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Lord Pearson of Rannoch: My Lords, I rise to support the noble Earl, Lord Kintore, who has ably moved Amendment No. 69, and to speak to Amendment No. 70 which requires a compulsory order to be subject to a special parliamentary procedure if the owner of the land in question objects to its compulsory acquisition. At Committee stage, an amendment similar to Amendment No. 69 was moved by my noble friend Lord Balfour and supported by the noble Earl.

I have to say that I agree with the noble Earl that the reply of my noble friend from the Front Bench did not strike me as reassuring. My noble friend suggested that the Secretary of State could be relied on in future to act as a shield against any unreasonable use of the absolute power of compulsory purchase which is now contained in Clause 25.

I have to suggest to my noble friend that that cannot be right. Whatever faith one may be tempted to place in a Conservative Secretary of State—and mine would not be complete because even Conservative Secretaries of State are human and seem to be more and more under the influence of their civil servants—I fear we must face the ghastly prospect that one day, within the lifetime of the Bill when it has become an Act, a Socialist Secretary of State might hold office. I would, of course, agree with my noble friend that such a prospect is not only unpleasant but also remote. Nevertheless, it does exist and the Bill should be amended to cater for the eventuality, however distant.

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That is a general and rather obvious reason why the amendment should be included in the Bill. But there are other more specific and perhaps more important reasons. The first is that the amendment mirrors subsection (4) of Section 5 of the Scottish natural heritage Act, which was included in the SNH Bill by your Lordships' House under the far-sighted influence of my noble friend Lord Strathclyde, who piloted that Bill through this House in 1991. All the arguments which applied to SNH and which were accepted by your Lordships and the other place apply to SEPA. Indeed, some of them apply more strongly in SEPA's case than they did for SNH.

SNH has been and is a success. It has done much to promote harmony in Scotland between the various different interests which bear upon the land and which have often been in conflict. It is generally accepted that the root of much of its success lies in the amendments to the SNH Bill which were carried in your Lordships' House, even though some of them were controversial at the time, and in the amendments agreed here by the Government, guided by my noble friend Lord Strathclyde.

One of the most important of your Lordships' amendments was to insert the protection for landowners to be found in Section 5 (4) of the SNH Act, which Amendment No. 70 today imitates. I said that the argument in favour of this amendment is, if anything, stronger in this Bill than it was in the SNH Bill. This is so because, as I think the noble Earl, Lord Kintore, has rightly pointed out, SEPA is to be very much more the creature of the Secretary of State than was or is SNH. As drafted, Clauses 29, 30 and 38 of this Bill ensure that. So SEPA will not be, as originally intended by the Government, an agency at arm's length from government. It will, alas, in most respects be an arm of the Secretary of State.

This state of affairs, which many might regard as unfortunate, means that the protection afforded by this amendment is more needed than it was for SNH. Even a well-intentioned Secretary of State would find himself more in conflict with his duty to safeguard an individual from SEPA (which will be largely his alter ego) than he would have done with SNH as originally designed. For all these reasons, I very much hope that my noble friend can accept the amendment.

The Earl of Lindsay: My Lords, the noble Earl, Lord Kintore, and my noble friend Lord Pearson of Rannoch have both spoken to Amendments Nos. 69 and 70. Amendment No. 69 would prescribe on the face of the Bill the conditions which would have to be met before the use of SEPA's powers to purchase land compulsorily. Amendment No. 70 would mean that the compulsory purchase order would be subject to special parliamentary procedure in the event of any objections to it.

At present, the Secretary of State has powers to authorise river purification boards to purchase land compulsorily under Section 9 of the Rivers (Prevention of Pollution) (Scotland) Act 1951. Local authorities also have similar powers under separate legislation. Clause 25 of the Bill does not therefore introduce anything new; it merely re-enacts this existing power in respect of

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SEPA and extends it to all the agency's functions. The powers under the 1951 Act have not in fact ever been exercised. I point out to my noble friend that that is despite the passage of many Secretaries of State from both main parties. There is no reason to suggest that the establishment of SEPA will materially alter the need to exercise compulsory purchase powers.

I can assure the House, and my noble friend and the noble Earl in particular, that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State would authorise SEPA to use such powers in relation to specific land required by the agency to discharge its functions effectively only in circumstances where other locations were unsuitable and where it was not possible for a reasonable agreement between SEPA and the landowner to be reached. In other words, I can categorically say to the noble Earl that this compulsory purchase power would be a last-resort option open to the Secretary of State.

The noble Earl also suggested the possibility of a conflict of role for the Secretary of State in discharging this duty. I stress to him and my noble friend that the Secretary of State will be able to prevent misuse by authorising only in reasonable circumstances. Therefore, it is not so much a conflict as a prevention of a misuse of a power.

My noble friend Lord Pearson explained that he based his amendment on the limits imposed on SNH's use of its compulsory purchase powers. Given that the compulsory purchase of land has the potential to be a powerful tool in the hands of a nature conservation body to further its interests, we agreed that it was necessary to limit the exercise of such powers to fairly specific circumstances in the case of SNH. However, the purchase of such land is not a normal means of preventing or controlling pollution, and there is therefore not the same risk of these powers being used by the SEPA as a means to help achieve its objectives.

