Enforcement Powers

Orders of the Day — Food and Environment Protection Bill [Lords] – in the House of Commons at 6:15 pm on 26th June 1985.

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Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 6:15 pm, 26th June 1985

I beg to move amendment No. 59, in page 19, line 37, after 'Ministers', insert 'or a local authority',

Photo of Mr Bernard Weatherill Mr Bernard Weatherill , Croydon North East

With this it will be convenient to take amendment No. 60, in clause 22, page 25, line 10, at end insert— '"local authority" means—

  1. (a) in England and Wales, the council of a district or a London borough, the Common Council of the City of London, the Sub-Treasurer of the Inner Temple and the Under Treasurer of the Middle Temple; and
  2. (b) in Scotland, and islands or district council;'.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

This amendment has been tabled by my hon. Friends the Members for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North (Mr. Howells), for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) and myself. It relates to the enforcement by local authorities of the powers that are provided for in clause 17. As drafted, the Bill provides: Either of the Ministers may authorise any person … to enforce this Part of this Act". The other place has debated how much power this provision gives the Government to delegate to for example, local authorities so that they can undertake the enforcement role. I should like the Parliamentary Secretary to reconsider the practical reasons for specifying that officers of local authorities should be given this job. I hope that she will take in good part the good reasons why my colleagues and I believe that they should be given this job.

There is a strong case for environmental health officers—each local authority has several of these—taking on the role of enforcement in relation to pesticides. I should like to put out of the way the suggestion that this could be done by trading standards officers. That red herring came up at an earlier stage of the debate, and I want to dispose of it. Trading standards officers are the people who go around Sainsburys to ascertain whether the weight of the cheese is specified correctly. I am concerned about those officers who are more ready to put on their wellington boots and tread out into the mire to deal with matters away from their offices and urban areas.

Environmental health officers are specifically well equipped to do this job. Indeed, they are necessary if the Parliamentary Secretary is serious about wanting to enforce this legislation. There are between 4,000 and 6,000 environmental health officers in Britain. The Minister said in Committee that this compares with only about 160 inspectors in the Government's agricultural safety inspectorate. The original memorandum to the Bill said that, because of increased work on pesticides, another 18 staff at the Health and Safety Inspectorate and 16 at the Ministry would be required. The Minister said that about 14 of the 18 extra HSE staff would be additional agricultural inspectors. I do not believe that 14 or 18 extra staff will make much difference. Compare a possible 4,000, 5,000 or 6,000 people having the power to do this job with the 160 staff presently in post, to which would be added a mere 14 or 18 extra staff. I would opt for giving these powers specifically to the army of environmental health officers, numbering thousands rather than tens.

I do not know the number of people in the pesticides branch of MAFF, but I believe that officials at Whitehall place—the Parliamentary Secretary's headquarters—are not likely to be dealing with enforcement on the ground. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary accepts that they will be dealing with the monitoring of information and the efficacy of the regulations. A pathetic number of people employed by the Ministry will be doing the enforcing. The Government have already accepted that they are setting a great task. They have conceded that the number of inspectors is relevant. The fact that they are increasing the staff by 14 clearly shows that they have conceded that it is important to have more inspectors. It follows that 4,000 will be more effective than 14.

If there are doubts—I share those doubts, although I would be delighted to be proved wrong—about the political will of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to enforce this legislation effectively, I would prefer the power of enforcement to be dispersed to others. One would not then be entirely reliant on the political will of the Parliamentary Secretary's Department, with all the pressures placed on her from other Departments. We have had debates about giving the Ministry an environmental over-duty. This idea was strongly resisted in debates on the Bill introduced by the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) to amend the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. The Government said that they were not willing to take it on because all Departments had a responsibility to look after wildlife, the countryside and the environment and that it would be wrong to allow one Department to be the lead Department. It would be much better to allow all local authorities to have the same responsibility. I trust that there would be greater effectiveness of enforcement in that case than if only one Department were involved.

To have the Minister decide the priorities of enforcement is clearly not as good—this is no criticism of the Parliamentary Secretary—as having a wide range of local authorities deciding enforcement priorities, given their personnel and resources. Different local authorities in different parts of Britain will have different priorities in terms of the enforcement of pesticide legislation. It depends on the farming, the nature of the terrain and all sorts of things. Therefore, it could be seen, by comparing one with the other, which were the most successful authorities, and the Ministry would have benefit of that experience.

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There is also the argument, which my hon. Friend and I always advance, that we believe in strengthening local authorities as against Government Departments. It is an important principle of democratic control that one gives the power to enforce legislation to the people nearest to the ground. That argument for decentralisation applies in this case even though one is depending upon the information coming from research, whether it is the Ministry's research or independent research carried out in the universities.

