HL Deb 17 January 1995 vol 560 cc621-42

8.50 p.m.

House again in Committee.

Schedule 1 [The Environment Agency]:

[Amendment No. 13 not moved.]

Lord Williams of Elvel

moved Amendment No. 13A: Page 114, line 7, leave out ("may") and insert ("shall"). The noble Lord said: In moving the amendment I shall, for the convenience of the Committee, speak also to Amendments Nos. 13B to D, 14, 14A and B, 25 and 26, 28, 29 to 32, 148, 149 and 151. It is a large grouping, but the essence of the amendments relates to the position of employees and staff in the bodies whose functions are to be transferred to the new agency. Perhaps I may refer Members of the Committee to page 3 of the Marshalled List where Amendment No. 13A can be found. If it is accepted by the Committee, the amendment would oblige the agency to pay the pensions, allowances, gratuities, and so on, to which the staff and employees would be entitled were they to remain with the authority which is to be transferred to the agency.

Amendment No. 13B is designed to ensure that the local government superannuation scheme shall, make provision for the funds of the National Rivers Authority to [be vested] in the Agency and become the funds of the Agency", in the sense that the agency will have its own superannuation scheme and that the benefits of that scheme will accrue to those who have accrued benefits within the NRA scheme.

Amendment No. 13C seeks to ensure that persons who have been "officers or employees" of the NRA and the other organisations which are to be transferred into the agency have the same rights. Amendment No. 13D seeks to ensure that the pensions to which people who have been employed until now are entitled should be transferred immediately without any break in their entitlement.

Amendment No. 14 speaks for itself. The Agency may, with the approval of the Secretary of State, appoint such officers and employees as it may determine [to negotiate with] the trade unions recognised by the Agency for the purpose of collective bargaining". I do not believe that I need to argue that point further.

Amendments Nos. 25 and 26 again relate to the position of staff. We believe that there should be a staff commission as set out in Amendment No. 31 which provides that the agency shall, adopt the Local Government Superannuation Scheme", and in Amendment No. 32 where we propose that the agency shall promote health and safety.

There are substantive amendments in the group. But we believe—and we have been advised by the unions concerned —that there is a gap as regards the future of employees and staff in the new agency when they are transferred from the old organisations. When I say "old organisations", I mean the National Rivers Authority, HMIP and certain local authorities.

These are all probing amendments to ask the Government where they stand. We are not entirely happy with the position; indeed, the trade unions involved are not happy.

Amendment No. 149 is designed to ensure that the TUPE regulations apply and Amendment No. 151 is designed to ensure that those regulations and the transfer arrangements apply in Scotland. I realise that I have introduced a rather long and complicated group of amendments. However, the essence of the argument is still the same; namely, that there should be a proper method of ensuring that those who are employed on a staff basis, an employee basis, or on any other basis, should have the same rights under the new agency as they enjoyed in their previous employment. The benefits they had in their previous employment should accrue when they become employees of the new agency. I beg to move.

9 p.m.

Viscount Ullswater

The noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, moved this rather large group of amendments with commendable brevity. I can only apologise to Members of the Committee if my reply is somewhat lengthier than the noble Lord's introduction. There are matters of some importance involved with which I may have to deal in considerable detail. The amendments cover a variety of matters which relate to staffing. I shall speak, first, about those which deal with the transfer of staff to the agency and then about several others which deal with more general staffing matters and with pensions.

First, I should like to deal with Amendment No. 29. This concerns the Secretary of State's power, at any time before the transfer date, to modify a transfer scheme which he had previously made or approved. It would require him to consult the body which had prepared the scheme. We support the general intention behind the amendment. The Bill provides for consultation in other cases where a scheme is modified, and we are happy to correct the anomaly. But, as with those other provisions, we would wish to require consultation of the agency as well as the body which prepared the scheme. I undertake to consider the matter further with a view to introducing a revised amendment at a later date.

I now come to Amendment No. 149. This would, in effect, as the noble Lord, Lord Williams, said, provide that Schedule 2 is "without prejudice" to the provisions of TUPE. But such an amendment would be superfluous. All persons transferring to the agency will either be covered by TUPE or given equivalent protection under paragraph 3 of Schedule 2. There is nothing in the Bill to suggest otherwise.

Amendment No. 30 seeks to establish a staff commission to oversee the transfer of waste regulation staff to the agency. Amendments Nos. 25, 26 and 28 all relate to that commission. I should point out that Amendments Nos. 25 and 26 would involve the commission in the transfer of staff from Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Pollution, although Amendment No. 30 refers only to staff employed by waste regulation authorities.

We are, of course, anxious to see that the transfer of staff from waste regulation authorities to the agency is orderly and fair. We have therefore considered the case for a staff commission with great care. But we are not persuaded that a commission is necessary or appropriate in this case. I shall summarise the reasons.

First, staff will either transfer to the agency or remain with local authorities. This differs from local government reorganisation where, for example, successor authorities have a discretion, within a framework set by the Local Government Staff Commission (and the provisions of employment law), about the number of staff whom they take on. Furthermore, local government reorganisation is potentially a much more complex exercise which is likely to involve movement of relatively large numbers of staff, sometimes from one authority to several successor authorities, and affects all staff in each reorganised authority.

