HL Deb 07 February 1990 vol 515 cc911-36

7.37 p.m.

The Earl of Cranbrook

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. In opening the Second Reading debate, it may be useful if I first discuss four principal matters: the purposes of the Bill, the background to it, the responses I have received and its future prospects.

The Bill before the House is of a different nature to the Environmental Protection Bill at present before another place. I shall refer once or twice en passant to that Bill but it is not my purpose to produce a critique or criticism of it.

In the Bill before the House, Clause 1(1) is intended to provide a general definition of the phrase "protection of the environment". It is intended that its contrary will be recognised; that is to say, harm to the environment. The definition would be something new in British legislation. It is set in terms of two major international programmes both of which the Government are dedicated to support. The first is the fourth environmental action plan of the European Community which calls for the elimination of pollution. The second is the world conservation strategy from which subsections (1)(b), (c) and (d) are derived.

The aim of the Bill is that the definitions will provide a common framework for environmental protection. The definition links pollution control to the conservation of nature and renewable natural resources. I note a first difference between this Bill and the Environmental Protection Bill. At different points in the latter there are at least three operational definitions of "environmental harm", each of them slightly different. I know that an amendment has now introduced the concept of protecting ecological systems into Part I of the Bill but there is still lacking a general definition of environmental harm or protection. In Clauses 25, 28, 29 and 109 pollution of the environment is not defined. In Clause 110 of the Environmental Protection Bill the risk of pollution is not defined. Those would all be definable in terms of Clause 1(1) of the Environment Protection Bill.

Clauses 2 to 6 of the Environment Protection Bill are concerned with a duty created in the Bill. That is a duty to protect the environment. That duty falls on very wide classes of person as described in the Bill. Those persons include employers, the self-employed and those engaged in potentially damaging activities which are proscribed under Clause 12.

The concept of such a duty is not totally new in British jurisdiction. For example, there is as an existing model the duty which is laid on employers in the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act to have regard to the safety of their employees. In the Environmental Protection Bill there will be a duty of care laid upon waste producers and on the users and releasers of genetically manipulated organisms.

Clause 2(2) of my Bill defines requirements to provide relevant instruction and training. That is an important feature. Clause 2(3) requires those subject to that duty to prepare a written statement describing how the duty will be fulfilled and that statement must be available to members of the public on request.

I now move to Clause 7 which is central to the Bill. That establishes an Environment Protection Commission with an executive arm which is to be called the Environment Protection Executive. The powers of appointment to the Commission will lie with the Secretary of State for the Environment. Its composition is indicated in Clause 7(3) and its constitution is elaborated in Schedule 2. The principal duties of the Commission are laid down in Clause 8(1) as: to do such things and to make such arrangements as it considers appropriate for the general purposes of this Act". The working arm of the Commission would be the Environment Protection Executive. That will have powers to appoint inspectors and also to act through or on behalf of other agencies and/or local authorities. It is envisaged that initially the executive will be formed mainly from existing organisations. They will include certain departmental agencies and some non-departmental public bodies. The process of growth of the executive would probably be gradual, but ultimately component arms are likely to include —and I just give a few examples —Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Pollution, the National Radiation Protection Board, the Nature Conservancy Council, the National Rivers Authority and probably the Forestry Commission in its regulatory capacity. Schedule 1 lists existing enactments which include relevant statutory provisions relating to those bodies.

En passant I think it might be useful to note that some of the current difficulties in implementing integrated pollution control, as is the aim of this Government, are clearly due to the unequal status of Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Pollution, which is an arm of the Department of the Environment, and the National Rivers Authority. As I heard the Director General of the National Rivers Authority say on the wireless, that difference would disappear if both were arms of an environmental protection Commission.

The rest of the Bill establishes the powers and the working methods of the Commission and its executive. Briefly, the Commission will have powers to draw up codes of practice and to make environmental protection regulations. Inspectors will have powers to issue improvement and prohibition notices and in a case of imminent danger to the environment to enter premises and make seizures.

The Commission would be responsible to the Department of the Environment but would also have authority to advise any Minister of State in any department where matters concerning environmental protection are important. The regulations will be subject to parliamentary approval. The Commission will publish an annual report which will match requirements, for example, of the impending habitats and species directive from the European Community. And, finally, the Crown is not exempt.

I turn to the background of this Bill as I see it. I claim that it brings together strands which have been developing for some time both nationally and internationally in what may be called, broadly speaking, environmental circles and also in industry. As an industry perspective I include as background information to Clause 1 a quotation which I take from something written by Mr. Ian Graham-Bryce of Shell International Petroleum Company in 1988: It is clearly necessary to have a more rigorous and much less subjective basis on which to develop policy for environmental protection. For this purpose we may characterise the environment in terms of: Its value as a source of raw materials and resources, including food, and fibre and other biological and genetic resources. Its functions, such as degradation of toxicants, nutrient cycling, maintenance of habitat etc. Its amenity value, including aesthetic considerations". I take that to be an industry point of view.

There are plenty of existing models for environmental protection agencies with wide powers in the international scene. The environmental protection agency of Sweden in 1969 and the United States in the 1970s led the field. Both those institutions now have a considerable track record to which one can refer. Even the Republic of South Africa in July 1989 enacted a broadly ecological definition of environmental protection and formed a council for the environment, together with wide ministerial powers to regulate activities which, may have a substantial detrimental effect on the environment". In this Chamber I first heard the call for a British version modelled on the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act from my noble friend Lord Craigton in the debate on the Nature Conservancy Council on 17th February 1988. On 26th October 1988 Dr. Charles Suckling and I jointly presented a paper on the subject to the all-party conservation committee. Coincidentally, on 7th December Professor John Knill, chairman of the NERC, in a speech at Plymouth Polytechnic, expressed his view that: Too many of the interactions which occur in natural and man-influenced environmental systems cross the boundaries of convenience of scientific discipline or political expendiency… as we move towards the year 2000 there will be an increasing need for us to establish … a single policy-making and executive body". That is the view of a scientist.

In February 1989 in the course of a well supported opposition debate on the protection of the environment, I developed the idea of an environmental protection Commission as far as I could within the allotted nine minutes. On 22nd February 1989 the preface to the House of Commons Environment Committee Report entitled Toxic Waste at paragraphs 1 to 15 concluded that: the Government should now aim for the establishment of an Environmental Protection Commission which would be charged with an overall responsibility for safeguarding environmental quality in the UK". It envisaged that that Commission would incorporate HMIP and: through mergers … would take over the pollution control responsibilities of the NRA, waste regulation functions, local authority pollution control functions, and other environmental protection functions". The Government's response to that report, which was published in April 1989, rejected the proposal on the grounds that a multiplicity of agencies, tailor-made to regulate specific issues, was more effective and, secondly, that ministerial accountability must be paramount in the arrangements.

