HL Deb 16 December 2002 vol 642 cc517-22

6.57 p.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 25th November be approved.

The noble and learned Lord said: My Lords, the purpose of the order is to introduce new legislation relating to three important issues. It will bring Northern Ireland legislation into line with that in the rest of the United Kingdom and ensure compliance with European obligations.

Part II provides enabling powers to achieve transposition of EC Directive 96/61 on Integrated Pollution Prevention and Control. This builds on the current system. The details of the new controls have been set out in a set of draft regulations which were published for consultation in August 2002. Part II has three other purposes. First, it will provide a general power for the Department of the Environment to transpose other EU directives by way of regulations, thereby avoiding the need for primary legislation. However, any measure intended to be implemented in that way will be required to be designated by order and any regulations made under this provision will be subject to full scrutiny and consultation in the normal way.

Secondly, the order provides new transitional provisions in respect of waste disposal licences under the Pollution Control and Local Government (Northern Ireland) Order 1978. Thirdly, it gives a new power for the department to make grants to any body having among its objects furtherance of the disposal of waste or, more generally, prevention or control of environmental pollution. This power will be used to further the objectives in the department's waste management strategy.

Air quality is dealt with in Part III. That provides a legislative framework to deliver Northern Ireland's contribution to objectives and targets for improving air quality. Those are contained in the Air Quality Strategy for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. In addition, Part III brings about compliance with EC Directive 96/62EC. Part III also puts a statutory requirement on the Department of the Environment to draw up an air quality strategy for Northern Ireland.

Part IV deals with areas of special scientific interest (ASSIs) and will provide for the better protection and management of those valuable sites that are equivalent to sites of special scientific interest in Great Britain. The provisions of Part IV will also help address the requirements of the EC Habitats Directive by ensuring that Northern Ireland can better protect sites which, in addition to being ASSIs, have also merited designation under European legislation.

The order replaces the existing legislation for ASSIs in the Nature Conservation and Amenity Lands (Northern Ireland) Order 1985.

There are improvements to some of the procedures; for example, greater flexibility in the ways that amendments to site boundaries or citations can be introduced as well as providing a statement on how a site can be best managed in the interests of conservation.

Part IV also contains measures to ensure more effective protection of ASSIs. Safeguards are built in for landowners, including the right of appeal to the Plannings Appeal Commission against a decision made by the department.

The draft order is a combination of three separate Bills, each of which were before the Assembly at the date of suspension. Each had received its second stage and each had completed or was at Committee stage. Subject to any correction from the noble Lord, Lord Laird, it is fair to say that the provisions of the draft order reflect the outcome of that scrutiny. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 25th November be approved.(Lord Williams of Mostyn.)

Lord Glentoran

My Lords, of the orders we are debating today, this gives me most concern. In discussions outside the Chamber, the noble and learned Lord agreed that we might find a better way of scrutinising such orders while Stormont is suspended.

I am unhappy because there is no way that as spokesman for the Opposition I can be briefed to challenge anyone on such matters. However, I am involved in the Waste and Emissions Trading Bill that is currently before this House. I know of its complexities and difficulties and our dissatisfaction with it. I took part in the access to the countryside legislation which included habitats and ASSIs and the arguments, debates and discussions we had in relation to that.

I do not know how the trading of emissions permissions and so forth will work and whether they are contained in the Bills. I do not know the detail of the three Bills and whether they are acceptable. However, as we have debated the way in which we shall handle such Bills in future, and as they have been passed in part by the Northern Ireland Assembly, I support the order. I merely wanted to place that fact on record.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, perhaps I may respond immediately to that most helpful intervention. Having listened to concerns expressed by many noble Lords on these issues, it seems to me that one way forward might be for me to offer the fullest possible officials' briefing on any order your Lordships are unhappy about. I shall arrange that in plenty of time and leave it for your Lordships to approach me.

Secondly, some of the orders are very bulky and it might be possible to sift through them. I am content to go along that line and, as the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, knows, I have offered to do so. Perhaps we can follow more flexible procedures in the future.

Lord Greaves

My Lords, on behalf of these Benches, I support what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, about the difficulties of dealing with orders relating to primary legislation in Northern Ireland. I welcome the Minister's statement and look forward to an improvement. Being presented with a 56-page order on important and complicated matters on a take-it-or-leave-it basis is not a satisfactory way of proceeding.

The Minister said that the order brought Northern Ireland legislation into line. Interestingly, the Minister in another place used a different but more accurate phrase. He said that it brought it broadly into line. There are differences in detail and it is important that they are scrutinised properly. The approach will vary from subject to subject and order to order. This is an important order. Three Northern Ireland Assembly Bills, each at different stages, are being rolled together into a short debate on a take-it-or-leave-it basis in this House. That is not satisfactory.

The first two Bills—one on pollution, prevention and control and the other on local air quality maintenance—had completely or substantially gone through the Committee stage in the Assembly and a number of amendments had been made. That is clearly a basis for approving them today. The scrutiny of the third Bill had not been completed by the Assembly. It is therefore not satisfactory that it comes to us on that basis.

Some of us remember the detailed and interesting debates we had on the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill as it passed through this House. Schedule 9 to that Bill deals with these matters and covers substantially the same ground. However, there appear to be differences in detail and as the responsibility for the legislation rests for the time being with this Parliament, it would have been useful to have been able to study those discrepancies.

My honourable friend Sue Doughty, a member of the Standing Committee on delegated legislation in another place, asked a series of detailed questions on this matter. I shall not trouble the Minister, with his encyclopaedic knowledge, by asking him the same questions today. That would waste everyone's time. My honourable friend rightly raised many important matters relating to the creation of ASSIs in Northern Ireland; for example, amendments and changes to them, their notification and management and possible compulsory purchase schemes, which some of us remember discussing in relation to the CROW Act. However, there was then no proper forum for obtaining sensible answers and scrutiny. I understand the Minister promised to write to her but she has not yet received a reply. No doubt she will do so.

