HC Deb 28 June 1995 vol 262 cc913-8

  1. '.—(1) The Secretary of State may—
    1. (a) establish environmental targets for the purpose of protecting or enhancing the environment or securing the favourable conservation status of any flora or fauna,
    2. (b) by serving a notice on SEPA, specify any environmental target for it to achieve and the date for its achievement.
  2. (2) The Secretary of State shall publish each notice served on SEPA under subsection (1)(b) above in such a manner as he considers appropriate for bringing it to the attention of persons interested or likely to be affected by it.
  3. (3) Where the Secretary of State has established environmental targets he may review those targets if—
    1. (a) five years or more have elapsed since the service of the notice under subsection (2) of this section; or
    2. (b) SEPA, after consultation with such persons as it considers appropriate, requests a review;
    and the Secretary of State shall not exercise his power to establish targets by varying the existing targets except in consequence of such a review.
  4. (4) It shall be the duty of the Secretary of State and of SEPA to exercise the powers conferred on him or it under any relevant enactment in such a manner as ensures, so far as is practicable by the exercise of those powers to do so, that the environmental targets specified in a notice under subsection (1)(b) above are achieved at all times.'.—[Mr. Galbraith.]
Brought up, and read the First time.

4.39 pm
Mr. Sam Galbraith (Strathkelvin and Bearsden)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris)

With this, it will be convenient to discuss also amendment No. 260, in clause 30, page 26, line 33, leave out second 'to' and insert 'only to those strategic'.

Mr. Galbraith

I welcome the brief appearance here by the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton). He and I spent a most enjoyable time considering the previous environment Bill from the Scottish Office—the Natural Heritage (Scotland) Bill. The Minister will be interested to know that the definition of sustainability that we discussed then at great length was debated at great length during the Committee stage of this Bill. We are no further forward and we have not resolved the matter. This time, we have not dipped into Wittgenstein's "Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus" or any of the erudite matters that we dealt with last time.

The new clause is yet another attempt to try to beef up the functions of the Scottish Environment Protection Agency. One of the things that we cannot understand is why the Government have set up simply a pollution control agency and not an environmental protection agency. Although SEPA is known as an environmental protection agency, it is, in fact, only a pollution control agency, unlike the Environment Agency, which will handle many functions.

The Environment Agency will have a duty to protect and enhance the environment. No such duty is laid on SEPA. The Secretary of State will only issue guidelines to which the agency will have regard. That produces a problem in that we shall have two agencies—Scottish Natural Heritage, which will be responsible for protecting and enhancing the environment, the natural heritage and flora and fauna, and seeking to enhance enjoyment in the countryside, and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency. Although there many be some cross-fertilisation between the two, they will never link in the centre, leaving a channel in which the environment is improperly protected. The new clause is intended to deal with that problem and that is why we would like to set up environmental quality audits and other procedures.

The Minister will probably have certain arguments in his brief and I ask him not to go through them again. First, I hope that he does not tell me that the new clause is unworkable. If that is written in his brief, I hope that he will get his civil servants to change it for him. The new clause is not unworkable. The words used are already used in the Control of Pollution Act 1974. If we have already used the words in that Act, we can use them here. The Minister should bear it in mind that the new clause uses the words so far as is practicable". It would be wrong of the Minister to tell us that the new clause was unworkable.

Secondly, I ask the Minister not to say that we are dealing with the matter the wrong way round. If that argument is in his brief, he should not read it out. We are not dealing with the matter the wrong way round. The Minister may suggest that the matter can be handled by guidelines. I have read the draft guidelines and I believe that they are hardly worth the paper they are written on. There is all the usual stuff about acting efficiently and effectively and to the highest possible standards, as if we would set up an agency that acted to the lowest possible standards. We do not believe that guidelines are a sufficient basis, although, if we saw some really strong guidelines, we might change our mind.

Thirdly, I ask the Minister not to say that my proposals overlap with Scottish Natural Heritage. They most manifestly do not. Scottish Natural Heritage has powers and SEPA will have powers, but the two do not overlap. I shall give some examples. SEPA will have powers in relation to water abstraction and water drainage, but really only in terms of pollution control. It will not have powers in relation to water extraction and drainage in terms of the effect on wildlife habitats. That is a function of Scottish Natural Heritage and not of SEPA. SEPA cannot use its powers to prevent extraction or drainage except in the case of, for example, a site of special scientific interest.

