Public Registers of Information

Orders of the Day — Environmental Protection Bill – in the House of Commons at 4:16 pm on 30th April 1990.

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`.—(1) It shall be the duty of each enforcing authority, as respects prescribed processes for which it is the enforcing authority, to maintain, in accordance with regulations made by the Secretary of State, a register containing prescribed particulars of or relating to—

  1. (a) applications for authorisations made to that authority;
  2. (b) the authorisations which have been granted by that authority or in respect of which the authority has functions under this Part;
  3. (c) variation notices, enforcement notices and prohibition notices issued by that authority;
  4. (d) revocations of authorisations effected by that authority;
  5. (e) appeals under section 14 above;
  6. (f) convictions for such offences under section 20(1) below as may be prescribed;
  7. (g) information obtained or furnished in pursuance of the conditions of authorisations or under any provision of this Part;
  8. (h)directions given to the authority under any provision of this Part by the Secretary of Stale; and
  9. (i) such other matters relating to the carrying on of the prescribed processes or any pollution of the environment caused thereby as may be prescribed;
but that duty is subject to sections (Exclusion from registers of information affecting national security) and (Exclusion from registers of certain confidential information) below.

(2) Subject to subsection (3) below, the register maintained by a local enforcing authority shall also contain prescribed particulars of such information contained in any register maintained by the chief inspector as relates to the carrying on in the area of the authority of prescribed processes in relation to which the chief inspector has functions under this Part; and the chief inspector shall furnish each authority with the particulars which are necessary to enable it to discharge its duty under this subsection.

(3) Subsection (2) above does not apply to port health authorities but each local enforcing authority whose area adjoins that of a port health authortiy shall include corresponding information in the register maintained by it; and the chief inspector shall furnish each such local enforcing authority with the particulars which are necessary to enable it to discharge its duty under this subsection.

(4) Where information of any description is excluded from any register by virtue of section (Exclusion from registers of certain confidential information) below, a statement shall be entered in the register indicating the existence of information of that description.

(5) The Secretary of State may give to enforcing authorities directions requiring the removal from any register of theirs of any specified information not prescribed for inclusion under subsection (1) or (2) above or which, by virtue of section (Exclusion from registers of information affecting national security) or (Exclusion from registers of certain confidential information) below, ought to have been excluded from the register.

(6) It shall be the duty of each enforcing authority—

  1. (a) to secure that the registers maintained by them under this section are available, at all reasonable times, for inspection by the public free of charge; and
  2. (b) to afford to members of the public facilities for obtaining copies of entries, on payment of reasonable charges.

(7) Registers under this section may be kept in any form.

(8) For the purpose of enabling the National Rivers Authority to discharge its duty under section 117(1)(f) of the Water Act 1989 to keep corresponding particulars in registers under that section, the chief inspector shall furnish the Authority with the particulars contained in any register maintained by him under this section.

(9) In this section "prescribed" means prescribed in regulations under this section.'.—[Mr. Trippier.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

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

With this, it will be convenient to take the following: Government new clause 12—Exclusion from registers of information affecting national security.

Government new clause 13—Exclusion from public registers of certain confidential information—' .—(1) No information relating to the affairs of any individual or business shall be included in a register maintained under section (Public registers of information) above, without the consent of that individual or the person for the time being carrying on that business, if and so long as the information—

  1. (a)is, in relation to him, commercially confidential; and
  2. (b)is not required to be included in the register in pursuance of directions under subsection (6) below;
but information is not commercially confidential for the purposes of this section unless it is determined under this section to be so by the enforcing authority or, on appeal, by the Secretary of State.(2) Where information is furnished to an enforcing authority for the purpose of—
  1. (a) an application for an authorisation or for the variation of an authorisation;
  2. (b) complying with any condition of an authorisation; or
  3. (c) complying with a notice under section 18(2) above;
then, if the person furnishing it applies to the authority to have the information excluded from the register on the ground that it is commercially confidential (as regards himself or another person), the authority shall determine whether the information is or is not commercially confidential.
(3) Where it appears to an enforcing authority that any information (other than information furnished in circumstances within subsection (2) above) which has been obtained by the authority under or by virtue of any provision of this Part might be commercially confidential, the authority shall—
  1. (a) give to the person to whom or whose business it relates notice that that information is required to be included in the register unless excluded under this section; and
  2. (b) give him a reasonable opportunity—
    1. (i) of objecting to the inclusion of the information on the ground that it is commercially confidential; and
    2. (ii) of making representations to the authority for the purpose of justifying any such objection;
and, if any representations are made, the enforcing authority shall, having taken the representations into account, determine whether the information is or is not commercially confidential.
(4) Where, under subsection (2) or (3) above, an authority determines that information is not commercially confidential—
  1. (a) the information shall not be entered on the register until the end of the period of twenty-one days beginning with the date on which the determination is notified to the person concerned;
  2. (b) that person may appeal to the Secretary of State against the decision;
and, where an appeal is brought in respect of any information, the information shall not be entered on the register pending the final determination or withdrawal of the appeal.
(5) Subsections (3), (4) and (9) of section 14 above shall apply in relation to appeals under subsection (4) above.(6) The Secretary of State may give to the enforcing authorities directions as to specified information, or descriptions of information, which the public interest requires to be included in registers maintained under section (Public registers of information) above notwithstanding that the information may be commercially confidential.(7) Information excluded from a register shall be treated as ceasing to be commercially confidential for the purposes of this section at the expiry of the period of four years beginning with the date of the determination by virtue of which it was excluded; but the person who furnished it may apply to the authority for the information to remain excluded from the register on the ground that it is still commercially confidential and the authority shall determine whether or not that is the case.(8) Subsections (4) and (5) above shall apply in relation to a determination under subsection (7) above as they apply in relation to a determination under subsection (2) or (3) above.(9) Information is, for the purposes of any determination under this section, commercially confidential, in relation to any individual or person, if its being contained in the register would prejudice to an unreasonable degree the commercial interests of that individual or person.'

Amendment (a) thereto; to leave out subsection (6).

Government new clause 33—Exclusion from registers of information affecting national security.

Government new clause 34—Exclusion from registers of certain confidential information.

