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Baroness Hilton of Eggardon: My Lords, I am by no means an expert on pensions. Clearly, some of the detail of the amendments is not mine. The anxieties are not mine but of the staff who are being transferred to the new agency. They are concerned that their conditions and pension contributions should not be lost as a result of the amalgamation of funds. I shall take back what the Minister said about the amendments and consider whether there is need to pursue the matter at Third Reading.

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In relation to health and safety committees, do I understand the Minister to say that if the trade union representatives request it there can be a national committee? Or is he merely saying that such a committee can be set up at individual work places?

Viscount Ullswater: My Lords, as I understand it, safety committees will be set up at individual places of work.

Baroness Hilton of Eggardon: My Lords, I understand that there is no provision in current legislation for the setting up of an overriding committee to establish national standards. In that case, the matter will have to be looked at again and considered before Third Reading. In the circumstances, I seek leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 7 to 10 not moved.]

5 p.m.

Lord Elis-Thomas moved Amendment No. 11:


Page 115, line 23, after ("this") insert ("paragraph and").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the purpose of the amendment is to address the issues relating to public access to information arising from the transfer to the new agency of the functions of the waste regulation authorities. As the House will be aware, Part II of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 established waste regulation authorities, recasting the institutional local framework for waste regulation disposal which had been operating under the 1974 control of pollution legislation. Those waste regulation authorities and waste disposal authorities are generally local authorities. The 1990 Act placed obligations on waste disposal and waste regulation authorities.

My concern is that the transfer of the function to an agency (a non-governmental public body—a quango) from local authorities will result in a restriction on the access to information and the rights of the public to follow the activities of that function. When that function was part of local government, subject to the activities, as controlled by the Local Government Act 1972, the local authorities (district councils in the case of Wales) themselves operated openly. Members of the public were able to attend meetings where waste regulation was discussed. They were able to see the background papers, the agendas and the reports at least three days in advance as set out in that local government legislation. They could also see the minutes.

The concern referred to in the two amendments, is that the transfer of the function of waste regulation from waste regulation authorities to the Environment Agency will, in effect, abolish those environmental rights, since the Local Government Act does not apply to quangos. The purpose of my amendments is to make provision so that the agency will operate in a way similar to the present waste regulation authorities which are local authorities.

That argument must be placed in the context of the Environmental Information Regulations 1992. I suspect that the Minister will tell the House that there are certain

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rights in those regulations and in the European Community directive to access of information on the environment. But these are different rights from the rights that are being abolished by the transfer of functions in Schedule 1.

The EU legislation and the accompanying regulations do not provide rights to attend meetings, and it is not always clear whether relevant documents dealing with waste regulation would be regarded as information relating to the environment. For all those reasons, and because the European Commission has taken enforcement procedures against the UK Government for failing to implement that EC directive, I am worried that the waste regulation function information may not be available.

As drafted, my amendments would extend the rights held in respect of waste regulation by waste regulation authorities as local authorities to the agency's other functions—functions currently held by the NRA and the HMIP—which means that there would be an extension of environmental information rights rather than a restriction of those rights.

This is a serious issue in that it moves away from a more open kind of government in relation to the environment, and that is something which should concern not just the environmental movement and Earth Rights, the environmental advice centre that has drawn the issue to my attention, but the Government themselves. I beg to move.

Lord Crickhowell: My Lords, the amendment goes far further than dealing merely with information. The noble Lord acknowledged only at the end of his speech that it would apply not just to waste but to all the other functions of the agency. It is an amendment which would alter totally the organisational structure and mode of operation of the component parts of the agency from what is envisaged in the Bill. It is a major structural change to the Bill. It is not just a question of information, it is asking that the committee should have the job of accepting responsibility and effectively managing the operation. It is a profound and extensive change, and it should be considered extremely carefully.

The NRA has operated with advisory committees which receive an immense amount of information, and play a central role in the agency's operation. I hope that the new environment agency will behave in the same way. I hope that the advisory committees will be involved fully and will be provided with virtually all the information relating to the carrying on of the function, and that they are consulted fully.