I have expressed our general disquiet about an order, the details of which have not been properly scrutinised in the Assembly, coming to this House and being presented in this way. Clearly, future orders will not have been dealt with by the Assembly, so the difficulty will arise more frequently. However, I thank the Minister for the progress that will be made with regard to future discussions. We are happy to support the order which needs to go through

Lord Laird

My Lords, I join other noble Lords in congratulating the noble and learned Lord the Lord Privy Seal on his suggestions for ways of scrutinising these rather cumbersome and complicated pieces of legislation, particularly as the workload from the Assembly will begin to trail off in terms of scrutiny. I very much welcome what the noble and learned Lord said.

For a variety of reasons, the environment in Northern Ireland did not receive the amount of attention it deserved during some of the years of direct rule. However, devolution offered the Province's politicians the chance to make up for lost ground, and it was an opportunity that they grabbed with both hands. Evidence of this is provided by the fact that this order combines the provisions of no fewer than three Assembly Bills dedicated to improving the environment.

There are three main themes in the order on which I wish to comment briefly. First, the legislation is necessary to ensure compliance with the EU's IPPC directive. This is something that I welcome as an advance in ensuring a high level of protection for the environment through the prevention or reduction of emissions to air, water and land as a result of industrial activities. A less polluted environment for future generations and ourselves is a goal towards which every politician and political party in the Province and beyond should be working. It is certainly something that the Ulster Unionist Party is seeking to achieve.

The second principal area dealt with in the order concerns air quality. Again, these provisions are necessary to ensure compliance with an EU directive. The order will also satisfy the Executive's P FG commitment to have in place by May next year a policy and legislative framework to deliver Northern Ireland's contribution to targets in the UK air quality strategy. The people of Northern Ireland have a right to clean air and the order will help to deliver that.

Adequate resources are, of course, vital, and I particularly welcome the £1 million per annum grant package for district councils to assist them in assessing local air quality, identifying problems and providing necessary remedies. I would be grateful if, when he comes to reply, the noble and learned Lord the Lord Privy Seal could give an assurance that this figure will be kept under review and that more cash will be made available when required.

The third and final part of the order to which I wish to refer incorporates measures to allow for the better protection and management of areas of special scientific interest (ASSIs). These locations represent the finest examples of semi-natural and species sites to be found in Northern Ireland because of their fauna, flora or geographic features. My colleagues and I fully support the protection of these areas as assets which should be enjoyed by future generations.

We also recognise, however, that a degree of sensitivity needs to be exercised with regard to ASSIs and, in particular, how they affect the farming community. The Province's farmers are not opposed to the designation of natural habitat sites, provided that they are managed in a practical way. However, given that the local farming community has suffered so much in recent years because of BSE and foot and mouth disease, leading 'to a consequential dramatic drop in incomes, I believe that it is vital that it is not made to face additional financial burdens.

The obvious solution is for the Government to provide good management and to work in partnership with farmers, rather than to increase the perception that ASSIs will simply add to levels of bureaucracy. However, I am confident that the desirable spirit of partnership can be created which, in turn, will be of benefit to everyone involved. I support the order.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, I associate myself with those Members of the House who feel that the present procedures are not adequate for scrutinising such complicated legislation. I very much welcome the offer made by my noble and learned friend on the Front Bench to arrange, if requested by noble Lords, for briefings by officials. The point that he made earlier this afternoon, that we might consider discussing measures of this kind in a Grand Committee, could be a useful way of enabling us to engage more fully in some of the issues.

We could spend several weeks on this particular measure. However, I shall not succumb to the temptation of going into too many details, much as I would like to because some of the issues are familiar to me from my days when I was a Minister in Northern Ireland. I shall resist that because I do not have the background, nor do I have knowledge of what the Assembly did or did not discuss.

I support the suggestion that we should look hard at the way in which we deal with such measures. They are crucially important to the people of Northern Ireland and we owe it to them to do so as thoroughly as possible.

Lord Smith of Clifton

My Lords, before the noble and learned Lord replies, we on these Benches also support much better provision for scrutinising Northern Ireland orders. Could the usual channels consult among themselves in order that some mechanism can be agreed and be up and running in the new year?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords for a very constructive review of the general matters. My noble friend Lord Dubs said that if we changed things we could spend several weeks discussing the issue, so I immediately withdraw my offer.

The noble Lord, Lord Laird, asked whether matters would be kept under review in the context of funding—yes. He then, thinking me to be an innocent in these matters, asked me to assure him that there would be more cash forthcoming—no.

As to the specific points of the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, the ASSI Bill was scrutinised by the Environment Committee in the Assembly and amendments were added in response to the Committee's comments; and Sue Doughty's questions have been responded to in writing by my honourable friend the Minister, Angela Smith.

The idea of the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, is better than mine in terms of attempting to offer solutions. I believe that we should differentiate between orders in order of magnitude and importance first. I am more than happy to reiterate my offer for officials' briefings. They are extremely competent and efficient and well equipped to deal with these matters, as all noble Lords who have dealt with the Northern Ireland Office will know.

In the Working Practices Leader's Group Report, which met such triumphant acclamation, we agreed to consider appointing a committee on statutory instruments. That may be one way of improving scrutiny. But I recognise that that may be some way down the road and not ready for what your Lordships want. I am more than willing to be as flexible as I possibly can. I think that the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Smith, that the usual channels should look at this matter with a degree of urgency, is a good one.

On Question, Motion agreed to.