New clause 3—Public rights in relation to pollution—'( )—(1) The Secretary of State shall within three months of the date of Royal Assent lay regulations for the purpose of establishing public rights in relation to the prevention and amelioration of pollution as specified in this section.(2) For the avoidance of doubt, it is hereby stated that any person may initiate a prosecution for an alleged pollution offence under section 19 below.(3) Any appeal against a refusal, amendment or revocation of an authorisation under Part I, or against conditions attached to any such authorisation, shall be made to an independent tribunal established by the Secretary of State under this section, which shall include industrial, trade union and environmental representatives and be chaired by an independent person.(4) The tribunal established under subsection (3) above shall meet in public, hear evidence from any interested person and publish its decisions together with reasons relevant thereto.(5) Any enforcement authority for the purposes of Part I shall be required by regulations made under this section to make available to any person on request details of analyses and investigations undertaken by it in the exercise of its functions, subject only to payment of such charge as shall be reasonable to cover the cost of reproducing the documents concerned.(6) Each district authority shall compile and maintain a register open to public inspection of contaminated land in its area in accordance with regulations made under this section.(7) No information shall he withheld from a public register concerned with pollution on grounds of commercial confidentiality under section 18(2) below for a period longer than two years.'.

Government amendments Nos. 25 and 181 to 193.

Photo of Mr David Trippier Mr David Trippier , Rossendale and Darwen

I believe that there was a genuine spirit of co-operation as we considered the Bill in Committee. I shall be introducing amendments later today and on Wednesday that are the result of amendments tabled and questions asked by members of both Opposition parties and by Conservative Members. The concept of integrated pollution control—IPC—which for the first time introduces controls over emissions to all three environmental media—air, water and land—at one and the same time, has been welcomed on all sides. Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution—HMIP—will be under a duty to ensure that controls over IPC processes deliver the best protection of the environment taken as a whole.

IPC is a radical new measure, which puts us in the forefront of pollution control. Important features include the need for operators to obtain prior authorisation from the enforcing authority and a two-tier control over emissions. That requires, first, that emissions to a particular medium of any substances that are prescribed are prevented or minimised at source, and, secondly, that any emissions of any substances are rendered harmless.

The local authority controls over air pollution represent a significant strengthening of local powers in recognition of the need for effective and speedy control of pollution at the local level. For both those authorities and HMIP, part I provides for a solid system of enforcement, proper powers and tough penalties for operators who break the terms of their authorisations. There is also important provision allowing for public access to information, and that is the principal subject of the new clauses.

I know that public access is a subject which Labour Members will wish to address under new clause 3. Perhaps I should attempt to set the scene for them. The Government have made a substantial commitment to providing public information on the environment, particularly through our very successful "Environment in Trust" leaflets. Our commitment to the principle of public access to environmental information is absolute, and we have recently played a major part in ensuring early agreement in Brussels on a clear, workable directive to ensure this throughout the Community.

I do not think that the Opposition would disagree with me that the Bill makes a substantial contribution to the process of securing the public's role.

Photo of Mrs Elaine Kellett Mrs Elaine Kellett , Lancaster

The Minister referred to Brussels. In the past, we have been dismayed when various measures have been passed by the Community but the enforcement procedures in other countries, which are nothing like as good as ours, have rendered them less effective. Can we be absolutely certain that other countries will be enforcing the measures?

Photo of Mr David Trippier Mr David Trippier , Rossendale and Darwen

I am satisfied, first, that we ought to agree with all the other member states to move in this direction. We are talking about emissions and emission control and if we do not have adequate enforcement or effective policing throughout the Community, Britain will be put at a competitive disadvantage. I am certain that our enforcement is rigorous under the terms of current legislation and that it will meet the new duties and demands enshrined in the Bill. I am not in a position to speak for all the member states, but I shall certainly be pressing the point at the meetings that I have to attend at the Council of Ministers, as will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

The provisions governing applications for authorisations or consents under parts I and VI will be widely welcomed. In parts III and IV we have specifically provided for individual citizens to take direct action in the courts if they are aggrieved by nuisance or by defacement by litter. In the latter case, there will be clear, publicly available guidance concerning the standards that local authorities and others can be expected to reach in carrying out their litter duties. Important provisions in the Bill will further increase the amount of environmental information held by pollution control authorities that is available to the public on easily accessible public registers. That is fully in line with our commitment to allow public access to environmental information.

In the new clauses we have provided for the most far reaching and comprehensive system to make information available in Europe. That is not a claim to make lightly, so let us examine it closely. Above all, the system will be easy to use. Members of the public who seek information will be able to walk into the offices of the enforcing authority and find there, not a confusing mass of papers through which they need to trawl, but information on registers which will be well maintained, easy to use, comprehensive and clear. Inspection of the register will be free of charge. That matches any other system of making information available in Europe. But the factor that guarantees that the system of information for which we are providing is truly accessible is that information will be available locally. Information on the register held by Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution will be copied to the local authority where the process is situated. Similarly, information will be sent to local authorities under the provisions of part V and waste management information will be held at the local level by each waste regulation authority under clause 57.

Photo of Mr Peter Hardy Mr Peter Hardy , Wentworth

Will the Minister comment on the inadequacies of regulation as they apply in the Wath on Dearne case, in which he has been heavily involved? The regulations that were in force when the waste arrived, and which are still in force, meant that the health authority and the hazardous waste unit were not entitled to know what the composition of the waste was and could not be told that, unless it had a trade name—they were entitled to know the trade name—or the country of origin of the waste. Is the Minister saying that those deficiencies in the law will be removed by the Bill?

Photo of Mr David Trippier Mr David Trippier , Rossendale and Darwen

I think that they will be removed under other parts of the Bill, although not under this part. I do not know that these provisions governing integrated pollution control and increased public access to environmental information—which both the hon. Gentleman and I seek—would necessarily have helped in this instance. I should underline the fact that we are talking about the licensing of processes. As the hon. Gentleman and I both know, in the case of Wath on Dearne, the major problems arose from the fact that the imported waste was not necessarily toxic by definition. I had better be careful what I say, because I realise that this is one of the many matters that will be discussed in the courts. It was when the imported substance was mixed that it became toxic and therefore unacceptable. We have tried to deal with such circumstances in other provisions in the Bill that deal with the importation of hazardous waste. The hon. Gentleman may welcome the fact that I have written him yet another letter today to try to keep him up to date with the situation as I understand it as a result of a meeting held in New York in the latter part of last week which followed on from a meeting held in Washington the week before.

Photo of Mr Peter Hardy Mr Peter Hardy , Wentworth

Which followed my meeting in Washington.