About February 1989 —if my memory does not belie me —the then Secretary of State, Mr. Nicholas Ridley, recognised the need for an environmental monitoring body with sufficient independence from the Government to carry non-partisan plausibility. At the time he considered this important, but later, in response to a question from the audience at a major departmental PR show in the Queen Elizabeth Conference Centre, he again invoked the importance of ministerial responsibility to resist calls for an environmental protection Commission.

I arrived in late summer with the feeling that no one seemed obviously about to take further steps. I therefore began to examine the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act, as had been suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Craigton, and I recast it in the form your Lordships now see to make it into an environment protection Bill. In that process I was much helped by consultations with specialists in many different areas, whose anonymity I will protect for the time being. Their experience covered industrial safety and worker protection, environmental law, Civil Service administration and related matters, all of which were useful adjuncts to my own environmental background. Like any sole author I am grateful for that help, but accept responsibility for all outstanding deficiencies in the text of the Bill. It is my first.

Coincidentally —and this was a true coincidence —on the very day before the First Reading, the chairman of the Nature Conservancy Council, Sir William Wilkinson, introducing his annual report, said: Surely the day for a powerful independent environmental agency cannot be far away. Such a body is fast becoming a necessity". I said that I felt it was also proper to look at some of the responses I received. I can say that all those from the non-governmental voluntary environmental organisations have been favourable. I have had responses from the National Society for Clean Air, the Council for the Protection of Rural England and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. However, I must admit that I am a member of all those organisations and a vice-president of at least one. So perhaps it will be said, "They would, wouldn't they".

I have had responses from professional and commercial associations, such as the National Association of Waste Disposal Contractors, that were broadly favourable. I look forward to hearing your Lordships' views. I have, of course, taken note that the Opposition have produced discussion papers on similar lines and I was able to attend a briefing at the launching session across the way. I note also that Mr. Bryan Gould proposed amendments to the Environmental Protection Bill, which is now in another place. These would have served to introduce an environmental protection executive, but he lost on a Division.

I said that I would touch on the deficiencies in the present version of the Bill which inevitably have come to my attention in the time since it was published. Several correspondents have pointed out inadequacies in the text; similar shortcomings have occurred to me quite spontaneously on reflection since First Reading. Many are attributable to the Bill's rather close modelling (if one cared to be rude one could almost describe it as plagiarism) to the Health and Safety at Work etc Act. Some things have crept in which are not appropriate to an environmental protection Bill.

I should like to think that now, in Clause 1(1)(d) I would introduce a reference to "natural resources". In Clause 2(2) I doubt now that the use of the term "risk" is advisable in framing legislation of this nature. Clause 3 is probably largely redundant and could be assumed under the general duty. Clause 25 is seriously defective. I have no intention whatever of curbing the freedom of public access to information as is implied in the clause, which dates from 1974. I believe that the register mechanisms or other appropriate arrangements envisaged in the Environmental Protection Bill are useful and valuable ways of bringing free access to environmental information for the public. I would delete Clause 25 in its entirety.

With regard to Clause 26, I recognise that it is probably foolish to put fixed values on fines. One of my lawyer friends could not see any provision in that clause for non-compliance to be an offence. Some kind critic described Schedule 1 as "eclectic." I am prepared to admit that Schedule 1 was written in the course of a busy afternoon in the Library while I thumbed through past legislation, and for that I should perhaps apologise, but it is intended as an illustration rather than the complete compendium of existing legislation that would be brought into the Bill.

The future prospects of the Bill are uncertain at this stage. We shall in due course have before us the Environmental Protection Bill when it arrives from the other place. There is no doubt that the manner in which we integrate environmental protection in our national legislation is highly topical and must be regarded as important and of immediate intention. No doubt there will be a variety of views expressed this evening: for the time being I beg to move that the Bill be read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time. —(The Earl of Cranbrook.)

7.56 p.m.

Lord Hatch of Lusby

My Lords, I warmly welcome the initiative taken by the noble Earl in producing and moving the Second Reading of this Bill, though I am a little puzzled as to his intentions in view of the fact that the Government already have a Bill in another place. Perhaps he hopes that the Government, either during the progress of their Bill in another place or in this House, may listen to what is said about the present Bill and include in their own Bill some of the ideas which have been produced by the noble Earl. If that is his objective I very warmly applaud it and hope that the Government take note.

The Bill illustrates the heart of the whole debate on the environment and is a very valuable contribution to that debate. In particular, as the noble Baroness, Lady Robson, pointed out last night, it echoes the words of the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Carver, last week when he introduced and spoke to his report on the greenhouse effect. He said that we are past the stage at which we can say that until this is scientifically totally proven no action should be taken. This Bill echoes what has often been called the "no regrets" policy —that prevention is better than cure and that we cannot wait for total certainty in scientific research on the subject.

The benefits that will accrue from a credible institutional framework for the protection of the environment are essential if we are to be serious about the matter. Within that framework public accountability is also essential. As I shall explain later, I am worried as to whether public accountability goes far enough in the Bill; but certainly it is an issue which is tackled. The creation of an agency which, as the noble Earl said, can go right through government departments and can draw to the attention of governments the environmental consequences of actions which are not necessarily apparent as environmental issues is very valuable.

However, I am worried that in all this institutional creation the position of the Secretary of State seems to be too paramount. When we come to the two essential institutional innovations—namely, the Environmental Protection Commission and the Environment Protection Executive —I would prefer that they did not depend so much on the action of the Secretary of State. We know that some Secretaries of State do not act or they cover up issues which are brought before them. I am not suggesting that I can draft the matter easily, but I would like to see a greater accountability to Parliament rather than to have the immense power which is put with the Secretary of State in the terms of the Bill as it stands.

Nevertheless, if this Bill were passed it would give an opportunity for the introduction of primary legislation of a character which would enable more executive action to be taken as regards matters such as European directives which at the moment are more difficult to introduce. There is one major omission (if it is an omission) to which I hope the noble Earl will address himself when he winds up this evening. In all the discussion on actions to protect the environment, there tends to be a concentration on what is being consumed, emitted or corrupted in this country. I agree entirely with the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Carver, and with the noble Earl who said that we cannot wait for action until there is certainty.

It is not an argument that, because international action is crucial on this issue, unilateral action is useless. It is the responsibility of this country to set an example. However, more than that, there is also a responsibility in this country to see what is produced here and sent abroad. I am frightened of the danger that we could limit and perhaps abolish the production and consumption of environmentally dangerous products in this country and then find that companies were sending those products abroad, particularly to third world countries.

I draw the attention of the House to the report by the Comptroller and Auditor General of the National Audit Office called Bilateral Aid to India. I mention that document in the following context because it is very relevant. Over the past 10 years this country has provided £1 billion in aid to India. The responsibility of the Comptroller and Auditor General was to find out how that money had been spent. There are some very disturbing revelations made in the report and I shall give two.

The Comptroller and Auditor General stated that the worst example was the Amlohri open-cast mine in Uttar Pradesh. The report says that a visiting British High Commission team found, serious environmental problems: considerable devastation of the landscape; spontaneous surface fires; the lack of a watering system for the mine, and severe pollution hazards from dust and gas.