The same is the case for eutrophication and acidification. They can be considered by SEPA, but only in relation to pollution control and not in relation to conservation and enhancement of the environment. When Scottish Natural Heritage considers them, it can do so only in relation to sites of special scientific interest. It has no powers of control over those matters.

Although, by the year 2003, the Government will have implemented a 60 per cent. reduction in sulphur emissions, a Scottish Natural Heritage report has shown that 20 per cent. of Scottish sites of special scientific interest will still be at risk from acidification. It also estimates that 50 SSSI lochs are suffering from acidification. They include Loch Doon, Merrick Kells lochs and the Cairngorm lochs.

4.45 pm

Furthermore, water quality problems in sites of special scientific interest are often more attributable to diffuse resources than point source pollution. SNH has suggested that there are a minimum of 28 SSSI waters that need improvements to reverse the decline in nature conservation. They include: Montrose basin, Angus; Rescobie and Balgavies lochs, Angus; Castle loch, Annandale and Eskdale; Mill loch, Annandale and Eskdale; Eden estuary, Fife; Loch of Skene, Gordon; Ythan estuary, Gordon; Loch Spynie, Moray; Cran loch, Nairn; Loch of Harray, Orkney; Loch Leven, Perth and Kinross; Carlingwark loch, Stewartry; Milton loch, Stewartry; and Lake of Menteith, Stirling. For the benefit of Hansard, I shall provide a list afterwards.

The point that I am trying to make is that the conservation problems of acidification and eutrophication cannot be dealt with by SNH. It has no powers over pollution control. It can deal only with pollution that occurs in sites of special scientific interest. The problem with the body that has the powers to handle pollution control, SEPA, is that it only has to have regard to the environment and has no duty to protect and enhance it. Though the two bodies may mingle, they are not locked together and there is a channel in the middle where the environment is improperly protected. For that reason, I put forward the new clause and hope that the Government will accept it.

Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)

I shall make a brief intervention. I concur[...] argument of the hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Galbraith), but I want to try to focus the Minister's attention on a slightly different issue.

There is concern that the powers that the Bill confers on a Secretary of State could be used in an untoward way if the power to issue guidance, and for the agency to be required to pay attention to that guidance, started to be used intrusively in a way that affected the operational decisions of and stance taken by the agency. There is legitimate concern that, if that happened, the agency would have no discretion or mind of its own and would not be able to tackle its work in its own way because of possible interference from on high through the powers that the Secretary of State is given by the Bill.

Amendment No. 260 would clarify the position by inserting the word "strategic". People understand and fully accept that, if the Government have decided to go down the route of creating the agency, the Secretary of State is properly entitled to have a strategic overview and to set the terms and objectives of the targets that have to be achieved by the agency. However, the Government should not thereafter interfere operationally on a day-to-day basis in a way that would become intrusive. I hope that the Minister will accept that.

The Bill has caused a great deal of concern to people with whom I have talked about the intrusive way in which the Secretary of State's powers might be used. It would be extremely useful if the Minister could say exactly how he envisages the Secretary of State using his powers and what are the proper ways for him to set objectives and targets and give guidance. In so doing, I hope that the Minister will be able to give some reassurance to those who have raised such questions with me.

To all intents and purposes, the guidance notes mirror the requirement that will be placed on the Government to use the negative or affirmative resolution procedure with statutory instruments, so I do not understand why the Government did not accept the same method for setting targets for the agency. If they adopted the statutory instrument procedure to set strategic targets, it would to some extent console those who have expressed concern because they would have an absolutely transparent method of checking whether the Secretary of State's powers were being used sensibly and strategically or to interfere in operations.

I hope that the Government accept that there is a real problem and that the Minister will be able to say something that will give some comfort to those who share my concerns and who made representations to me when the Bill was in Committee.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton)

I do, indeed, recall the debate on sustainability. I think that the hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Galbraith) questioned my use of the phrase "sustainable development". I shall adopt not the arguments that he thought I would adopt, but some different ones.

The Scottish Environment Protection Agency's functions are different from those of a pollution control agency. For example, it will have more functions in relation to air quality and waste strategy. It will not, of course, have the National Rivers Authority's wider responsibilities for water resources because Scotland's geography and the pressures on Scotland's aquatic environment do not warrant the same approach as in England and Wales.