Photo of Mr David Trippier Mr David Trippier , Rossendale and Darwen

Exactly.

I hope that the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) agrees that we had a constructive debate in Committee on the subject of registers. I made it clear that I did not expect exemptions from access to information on the grounds of commercial confidentiality to be given lightly and that, when deciding appeals on the matter, the Secretary of State would require cogent and specific evidence to substantiate a claim that disclosure would prejudice to an unreasonable degree someone's commercial interest. It is probably fair to say that clarification was welcomed by hon. Members on both sides of the Committee.

When considering clauses 19 and 57, I thought that we could go further and provide more detail on the mechanisms by which information may be excluded from the register. That is achieved by new clauses 12 and 13, for part I of the Bill, and new clauses 33 and 34 for part II. New clauses 12 and 33 provide for information to be omitted from the register on the grounds of national security. New clauses 13 and 34 provide for exclusion on the grounds of commercial confidentiality. New clauses 12 and 33 give effect to the procedures for dealing with national security which formed part of the consultation paper issued in August last year.

In Committee I promised the hon. Member for Dewsbury that I would examine a proposal that exclusions from the register on the grounds of commercial confidentiality should be time limited. That was one of the points that the hon. Lady put to me and I have decided that such exclusions should be time limited. In new clause 13 I have provided that information excluded from a register shall be treated as ceasing to be commercially confidential after four years. If the operator considers that the information remains confidential, he will need to reapply for an exclusion. The enforcing authority will be able to take account of any representations that it receives on the exclusion of that information. That time scale mirrors that to which the enforcing authority will work in reviewing authorisations.

Amendments Nos. 182 to 190 to clause 57 bring the contents and format of the registers in part II on waste disposal into line with those of part I. They increase considerably the amount of information to be kept on the registers and require copies of the relevant parts of the register to be kept at district level.

Amendments Nos. 192 and 193 provide that registers shall also be kept at local level on information about the import and export of waste in clause 117. That might have a direct bearing on the point mentioned by the hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy). We shall increase public access to the type of information to which he referred. The difficulty would be in knowing how quickly the details would be placed on the register after the waste had become toxic. My guess is that, as the hon. Gentleman is so alive to what is going on in his constituency, he would be on to the matter before it was put on the register. I question whether the register would help.

We intend that the regulations will provide that copies of all applications to import waste into an area from overseas, or, indeed, to export waste from an area to overseas, will be fully available at district level. That will ensure as never before that the public are kept informed of information in the authority's possession on waste management in the area.

The right hon.Member for Halton (Mr. Oakes) has tabled an amendment to delete new clause 13(6). Subsection (6) meets a proposal in our consultation paper last year on public access to information. The paper suggested that, in exceptional circumstances, it would be in the national interest to include information in the register even though its inclusion might prejudice some private interest. For example, if there is a major accident, should we be able to keep the public informed? If that accident occurs overseas and involves a particular technology, should we be able to release information about that operation or that technology in Britain? One operator may be using it and benefiting competitively from it. Should we be able to reveal that information or should we keep people in the dark, so fuelling their fears and suspicions that all the relevant sectors of industry are using that technology?

5.15 pm

We have faced such a difficulty before. After the Chernobyl disaster commercial confidentiality affected the amount of information that we could release. The lack of public information served only to increase public disquiet. I passionately believe that that form of secrecy fuels fear. That is the last thing that Conservative and Opposition Members—certainly in Committee—wished to perpetuate. New clause 13(6) is in effect a reserve power designed to help ensure that there is more scope for providing information should that position ever arise again. Both the right hon. Member for Halton and I hope that it will not.

The additional detail that we decided to provide has necessitated some consequential amendments to clause 19. Taken together with some minor drafting amendments, it seemed sensible to replace the clause with new clause 11.

As I move towards the end of my opening remarks I must give some of my thoughts on the Opposition's new clause 3. I said many times in Committee that I want every person in the country to become an environmental watchdog. I believe that the Bill will go a long way towards facilitating that. This afternoon I can announce that the Bill will further extend the public right of access to information. Following the recommendations of a departmental working group, the Government have decided to place a new duty on district local authorities to compile and maintain registers of the use of potentially contaminated land. I know that that will be welcome news both to my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi), the Chairman of the Environment Select Committee, which considered those issues in its recent report, and to all members of the Standing Committee.

I am delighted to inform the House that the Government intend to introduce an amendment in the Lords to give effect to that proposal. We shall have discussions with the local authority associations on the matter. In those discussions we shall deal only with the practical effects, the timetable and how the proposals will be delivered. I have long accepted the principle. I hope that the local authority associations will not raise objections.

Both Conservative and Opposition Members behaved responsibly in Committee in putting their views to me, which I have completely met. It would not be wise for me to deal with the other subsections of new clause 13. I know that the House awaits with keen interest the comments of the hon. Member for Dewsbury.

Photo of Mrs Ann Taylor Mrs Ann Taylor , Dewsbury

I thank the Minister for his remarks about the constructive role played by the Opposition in Committee. I also thank him for the limited extent to which he has accepted some of our suggestions and incorporated them in the Government new clauses.

It is a significant breakthrough that the Government have added to the concessions already made a new concession on contaminated land. I am sure that all Opposition Members who were on the Committee welcome the statement that the Minister has just made. We should like further information about how the proposal will work in practice but in principle we are pleased that the Government have accepted the suggestion in our new clause. I hope that the Minister will think again about the other parts of our new clause. They all have the same intention—to make sure that the public are fully aware of what is happening in their area and of any environmental danger or damage caused by industry.

While I welcome much of what the Government have done and of what the Minister has said about access to information, the Government's starting point is somewhat different from ours. Their starting point seems to be that they will determine that certain types of information will be available. Welcome though that is, it is a limited way of placing information in the public domain. The starting point should be that if a member of the public wants to know about a particular point of information that is held by a public body, that information should be made available unless there is a sound reason why it should not be. So we say that all information should be available unless there is a good reason why it should not be, whereas the Government are trying to prescribe specific types of information.

The Government's new clauses are a small step in the right direction, but we have some queries about some of the points in them. First, why has the Minister removed the part of the original clause that said that any conditions attached to an authorisation would be made public in the same way as any details of a licence would be? If conditions are attached to an authorisation, that might show that there are potential problems with the process being carried out in a factory or unit. It seems strange, therefore, that this part has been dropped from the new clause.