Secondly, there is likely to be relatively little uncertainty about who should transfer to the agency. The effort currently devoted to waste regulation in England equates to around 1,150 full-time staff. Over 1,000 staff work for more than three-quarters of their time on waste regulation. Therefore, situations where a judgment is needed about who will transfer will be few. In Wales a higher proportion of staff work for less of their time on waste regulation, but the number of staff is small. While in a few cases, therefore, identification of staff to transfer may not be clear-cut, the numbers are such that it should be possible to resolve any difficulties without recourse to a commission. We have already issued initial guidance to help authorities identify who transfers. This was developed in consultation with the local authority associations, and we shall continue to involve them in the development of any further guidance. We are confident that this will provide a basis for authorities, in consultation with the agency and their staff, to draw up schemes. In cases of dispute, the Secretary of State would make the final determination.

Thirdly, there have been suggestions that a commission could consider issues relating to the agency's management structure and appointments to specific posts and locations. If it did it would need to consider the interests of staff inherited from all predecessor bodies. But these are key issues for the environment agency advisory committee and the agency board. They should not be delegated to a separate commission which would be less well placed to balance the needs of the agency and, unlike the agency's management, would not need to build long-term relationships with the agency's staff and trade unions.

The Committee should also note that, as I have already said, staff who transfer will have protection under, or equivalent to, TUPE. I therefore submit that the establishment of a staff commission is unnecessary and would not justify the associated administrative and financial costs. Before leaving this issue, however, I should like to refer briefly to the situation in Wales and Scotland.

In Wales because transfer to the agency coincides with a general local government reorganisation, the Welsh Staff Commission on Local Government Reorganisation will keep in touch with the agency transfer. That is primarily to ensure that staff are not inadvertently omitted from, or double counted in, transfer schemes. The commission will not, however, have a wider role in relation to the agency transfer.

In Scotland the Bill provides for the remit of the relevant local government staff commission to be extended to the transfer to SEPA. But the situation in Scotland is more complex. Not only will general local government reorganisation proceed in tandem with the establishment of SEPA, but local authority air pollution control will also transfer to the agency. We do not, therefore, consider that this sets a precedent for a separate staff commission in England and Wales or for the remit of the Local Government Staff Commissions in England or Wales to be extended. I should add that regarding the commission in Scotland we see no need for Amendment No. 151 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Carmichael. As staff who transfer to SEPA will have protection under TUPE or equivalent provisions, it is unnecessary to extend the commission's remit in that way. I now turn to amendments dealing with other staffing matters. Both Amendments Nos. 14 and 32 deal in some way with the agency's relationship with trade unions. Amendment No. 14 would change existing provisions by requiring that the terms and conditions of service of staff appointed by the agency must be agreed with the trade unions recognised by the agency for the purpose of collective bargaining. We take the view, however, that employers should be free to decide such matters for themselves in the light of their own circumstances and needs. The agency is no exception. It will be governed by the same laws that protect the rights of employees and employers generally. I am not aware of any other public body that operates under such a statutory requirement as proposed by that amendment.

I should stress that there is no intention to discourage the agency from consultation with trade unions. Consultation and negotiation with trade unions is well established in the existing public bodies from which staff will transfer. Furthermore, I understand that the advisory committee of my noble friend Lord De Ramsey intends to arrange an early meeting with the trade unions representing the employees who will transfer to the agency. I hope that noble Lords will agree that this amendment would be an unnecessarily onerous statutory control.

Turning to Amendment No. 32, this seeks to dictate the agency's approach to its health and safety responsibilities. We have no argument either with the involvement of trade unions or with the establishment of joint health and safety committees. However, employers' responsibilities for the health, safety and welfare of their employees are already laid down in the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 and in regulations under that Act. Those provide for the appointment by recognised trade unions of safety representatives, and for the employer to establish a safety committee if requested to do so by two or more safety representatives. I therefore hope that the Committee will agree that the amendment is neither necessary nor appropriate.

Finally, I come to Amendments Nos. 13A, 13B, 13C, 13D, 14A, 14B and 31, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton, but moved by the noble Lord, Lord Williams. Those raise a number of separate points concerned with pensions, which I shall deal with in turn. I well appreciate that pensions are a matter of concern to staff. But, as I shall explain, I believe that the amendments are inappropriate.

First, Amendments Nos. 13A to 13D and 31 appear to require the agency to offer pensions to staff only in accordance with the local government superannuation scheme. I can confirm that the agency, through amendments to secondary legislation, will be designated as an administering authority for that scheme. But the use of primary legislation to require the agency to offer pensions only under that scheme would be unnecessarily restrictive. It may be the case in the future that the agency wishes to offer different employer's occupational pension schemes to different classes of employees. Indeed, while most of the agency's future staff are currently members of the local government superannuation scheme, those now in HMIP are members of the principal Civil Service pension scheme. We are still considering whether it would be appropriate for the agency to offer those staff membership of only the local government superannuation scheme.

Secondly, Amendment No. 13A goes even further by requiring the agency to pay a pension to each member of its staff. But a distinction can be drawn between staff transferred to the agency whose employment is already pensionable, and new recruits who are offered jobs in the future. Existing staff whose employment is pensionable must be offered comparable pensions by the agency. This is a general requirement of contract and employment law. If such an offer were not made the staff concerned could resign and claim an unfair constructive dismissal. The agency must, however, have the same freedom as existing employers (including NRA and waste regulation authorities) to offer jobs to staff which are not pensionable—for example, staff employed as casuals.

Thirdly, Amendment No. 13B makes provision for the pension funds of the National Rivers Authority to vest in the agency. However, the pension funds of the National Rivers Authority will automatically transfer to the agency along with the NRA's other property, rights and liabilities, and there is therefore no need to specify this on the face of the Bill.

Fourthly, Amendments Nos. 14A and 31 refer to the water authorities superannuation fund. That fund was wound up when the water industry was privatised. But I assume that the reference is to the "closed fund" for ex-water authority pensioners for which the National Rivers Authority became responsible. We are presently considering what future arrangements would best serve the interests of the closed fund pensioners and the taxpayer. On a technical point, Amendment No. 14A would also appear to prevent the setting up of a new agency fund which would accommodate all agency employees, and not just those transferred from NRA.