That is the first instance. The second concerns the £37 million aid programme to the Hindustan Fertiliser Corporation which aims to help 200,000 farmers to increase grain production. The Comptroller and Auditor General found that pollution was not considered and hazardous pesticides, banned in Britain because they were dangerous to people, were included in the initial aid package.

At the welcome instigation of the noble Baroness, Lady Robson, last night we were debating the question of CFCs. I make no apology for returning to that debate for a moment. We found that in the attempt to reduce the emission of CFCs from refrigerators new gases had been produced, mainly by ICI. A particular new gas is that known as HFC 134A. I pointed out last night that though that gas reduces CFC emissions, it is two-and-a-half thousand times more dangerous to the greenhouse effect than carbon dioxide.

The point I am making is that we hope that this country concentrates on developing its technology in environmentally-benign products to export to the third world in order to enable them to develop their standard of living at least to the point where the populations are able to stay alive. If we are to concentrate on that gigantic task, we must carefully examine what is being sent out to those countries. My fear is that though imports are mentioned in this Bill, exports are not. That may be an omission or a misreading of the wording of the Bill. In a Bill of this kind I should like to see a prohibition placed on all environmentally-dangerous products produced in this country, and not just those used here.

I should like to see powers taken to prevent companies in this country from producing these dangers to the environment because the products are already being sent abroad to third world countries and other countries. That is the major criticism I have of the Bill. I hope that the noble Earl will take the criticism in the spirit in which it is meant. Perhaps he will address himself, in his winding-up speech, to the question of whether I have misread the Bill or whether the changes that I have suggested can be made under the powers of the Bill. If not, perhaps the noble Earl will pursue the issues beyond Second Reading stage so that we may discuss and amend them at Committee stage.

8.8 p.m.

Lord Hampton

My Lords, the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, is a distinguished scientist. Some of the language used in this Bill is decidedly technical and not in my dictionary. Nonetheless, I hope that the House will bear with me. The noble Earl has introduced the Bill with skill and I listened to the noble Lord, Lord Hatch, with interest.

My speech will fall broadly into two parts; first, an appreciation of a brave step in the right direction based, I understand, on the inspiration of the Brundtland Report of 1987. We offer criticism on certain points for examination more carefully at a later stage. Secondly, I offer a more personal and emotive expression of my firm conviction that this Bill is but one of many steps that will be necessary if global environmental problems, which cannot fail to rub off on the United Kingdom, are to be effectively dealt with.

On the basis that "sufficient unto the hour is the evil thereof', I have not followed in detail the progress of the Government's Environmental Protection Bill, at present going through another place. But I was fascinated, if I may digress for a moment, by Clause 16 of that Bill. It says that if an inspector finds that, the article or substance is a cause of imminent danger of serious harm he may seize it and cause it to be rendered harmless (whether by destruction or otherwise)". I submit that if every act of common sense has to be specified as within the law, it will be a very long Act.

The Bill presently before the House is welcome in principle in that it seeks to establish an independent Commission with overall executive powers to enhance environmental protection at arm's length from the Secretary of State. This represents an important departure from normal practice although falling short of the American model. However, the powers of the Secretary of State are also extended, and the degree of independence of the Commission is questionable.

In Clause 1 the intentions are sound but lack clear definition. The noble Earl touched on this point. How is the Bill expected, at a sweep, to eliminate pollution? What are "essential ecological processes"? What is "sustainable utilisation"? On this last point I sought the opinion of my noble friend Lord Ezra on our domestic coal supplies. He told me that when he was at the National Coal Board —and it may well be so today —it was accepted that the whereabouts of 50 years' supply of coal, at current usage, available with reasonable ease, should always be known. A further 250 years' supply is researched and held as a reserve. But beyond those 300 years, which is surely not a very long time in the history of mankind, the supply is less certain. It could go on for as much as a further 1,500 years, but location is by no means certain. Extraction, even where possible, could be desperately difficult and consequently exhorbitantly expensive. And my noble friend reminded me that oil supplies, including the great reservoirs in the Middle East, will run out long before coal. I ask the noble Earl to clarify what he considers acceptable and sustainable utilisation of resources.

Perhaps I may add a personal experience. A 40-acre field near my father's house was found to contain gravel. This was extracted over the years and the level of the land lowered by up to 15 feet. The contractor has now moved on to a much larger area in a neighbouring parish. What is sustainable about that?

I turn to Clauses 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6. Not surprisingly these clauses seek to impose a general duty of care to ensure, the protection of the environment". But the phrase "so far as is reasonably practicable" suggests a worrying invitation to provide a defence of commercial judgment as against the basic provisions. We would support those organisations which suggest there is a case for a new clause providing for a specific duty on public bodies, local authorities and government departments, in addition to duties on employers, in connection with the care and protection of the environment.

Preparing environmental protection statements could be unreasonably onerous for some, but the duty of public disclosure is good if enforced. But will it be? It is a very real concern to us that sensible regulations are often valueless, because at the end of the day no attempt is made to see that they are carried out.

Clause 7 covers the establishment of the two separate bodies, the Environment Protection Commission and the Environment Protection Executive. We welcome the idea of an authority with real teeth. Presumably this structure is intended to cover the whole United Kingdom, although the Bill only rarely mentions Scotland and there are intriguing references to the Isles of Scilly. Although I spent 10 years debating the affairs of Northern Ireland, I am still surprised that the environment of the Province is not to be protected, apparently, as immediately or enthusiastically as the mainland. Perhaps the noble Earl could again comment.

I find encouraging the instruction in Clause 8(2)(c) that it should be the duty of the Commissioner, to provide advice and dissemination of knowledge about the protection of the environment". General education of the public is so clearly desirable.

The remaining clauses introduce welcome strengthening and codification of existing powers of enforcement. I understand that these provisions need to be consolidated within the Government's proposals for integrated pollution control, contained in Clause 1 of the Environmental Protection Bill.

Beyond this Bill, beyond the Government's own Bill, we expect a detailed White Paper. The problems are immense and urgent action is vital. We are not even considering today the felling of the rain forests in Brazil, the tragic chemical pollution in Poland, the appalling devastation in much of the USSR, quite apart from the nuclear disaster area at Chernobyl, or the spreading of desertland in Ethiopia and across the African continent. But we all share one world and our problems are inter-related. It has become a truism that we are only trustees of this planet for future generations. I fear that we are not good trustees.