My second question relates to a topic that we discussed in Committee. I hope that the Minister will clarify whether the information will be available as raw data or whether summaries of the information will appear on the register. Although it is important that the information be presented in an easily understood form, the basic raw data should also be provided for people who can understand them and might want to use them to take their case further. It is vital that registers, whether held on computer or in any other form, be produced in an understandable form. The Minister has changed the terminology on that point from that in the original Bill. I wonder why the registers are now to be available in any form, and whether that includes computers or whether the Minister has something else in mind.

Some aspects of access to information still worry us. Many powers still reside with the Secretary of State. If the regulations that the Minister has the power to make are written in an open fashion, which ensures that a great deal of information is available, that will be to the good, but there is nothing in the new clause to suggest that that will happen. I particularly draw the Minister's attention to new clause 11(1)(i), which states that information will include such other matters relating to the carrying on of prescribed processes or any pollution of the environment caused thereby as may be prescribed". That is very wide, but what does it mean in practice? Does it mean that all the notes and information provided by Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution when carrying out an inspection will be available; or is it merely a check list to state that a process has been inspected and an authorisation granted? I hope that the Minister will he able to clarify that.

Similarly, with regard to exceptions on the grounds of national security, I hope that the Minister will tell us that the clause could not be used to protect industry when carrying out any process in which there might be a security implication. I hope that it can be used only when the type of pollution to be monitored would constitute a security risk, and I hope that the Minister will tell us as much. The burden of proof should be the other way round; we should alway be sure that the information is available unless there is a proven case against that.

In new clause 3, which is about public rights in relation to pollution, there remain several points that I hope the Minister will look at again. We believe that there is still scope for giving members of the public greater rights to monitor pollution in their areas and to tackle the problems that exist. In particular, we want any person to be able to initiate a prosecution for an alleged pollution offence. We discussed that in Committee. The only area, as the Bill stands, in which such a prosecution would be possible is litter. However, we argue that problems that could arise from the processes described in part I of the Bill could be far more severe and harmful to the environment than the problems in the part on litter. So we do not see why the Government are so resistant to giving people the right of prosecution.

We are concerned because appeals under the IPC will still be decided by the Secretary of State, not by an independent tribunal. We believe that such independent tribunals should be set up, should meet when possible in public and should publish reasons for their decisions. It is not adequate if the Secretary of State writes the regulations, employs the inspectors and then acts as judge and jury when those inspectors make a decision against which an appeal is lodged.

In new clause 3, with the inclusion of our provision on contaminated land, which the Minister has now accepted, we have tried to establish a different framework that will give stronger rights to members of the public, which in turn will give them a better and more constructive role in monitoring the state of the environment. There is a demand for such powers for people in this country, and I hope that, as the Minister has accepted one of our constructive suggestions, he will go on and be convinced by the others, too.

Photo of Mr Robert Adley Mr Robert Adley , Christchurch

It would be churlish of any of us who sat through the Committee not to start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment and Countryside on a tremendous job. It was a huge Bill, and, to judge from the Government new clauses and amendments, it is getting bigger. That is entirely a result of the Government's willingness to listen to arguments put forward by hon. Members on both sides of the Committee.

The trouble with the Bill is that one could make virtually any speech when discussing any part of it, so in order not to weary the House by continually repeating the speeches that many of us made at some length in Committee, I want to make but a few remarks that I made in Committee some weeks ago.

My comments revolve around the questions: what is pollution, what is the environment and what is "prescribed"? My hon. Friend the Minister has made an important new announcement, which, as the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) rightly pointed out, under new clause 11(1)(i) concerns such other matters relating to the carrying on of prescribed processes", and which further enhances and enlarges the Bill.

I am worried about what is left out of the Bill. My hon. Friend the Minister knows perfectly well that some weeks ago in Committee I bored him and wearied colleagues with endless references to aircraft noise and vehicle emissions. I do not believe that any Government who hope to find an answer to the serious environmental problems that face this country can do so by bringing forward a Bill that precludes two of our major sources of environmental pollution. I know that we are to have a White Paper in due course, and I hope that some time before we finish Report stage my hon. Friend or the Secretary of State will be able to tell us what steps the Government propose to take to include aircraft noise and vehicle emissions in that White Paper, and the timetable that they envisage for dealing with them. I tabled a written question to the Department of Transport about environmental factors in that Department's investment criteria. My hon. Friend the Minister for Public Transport replied: Environmental factors, where relevant, are fully taken into account when reaching decisions, although in general it is difficult to place monetary values on environmental effects."—[Official Report, 23 April 1990; Vol. 171, c. 56.] 5.30 pm

We all understand that and also understand that clean air and peace and quiet are precious commodities that will cost a great deal if those of us who are concerned about such things are to achieve our ambitions. We all know that Third Reading takes place late at night, sometimes at 4 o'clock in the morning when everyone wants to get home. I hope that before Third Reading—either today or on Wednesday—my hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment and Countryside will reply to my points.

Photo of Mr Gordon Oakes Mr Gordon Oakes , Halton

I should like to speak to amendment (a) to new clause 13. I thank the Minister for his customary courtesy and thoroughness in referring in his opening speech to that amendment, how he regards it and the reason for subsection (6) being included in the Bill. My amendment comes from the chemical industry via the Chemical Industries Association. As the Minister knows, I have a considerable constituency interest in that industry.

The chemical industry is acutely sensitive to pollution and to the effect of its production processes on the environment. It is also probably the industry that is most acutely aware of confidentiality and the possibility of competitor companies taking trade secrets from a public register, thereby taking away business. A great deal of industrial espionage remains to be prevented in the chemical industry, not only in Britain but throughout the world. The industry is therefore rightly concerned that subsection (6) seems to give the Minister overweening power. I have no desire to press the amendment to a Division because the Minister has explained to my satisfaction how very rare would be the use of subsection (6). The industry is quite happy with the clause except for subsection (6). It considers that subsection (9), on the judgment of what is or is not confidential and in the overwhelming interest of the company, would suffice.

The Minister referred to an overseas accident. I understand his anxiety about that because Chernobyl and Bhopal are relevant to the chemical industry. Such accidents could lead him to say that information on an accident abroad arising from a process that was in use in this country should be placed on the register, so that the Minister and especially the public were aware that the process was in operation in a specific industry and at a specific place.

