HC Deb 01 July 1997 vol 297 cc96-7
6. Helen Jackson

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions what proposals he has to strengthen the role of the Environment Agency in the regions. [4669]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Angela Eagle)

The majority of the agency's staff are based in its regions or areas and much of its work is concerned with the protection of the environment at regional and local levels. I shall continue to support this important dimension of the agency's work.

Helen Jackson

I thank my hon. Friend for her reply. Does she recognise that there is growing frustration that the Environment Agency is becoming too close to the big players in industries such as water and waste to be able properly to police polluters and make those responsible pay when they do damage? How will my hon. Friend and the Department ensure that the public can make their voice heard at local and regional levels and that regional boards have the necessary clout and profile to do the job that we all support them in doing?

Angela Eagle

First, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the great work that she has done on water and related issues. We know that she speaks with a great deal of expertise. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already had discussions with the agency about enforcement. We want to make it clear that we want it to be a rigorous regulator and guardian of the environment, to prosecute where necessary and without hesitation, and to play its role in preventing pollution and other abuses of the environment by taking action, where possible, well in advance.

Mr. Rowe

I must confess that I am slightly confused about the Labour party's policy. It seems that it complains bitterly that too much power has been removed from local authorities to central Government. We have heard this afternoon, however, that the Government are thinking about having regional development agencies while thinking about strengthening the powers of the central Government agency. Exactly what is the Government's policy on local, regional and central government?

Angela Eagle

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman is confused. Some 95 per cent. of the Environment Agency's work force work at regional and local level, where they have to deliver a service. Accountability is clearly important. The move towards regional agencies and, we hope, regional devolution in the end, is an evolutionary process. How powers will be dispersed down depends on how regions wish to develop. That is an open issue that will evolve.