Fifthly, Amendments Nos. 14B and 31 would require the agency to establish a joint advisory committee to oversee the management of the scheme. However, regulations under the local government superannuation scheme already require administering authorities to act prudently in the management of their funds. We would not wish to prescribe further in this legislation the particular arrangement that the agency will follow. But we will be concerned to see that its arrangements follow good practice for pensions administration.

Sixthly, Amendment No. 31 would also require the agency to make appropriate funding arrangements for its scheme. This is unnecessary. All administering authorities for the local government superannuation scheme must comply with funding arrangements prescribed in regulations and designed to safeguard the viability of their individual schemes.

Finally, Amendment No. 31 also deals with arrangements for the transfer of service. Where employees transfer between individual funds set up under local government superannuation scheme rules prescribed in regulations, they are provided with year for year transfers of service. This will apply to persons transferring to an agency fund from the NRA fund, or individual local authority funds. Where persons transfer from schemes outside the framework of the local government superannuation scheme, arrangements particular to those transfers will need to be put in place.

This group of amendments has covered a wide range of issues. I well understand noble Lords' concern for the fair treatment of the agency's future staff. I have agreed to consider further the matter raised by Amendment No. 29. But, otherwise, I hope I have persuaded the Committee that the amendments are unnecessary or inappropriate. I understood from the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, that these are probing amendments. I felt that it was important to deal with them, perhaps at a greater length than the Committee might have wished at this hour of night. However, I ask whether the noble Lord will be prepared to withdraw them.

Lord Crickhowell

I wish to make two brief points. First, I note the remarks of my noble friend about the possibility that employees who come from from HMIP and are therefore in the Civil Service pension scheme might in some circumstance be kept out of the local authority pension arrangements which apply to the other employees. I hope, however, that the Government will consider the issue with great care before taking such a decision. In pension matters, as in other employment matters, the need to bring staff together with common terms of employment should have a high priority. Considerable difficulties would confront the authority if it operated two separate pension schemes of that kind. I only comment by way of caution at the moment and hope that the Government will consider the matter.

The other point is that understandably—and I in no way criticise him for it—my noble friend said in answer to a number of points that the Government were considering this and that and would take decisions about them later. He made that comment in particular about the closed fund and its relationship to the other funds.

As someone who, for my sins, has the responsibility of chairing the pensions committee which looks after the funds at present, I am in close touch with the representatives of the employees who sit on the pensions committee. There is some anxiety among pensioners about the future and I therefore express the hope that the Government will come to their conclusions and clearly state them before the Bill is passed. There would be considerable anxiety among employees if the matter were left uncertain and in the air until after the agency came into existence and was dependent upon decisions taken by Ministers at that time.

What I hope will happen is that at some later stage in the passage of the Bill the Government will come back to this House, or another place, and make clear their intentions.

Viscount Ullswater

Perhaps I may quickly reply. I have carefully noted what my noble friend said and it is important to come to a conclusion about the future of the closed funds. I also take into account the operation of the two parallel pension schemes running at the same time. We need to ensure that we make the right decision as to whether to offer only one pension scheme.

Lord Williams of Elvel

I am grateful in general to the noble Viscount for his long response. These are matters of extreme anxiety to employees and staff of the various organisations which will be gathered together in the agency. I hope that I shall not be impertinent if I say to the Minister that I was not the originator of the amendments, they come from trade unions involved who are interested in what the noble Viscount says. I believe that they will wish to study carefully what he said this evening.

I join the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, in saying that the trade unions involved will wish to have a definitive response by the time the Bill receives its Royal Assent, or before, so that they know where they stand. Having expressed my gratitude to the noble Viscount for his full and comprehensive reply to the amendments, I beg leave to withdraw Amendment No. 13A.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 13B to 15 not moved.]

Baroness Hilton of Eggardonmoved Amendment No. 16: Page 114, line 33, at end insert: ("Responsibility for enforcement 6A.—(1) The Secretary of State shall make regulations enabling responsibility for enforcing any of the relevant statutory provisions to be to such extent as may be determined under the regulations,—

  1. (a) transferred from the Agency to local authorities or from local authorities to the Agency, or
  2. (b) assigned to the Agency or to local authorities for the purpose of removing any uncertainty as to what are by virtue of this subsection their respective responsibilities for the enforcement of those provisions;
and any regulations made in pursuance of this paragraph shall include provision for securing that any transfer or assignment effected under the regulations is brought to the notice of persons affected by it. (2) It shall be the duty of every local authority
  1. (a) to make adequate arrangements for the enforcement within their area of the relevant statutory provisions to the extent that they are by any of those provisions or by regulations under sub-paragraph (1) above made responsible for their enforcement; and
  2. (b) to perform the duty imposed on them by sub-paragraph (1) above and any other functions conferred on them by any of the relevant statutory provisions in accordance with such guidance as the Agency may give them.").

The noble Baroness said: In moving this amendment I wish also to speak to Amendments Nos. 21 and 69A. At this stage they are intended as probing amendments in that our view is that the environment agency should be a strategic agency, setting standards and monitoring performance. However, it should perhaps not be involved too much in the hands-on provision of waste disposal. Therefore, the waste regulation authorities should continue in existence, including the London Waste Regulation Authority. If the agency is too much involved in the implementation of environmental issues at local level it will make life extremely difficult for it. We therefore think that there should be some differentiation between the role of the agency as a standard setter and a monitor of performance, and the local authorities, which should continue to be responsible for waste disposal at the local level.