If my noble friend feels, on reflection, that further discussion is needed, I suggest that this discussion is pursued between now and the next stage of Bill, so that we can try and sort out where we may have ground that is common to us both.

Given those reassurances, I hope that both noble Lords will be able to withdraw their amendment.

The Earl of Kintore: My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for his very full reply, which I should like to read in Hansard. Meanwhile, I beg leave to withdraw Amendment No. 69.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch had given notice of his intention to move Amendment No. 70:

Page 24, line 7, at end insert:
("(3) Where the Secretary of State or SEPA has prepared a proposal which involves the compulsory acquisition of land, a compulsory purchase order shall be subject to special parliamentary procedure in any case where an objection has been duly made by the owner of the land and has not been withdrawn.").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I think it is order for me also, as the mover of Amendment No. 70, to thank my noble friend for what he said, and to say that I very much welcome his offer of further discussion on the compulsory purchase powers of the Bill before we reach

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Third Reading. I would just point out that, although I accept what he said about the pollution control powers of SEPA, I think we need to have further talk in regard to the powers towards the natural heritage which are also bestowed on SEPA. I look forward to those discussions.

[Amendment No. 70 not moved.]

Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove moved Amendment No. 71:

Page 25, line 9, leave out ("may") and insert ("shall").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, with the leave of the House, in moving this amendment, I shall also speak to Amendments Nos. 72 and 73. These amendments would ensure that SEPA makes its records open to inspection by the public.

As the Bill stands, the use of the words,

    "may afford members of the public ... facilities for inspecting ... those records",

is unsatisfactory. It leaves the decision to the discretion of SEPA.

In addition, the amendment would ensure that merely inspecting records is free, and where charges are made for photocopying, they do not exceed local copying costs. I spoke about this matter in Committee.

There must be this right for the public. You can go to the national archives in Scotland and get almost any other record. You can go to the local library and get details of local council meetings. And of course the press attend most council meetings. You can even attend the committees of local authorities now. This facility will not be abused; there will be only certain matters for which certain people will wish to be there. It is extremely important that these amendments, or others that are in empathy with them, should be accepted. I beg to move.

11 p.m.

The Earl of Lindsay: My Lords, Amendments Nos. 71, 72 and 73 moved by the noble Lord, Lord Carmichael, deal with measures related to public access to information held by SEPA. We covered this subject in some detail in Committee, as the noble Lord said. However, these amendments are specific to SEPA's preserved records—that is to say, those records which in the agency's view are worthy of preservation and are kept and managed accordingly.

Amendment No. 71 would require SEPA to make all of its preserved records available to the public. Amendments Nos. 71 and 72 taken together would mean that inspection of those records would be free of charge, and copies or extracts would be obtainable either free of charge or on the payment of local photocopying rates.

The specific provisions in respect of preserved records are in addition to provisions in the Environmental Information Regulations 1992, which do give the public a right of access to information. SEPA will not therefore have the discretion to withhold information without good cause. Only exemptions permitted by the regulations will be possible.

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Preserved records may contain sensitive information, just like any other records. I should not therefore support an absolute requirement to give the public access to all of SEPA's preserved records. Such a requirement may mean that companies would be reluctant to pass commercially confidential information to SEPA because the agency would be obliged to make that information publicly available. That would surely interfere with the efficiency with which SEPA is able to pursue its duties. Moreover, their manner and location of storage may make public access quite tricky. If the inconvenience and staff time involved appears disproportionate to the value of the data on the record, then it is surely right that SEPA should have some discretion.

Amendment No. 72 would use the approach that we have adopted to public registers and apply it to preserved records. However, I believe that there is a clear distinction between a public register, which exists solely as a means of making information about authorisations and consents readily available, and records, which have other justifications.

The clause as drafted in the Bill would enable SEPA to make inspection facilities freely available; but it also gives the agency the flexibility to charge a reasonable amount. Free access to registers is one thing, and it would be appropriate for SEPA to bear the costs involved; but access to preserved records has much wider implications because of the sheer scale of material stored. Against that background, I believe that it is right and proper that SEPA should be able to recover some or all of the expense involved.

I also believe that SEPA should have the scope to recover, through reasonable charges, the costs involved in obtaining copies or extracts of records. I cannot therefore accept Amendment No. 73, which would restrict payments to "local photocopying rates", assuming that such a term can be defined. One of the potential benefits of SEPA is consistency of procedures and I would hope for a standard photocopying charge, not fluctuations depending on which local office is involved. Again, the clause as drafted in the Bill does not require there to be a charge. But if one were to be levied, I think that SEPA should be able to recover some or all of its costs.

The Government recognise the importance of public access to environmental information. The amendments would, however, unduly fetter SEPA's discretion and possibly tie up staff resources, which could be better deployed on tasks more central to pollution control. On that basis, I invite the noble Lord to withdraw his amendments.

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