In the debate on the greenhouse effect on 30th January, the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Carver, the chairman of the reporting committee, emphasised the need to keep the balance between panic and complacency. That is wise advice. But I suspect that complacency in all these matters is the more prevalent attitude today. I am not up in the theology of the situation and no bishop is present to help, but perhaps I may conclude with quotations from two Church leaders. The first is from an article by the Bishop of Dudley, who assists in my home diocese of Worcester. He wrote recently: It now seems there are limits which must be observed if the world is to survive as a viable planet. Some people are telling us we have already reached these limits and a halt must be called now. It certainly seems that during the nineties we shall be near to the point of no return. These could be the years when the state of the planet becomes so bad that it is too late to reverse the rundown. Evidence points to our being nearly at that point and so the nineties will be a crucial decade for global survival, the time when we nearly lose the world through greed". Secondly, Martin Luther King said shortly before his death in 1968: Over the bleached bones of numerous civilisations are written the pathetic words 'too late'. If we do not act, we shall be merely dragged down the dark corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality and strength without sight". I frankly enjoy my present sense of comparative prosperity, but without confidence in its permanence. I was going to ask the noble Lord, Lord Reay, whether he would reply to a criticism often heard that this Government go too far in their belief in the operation of market forces. A good business head is valuable, but are we not in danger of over-use of resources at the cost of future generations? This matter was dealt with at length in the previous debate. My noble friend Lady Seear made the point that often market forces tend to operate satisfactorily only in the short term. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester referred to the tremendous environmental damage that sometimes results.

My Lords, 1972 was the year of the famous Stockholm Declaration by the UN Conference on the Human Environment. It said: Man has the fundamental right to freedom, equality and adequate conditions of life in an environment of a quality that permits a life of dignity and well-being". I submit that we should ponder this carefully.

Perhaps I may therefore summarise. I do not wish unduly to alarm but world environmental problems are at a critical stage. Let us put our own affairs in order, as the noble Lord, Lord Hatch, has said. This Bill is a step in the right direction. But let us beyond that, and beyond the Government's own Bill, look to the needs of international co-operation in this field, and on an unprecedented scale.

8.20 p.m.

Lord Norrie

My Lords, I wish only to make a brief comment in support of the aims of my noble friend's Bill. The very fact that he has brought forward a Bill which proposes an integrated system for environmental protection illustrates the fact that we do not have such a system at present. That fact is to be regretted. The Bill is also of special significance, coinciding as it does with the Government's own Environmental Protection Bill currently being debated in another place. My view is that my noble friend's Bill is more far-reaching than the Government's; indeed, it proposes a comprehensive system for regulating all activities which will affect the environment.

As we enter the 1990s we find ourselves faced with a variety of potentially disastrous environmental problems both nationally and globally. Such problems call for a radical shift in the way in which environmental protection is administered in this country, and, above all, it must be in a form in which the public and those working in conservation and environmental protection can have confidence. It seems to me that if we are to instigate a major upheaval in our environmental protection institutions and administration —and I believe we must do so —this should be considered carefully and with adequate consultation with those who will operate it.

The Government will be aware of the disquiet among NGOs over their proposals for reorganising the Nature Conservancy Council and the Countryside Commission. This was clearly expressed at a recent Wildlife Link conference held on 19th October 1989. Perhaps I may remind your Lordships that Wildlife Link is the leading UK body which liaises between voluntary organisations dealing with wildlife and conservation. I shall quote from a summary of the proceedings of the conference: Speaker after speaker has confirmed that the Government has not addressed the real issues, and as a consequence these proposals will not advance the cause of landscape and wildlife protection". Institutional reform is definitely needed. We must ensure that we get this right. Indeed, it lies at the very heart of my noble friend's Bill. I believe that this Bill represents a significant contribution to the debate about the way forward both for conservation and ultimately for the environment itself.

As has already been mentioned by my noble friend Lord Cranbrook, it is perhaps worth noting the Government's response to amendments tabled to their Bill in another place by the shadow Secretary of State for the Environment on 30th January. The Minister reiterated the Secretary of State's view that the Government still have an open mind on these institutional issues.

I therefore urge the Government to respond in a positive manner to the ideas which lie behind these proposals and to address them either in their Bill or in their forthcoming White Paper. As the Government have made it clear that the environment is an issue at the top of their agenda, I hope that we can pull together the best ideas that are surfacing in the current public debate. For the sake of the environment we must improve upon present arrangements and not merely change them.

8.23 p.m.

Lord Northbourne

My Lords, I am sympathetic to the general intentions of the Bill. All of us are against evil and all of us, in the same way, must be against pouring quantities of noxious chemicals into the atmosphere or polluting the water supplies. I hope that I can express to your Lordships this evening the reasons for the profound disquiet I have about the Bill as drafted. In my view it is drafted very widely and will give the Commission and the Government very wide powers.

The noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, complained that the Government's Bill did not contain adequate definitions. I wish to complain about the fact that his Bill does not define the environment. We probably think that we all know what the word "environment" means, but I believe that there are considerable grey areas at the margin. I referred to the Oxford Reference Dictionary this morning to find a definition of "environment". It was defined as: Surroundings: Especially as affecting people's lives". That is a very wide definition. Moreover, the extremely wide powers which are given to the Commission and, indeed, to the Secretary of State in the Bill could, I suggest, lead to all kinds of unintended powers being made available.

As some noble Lords will know, my particular concern is mainly in the field of agriculture and forestry. I am therefore concerned with such issues as landscape, visual amenity, smell, wildlife and, of course, the production of food and timber. I recently came across what is possibly an interesting example of a borderline case of what is generally accepted as the environment when the National Coal Board erected three or four enormous searchlights of the kind which are used to illuminate football grounds on a coal mine not very far from my house. These lights throw out a strong orange glare which has completely ruined my enjoyment of the night sky. However, is the beauty of the night sky part of the environment? It is an interesting question. I think that it is, although some people would undoubtedly not agree.

A few days ago I noticed in the 15th report of the Nature Conservancy Council an interesting definition which I think perhaps sets an example of the kind of objective which one would have hoped to find somewhere in a schedule to this Bill. Of course it is in a much more limited context than that which relates to wildlife. It reads: We believe it is important that the countryside is managed in a way that permits it to sustain the fullest possible range of British wildlife and gives people the opportunity to experience and enjoy our native wildlife". That is a fairly clear statement of what the council is trying to do, albeit only in one field of the environment concerning the countryside.

Agriculture and forestry are activities which by their very nature are concerned to modify the environment. When I was reading agriculture at Oxford I remember my professor stressing to us again and again that agriculture is a process of modifying the environment. He added that the harder you push nature in the face, the harder it pushes back.

Why does this Bill only protect the environment? Should we not be improving it? Moreover, should we not be managing it? I think that we should. My concern is with who will make the decisions. The beauty of the English countryside today depends upon man-made modifications which have taken place over the years. It has resulted from individual decisions, sometimes wrong, but it has given a wealth of variety. Of course there is a need to control vandals and those who pull out all the hedgerows. However, such people are relatively few. In my view too much control will stifle beneficial change. It will lead to dull monotony and it will deaden the enthusiasm of those who are responsible for managing the countryside and those who largely fund the cost of its care.

If the Bill is enacted, who will decide about the landscape under its provisions? I do not think that the proposed composition of the Commission makes it very well qualified to make aesthetic decisions or, indeed, decisions on landscape and visual amenity issues.