Many local authorities are keen to have these powers of enforcement. They know their areas. Many officers live and are brought up in the areas. The best information comes directly from the area. People are more likely to go to the local environmental health officer, the local town hall or the county hall than they are to write to Whitehall, so that the Whitehall machinery would seldom be called upon to deal with these issues.

As a complementary point, environmental health officers in local authorities are likely to be, as they should be, more responsive to local pressure and concerns because they are in the front line. It would seem illogical for people who go to them on what is clearly an environmental health matter to be told, "I am sorry, we are not the front line agency for dealing with this."

Whatever the case, it is true that the Ministry is more suited to deal with major problems and national incidents, given all its resources. The Ministry should not have to deal on every level in every farm, field, district and county with the various issues that crop up every day.

It may also be the case that the Ministry officials, as they are bound by duty to do, start from being pro-farmer rather than pro-environment. They rightly have a duty, because it is their task to ensure that there is an effective agriculture industry, to take into account the concerns of those involved in the industry. It is better that these issues should be looked at with the eye of those who are interested in the environment—the farmer, farm worker, employee, farm resident, rural resident and countryside user. The Ministry has to consider agricultural production and agriculture from its position, but environmental matters should be dealt with by people who have a responsibility for the environment.

I think that the Minister would agree that environmental health departments and officers are keen to do the job. All the information that I have been given suggests that they are ready and willing. For the Government to hold close to their chest, in a quiet closed department of 14 or 18 officers, the task of doing this job when there is a great army saying, "Please give us this work, we want to help you," seems an ungenerous attitude. I know that the Minister can be generous, and I look to her to give away the workload with which her officials would otherwise be lumbered if she does not accept my arguments.

I anticipate the Minister saying that to accept the amendment would be inconsistent with the format of the rest of the Bill, which is concerned with establishing structure. The Minister promised us regulations in 12 months, by which I hope she meant within 12 months. The regulations will give us the teeth to fit the mouth of the Bill. I accept that local authorities get little mention in the Bill. That is to be regretted because it reflects a rather centralist view of what can be an effective Bill at all levels. The most effective Bill will be one that allows local authorities to play their part. The debate in the other place included the statement with which I began, that clause 17 gives the Government sufficient powers to authorise local authority officers to carry out this job.

I have put the arguments and by way of summary of the arguments, I ask the Minister to give a commitment that the Government will authorise, as from the date of the enactment of the legislation or within a short period thereafter, local authority environmental health officers to carry out this job. The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 was on the right lines, but was found to be defective because the resources were not available to make it effective. If we are endeavouring to protect the environment, we should avail ourselves of resources where they are available.

The Bill is welcome, but let us hear the Minister make the commitment to give those who wish to do the job the power to enforce the legislation.

Photo of Mrs Peggy Fenner Mrs Peggy Fenner , Medway

I thank the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) for moving the amendment, which I cannot accept.

The purpose of the Bill is not to give local authorities powers in the control of pesticides. As he rightly pointed out, it is the tool to ensure that Ministers have all the powers they need to effect such control. Before we could give local authorities such power, we would need to consult them and all other interests involved about that proposal. Indeed, we had a consultation meeting with the Association of Local Authorities last week. It is fair to say that on that occasion no clear new area of activity for local authorities was identified that would justify the amendment.

It may reassure the House to know that Ministers can authorise local authority officers or local authorities as legal persons to undertake an enforcement role. We believe that they will have a part to play in the enforcement of the legislation in future, particularly in relation to pesticide residues. However, that is still some time in the future, and we will be consulting at the appropriate time.

The hon. Gentleman raised the question of the number of people in the field. As he rightly pointed out, in the Health and Safety Executive there is an agricultural inspectorate of 160. Of the new additional staff quoted in the Bill, two of the London staff will be in the field on wildlife. In the Health and Safety Executive, of the 18 there will be 12 additional inspectors. That is the number requested by the executive to carry out the additional work involved, although there already exists an agricultural inspectorate of 160. I therefore hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

The figures that the Minister has given confirm my fears. She did not give the specific commitment for which I asked, that the Government would authorise local authorities. I must therefore request that we should hear the Government refuse to accept the amendments rather than that I should withdraw them.

Amendment negatived.

Amendments made: No. 42, in page 20, line 4, after 'being', insert 'or has been'.

No. 43, in page 20, line 10, after 'being', insert 'or has been'.
No. 44, in page 21, line 5, leave out subsection (8).—[Mrs. Fenner.]