I shall certainly not vote against the Bill or press my amendment, but I should like to ask whether the Minister thinks that he is taking a gigantic sledgehammer to crack a tiny nut. I doubt whether he would need to bring the attention of the industry to a foreign accident because the industry would be aware of it. However, if he did he would do so by telling the industry concerned that the process that had caused the horrendous accident was unsure and unsafe. In the overwhelming number of cases the industry, for its own sake, would ensure that the process was not used in this country unless it was considerably modified. I find it difficult to envisage a case in which the Minister would have to go all the way by issuing a direction that the information should be placed on the public register and that he would do so without any discussion with the industry concerned, although I am sure that such discussion would take place.

I am grateful to the Minister for his explanations. They certainly modify my view because I accept the purpose behind what he says. As I have said, the chemical industry will be a little alarmed at the overweening nature of the Minister's powers contained in subsection (6). If it could be done in a smoother way in another place, it might assuage some of the fears of the chemical industry.

Photo of Mr Timothy Devlin Mr Timothy Devlin , Stockton South

The Bill is about protecting the environment and preserving the balance of nature. It could and should seek to achieve a balance between the needs of man and the needs of the environment. Last Wednesday when we went to the Carlton club to hear the United States ambassador he quoted words from Chief Seattle to guide our environmental consciousness. He said: Teach your children what we have taught our children: tell them that the earth is their mother. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of earth. Those of us who live in the north-east of England next to the North sea and the chemical-producing area of Teesside enjoy some of the most beautiful countryside in Europe. Our people want to see proper safeguards for the protection of our land, sea and air. At the same time, the people of this nation depend on the chemical industry to supply the materials for their everyday lives. As well as being the leading production area for plastics, fertilisers, paints and metal treatments, Teesside produces chemicals, especially in my constituency, to make parts of our cars, household appliances, radios, electronics, paints—whether yellow lines or white pigment—oils for fuel and lubrication, plastic bags, sheeting and polythene shapes.

Not only industry makes direct use of strong chemicals. Throughout the length and breadth of our land people use bleach and varnish remover, paint solvents, antiseptics and disinfectants, weed killers and pesticides. We must protect mother earth, but we do not need to renounce those things to do it. However, we must achieve the right balance between what is necessary and what is possible in a reasonable time scale and what is desirable but unnecessary.

New clauses 11, 12 and 13 deal with public rights to information. Surely what is necessary to protect the environment is the control of emissions from factories and chemical plants. Control over a process is unnecessary unless it is to protect public health and safety in the plant itself. Conditions placed on the amount and type of substances produced or utilised do not relate directly to the effect of the process on the environment. Conditions placed on the nature of emissions should be sufficient. It is likely that with large amounts of technical information available publicly, British chemical producers might lose their commercial secrets and thus their competitive edge. The Government go further in placing unreasonable burdens on industry by permitting such information to be used in proceedings because new clause 41 states: it shall be for the accused to prove that there was no better available technique not entailing excessive cost". In the United States 85 per cent. of the inquiries about registered processes are made by competitor companies. The Minister's reply to that may be that anyone representing a chemical-producing area would say that, wouldn't he. The chemical industry supports the principle of much greater public access to information under integrated pollution control. The industry regards that as essential to the maintenance of public confidence. However, it is still unclear how the system proposed by the Government will work in practice.

The change in the underlying premise away from controlling waste streams could have a potentially devastating effect on the chemical industry. The speciality chemical sector is a strong case in point. In general, products are made on a relatively small scale and utilise various types of equipment in different combinations. The success of these operations and other chemical operations depends on technical skills, ingenuity in adapting processes and, above all, speed of response to inquiries from customers. Undue constraints and permissions on process changes would make it impossible to maintain the competitive edge.

I remind my hon. Friend the Minister that the United Kingdom chemical industry contributes £2 billion to the national trade balance and is the top export earner among United Kingdom manufacturing industries. The only way that the new clause can work and not damage the industry is if the regulations and directions recognise the need for speed and flexibility in assessing and responding to applications from industry rapidly to change their process.

The people of Teesside should he alarmed by the increasingly anti-chemical industry tone of many campaigners who give partial information in support of their ends. The provisions of the Bill, and in particular these new clauses, in some ways go too far in meeting the criticisms of the anti-industry lobby. It is possible to be pro-environment and pro-industry. Those with whom I have contact in the chemical industry are concerned about protecting the environment. As one specialist chemical engineer told me, "We have been worrying about the environment for 25 years, and doing something about it."

Let me take a few examples. Twenty years ago, we had terrible smogs in Teesside. That was before the hon. Member for Redcar (Ms. Mowlam) came to Teesside. Those smogs smelt of rotten eggs, and if the wind blew the wrong way from Redcar, the whole area would be covered in a big, white, foul-smelling cloud. Thanks to changes in ammonia-process technology, and the introduction of the Clean Air Act 1956—a Conservative measure—the smogs disappeared for ever.

Secondly, ICI's pollution of the River Tees has improved to the extent that there has been a 90 per cent. reduction in the effluent flowing into the river. Thirdly, Harcros Chemicals, in my constituency, recently won an environmental award for energy conservation and clean processing.

Industry wants to be as open as possible with information for the public, but openness has to be restricted, as subsection (9) of the new clause provides, in the relatively small number of instances where public availability, which includes availability to the company's competitors, of a particular trade secret or other confidential process information, would significantly damage the company's commercial interest.

Photo of Mr Richard Holt Mr Richard Holt , Langbaurgh

Is not four years a particularly short period, given that the research that goes into many of the chemicals that are subsequently produced is three, four and possibly five times as long? Would not it pay competitors to wait until the four-year period was up?

Photo of Mr Timothy Devlin Mr Timothy Devlin , Stockton South

I agree with my hon. Friend. We had no idea that my hon. Friend the Minister would make a further announcement on this subject today, but I know that the protection of patents and of process secrets, which are sometimes developed over 20 or 30 years, is an extremely important matter, and one which the nation, and a chemical-producing area such as Teesside, should take seriously.

Subsection (9) rightly makes the test for exclusion the prejudice "to an unreasonable degree" to the commercial interest of the company. That allows the enforcing authorities or the Secretary of State not only to reject claims where they regard the degree of prejudice to be purely minimal, but, when there is real prejudice, to make a judgment on whether the prejudice is or is not unreasonable when balanced against factors favouring disclosure, such as the wider public interest. The industry supports the principle underlying that subsection, but has some reservations about the way in which the new clause has been brought forward.