How much control is envisaged by the Bill? In connection with the urban environment, will it not seriously overlap the responsibilities of the planning authorities? I think that clarification is needed as to what the Bill is about and to set limits to the powers which it confers. If that is not done there will be a danger, if the Bill is enacted, that it will be used by specialist groups and enthusiastic pressure groups to further their own ends, possibly at the expense of others. In my view it should clearly define what aspects of the environment it relates to; it should set out more clearly the objectives and aims which it seeks to achieve; and it must also place squarely on the Commission the duty to achieve a balance between the legitimate claims of all those who are concerned about the environment and the countryside.

8.30 p.m.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, I strongly support the Bill, and therefore I listened with a certain dismay as the noble Earl threw some doubt on its future. I hope that his worst fears will not be realised and that the Bill's provisions can somehow be incorporated, if not in this Bill, into some other Bill. I am advised, although, like the noble Lord, Lord Hampton, I have not yet digested the Bill which is in another place, that this Bill complements and improves the provisions of the Government's Environmental Protection Bill. The Bill's broad principles, which are set out in Clause 1, include the maintenance of essential ecological processes; the preservation of genetic diversity; and the sustainable utilisation of species and ecosystems. They form a sound basis for conserving our natural environment and are a recognition of the need for environmental management, which I believe the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, felt was essential.

Clauses 2 and 4 place duties on employers to adopt policies aimed at protecting the environment and on employees to take reasonable care for the protection of the environment. I should like to see the Bill strengthened to place a duty on government departments, local authorities and public bodies to promote the conservation of wildlife and the environment. That would be similar to regulations which already exist in Northern Ireland. It is a shame that we cannot achieve the same standards for Great Britain.

Clauses 7 to 11 establish the Environmental Protection Commission and its executive and outline their various duties and powers. I note with approval that the Commission and its executive would have a Great Britain-wide remit.Does not that highlight the need to regulate pollution control and environmental protection on a Great Britain basis while allowing varying country needs to be met by different regulations? That relates to what the noble Lord, Lord Norrie, was saying about the present approach to environmental conservation in this country.

Clause 8(6) gives the Commission and the executive powers to acquire land. Can the noble Earl say whether he envisages the transfer of nature reserves to the new body or would he expect them to remain the responsibility of the NCC? What would be the relationship of the new body to SSSIs? Would it take over enforcement powers or would they remain elsewhere?

Clause 12 enables the Secretary of State to make regulations for controlling polluting substances and processes. Such regulations, combined with an effective Environmental Protection Executive, would sweep up environmental controls which fall outside the NRA and Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Pollution.

I make no apologies for introducing a current worry of the RSPB, of which I am proud to be a council member. A toxic substance which is currently used without control is lead shot used by wildfowlers. Noble Lords will be familiar with the poisoning effect on swans of lead fishing weights. Recognising the failure of attempts to encourage anglers to switch voluntarily to non-toxic weights, the Government in 1988 introduced new regulations to control the manufacture, supply and importation of lead weights. It was not until the water authorities began to introduce a statutory ban on the use of lead weights later that year that non-toxic alternatives replaced lead fishing weights. That policy has been successful. Recent surveys conducted by the RSPB have shown a significant increase in mute swan populations in recent years. The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution in its ninth report, Lead in the Environment, in recommendations 22 and 23 on page 143, stated: Urgent efforts should be made to develop alternatives to lead shot and lead fishing weights. As soon as these alternatives are available, the Government should legislate to ban any further use of lead shot and fishing weights in circumstances where they are irretrievably dispersed in the environment". Fishing weights have gone and we now look to the Minister to take action on lead shot.

There is growing evidence that wildfowl in our estuaries and wetlands are dying from lead poisoning through the ingestion of spent shot which accumulates in the soil. Waterfowl such as pintail, pochard, mallard and whooper swan feed in the soil for food and mistakenly ingest lead gun shot with the grit needed for the bird's digestive process. The lead remains in the bird, which suffers paralysis and usually dies from starvation.

That problem has been identified and researched in North America, where they lose some 2 million birds each year. They have found a good alternative to lead shot. They are using a soft steel cartridge. Gun cartridge manufacturers have taken a commercial decision to produce soft steel cartridges as a non-toxic alternative. So successful has that been that federal legislation has been passed which will outlaw the use of lead shot for all wildfowling in the USA by next year (1991).

I address this question to the Minister rather than to the noble Earl: have the Government any plans to take action on lead shot?

Later clauses of the Bill contain useful enforcement powers which we would wish to explore and strengthen in Committee. I hope that we are to proceed to a Committee stage. The Bill could be a useful vehicle for some much needed improvements to the provisions of the Wildlife and Countryside Act. We welcome the Bill, as I said at the outset, and I hope that it will continue its progress throughout all its stages in the House.

8.36 p.m.

Lord Moran

My Lords, there can be no doubt that there is an urgent need for better and more effective environmental protection in this small, overpopulated, grossly contaminated country of ours, but we are not holding the line. On the contrary, environmental damage, much of it irreversible, is being inflicted on our countryside —our coasts, estuaries, uplands, wetlands, heaths and downs—every week. What has been happening has been spelt out in the paper published by the Royal Society for Nature Conservation, Losing Ground, based on information from 48 wildlife trusts all over the country, which I have mentioned previously in the House. They say that the rate of loss of wild places is not declining.

I shall give two recent examples of what is happening. A case was reported in the Sunday Telegraph on 21st January in which Shell UK Exploration had decided to award a contract to build a pipeline construction yard on part of the Scottish coast designated by law as of national ecological importance. It is a Grade 1 SSSI, a protected area under the Birds Directive. According to the report, when asked why it could not build further up the coast where it would not do any environmental damage, Shell said that it had to maintain commercial competition between two pipeline assembly contractors. That is an almost frivolous reason for damaging what is in fact the only mainland breeding site of a rare bird, the whimbrel.

The Times today reports the chairman of the NERC as saying that only a fraction of the man-made chemicals seeping into the groundwater are being monitored. There is, moreover, still no safeguarding of the wider environment. The NCC and the RSPB are putting together facts on the grave threats to our estuaries. The damage from acid rain continues. The pressure on what remains of our natural environment is enormous. Public opinion is aroused. A Gallup poll in the Daily Telegraph in August 1989 found that 80 per cent. of country dwellers and 78 per cent. of town dwellers believed that the countryside was in danger; and that 84 per cent. were dissatisfied with the Government's efforts to protect it. I believe that those figures are remarkable.

In the circumstances, the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, has, I believe, performed a notable public service in bringing this Bill forward. It is very much the kind of Bill that many of us hoped the Government would bring in when we heard that they were planning a green Bill. This is what the Environmental Protection Bill ought to have been but is not. Instead, the Government's Bill is to some extent a disappointing ragbag of miscellaneous powers together with a highly controversial proposal to dismember the NCC.