I do not for a moment accept that SEPA is powerless in relation to acidification. Under part I of the Environmental Protection Act 1990, which provides for integrated pollution control, BATNEEC—best available technology not entailing excessive cost—may take account of the effects of the prescribed processes on the local natural environment, including any upland areas with soil sensitive to acidification.

Most of what the hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden is seeking to achieve can be achieved through existing legislation or through provisions already included in the Bill. For example, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has powers under section 3(4) of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 to establish any environmental medium-quality objectives or quality standards in relation to any substances that may be released into that or any other medium from any process.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State also has specific powers in relation to water under section 30C of the Control of Pollution Act 1974, and he will acquire further powers through the provisions in the Bill. In particular, the provisions in clause 56, which relate to contaminated land, will allow him to issue guidance to authorities on the identification of contaminated land and the standards to which that land is to be remediated. Similarly, under clause 79, my right hon. Friend will have a duty to prepare and publish a national air quality strategy, which must include statements on standards relating to the quality of air and objectives for the restriction of the levels at which particular substances are present in the air.

In addition, clause 30 gives general powers requiring my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to give guidance with respect to aims and objectives. Those objectives would include the sort of environmental targets that are probably envisaged by the hon. Gentleman, although targets to secure the favourable conservation status of any flora and fauna appear to be more a matter for Scottish Natural Heritage than for SEPA.

There is, of course, a practical objection to the new clause, which is that it might lead to an unbalanced approach if SEPA is expected to achieve overall targets requiring joint action. An example is urban air quality. In the case of fuel emissions from vehicles, the main responsibility would lie with local authorities. SEPA would have powers to limit only industrial emissions, which, by themselves, could achieve such a target only if disproportionate restrictions were placed on industry. The consequences would be a heavy extra burden on local industries that are already tightly regulated, yet the new clause envisages environmental quality targets that SEPA must achieve by itself. Joint co-operation would be required between local authorities and SEPA.

Amendment No. 260, to which the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) spoke, requires my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to issue guidance to SEPA under clause 30 in respect of its strategic aims and objectives. I have some sympathy with that, but the amendment is unnecessary. We certainly intend that the guidance will be of a general and strategic nature. I am sure that that is clear for the draft guidance that we have issued under clause 30. We would not want to issue guidance to SEPA on individual cases—for example, specific applications for an integrated pollution control authorisation.

The amendment would add little to the present clause and is open to more practical objections, as it leaves unclear what is or is not an aim or objective of a strategic nature. The guidance will, of course, be subject to statutory consultation and parliamentary scrutiny. If it is believed that the guidance that we plan to issue is too specific, I am sure that that will come to light during either of those stages. On that basis, I hope that the hon. Members will not press the new clause and the amendment.

Mr. Galbraith

I thank the Under-Secretary of State for his reply and I am grateful that he did not go through all the arguments that I suggested. He obviously dropped them from his brief. He tried to slip in one argument that is unworkable, however—something to do with air pollution control, emissions from cars and so forth, saying that the change would be too costly. I think that that was the general train of his argument.

The Under-Secretary forgets that the Government insisted on keeping provisions for a cost-benefit analysis on the face of the Bill—it was the subject of one of our big debates—which deals with his argument about cost. Although he tried to slip in the unworkability argument, therefore, it is not true.

The Under-Secretary also took us around the panoply of powers open to the Secretary of State when dealing with the matter. The trouble is that those powers relate to pollution control. As an aside, I must point out that waste regulation is a part of pollution control. It was suggested that SEPA is now more than a pollution control agency, because it has powers over waste regulation, but that is not the argument. SEPA does not have powers over the environment. That is the problem and it is a problem that the Government did not address.

When the Under-Secretary took us around the panoply of the Secretary of State's powers, he did not give us much information on his right hon. Friend's views on environmental targets. Under certain parts of the Bill, the Secretary of State will have powers to produce guidelines about having regard to the environment and its enhancement, but the Bill does not give SEPA a duty to protect and enhance the environment. I have seen the draft guidelines and they are so weak as to be worthless for the environment.

Clearly, the Government are not going to take great strides forward, but this is not an issue on which we should divide the House now. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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