I welcome the Government's acceptance of the new provision on poisoned land, but I am worried about the Opposition's proposition in new clause 3 that anybody should have the right to bring a prosecution. Such a proposition has three significant weaknesses. First, in many cases prosecution will be brought by competitor companies. As I have said, 85 per cent. of inquiries about registered processes in the United States are made by other companies. It would be possible for competitor companies to use such a prosecution to delay development of competitor products. Secondly, the provision would place an unnecessary burden on management. It would not only have to cope with the burden of proof being against it but would be faced with an endless stream of prosecutions and the attendant legal costs. Thirdly, some supposedly reputable environmental groups can be irresponsible and might use prosecution as a media tool.

5.45 pm

For example, let us take The Observer headlines not long ago over polluted chemical pits, one of which is in Eaglescliffe in my constituency. Everybody in Teesside had known about this for a long time, but the report published by Friends of the Earth, showing that there were chemical pits near residential areas and implying that they were unmonitored and that anybody could go in and die of the resulting pollution, was misleading. All that would be necessary to damage a company would be for a number of prosecutions to be set up. One can see the headlines—"Hundreds of writs issued against X company." It would be simple to engineer that. It would make a nice media headline, but would lead to a sudden and dramatic collapse for any publicly quoted company. I urge the Government to look carefully at their new clauses.

Photo of Dr Mo Mowlam Dr Mo Mowlam , Redcar

I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman's point about the competitive edge being given to one chemical company on Teesside as opposed to another. However, in view of his worries about unfair disclosure, what will he do to solve the problem that the River Tees is the most polluted river in England?

Photo of Mr Timothy Devlin Mr Timothy Devlin , Stockton South

I am glad that the hon. Member has raised that point. She obviously did not hear me earlier when I said that ICI had engineered a 90 per cent. reduction in the level of pollution in the Tees over the past 10 years. That is significant, because, while all hon. Members are concerned about the level of pollution—particularly those of us who live near to chemical plants—the companies operating in such areas are concerned themselves. One after another, they have put in place changes to processes that have brought about significant improvements to the local environment. Had she listened to my speech with a little more care, the hon. Lady might have had her point answered before she made it.

Photo of Dr Mo Mowlam Dr Mo Mowlam , Redcar

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I came into the Chamber the minute I saw that he was speaking; I do not want to miss a word of wisdom that falls from his lips. ICI has made changes to decrease the pollution of the Tees. The hon. Gentleman suggested that other chemical companies have spent money on improving the River Tees. Would he like to name them?

Photo of Mr Timothy Devlin Mr Timothy Devlin , Stockton South

I should need a little more notice of that question, but I am sure that a number of companies are taking measures. Harcros Chemicals, in my constituency, is a good example. It is reducing its discharges into the River Tees. As the hon. Lady knows, an important Bill before the House deals with a barrage for the River Tees. If it is passed, there will be a new area of clean water above the barrage and there will not be the same tidal flushing effect below the barrage, so that the environmental standards demanded for the river by the National Rivers Authority—the new environmental body established by the Government to protect the safety of our rivers—will be achieved. I know that many on Teesside are concerned about pollution in the River Tees and will be glad to hear the assurance that something is being done about it.

I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to look again at the effect that the new clause will have and at its potential effect on the chemical producing industry, which is an important industry. I urge the House to reject the Opposition's new clause 3.

Photo of Mr Ted Rowlands Mr Ted Rowlands , Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney

At times, the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Mr. Devlin) sounded like an apologia. He should beware of suggesting that some of the issues are merely media hypes. I represent communities that were told that coal tips on mountain sides were safe. Despite the experts and so-called professional knowledge, they turned out not to be safe. The price of preserving our environment is eternal vigilance. Complacency can have no part to play in our arguments and discussions on these issues.

Photo of Mr Timothy Devlin Mr Timothy Devlin , Stockton South

I hope that the tenor of my remarks did not suggest that I am complacent about these matters. I tried to say in my short speech that industry has addressed itself to many of the problems. I welcome the new provisions in the Bill for public information, but I urge the Government not to go too far with them.

Photo of Mr Ted Rowlands Mr Ted Rowlands , Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney

I did not have the great privilege of being a member of the Committee that considered the Bill in detail; it is obvious that its consideration was constructive. I support the principle and spirit of new clause 3, which deals with pollution and public rights. That issue cannot be better illustrated than by describing to the House what has happened on a site in the Rhymney valley on the banks of the River Rhymney which is only yards away from a school and below a major road. Euromet Ltd., a company from the south of England, has established what the Health and Safety Executive described to me in a letter as a Waste solvent transit storage facility". One of the qualities of debates such as this is the jargon that goes behind them. Acronyms pour out of every paragraph and page of discussion.

The storage facility is a site for 7,000 drums of toxic waste. That is the HSE's description. The drums have been placed on a site which was once occupied by an undertaking that created hundreds of skilled jobs for the Hymac company that were at the heart of the Rhymney community. This large site—it has been classified as an industrial site—is now filled with 7,000 canisters or drums of so-called paint-stripping solvents or toxic waste.

The public knew nothing about the arrival or delivery of the drums because planning permission was not required. When I raised the issue with the Under-Secretary of State for Wales during Question Time this afternoon, the hon. Gentleman said that planning powers could be exercised. In fact, they could not be, because the drums have been placed within an industrial site. It appears that under existing law a company from the south of England can deliver 7,000 drums containing toxic waste in the absence of any planning permission requirements.

There is virtually no security round the site. Photographs taken by local residents show that some of the drums are leaking. It is clear that they are rusty and not in good condition. There is confusion about the content of the drums. I sought the advice of the HSE and was not altogether reassured by its response. It seems that it has inspected the site on three or four occasions and has advised the company to improve the segregation of chlorinated solvents and flammable materials. In other words, retrospective conditions are being submitted to the company following the arrival of the drums. No public information was made available so that the delivery of the drums could be discussed. As I have said, the site is on the bank of the Rhymney and close to a school and a road. It appears that the HSE listed a number of conditions apart from the segregation of chlorinated solvents and flammable materials.