Many people have been surprised that the Government seem so reluctant to consult expert opinion. If they had brought in a comprehensive Bill like that of the noble Earl, they might have secured the strong support of conservationists and of the many people who care passionately about the environment. It would surely have been wise for them to consult the noble Earl sitting on their own Benches. They have only to read this Bill to see that he is a master of his subject.

On the Environment Protection Bill itself, I very much agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, that Clause I is an admirable way in which to begin an environmental Bill of this kind. It is properly grounded in science, which is exactly what it should be. It proposes an integrated system of environmental protection which does not exist at present and which I believe we need. The agency which carries this out ought surely to be independent, powerful and publicly accountable, and above all it ought to command public confidence. The Bill covers all Great Britain. As was observed by the noble Lord, Lord Hampton, it even includes the Scilly Isles, in Clause 44, but not Northern Ireland. Like the noble Lord, Lord Hampton, I think that any system of environmental protection ought to cover Northern Ireland as well. It ought extend throughout the whole of the United Kingdom.

I am glad that the noble Earl gave credit to the noble Lord, Lord Craigton, who was the first to suggest the health and safety legislation as a model. I am sorry that ill health prevents him from being here tonight. I hope that the Government will study the Bill carefully, together with what is said in the House this evening, and will take it into account when they produce their promised White Paper later this year. I believe that the Bill points the way we should go and that action along the lines of the Bill will command widespread public support.

8.43 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, this is a remarkable and very welcome Bill. I have spent seven years in this House, for too much of which I have been involved not so much in legislation as in opposing government legislation. It would never have occurred to me, although I have tabled literally hundreds of amendments to government Bills, that I could even approach the skill that the noble Earl has shown in drafting a Bill of nearly 39 pages. It is an astonishing achievement; one on which he deserves to be congratulated professionally as well as in terms of his intentions and of the substantial achievements of the Bill.

The noble Earl rightly acknowledges that the model for his Bill has been the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974. I think he would acknowledge as well that much of the thinking which has helped him to adapt that Act to the problems of environmental protection has come from the Brundtland Report of 1987. It is interesting that so much thinking on these lines is now moving in the same direction. The noble Earl feared when he introduced the debate that there would be varied views about the purpose of the Bill. I do not think that that has been the case at all. So far, with obvious reservations about the detail of the Bill, there has been universal acceptance of what it tries to achieve. I hope that that will be continued when the noble Lord, Lord Reay, replies from the Government Front Bench.

I have looked closely at the provisions of the Bill in relation to the Labour Party's policies to which the noble Earl referred. I find many important areas where our thinking is on the same lines. The fundamental difference to which I ought to refer at the outset before making more detailed comparisons is that the noble Earl's Bill which we are considering tonight is concerned primarily with a framework for environmental protection, whereas the Labour Party has in its policy review looked much more closely at the policies which are required. Although our framework is in many ways similar to that which the noble Earl proposed, we go much further in our definition of the kinds of environmental protection that will be necessary and the kinds of remedies which are required. I shall certainly not read large chunks from the Labour Party policy review, but some parts ought to be placed on record in the debate this evening.

We propose, first, a ministry of environmental protection and a powerful independent environmental protection executive; secondly, a wildlife and countryside service operating within the environmental protection executive; thirdly, enforcement of the key environmental principles —a presumption against pollution, the precautionary principle and the polluter pays principle. This is my ranking.

The proposals as I quote them are not necessarily in the same order as in our policy review. Fourthly, we propose a major national programme of energy efficiency and conservation intended to reduce Britain's effect on global warming and to promote growth in the economy at zero growth in total energy requirements. This would include a least-cost planning assessment of all proposals for new power stations.

We propose pollution control standards based on the long-term health and safety of children, not adults; action to deal with noise, filth, and squalor on the streets; measures to reduce atmospheric pollution; a clean water Act to improve water quality; measures to encourage the role of farmers as countryside managers as well as food producers; tax incentives to improve vehicle efficiency and promote environmentally responsible vehicle design and use; an integrated and adequately funded approach to the minimisation, treatment, recycling, monitoring and disposal of waste; and a ban on the import and export of toxic wastes which my noble friend Lord Hatch eloquently urged in his speech.

It will be seen that, although in terms of the framework our thinking on these matters follows much the same lines as the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, it goes much further than his framework in spelling out what policies are required and what the environmental protection executive would have to do. Our environmental protection executive would be responsible to a Minister for environmental protection who would stand up for environmental issues in the Government. He would not be named as a Secretary of State for the Environment is named in a euphemistic way, as a means of avoiding the more complicated title of local government housing and planning, which is what the department used to be before it was called the Department of the Environment. But it would be a real department of the environment.

Our environmental protection executive would have regional environmental protection executives working to it so that the enforcement on the ground would be as integrated as the enforcement nationally. As the noble Earl has indicated, it would include a wide range of the existing environmental protection bodies which would be brought under the aegis of the environmental protection executive.

The problem with the noble Earl's formula is that Clause 8 provides for the Secretary of State to control through regulation a large part of the activities of the environmental protection Commission and the environmental protection agency. Since legislation is drafted to be imprecise about who the Secretary of State is, it leaves us open to the possibility that a Secretary of State nominated under this Bill to have these powers might not be willing to have them enforced in a comprehensive way and might not have the clout or the interest in government to see that the interests of environmental protection were paramount.

When we look at the precautionary principle, the principle that we should always err on the side of caution in looking at the risks of environmental protection, we and the noble Earl are very much on the same lines. Our provisions for penalties would include both criminal and civil penalties. The noble Earl seems to place more reliance simply on criminal penalties and he might be advised to consider amendments to extend civil responsibilities. Above all, the difference is that we spell out the kinds of pollution which ought to be dealt with in the terms of reference of the environmental protection ministry and executive and the noble Earl spells them out in Clause 1 only in the most general terms.

In introducing the Bill the noble Earl was very candid about the defects that he saw in it. I must say at once that they are not defects which would make it improper for the Bill to be given a Second Reading, and nor are they defects which could not be corrected in Committee. But if he will forgive me I should like to refer to some of the defects that I see which I hope, if he takes it to Committee, could be dealt with by amendment.

First, what is lacking in the Bill is a clear statement of the polluter pays principle. What is required is that there should be a provision for liability without the need to prove negligence. It should simply have to be proved that the pollution had taken place, not that it had taken place negligently. Secondly, because of its origins in the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act, the Bill concentrates too much on industrial pollution and too little on non-industrial pollution. It does not say anything very much about pollution caused by agriculture, although I think that the provision that an employer or a self-employed person is responsible for pollution will probably cover that case.

But what, above all, is missing is one of the most serious causes of pollution in this country, which is pollution from transportation, from vehicles, and the need for a transport policy which promotes public transport at the expense of private transport, or makes public transport a realistic and attractive alternative to private transport. That does not seem to be covered by the Bill and a really comprehensive pollution policy would have to include that.