Clearly, local authorities must continue to have a role in relation to waste regulation. It would be impossible for the agency to carry out all the functions that are currently performed at the local level. The public will continue to bring their concerns to the door of local authorities, and the authorities will continue to have specific residual responsibilities, particularly in respect of such matters as fly-tipping.

Therefore there is a case for a mechanism that will allow local authorities to assume the role of the agency in certain limited circumstances. These amendments attempt to give those powers by delegation from the agency to local authorities. This is not in any sense to assert local authorities as the prime movers in this situation but as agents, effectively, of the agency.

Amendment No. 21 also seeks to transfer powers, as in Amendment No. 16, in a sense from the agency to local authorities. But Amendment No. 21 would transfer powers under the Environmental Protection Act from the Secretary of State to the agency. Amendment No. 69A would similarly transfer provisions to the agency in respect of pollution control.

These amendments attempt to tidy up the overall framework for environmental protection by laying out those matters which we believe should be appropriately dealt with at the centre and those which are more appropriately dealt with on a local basis within an overall strategic framework. That is the purpose of the amendments. I beg to move.

Baroness Hamwee

I wonder whether I might—if I use the expression "seek clarification", that may not be quite right. The next group of amendments, beginning with Amendment No. 16, deals with the waste regulation authorities. I should like to establish whether it would be for the convenience of the Committee to deal with all points relating to that matter together. Some important matters were raised in relation to Amendment No. 16, but I did not anticipate dealing with the waste regulation authorities under that amendment. Perhaps I might ask whether the noble Baroness spoke at the same time to Amendment No. 17 and so on.

Baroness Hilton of Eggardon

No, I have not spoken to those amendments. This one relates to enforcement, as we understood it. We saw the next amendment as clearly being closely related but it has to do with present pollution control mechanisms. Although the two are closely related, we saw this amendment as referring to specific statutory enforcements. Is that a useful clarification?

Baroness Hamwee

I am obliged to the noble Baroness. We had some difficulty earlier today in sorting out where it would be convenient to deal with certain points. I apologise to her for my confusion.

My noble friend Lord McNair will speak to other amendments in this list, but perhaps I may say that I support the comments that were just made about the need to separate the role of advice and regulation and that of enforcement.

One of the comments that is made, particularly in the area of waste regulation, relates to the danger of those who are regulated and who pay licence fees and so on effectively being those who pay the piper and therefore call a particular tune. There is confusion as to whom the agencies will be responsible in effect. They will perhaps be a little affected themselves by the confusion in roles.

Local authorities have a distinct role in enforcement which it is important to relate directly to their roles of responsibility and accountability to their local communities. I have had some difficulty in sorting out in my mind quite to what extent the agencies should involve a direct accountability through the route of local authorities. I see a danger of the Government saying, "You have all or a large part of the representation. You have a role to play as local authorities and local representatives and we shall refuse to carry the can".

There is a difficult problem with the confusion of accountability—how much the agency is an arm of central government and how much it is an independent organisation which is able to blow the whistle on central government when central government are not getting things right. The Committee will appreciate my confusion as I have expressed my view in such an inarticulate fashion. But I support the noble Baroness in drawing attention to the different functions.

Viscount Ullswater

I do not know whether the noble Lord, Lord McNair, will speak to Amendment No. 18A before I try to reply to him.

Lord McNair

The Minister is very kind. In fact I discussed with the Government Whips Office the possibility of speaking also to Amendments Nos. 70A, 191A and 191B. It makes sense to do so. With the leave of the Committee, that is what I shall do. I hope that the Committee will accept that it is for the greater good of the Committee. I hope too that I can resolve the confusion that I seem to have caused the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton.

Amendments Nos. 18A and 191A are complementary. Amendment No. 70A is contingent upon Amendment No. 191B, which itself is an alternative to Amendment No. 191A. I think I have made the confusion worse. I hope that matters will become clear as I proceed.

Amendment No. 18A arises from concerns about the future of navigation within the new agency, which will be primarily concerned with pollution control. It will have further functions relating to water resources management, flood defence, fisheries, navigation and water recreation and is charged with responsibility to promote and enhance the water environment. The promotional and operational navigation and recreation functions of the National Rivers Authority, which it is due to take over, are of a very different nature from its other responsibilities. They will not sit easily alongside its regulatory powers. They will represent a diversion from the agency's core tasks. Many users argue that that is already the case within the NRA. While the commitment and efforts of individual NRA staff are appreciated, it is strongly felt that navigation and recreation receive relatively low priority within NRA's overall strategy. I would not necessarily argue with the NRA's perception of its priorities. A mainly regulatory body is not well suited to the task of promoting and defending the navigational integrity of the waterways, either generally or in dialogue with central or local government. Users and the waterway leisure and tourism industry need a vigorous, proactive, single-minded navigation body both to provide that service and to offer the centre of excellence and expertise that many other small navigation authorities lack at present.

In 1989—at this point I shall speak more to Amendment No. 191A—the Environment Select Committee in another place recommended that a review of the navigation functions of the NRA, along with those of the British Waterways Board, should be carried out: with a view to creating a single authority for those navigations currently operated by British Waterways Board and the (then) water authorities". The Government accepted that remit. However, the 1991–92 navigation review was not completed. To ensure smooth progress in establishing the environment agency, the Government determined that the new agency should take over the totality of the NRA's powers and responsibilities, including those for the management and operation of its waterways for navigation and recreation. However, at a meeting of the Parliamentary Waterways Group in April 1994 concerns were expressed to the honourable Member of another place, Robert Atkins, Minister for the Environment and Countryside, about the future of the NRA navigation and recreation functions within the new agency. The Minister explained that he would be reviving the review so that the Government could take account of concerns about the future of our waterways. A consultation paper on the review is expected shortly, in response to which many knowledgeable waterways interests will argue that navigation needs to be given higher profile; that management must be made more efficient, effective and answerable to users, and that that can best be achieved initially by the creation of a single body to take on the present statutory and operational responsibilities of BWB and of the NRA.