The HSE has informed me that it does not believe that the site represents a serious problem or hazard to local health. It is relevant to our debate, however, that the conditions that are now being sought to be established by the executive, and by the local authority under the Control of Pollution Act 1974, are retrospective. The drums have already been placed on the site, and neither the company nor the professionals—the HSE—has had to justify the development of the site as a transit storage facility for waste solvents. There has been no consultation, no public inquiry and no local hearing. There was no opportunity for objectors to present a case. As I have said, none of the activities that are being carried out on the site is subject to any form of planning permission.

The argument that we are advancing in the new clause has real justification. We must strengthen public rights in relation to pollution and the dumping of waste in our communities, especially by companies from outside Wales of which we know nothing. Presumably these companies are facing increasing problems in the areas and communities where they are based. Surely we are justified in seeking rights of consultation and approval to enable individuals and communities to oppose or object to activities of the sort that are taking place on the bank of the Rhymney.

The local authority tells me that it can do nothing more than issue a licence to control the pollution that will result from the site being used as a waste solvent transit storage facility". It can do nothing more than limit the damage that has already occurred, and it seems that its rights to take even that action are tightly constrained. It is the overwhelming wish of the Rhymney community, and of the valley community as a whole, that the operation should cease. It creates no jobs and it will not enhance the local environment. Indeed, its effect on the environment and the development of the community will be exactly the opposite. It is against that background that the local authority claims—I am not sure where the law stands on these matters—that it can do nothing more than issue a licence to control or limit the company's activity. That is unsatisfactory. I hope that we shall take a much more rigid, genuine and powerful line against such behaviour.

I have the privilege to represent communities that for 150 years have suffered uncontrolled physical dereliction. There have been coal tips and waste slags all around our homes. They were positioned as near as possible to the works. That is no longer the policy, but, as I have said, we have spent 150 years picking up the bill or the tab. That has been the misfortune of the local communities. It was my privilege as a Welsh Office Minister to initiate and implement the derelict land reclamation programme in the late 1960s, and I am glad that successive Governments have continued with it. It has been the public, however, or the nation that have had to pick up the tab. A huge price has had to be paid to try to put right historical neglect and physical dereliction.

We are now recreating a green society. The Secretary of State for Wales preaches through his Heads of the Valley initiative that we must diversify our commercial and industrial activities so that we can enter the new age. The last thing that the communities of Rhymney and Merthyr Tydfil want is a new form of pollution. We do not want companies that are based hundreds of miles away dumping their wastes in our community; we have spent 150 years coping with waste and low-paid jobs. Instead, we want increased economic and industrial activity in our communities. We are not willing in a new era to become a new dumping ground for industrial waste from other societies and communities. The 1990s will be our decade, just as green is the byword for the Winchesters, Chichesters and other communities that enjoy pleasant and green countryside.

The principles for which we have argued are illustrated in the example that I have given to the House of what can happen, even in the 1990s. Euromet has brought an unwanted activity to the Rhymney valley. We reject it and we hope that Euromet will accept that it is an unwelcome visitor with an unwelcome commercial activity. We do not want waste solvent transit storage facilities; we do want the power to reject Euromet.

6 pm

Photo of Mr George Walden Mr George Walden , Buckingham

I congratulate the Government on introducing a Bill which is welcome on both sides of the House. In particular, from a constituency interest, I welcome the stringent waste disposal proposals that tighten the regulations on the technical competence of those involved, and ensure that they are financially sound and have no previous convictions for illicit waste disposal activities. However, for those threatened with waste disposal holes in the ground next to their homes or near to their villages or towns, the fact that those stinking holes will be operated more efficiently is scant consolation. Their aim is not to have waste disposal so close to human habitation at all. That already happens in my constituency at Calvert and, even worse, further proposals arise month after month. Indeed, during the past few months, near the villages of Chackmore, Great Brickhill, Bierton and Mursley there have been proposals for waste disposal, for sand and gravel extraction or for both.

Gravel extraction can be a hideous environmental process, but it is not covered in the Bill. I understand that the reason for that, as for the non-inclusion of the location of waste disposal tips, is that they will be covered in future legislation on planning. Surely it is impossible to isolate one issue from the other. People will not be satisfied with regulations improving something that they do not want anyway. The Government should carefully consider making it statutorily impossible to locate waste disposal dumps close to human habitation. However efficient the Bill may be in curtailing illicit activities, there will still be the problem of smells carried on the prevailing wind, which the Government cannot hope to control if the dumps are too close to villages, small towns or larger built up areas.

The same applies, although without the smells, to gravel pits. I hope that the Government will not lose sight of the need to tighten the whole planning regime. There is an arbitrary and mechanistic regime under which each county council is required to produce a certain amount of gravel for its needs. That might make a neat regime, but it takes no account of the actual location of the gravel pit in a county. My constituency experience is that for some geological reason—I am not an expert—gravel appears to crop up close to human habitation. Villagers are often offered the choice between a future unwanted residual lake and, in the case of waste disposal, methane or other unwelcome products oozing from the ground close to their homes. I hardly need to emphasise the environmental damage and the damage to property values in the interim.

For all those reasons, I hope that the Government will not rest on their well-deserved laurels but will tighten the whole regime, and especially the regulations on the siting of waste disposal and gravel pits.

Photo of Mr Peter Hardy Mr Peter Hardy , Wentworth

I hope that the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Walden) will forgive me if I do not follow his observations on gravel pits. He was right to pursue his constituency interests. Indeed, I propose briefly to pursue mine.

The House has previously heard about the problem of toxic waste in Wath upon Dearne. Indeed, following the presentation of a motion by my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Mr. Redmond) and other constituency neighbours, it was suggested that I brought one of the 4,200 drums of toxic waste to the House. Conservative Members were not pleased by that suggestion. I sought the advice of Mr. Speaker, who expressed the hope that I would do no such thing. You will note, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I have not, even though the temptation was strong. Had I chosen to do so, it would have met with the approval of many of my constituents.

I thank the Minister, with whom I have discussed this serious and complex problem on a number of occasions, for the time that he has spent on this matter. The problem is that the current regulations and law are unsatisfactory. Given the possible litigation that may ensue, if the Minister finds that within the next few weeks the Bill does not adequately close the loopholes to which I referred when he kindly allowed me to intervene in his speech, I hope that he will consider introducing amendments in another place to remedy that.

