself should be free to determine whether its meetings should be in public.

In addition to the statutory public registers which SEPA will be obliged to maintain, information held by it including minutes of its meetings will be available to the public through the Environmental Information Regulations 1992. Those regulations were in response to the European directive to which the noble Lord, Lord Carmichael, referred. Some of the amendments would, however, circumvent the important exclusions in the regulations to safeguard commercially confidential information—information which either is or might be used in legal proceedings and information which might in some way threaten our national security.

One immediate and tangible benefit of the establishment of SEPA will be in relation to the greater ease of access to its public registers. For the first time, those registers will be available for inspection at single points of contact, greatly improving the existing arrangements where the registers are dispersed across a number of authorities.

Since SEPA will obviously be obliged to meet all of its statutory requirements, Amendment No. 173 is not therefore required in this respect. Ensuring that it does so in a transparent way, and without undue inconvenience, is a matter, I suggest, for the agency's management statement. A section on public access to information is already contained in the draft published in October last year. I believe that there is already good access for the public under those regulations and I cannot therefore accept the need for the amendments.

Amendments Nos. 141 and 159 to 161 would also require copies of minutes and records to be available at "local photocopying rates" in preference to "reasonable" rates as prescribed in the 1992 Environmental Information Regulations.

I recognise the concern that can arise about the interpretation which may be placed on the "reasonableness" of photocopying charges. The establishment of a single, national agency should assist in this respect. I also believe that it is right in principle that SEPA should be able to set reasonable charges which recover the costs it incurs in providing copies of documents. But I agree that it should not seek to debar access through inflated charges.

The Government are keen to ensure maximum openness in the affairs of SEPA, without compromising its ability to discharge its functions effectively. The

26 Jan 1995 : Column 1199

provisions of the Environmental Information Regulations will apply to the agency, and I believe that this will ensure good public access. I also remind noble Lords that SEPA is not obliged to charge. If it so wishes, it can provide information and facilities for inspection free of charge. I therefore invite the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Williams of Elvel: In many ways what the noble Earl says is welcome. However, does he agree that Amendment No. 173 should be accepted by the Government because it states in so many words, exactly what the noble Earl said?

The Earl of Lindsay: I stated that under the provisions in the Bill SEPA will have to provide the transparency and ease of access for which the amendment calls. Therefore, the amendment, although not unwelcome, is unnecessary.

Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove: My noble friend Lord Williams of Elvel said that we have achieved something from this group of amendments. With regard to public meetings, I appreciate the necessity for certain commercial confidentiality; even in local authorities that must arise. One cannot avoid some confidential meetings. However, the amendment provides that it should be clear to people where the meetings are held and who will attend; and a general idea of what is minuted should be available.

On publication and duplication at commercial rates, a large number of small businesses in the high street, having bought the equipment do well by charging for duplicating. I do not understand why a body such as SEPA could not do the same as it does not seem to be terribly complicated.

I am glad that the register will be available and I hope that it will also be intelligible. Some reports are written in such a way that it takes diligence such as is applied by the noble Earl, Lord Balfour, when in the Library. He is one of the few people I know who can apply such diligence when required. The public in general are not always as hardworking and diligent as the noble Earl. I should like some reassurance that the report will be intelligible to the average person.

The Earl of Lindsay: With SEPA not even in existence at this stage, all I can say is that the information asked for will be provided. If there is any disappointment with the prose or presentation of that information, complaints can be made to suitable sources.

Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove: I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 137 not moved.]

The Earl of Lindsay moved Amendment 137A:


Page 135, line 26, leave out ("Subject to paragraph 3 of Schedule 2 of this Act,").

The noble Earl said: Amendments Nos. 137A and 147A contain minor changes to certain provisions concerning the staff of SEPA.

26 Jan 1995 : Column 1200

The intention underlying the reference in Schedule 6 to paragraph 3 of Schedule 2 was to ensure that the provisions enabling SEPA to determine pay and conditions would not conflict with the requirement in Schedule 2 that staff transferring to SEPA by way of transfer schemes would do so on existing terms and conditions. On reflection, we now consider that there will be no such conflict.

Amendment No. 137A makes the necessary change and would bring the provisions relative to the two agencies in this respect into line.

Amendment No. 147A is a technical amendment which ensures that when negotiations are started with existing local authorities concerning the transfer of staff and property to SEPA, it will be possible for SEPA to continue these negotiations with the new unitary local authorities where necessary after the reorganisation of local government in Scotland on 1st April 1996. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

[Amendments Nos. 138 to 142 not moved.]

Schedule 6, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 21 [Transfer of functions to SEPA]:

[Amendments Nos. 143 to 145 not moved.]


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page