In the light of that, it is questionable whether it is appropriate for the Bill to transfer the new responsibilities which are set out in Clause 2(1) (a) (vi), to the new agency. The amendment seeks to ensure that the future of the NRA navigation and recreation responsibilities will not be determined until after a thorough review of all the issues and of all the other options.

I should now like to speak to Amendment No. 70A, which seeks to delete Clause 6(1) (c), and refers to the duty to promote water recreation. The amendment is contingent on Amendment No. 191B, to which I shall come shortly. I have already referred to the case for a single navigation authority that will be argued in response to the expected consultation paper in the review of the navigation and recreation responsibilities of the National Rivers Authority and the British Waterways Board. The responsibility given under Clause 6(1) (c) is a potentially powerful weapon in the armoury of whatever body assumes the relevant responsibilities of the NRA. Since the thrust of my group of amendments is that this decision should not be made until the review has been completed, it would be premature for the Bill to determine where that power should lie. If the review recommends a single navigation authority separate from the environment agency, then it is that new body rather than the agency which should be given the responsibilities of Clause 6(1) (c). In fact, were the amendment to be carried, a consequential amendment would be needed on page 254, line 48, Schedule 20 of the Bill to keep Section 2(2) of the 1991 Act alive until the results of the review are known and implemented.

Amendment No. 191B seeks to delete Clause 2(1) (a) (vi) and create a national waterways conservancy, which is what this is all leading up to, to take on the NRA's navigation and recreation responsibilities. Here I must draw the attention of the Committee to the comments I voiced in relation to my first amendment; the same arguments apply. This amendment provides for a new statutory organisation to manage the majority of inland waterways, taking over the existing powers and responsibilities of the British Waterways Board and the related ones of the National Rivers Authority. The present arrangements came about through a whole succession of historical accidents resulting in a series of Acts of Parliament which do not articulate well together.

Robert Aickman, the visionary founder member of the Inland Waterways Association, was the original promoter of this solution. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Brightman, in paragraph 53 of the special report of the Select Committee of the then British Waterways Bill, said, The legislation concerning the waterways has developed piecemeal over the last three decades. The Committee considers that the result is a confusing web of provisions, and it takes this opportunity to encourage the Board to put forward consolidating legislation". In fact, this amendment asks the Government to do that because the British Waterways Bill was a Private Member's Bill.

There are a large number of navigation authorities, of which the British Waterways Board and the NRA are by far the biggest. The BWB is a single-purpose body, but that is not the case with the NRA, whose functions in relation to the promotion and protection of navigation and recreation are only a small part of its overall remit and do not fit easily with its core function of environmental regulation and protection. Of the many other navigation authorities, only the Broads Authority is of a significant size. The BWB, the NRA and the Broads Authority are already developing lines of communication and co-operation. It is essential for the smaller authorities to have a centre of excellence and expertise on which to draw. Such a centre does not exist and needs a statutory structure rather than an informal voluntary initiative. Our navigations have heritage and conservation values which need vigorous national protection as well as promotion. They offer a unique link between urban populations and the countryside. Their towing paths provide walkers with routes free of motor traffic. Inland navigation is a growing leisure industry catering for an increasing number of visitors from Britain and overseas. Angling on the waterways is well established. There is an invaluable heritage of historic buildings and engineering structures which are part of our waterways. Restoration of derelict canals has been shown in a number of studies to provide significant economic and ecological benefits. Waterways are, of course, also an essential integral part of our water supply and land drainage in this country. The whole system —and it is important to remember that it is a nation-wide system—is of inestimable value. Its stewardship could be managed much more effectively if there was some rationalisation of the controlling bodies such as is proposed by this amendment.

To transfer the relevant powers of the NRA to the new agency would be a step in exactly the wrong direction. These powers would sit even less well with the core concerns of the new body than they do at present with the NRA. The Government have here a wonderful opportunity to take positive and constructive action to secure the coherent management of our waterways that has been historically lacking and to examine properly and to develop the way forward so that we have far sighted and even visionary policies that will protect the future of the waterways for our grandchildren.

The powers and responsibilities which I am proposing should be transferred to the new conservancy by this amendment include the following: the NRA's duty under Section 2(2) of the Water Resources Act 1991, which it is proposed to re-enact in Clause 6(1) (c) of the present Bill, and various other powers which I shall not go into at the moment.

I do not propose that any other navigational authorities should be compulsorily absorbed into a new conservancy. They may wish to remain independent. If this amendment is carried there are a number of areas, such as this, on which more detailed work would need to be completed at later stages of the Bill's progress, not least the detailed funding mechanism for the new conservancy. These proposals, as I have already pointed out, are not new ideas but have been, and remain, a prime objective voiced by the Inland Waterways Association for almost half a century, and the recent observations of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brightman, after studying our inland waterways legislation would seem to underline the need for rationalisation and change.

Lord Greenway

While I have every sympathy with the series of amendments proposed by the noble Lord, Lord McNair, I nevertheless have considerable reservations as to whether this is the right way to proceed at this time. As the noble Lord said, Her Majesty's Government are in the process of undertaking a navigation review, and I think it would be going beyond the bounds of what is required at the moment to prejudge whatever might ensue from that review.