To move in the way suggested would make it almost impossible for the board to accept responsibility, and for the management of the agency effectively to carry out the operation in an organisation such as it has been envisaged and is being set up in the Bill. We should be careful therefore before we accept such an amendment. I should need a great deal of convincing that this was a sensible way in which to move.

Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, I warmly support the amendments. I well understand the concerns of those who have been used to operating in a regime which is not so immediately in the public eye as are local

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authorities. I suspect that it is a concern felt more by officials than by those who take decisions; in other words, comparing the board with, say, local authority members. But there is not so much to be frightened of in the proposal. Local authorities, which are complex organisations, have succeeded in working under those provisions, as is self-evident, for 20 years, and it is not a bad discipline. Apart from that, and most fundamentally, public bodies should be prepared to have what they do available for inspection and scrutiny so that they can answer directly to members of the public.

Were quangos more easily open to scrutiny, there might not be such public concern about what goes on, as is popularly said, in smoke-filled rooms behind closed doors. In saying that, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, will not think that I am suggesting that that is how the NRA has been operating.

Viscount Ullswater: My Lords, the amendments are concerned with the procedures under which the agency arranges for the exercise of its functions. We should consider carefully the amendment, because, as my noble friend Lord Crickhowell said, it seeks to require the agency to exercise all its functions through committees and sub-committees. I have to tell your Lordships that I cannot support such a requirement. I understand the genesis of the requirement, because the waste regulation authorities are part of local authorities and, therefore, subject to those regulations.

However, as it stands, the Bill gives the agency freedom, reflecting that for the NRA, to regulate its procedures largely as it sees fit. It already has power to establish committees or sub-committees, but I do not consider it appropriate to fetter the agency by requiring that it should exercise its functions through such committees. Of course, the exception to that may be the flood defence committees; but, with that exception, it regulates its own procedures.

The noble Lord's amendment goes further. It seeks to impose a number of provisions relating to rights of access to meetings and to information. As I said in Committee, the agency will in any case be subject to a duty under the Environmental Information Regulations 1992 to make available environmental information to every person who requests it, subject to exemptions in those regulations. In general, the agency will be expected to conduct its affairs fully in accordance with the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information and the Code of Best Practice for Board Members of Public Bodies. Within those constraints, it will be up to the agency to consider how to put into practice principles of openness and transparency. Therefore, I have to tell the noble Lord that I cannot accept his amendments. I hope that he will feel able to withdraw them.

Lord Elis-Thomas: My Lords, I welcome the support from the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, for the proposals on open government. It is also appropriate, I believe, that the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, and I should disagree on occasion. It means that, when we agree, it is even more powerful, as indeed it was in the case of the earlier amendment which I withdrew and to which I shall return.

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There is a very important issue involved; namely, the transfer of functions to a central agency and its effect in relation to the public, especially regarding information. I shall look again at the what the noble Viscount has said, along with what was said on the issue in Committee regarding the relevance of the environmental information regulations, the EC directive on access to information and the code of practice that was mentioned.

However, I suspect that what we are seeing here is a step backwards, at least in one area, from more open government to more closed government. That highlights the whole issue to which the noble Baroness referred, of the transfer of functions to non-departmental public bodies, non-elected bodies, and away from a forum of accountable debate.

Clearly, those of us who are charged with the responsibility for public bodies, including the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, and myself in different ways, always try to ensure that we operate in an open way. However, that is not the same as ensuring access by members of the public directly whenever they need it to the information that they require in a general way. This is happening at a time when there is greater interest in environmental law and its implications and greater activity on the part of citizens in the whole area.

I turn now to the advisory committee structure of the NRA. Although I am well aware of the value of flood defence committees and so on—indeed, I have seen them operating very effectively in my parliamentary constituency when I was in another place, when we had various crises with flooding over the years—that structure does not seem to be necessarily the appropriate model for the operation of the new agency. It worries me that we are setting up what will be seen as a strong lead agency in the area of the environment in Europe because the functions brought together within it seem, at the same time, to be undermining the rights of citizens to have access to information. Therefore, while I beg leave to withdraw the amendment, I give notice that the issue of information relating to the activity of the agency will either be returned to at Third Reading in this Chamber or dealt with in another place if the Bill progresses.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 12 not moved.]

5.15 p.m.

Clause 2 [Transfer of functions to the Agency]:


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