There is reference principally in the Bill to the responsibilities of employers, but I suggest that there are responsibilities of people other than employers which ought to be reflected in the Bill, notably local authorities, which are, after all, the environmental protection authorities in this country at the present time. Undervalued and starved of funds they may be, but these are the duties that they have; and of course there are the responsibilities of individual members of the public.

The Bill would benefit if, in addition to the provisions which it already contains, it provided for annual environmental impact assessments to be carried out by employers and across industry, and for an annual audit of the effect of environmental policies. A number of noble Lords have referred rightly to the need not only to protect the environment but to promote and improve it. I particularly noted that valuable point from the noble Lord, Lord Norrie, and the Bill would benefit from those changes.

But, as I said, these are not changes which invalidate the Bill. They are not changes or defects which would cause us in any way to regret it if the noble Earl decided to take it to Committee. I hope very much that, despite the indications which I have heard, he proceeds with the Bill. The Bill, if proceeded with now, would sharpen the debate on the Government's Environmental Protection Bill which is now in Committee in another place. It would sharpen the thinking in the Government's mind on the White Paper which they are now producing.

The noble Lord, Lord Moran, was quite right in saying about the Environmental Protection Bill which the Government have put forward that this Bill is what it ought to have been but is not. He was quite correct about that. There are so many defects in that Bill which we shall have to debate when it comes to us in the summer that it would be as well if we clarified our minds first with a discussion of the Bill which is before us this evening.

I hope that in any further consideration we give to the Bill we do so on the three principles which lie behind our thinking on environmental protection: first, the presumption against pollution which is in the Bill; secondly, the polluter pays principle and, thirdly, the need for freedom of access to environmental information which the noble Earl acknowledged was not adequately reflected in his Clause 25.

With these provisos —and they are problems which can be overcome —I welcome the Bill. I congratulate the noble Earl on producing it and I hope that in one way or another it has a positive effect on the thinking of the Government because, as has been said by a number of speakers this evening, it is clear that their thinking is by no means as coherent, effective or determined as the thinking that the noble Earl has shown in presenting this Bill for Second Reading tonight.

8.57 p.m.

Lord Reay

My Lords, I should like to start where the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, ended by congratulating my noble friend Lord Cranbrook on bringing forward this measure for your Lordships' consideration. In doing so, he has succeeded in focusing debate on important environmental issues, especially those relating to institutional matters, at a time when the broad strategy and direction of policy on environmental protection is under review.

The issues covered in his Environment Protection Bill are of the most fundamental importance, dealing as they do with general duties of environmental care and the creation of a comprehensive environmental protection agency on the model of the Health and Safety Executive and Commission.

Perhaps I may deal first with the question of the duty of care. My noble friend's Bill seeks to place a general duty on all employers and the self-employed, and on all makers and suppliers of articles or substances, to take various specified steps to minimise the risks to the environment from their activities and products. There are further duties on employees, and a general duty on everyone not to interfere with or misuse, anything provided in the interests of the protection of the environment in pursuance of any of the relevant statutory provisions". This is a laudable aim, but I question the practicality of such a broadly directed duty.

Our Environmental Protection Bill, which is now before another place, takes us a considerable distance in imposing specific duties of care on those whose activities have a potentially significant impact on the environment. In Part I of the Bill, which deals with industrial pollution, a duty is laid on operators of those industrial and other processes which are to be subject to integrated pollution control and to local authority air pollution control. Clause 6(4) of the Bill imposes a residual duty on the operator to use the, best available techniques not entailing excessive cost", to prevent or minimise the release of specified polluting substances to the environment, and to render harmless any releases that do take place. Where any breach of this duty is alleged in the courts, the normal burden of proof will be reversed and it will be up to the operator to show that in his actions he was fulfilling his duty.

In Part II of the Bill, Clause 26 will impose a duty of care on people who produce, handle or dispose of waste to take all reasonable steps to ensure that waste is handled safely and properly.

In Part VI of the Bill, Clause 89 will impose a duty of care on those who import, acquire, keep or release genetically modified organisms.

Those new duties will extensively cover the activities which most put the environment at risk. The Government have not by any means closed their mind to the further application of a duty of care in other areas where it might be suitable. However, it is fair to say that we are not wholly convinced of the value of blanket —as opposed to targeted —duties of care, especially where there is the absence of a specific means of enforcement. Noble Lords may agree with me that duties which are declaratory rather than enforceable may do more harm than good.

I turn now to the broad definition of the environment and environmental harm which my noble friend has raised. In the Environmental Protection Bill, which on current expectations will be before your Lordships' House at Easter, we have had a fresh look at the definition of environmental pollution. We attempted to reach a universal definition of environmental pollution but found the task beyond us because of the different perspectives of the subject from different standpoints. Perhaps I may give your Lordships one example. A definition which embraced "harm to living organisms" could not be extended to the field of genetically modified organisms. That is because many genetically modified organisms will be pesticides whose purpose is precisely to cause "harm to living organisms".

Despite those problems, I believe that noble Lords will agree with me when I say that we have gone a long way in that direction in our definition of environmental pollution and harm in Clause 1 of the Environmental Protection Bill. With your Lordships' permission, I shall quote part of the definition relating to environmental harm: Harm means harm to the health of living organisms or other interference with the ecological systems of which they form part and, in the case of man, includes offence caused to any of his senses or harm to his property; harmless has a corresponding meaning. I am not sure whether it will be possible to achieve a universal definition of environmental pollution, but we shall keep the point at the forefront of our minds during the passage of the Bill. If we find it possible to go even further than we have, then in principle the Government are willing to do so.

The noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, asked me a question about our policy with respect to lead shot. I should like to write to the noble Baroness on that question. She will appreciate that it was not a question that I could have been expected to anticipate.

Turning to institutional change and the question of an environmental agency, the Government have given a good deal of attention to the structure of our environmental protection institutions in recent years. A number of guiding principles have been observed. Operational roles have been separated from those of regulation, greater accountability has been built into the systems, and, where appropriate, control functions have been integrated.

The Water Act 1989 created the National Rivers Authority to protect the aquatic environment. It split the water utility function, which was passed to privatised companies, from the standard-setting and policing function which went to the NRA. In that way an unsatisfactory conflict of interests was removed.

Similarly, under Part II of the Environmental Protection Bill, the utility function of waste disposal will be separated from the regulatory function of licensing and enforcement. I am sure that the benefits to be secured from that institutional change will be commensurate with those already gained from the Water Act provisions.

Under the requirements of Part I of the Bill all major sources of industrial pollution, irrespective of the environmental medium to which they discharge, will be subject to a single control regime exercised by a single authority —Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Pollution. I remind noble Lords that the Government created that unified pollution inspectorate in April 1987 acting on a recommendation of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution several of whose distinguished Commissioners, past and present, are members of your Lordships' House, including my noble friend Lord Cranbrook.