These amendments would involve the setting up of yet another quango, which immediately brings up the question of funding. Where is the money to come from? And even if it were to be set up as a single agency, it would thereafter be very vulnerable to any cost cutting measures that the Treasury might wish to bring forward. It would also be an agency of some complexity. I would be most interested to hear what the noble Viscount the Minister has to say on these questions. I might even go so far as to borrow a phrase used by the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton, earlier on when she referred to a "quangocracy". I shall be most interested to hear what the Minister has to say on this quangocratic suggestion.

I favour the more measured approach to navigation contained in my later amendments, which do not seek to make fundamental changes to the Bill. Perhaps I may add that this approach is supported by and large by boating interests such as the British Marine Industries Federation, the Royal Yachting Association and the Inland Waterways Association.

Viscount Ullswater

I take Amendment No. 21 first because that goes right to the core of the Bill. It would prevent the transfer of local authority waste regulation functions to the agency and prevent the abolition of the London Waste Regulation Authority. Waste regulation is a fundamental part of the concept and purpose of the environment agency. We will not achieve a more coherent and integrated approach to environmental protection—a multi-media agency—if waste regulation remains with local government. The problem of maintaining consistent standards across 80 separate waste regulation authorities would also remain. The existing voluntary regional groupings of waste regulation authorities have made progress in this direction, but they could never achieve the consistency that a single regulatory body would provide.

The agency will enable expertise and know-how to be pooled much more effectively, but without sacrificing local experience. It will be staffed by the waste regulation officers of local authorities who will bring considerable local knowledge with them and will be able to deal with local concerns at least as effectively as they do now. The agency will be a centre of excellence, combining in one organisation the experience and expertise which the existing bodies have built up over the years.

Amendment No. 21 would also transfer the Secretary of State's inspection and default powers under Sections 68 and 72 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990, to the agency. That would simply maintain the status quo with the agency, rather than the Secretary of State, having default powers. There would be no integration with the agency's other pollution control functions, no benefit from shared expertise, and no reason why the agency should be any better at ensuring consistency between waste regulation authorities than the Government. Amendment No. 16 would require the Secretary of State to make regulations transferring responsibility for enforcing relevant statutory provisions from the agency to local authorities, or vice versa. It would also enable the Secretary of State to assign responsibility for enforcement to the agency or local authorities where there is any doubt as to where that responsibility lies. In addition, it would require local authorities to make adequate arrangements for enforcing the relevant statutory provisions for which they are responsible in accordance with any guidance which the agency gives them.

Although it is not clear to me what precisely is meant by the "relevant statutory provisions", I cannot see any benefit in separating the responsibilities for issuing licences, consents and authorisations from the responsibilities for enforcing them. The two go hand-in-hand. Where the agency is the licensing authority, it will have the right staff with the relevant expertise and necessary powers, and we would expect it to take any enforcement action necessary to ensure compliance with the various pollution control regimes for which it is responsible. The split of functions proposed by the amendment would, rather than removing doubt, just increase confusion.

Amendment No. 69A would, to a large extent, if not completely, duplicate the enforcement provisions contained in the various enactments under which the agency has functions. Subsection (6) of the new clause which this amendment would insert into the Bill indicates that the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton, recognises the issue of overlap, but this is a far more substantial problem than can be dealt with by such a provision. That is because existing legislation already controls the sorts of activities likely to give rise to risks of serious environmental pollution, and in each case those controls include perfectly adequate enforcement measures. Indeed, the control of pollution needs to be tailor made to the type of pollution being covered and includes the checks and safeguards that are appropriate.

I do not consider that a general enforcement provision along the lines of this amendment is therefore needed. In so far as harmonisation might have been desirable, it seems to me that Clause 91 of the Bill achieves this with its general power to seize harmful substances or articles.

Finally, perhaps I may turn to the amendments moved by the noble Lord, Lord McNair. He has asked us to consider setting up a single authority, perhaps called a national waterways conservancy, which might take on the NRA's present waterways functions and duties together with those navigations currently managed by British Waterways. As a consequence, he has asked us to transfer the NRA's navigation functions and water-related recreation duties to the agency. As the noble Lord pointed out, the Government accepted a recommendation from the Select Committee on the Environment in another place to review the navigation functions of British Waterways and the NRA with a view to establishing a single authority. A consultation exercise in 1991–1992 sought the views of interested parties but no consensus emerged on the way ahead.

Our waterways represent a unique asset. Their special environmental heritage character needs to be protected for future generations. Used nowadays mainly for recreation, they are important for a wide range of different uses including boating, angling, freight, water supply, flood defence and land drainage. We shall shortly issue a consultation paper seeking views from those interested in the future of the waterways. Complex issues are involved and it would not be right to prejudge the outcome of the consultation either as to substance or to timetable in the way in which the amendments demand. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Greenway, that to do so now would be to prejudge an important issue.

We shall look carefully at all the views that are expressed, including those that have been expressed tonight and including arguments supporting a single navigation authority, when we decide what action is necessary to ensure the best possible stewardship of the waterways for all their different uses and for society at large. Having dealt with that and the other amendments, I respectfully ask the noble Baroness to withdraw the amendment.

9.45 p.m.

Lord Williams of Elvel

The noble Viscount said that he was thinking about the waterways, that he would consult and that he would bring something forward. Is that part of the Bill and, if so, why have not the Government thought about it before?

Viscount Ullswater

I indicated that the Government have thought about it but that no consensus has emerged on the way ahead. That is an important point. As I said, these are complex issues and we need to consult. That is why a consultation paper will be issued in the near future.

