HC Deb 13 June 2000 vol 351 cc773-5
1. Mr. Alan W. Williams (East Carmarthen and Dinefwr)

When he last met the chairman of the Environment Agency to discuss the performance of the agency; and what matters were discussed. [123989]

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Michael Meacher)

I hold quarterly bilaterals with the chairman to discuss the agency's performance in England. At our last bilateral on 24 February, we discussed the following: priorities for the agency, developing the agency's relationship with Ministers and the Department, and handling complaints and board and staff appointments.

Mr. Williams

When my right hon. Friend next meets the chairman of the Environment Agency, will he discuss with him the report of the Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs on the Environment Agency—a hard-hitting report? Part of the report deals with fly-tipping. Attention is drawn to the appalling abuse of the landfill tax by cowboy firms fly-tipping domestic, industrial and building waste. If the Environment Agency argues that it needs more resources, which it will, will my right hon. Friend obtain from the Chancellor a fraction of the abundant proceeds of the landfill tax to tackle that serious problem?

Mr. Meacher

Yes, we are extremely concerned in the light of the Select Committee's comments on numerous issues, particularly about the licensing exemptions, and in the light of revelations in "Dispatches" and the article in The Guardian. We are reviewing the situation as a matter of urgency and I shall make a statement as soon as I can. The Ecotec consultancy has examined the matter on our behalf, and recommended that charges be levied in order to pay for regular Environment Agency inspections. I am concerned about the abuse of licensing exemptions, and I have every intention of cracking down on it.

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar)

Next time the Minister meets the chairman, will he raise the question of the agency's responsibility for flood defences? He may recall that some years ago my constituency suffered a flash flood in which properties were swept away, since which time the agency has regularly cleared Stanford Hall brook. It has ceased to do so over the past two years, with the excuse that it has higher priorities. Surely that is a false economy? The reason why my constituency has not suffered flooding recently is that the brook is kept clear. Does it not make more sense to prevent flooding than to deal with the problems afterwards?

Mr. Meacher

The hon. Gentleman makes a perfectly fair point. It is not my direct responsibility in regard to the Environment Agency; it is a matter for the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, but I shall draw the specific details to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Minister, and I am sure that he will write to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

I understand the view that charges should be imposed on some of the people involved in landfill, but does my right hon. Friend accept that with regard to fly-tipping, charges are irrelevant? What is needed is the effective prosecution of those who are spoiling urban and rural landscapes.

Mr. Meacher

Again, I strongly agree. That is part of the review that is taking place. There has unquestionably been some increase in fly-tipping, although I think that it is not as great as many people believe. Most of the fly-tipping is of household waste, and there is no levying of landfill tax for household waste. However, it remains an issue, and in some areas there has been increased degradation of the countryside, which is one of the subjects of the review.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

Further to the question posed by my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles), is the right hon. Gentleman aware of the way in which the Environment Agency deals with flooding problems, particularly at Lindfield in my constituency, where there have been continual problems? The matter continues to be batted back and forth between the Environment Agency and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Will the right hon. Gentleman look into the matter, to see whether he is entirely satisfied with the way in which the Environment Agency carries out its duties in that regard, and what could be done to improve the speed and facility with which such matters can be drawn to a conclusion?

Mr. Meacher

I am sure that my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food have heard what the hon. Gentleman said. As he implied, the problem is the relationship between MAFF and the Environment Agency. That is not my responsibility, but again, I will draw the hon. Gentleman's perfectly reasonable point to the Ministry's attention and ensure that he gets an answer.

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