The Government have taken steps to make control authorities more accountable to the public. In particular since 1985 there have been requirements for public registers recording consents and results of monitoring in respect of discharges to water. Integrated pollution control will be subject to public participation in the determination of applications for IPC consent. Public registers will be required which will give full details of the application, the consent itself, the record of the operator in complying with the consent and any enforcement action taken. Similar registers will be required in respect of waste disposal licences and action taken under the Radioactive Substances Act 1960.

The Bill also strengthens the powers and responsbilities of local authorities in a wide range of environmental protection functions, including air pollution, waste disposal, litter and statutory nuisances. In so doing we have taken several steps to make them more open and accountable for their stewardship. For instance, waste regulation authorities will be obliged to report annually on the performance of their duties, and the citizen will be enabled to apply to the magistrates' court for an order if the local authority is not fulfilling its new duty to keep its areas free of litter.

All that amounts to the fact that the Government are in the midst of a comprehensive reform of our pollution control authorities with a view to producing a more coherent, rational and accountable system.

My noble friend does not believe that we have gone far enough. He proposes in his Bill to create not just a coherent system but a single grand authority. Perhaps we could go further. Certainly he and others have advanced in their thoughtful speeches a powerful case for doing so. But there are problems and drawbacks as well as advantages in what he proposes. Noble Lords should dwell on those before coming to a conclusion.

The Government have not so far been persuaded of the case for establishing such an agency. It is not self-evident that a large and comprehensive agency would be necessarily more effective and appropriate for dealing with all aspects of environmental protection. On the contrary, there is the risk that the creation of a large and complex bureaucracy would be inefficient and unwieldy and too remote from the small-scale and local nature of the vast bulk of pollution issues and incidents. Above all, there is the question of accountability. It would be harder to make such a large and independent body properly accountable either to local electorates on small issues or to Parliament on major ones.

Those are very significant points which were set out in the Government's reply to the recommendation for a national environment protection agency which a Select Committee in another place made last year. They have not gone away in the meantime. Indeed, to the extent that the United States Environment Protection Agency, which has been held up by some as a model for this country, has gone the other way, those questions have become more pointed. Noble Lords will recall that three weeks ago President Bush announced that he would bring the EPA fully within his government, rename it the Department of the Environment and appoint its director to his Cabinet.

The Government are reconsidering their position on the question of the extent to which environmental protection authorities should be at arm's length from government and how closely they should be integrated with one another. As noble Lords know, the Government are heavily engaged in a strategic review of environmental protection policies with a view to producing later this year a White Paper which will set the orientation and priorities for environmental policies into the next century. It is only proper that institutional questions should be considered in the context of that review.

I can therefore assure noble Lords not only that those issues are under active consideration but that we are considering them with an open mind and will reach a conclusion by the autumn. Our thinking has been stimulated by the notable contribution of my noble friend Lord Cranbrook and will be better informed by the insights and arguments deployed this evening by noble Lords.

9.9 p.m.

The Earl of Cranbrook

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this evening's debate and recognise that a great deal of skill and experience has been applied, far exceeding anything that I could muster. I thank the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, for his kind words, although I am afraid that I cannot accept them.

I am grateful for the attention given by noble Lords to the Bill. Perhaps I may answer a few specific questions. In response to the noble Lord, Lord Hatch, I said in my introduction that Clause 3 was perhaps unduly specific. As the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, said, it is based on industry rather than on broader environmental aspects, but it would certainly include consideration of exports.

In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, there would be an extension of duties to public bodies. I included the power to acquire land simply because, as I said earlier, the Nature Conservancy Council would be an arm of the Environment Protection Commission.

With regard to the speech of my noble friend Lord Reay, I do not believe that the Bill proposes the creation of a vast bureaucracy. It is simply a reassembling of existing agencies within a new framework, so there is nothing to be afraid of there. The reassembling would create new capacities for thought, new linkages and new powers for integration of the environmental interests of those bodies. As the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, said, it is essentially a framework Bill. It lacks prescriptions, but —I should like to make this point clear —noble Lords will notice that the Commission has the power to sponsor research. The Commission is not the executive itself; it is the think-tank. That is the only new element. Essentially, at the head of a large number of existing organisations, which would continue to perform their functions but would do so on a more free-standing basis, would be placed a small, coherent think-tank which would be a cheap body. I remind noble Lords that such bodies as the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution draw on the services of—I do not necessarily include myself—some excellent brains. In addition to amateurs like myself, there are a large number of professors and Royal Society members on the Commission who give their services freely, so think-tanks are a pretty cheap but useful commodity in this country.

Essentially, the Bill provides a new framework into which existing structures are adapted. It applies the capacity and adaptability to see, think, discover, discuss and promote issues in the public realm. It is a good model. If it had existed, some of the issues in the Environmental Protection Bill, such as the duty of care and the release of genetically manipulated organisms, which had been well discussed in the forum of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution and on which a general consensus had been reached, could quite easily have been brought in by regulation through a simplified legislative process. We should not then have had to wait such a long time for the Government's Environmental Protection Bill.

I was impressed by the model of the Health and Safety at Work Act, as first proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Craigton, because as a farmer, I have seen it in operation. Agricultural inspectors are powerful people with a good perception of the risks to which farmworkers are subject, and what they say goes. If an inspector does not like what he sees on the ground, he simply tells one so and explains why and steps are taken. That is how I should like to see environmental protection working in this country; in other words, at the grass roots, involving inspectors who are sympathetic to the public with whom they interact, but well-grounded in the skilled knowledge and with a powerful, well-trained capacity to recognise environmental risk when they see it. I still feel that it is a model that could work. I believe that it is something that needs to be considered.

I know that I nabbed the Government's name. I put my Bill down on the very first day it was possible to do so. There was a certain deliberate tease in that, perhaps, but the Government very quickly found that a small spelling change was all that was needed. I do not think that it was excessive cheek or unacceptable behaviour on my part. I hope it was not. I apologise if I have behaved badly in that way. I believe that the interest that has been aroused by the debate, and the thinking that has gone on as the Bill paused between First and Second Reading, have in fact been generally useful and constructive.

This Bill has served its purpose and its function is now over. I believe that the point has been brought forward. I sincerely hope that it will be discussed and that it will be considered very seriously, with all the strength of argument that has been put forward today by noble Lords in this Chamber, as the Government develop their own White Paper. I very much hope that the thinking will be carried forward and, although I heard my noble friend raise preliminary objections against it, I hope that considered opinion will recognise that there are merits in the Bill, because I believe that there are very strong arguments for some reconstruction along these lines.

There are many imperfections in the Bill, several of which I recognise myself and others which have been brought to noble Lords' attention today. It would be wrong of me to waste government time by continuing further with it. I do not feel that national resources ought to be devoted to two environmental Bills at the same time. I believe that the underlying thinking can be incorporated. Having said that, and having had the opportunity for a debate, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion for a Second Reading.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

House adjourned at sixteen minutes past nine o'clock.