Lord Williams of Elvel

How long have the Government been thinking about this and how long will the consultation process take?

Viscount Ullswater

We had a consultation exercise in 1991–92 when we found that a consensus did not emerge. We did not think it right to pursue the point. Since then we have reviewed matters and will issue a further consultation paper.

Baroness Hilton of Eggardon

I owe an apology to the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, for having accepted this grouping and the next group of amendments and, in due course, that relating to Amendment No. 22. All those amendments relate to the same topic, which is the attempt to provide a strategic central agency and to have some implementation at local level where it seems more appropriate. In discussing the actual regulations, I strayed into a discussion of the mechanisms. Having looked again at the grouping, I realise that that was because we had accepted a grouping which included the two. The same will apply to the next grouping, which again is on the same topic.

We need to take this matter away. The overall strategic implementation of environmental protection is an important issue. We need to consider local implementation and who will undertake that. There is a distinction to be drawn. It would be extremely difficult for the environment agency to be the body responsible for implementing the mechanism by which some of the tasks that it wants to perform are carried out. We need to think more clearly about the role of local authorities in that respect. I shall return to that point briefly when we reach the next group of amendments.

Lord McNair

I should like to thank the noble Viscount for what he has said. I am not going to pursue this issue at this time and in this place, but I have written to the Minister and hope that we shall be able to discuss it at another time and in another place. I hope that the matter that I have raised will be taken forward as the consultation process proceeds.

Baroness Hilton of Eggardon

I beg leave to withdraw Amendment No. 16.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Schedule 1 agreed to.

Clause 2 [Transfer of functions to the Agency]:

Baroness Hilton of Eggardon

moved Amendment No. 17: Page 2, line 25, at end insert ("and waste regulation authorities"). The noble Baroness said: We return again to the question of how environmental protection is delivered at the local level and whether the EA can do everything that we hope it will do in relation to matters such as waste disposal. On Amendment No. 22 we shall be looking in due course also at air pollution. The monitoring and implementation of these environmental matters are more appropriately carried out at local authority level, under licence or with delegated powers from the central EA. This is a serious issue which needs to be addressed.

If the EA is to do all these things it will become an enormously bureaucratic, centralised, cumbersome organisation. It is therefore important that it retains its strategic role, its monitoring role and its setting-of-standards role but allows the hands-on carrying out of some of its duties to be done at a more local level. I should be grateful if the Minister would address the point of how he sees the role of local authorities in relation to environmental protection. Does he see them continuing to have a role? How are the mechanisms to be operated? How will we divide responsibilities between the centre and the local authorities? I beg to move.

Baroness Hamwee

I apologise for splitting up my comments on this general area. I hope that the Committee will forgive me if some of the points that I make now should have been made on the earlier group of amendments. But the Minister has indicated that he is in listening mode, so I am sure that he will not discard arguments merely because they crop up at the wrong point.

In looking in general terms at how the responsibilities should be split between the different levels of government, it seemed to me that there was clearly no argument over technical functions or that there should be accountability. The issue is the interface between those two aspects and whether waste regulation is best a matter for central or local accountability.

It is implicit in the amendments that public accountability for waste regulation lies best with the local authorities and with decisions taken within a structure where the public has rights of access and the decisions are made by locally elected representatives. I accept that the granting of planning permissions for waste operations will remain as it is now, but public concern is generally not just about whether the site is suitable but what the operation on the site does, how it will affect the neighbourhood and the potential for pollution. Those are of course matters of concern to local people who can best voice them through the local democratic structure.

On the previous group of amendments I referred to the principle of the polluter paying being a good one but it is a matter of concern that a standard-setting body may be dependent for its income upon the bodies for which it is setting standards. There is a concern that the separation may be done away with. I shall amplify that by saying that sometimes self-policing is criticised, as is a system where the greater the amount of transgression of pollution laws the greater the income of the standard setting body of the regulatory institutions. In suggesting a retention of a substantial role for local government, I suggest that that anxiety should also be addressed.

The London Waste Regulation Authority is not old but appears to have established a reputation during its 10 years of existence. It responds to the needs of people living and working in an area in which it is recognised that there is a need for a strategic approach. Greater London is a distinct area and particular needs must be met.

Comments were made on the fact that the public tend to understand where the boundaries of local authorities are. I say that hesitantly in the context of the local government review. At any rate, perhaps the political boundaries are easily understood and applied.

In the clear-out that I and, I suspect, other noble Lords had during the Christmas period when one tries to get rid of the paper that built up during the previous year, I was about to throw out the 1992 report of the London and South East Regional Planning Conference. The area of work has been superseded by the South East Waste Authority. SERPLAN set out its strategy for dealing with waste; that is, its reduction, re-use and disposal. I believe that it is helpful as an example of the way in which such an organisation can appropriately deal with waste regulation within the context of what one hopes to see as an integrated waste strategy, yet with a distinct and good role. Certainly, it is something that I should like to get on the record. Its policy guidance strategy is set out in six parts, which I shall summarise. The first is the objective of preserving and enhancing the environment. That is the correct context in which to base decisions. The second sets the priorities for dealing with waste: the waste hierarchy, with which your Lordships will be familiar, of minimisation; re-use; the increased use for energy production, and so forth, culminating with landfill where appropriate. It is understandable that that features within the strategy because it would be part of an integrated waste strategy.

The third strategy is that the south east should aim to make adequate provision within the region for the disposal of all its own waste. The fourth is that London should aim to reduce the volumes of wastes which it exports. London boroughs, in preparing their unitary development plans, should have regard to the need to facilitate waste reduction and bulk handling. The noble Lord, Lord Williams, is looking puzzled. I believe that this is the appropriate point at which to raise these matters.

The fifth strategy is that in preparing waste local plans, counties should aim to provide for the disposal of their own waste arisings and make an appropriate contribution to regional needs. The sixth is that SERPLAN will provide and periodically update guidance on the quantities of waste likely to require disposal within London and each of the counties of the region.

That neatly summarised the type of responsibilities that a waste regulation authority should address, together with the way in which they could be separated from the areas to be dealt with by the agency. I conclude by saying that if the whole of waste regulation is to be centralised I cannot see at what point it would stop.

Picking up the final point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton, I do not know what role the Government see for local authorities. After all, if we are to have a completely centralised system, who should be responsible for collection? It is not simply a matter of emptying dustbins. The authorities which collect have to organise how they do that. For example, they may make arrangements for separating items and for collecting different items in order to recycle those which are suitable for recycling. That is just one example. Therefore, if we are to be centralised, are we to be centralised right down to local level?

10 p.m.

Viscount Ullswater

First, I should like to consider Amendments Nos. 17 and 18 tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton. I was very surprised to see the amendments. They do not clarify the purposes for which the agency is to be established. Indeed, on the face of it, they leave an agency that has very little to do at all. Pollution control would not be brought together in an integrated way, which is one of the main reasons for establishing the new body, but would remain fragmented as now. The only body that the noble Baroness has targeted for transfer is Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Pollution and some functions of the Secretary of State. It would seem that those are to be divided between waste regulation authorities and the agency in some unspecified way.

We published the draft of provisions to establish the agency in October and discussed these proposals fully at Second Reading. On the whole, the agency was broadly welcomed. Indeed, at that stage the noble Baroness said that she welcomed the improvements to the Bill since publication and hoped it would be further strengthened. I cannot regard these amendments as contributing to a strengthening of our proposals.

Amendment No. 20 is covered by Amendment No. 18 and by Amendment No. 21 which we considered previously. It would prevent waste regulation being transferred to the agency. As I explained to the Committee, waste regulation is a fundamental part of the concept and purpose of the agency, and we could not accept such a change.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, expressed anxiety about the transfer of waste regulation to the agency which would mean a loss of local accountability and accessibility. I believe that those fears are unfounded. There is no question of the agency being a remote, unaccountable central organisation. In addition to its responsibility to Parliament through Ministers, the agency will have, as one of its main objectives set out in its management statement, the development of a close and responsive relationship to the public and local communities. That will involve establishing arrangements to consult and co-operate with local authorities, both to provide a channel for local anxieties and to ensure proper liaison and co-ordination with related local government functions such as development, control and planning.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hilton, asked me what would remain with local authorities. They retain important environmental duties and even gain new ones in the Bill. The local authorities' functions in relation to air pollution are retained in England and Wales, as are those in relation to statutory nuisance, which are updated for Scotland. In Part II they have new responsibilities with regard to contaminated land. Therefore, the local authorities retain a considerable amount of influence in that area.

Amendment No. 23 would prevent abolition of the London Waste Regulation Authority under Clause 2(3). I can see that this amendment would be necessary if waste regulation functions were not being transferred to the agency. However, I hope that I have convinced Members of the Committee that this would be undesirable, and that this consequential amendment is therefore unnecessary.

Finally, I come to Amendments Nos. 24 and 27. Those would require the London Waste Regulation Authority to draw up transfer schemes in the same way as other waste regulation authorities. That would be inappropriate. The LWRA, like the National Rivers Authority, will be abolished once the agency is set up, and all its property, rights and liabilities will transfer. It will be clear at the point of transfer which property, rights and liabilities belong to, or are enforced against, the LWRA. There is therefore no need for a transfer scheme to identify those. In contrast, other waste regulation authorities are part of larger authorities and a scheme is necessary to identify and transfer the property, rights and liabilities appropriate to the waste regulation function. I listened very carefully to the remarks made by the noble Baroness. I am not persuaded that the amendments should be accepted. I, therefore, ask the noble Baroness whether she will be good enough to withdraw them.

Baroness Hilton of Eggardon

We clearly have the groupings wrong as regards this collection of amendments. Therefore, they need examining more closely. I accept what the Minister says in that they have not, perhaps, been as well laid out as they might have been. We shall think again about the relationship between local authorities and the environment agency. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 18 and 18A not moved.]

Lord Greenwaymoved Amendment No. 19: Page 3, line 4, leave out ("that Schedule") and insert ("Schedule 2 to the 1991 Act"). The noble Lord said: Compared with some that we have discussed today, this amendment is a simple one aimed at clarification. I feel that Clause 2 as worded does not make it absolutely clear to which Act the schedule referred to in subsection (1) (a) (vii) of Clause 2 belongs. I believe it is important that that should be made clear to cover taking in or delegation of a function by the new agency. I beg to move.

Viscount Ullswater

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Greenway, for moving the amendment. It makes it clear that the reference in Clause 2(1) (a) (vii) to the agency's functions under that "Schedule" is a reference to navigation, harbour and conservancy functions transferred to the agency under Schedule 2 to the Water Resources Act 1991. I am happy to accept such an improvement to the drafting of the Bill. I commend the amendment to the Committee.

Lord Greenway

I am grateful to the Minister for his response.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

[Amendments Nos. 20 to 23 not moved.]

Clause 2, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 3 [Transfer of property, rights and liabilities to the Agency.]

[Amendments Nos. 24 to 32 not moved.]

Clause 3 agreed to.

The Earl of Lindsay

I beg to move that the House do now resume.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

House resumed.

House adjourned at eight minutes past ten o'clock.