For almost a year my constituency has suffered a serious problem—not the 7,000 drums referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands), but 2,400 drums of material that was not drummed when it arrived but was left open. It was supposed to be copper hydroxide sludge waste. It was later found to be contaminated, which caused enormous anxiety to local residents. I live only one mile from the site and I took part in a public meeting that was the largest, angriest and most excited that I can recall in my long political career both nationally and in south Yorkshire. The anxiety was eased by the Government's action, at my request, to ensure that the material was contained. However, it is still there and the anxiety persists.

The House knows that I have been interested in green issues for a long time. The problem with this sort of case is that it makes recycling a dirty word. Most of us accept that as we use the world's resources recycling becomes more and more a necessity. It is equally a necessity to ensure that industry is properly regulated and operated. If the Bill helps to ensure that public anxiety is allayed by the proper conduct of an essential industry, it will be an important contribution. Until the industry is properly run and supervised, and operates against a background of adequate legislation that closes the absurd loopholes we encountered last year in Wath upon Dearne, there will be cause for anxiety.

I do not want to say much more about that incident because it may be regarded as sub judice. However, may I correct a remark made by the Minister when he responded to my earlier intervention. He said that the material concerned was later identified as being toxic. If the Minister checks, he will find that it is toxic in British law but not toxic under American law, provided that it is exported from America. If the material remains in America, it is deemed to be toxic, but ceases to be so when it leaves that country.

That leads me to argue that if it is reasonable and right to seek proper laws and adequate regulations in respect of the chemical disposal industry in our own country, we are not serving the cause of common sense if we fail to make a positive and vigorous response to international control. It is absurd for the United States to observe one law in respect of chemicals that remain there and another for chemicals that it exports. It is equally absurd that we are prepared to go along with an international regime that allows such a preposterous situation to exist.

As the immediate past chairman of the Council of Europe's environment committee, I should like to think that the Government will give an absolute assurance that all international instruments, particularly the Basle convention, will be fully implemented by the United Kingdom. I also hope that the Government will ensure, as a matter of priority, that the arrangements made within the EEC are extended to a wider international basis. As the Minister accepts, and as some of my hon. Friends made clear, we are dealing here not only with a national problem but with an international problem which requires a proper and vigorous international response.

Photo of Mr Richard Holt Mr Richard Holt , Langbaurgh

I declare two interests: as the chairman of a company on Teesside, and as a member of the Select Committee on the Environment, whose members would want to thank my hon. Friend the Minister and the Government for at long last introducing provisions for which the Select Committee has argued for a very long time.

It is gratifying to note that the Bill even includes a provision covering contaminated land. Perhaps it is worth placing on record that, when the Environment Select Committee decided for the first time to investigate contaminated land some months ago, the Department issued a press release on the subject for the first time in living memory. Also, as the Select Committee stimulated a degree of action, it is not fair of the Opposition to take all the credit for new clause 11(6), because that emanates from the work of hon. Members on both sides of the House in Committee.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South (Mr. Devlin) spoke about the chemical industry and the four-year period of confidentiality, which really is not long enough. As someone with a brief experience of the industry, I can tell the House that research often takes a very long time to complete and is costly. If, at the end of the day, the manufacturer finds that the return will not be sufficient, that research will not be undertaken and jobs will not come here.

I urge my hon. Friend the Minister carefully to reconsider new clause 11. The chemical industry brings vast amounts of money into this country. Last week a company of which I am chairman, MTM plc, won an export award for the second or third year running in recognition of the extent to which its efforts have contributed to the amount of money that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has to play with. My company has also recently bought six companies in America. I say that to indicate the global nature of the chemical industry. It has also bought two companies in Austria, which we shall use to develop the potential market in eastern Europe. Expertise and knowledge are not confined by the waters of the North sea and English channel. One can export them all round the world very satisfactorily.

If the Government are slow to understand what they are being told, then they are missing a golden opportunity. They ought to ask the chemicals industry what is a reasonable and viable time for research so that the Bill can leave this House with the support of everyone concerned.

6.15 pm

As to the Opposition's suggestion that individuals should be allowed to pursue prosecutions, I hardly need remind my hon. Friend the Minister and all right hon. and hon. Members of the number of constituents who often frequent our surgeries with all sorts of notions. If one were to open the door to litigation without any form of pre-sifting, as the Opposition's new clause 3(2) suggests, one would be creating a lawyer's paradise. The chemicals industry would disappear from this country because there would be no purpose in establishing a company here and then finding that all one's chief executives and money were being devoted to defending fruitless and wasteful litigation. The Government should give serious consideration to the way in which prosecutions can be brought by people having a genuine grievance.

The Bill is rather like the curate's egg. Of course it is good, but it is bad in its omissions. It fails to address the point that has been made time and again by right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House, that there should be a national waste disposal policy, and that it should not be left to local authorities to make up their minds on the basis of planning applications, which will anyway be NIMBY'd back to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment.

I am against strict planning controls almost as a matter of personal philosophy—

Photo of Dr Mo Mowlam Dr Mo Mowlam , Redcar

indicated assent.

Photo of Mr Richard Holt Mr Richard Holt , Langbaurgh

—as the hon. Member for Redcar (Ms. Mowlam) knows. As was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Walden), unpopular planning propositions will be referred to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. Therefore, it will be far better if the Environment Select Committee's suggestion for a national waste disposal plan is accepted by the Government. That would ensure not only that Teesside, which creates much of the waste in manufacturing products that everyone else uses, but all parts of the country take responsibility for a share of waste disposal in years to come. The Government should address the problem properly and not hide behind the situation in which they currently find themselves.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Commons), Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

The debate has been interesting because hon. Members in all parts of the House welcome registers of information and public access to them and agree that new clause 11 is needed. It has revealed also how much more work remains to be done. I am sympathetic to the point made by the hon. Members for Buckingham (Mr. Walden) and for Langbaurgh (Mr. Holt) that the environment cannot be properly protected unless the planning process is designed with that aim in mind. It remains one of the most effective weapons for protecting our environment.

I and my right hon. and hon. Friends have long argued that matters concerning the disposal of chemical or nuclear waste, or the construction of nuclear power stations, should be the subject of a full public inquiry to determine general strategy. Thereafter one can deal with specific details in the area in question, given the general macrodecisions.

I was not involved in the Committee because before Easter I was responsible for education. Over Easter I was recycled and I returned to the House to look after green issues for my party. I welcome that responsibility and I am pleased to find that the climate has changed in the years since I last undertook it and that people are falling over themselves to be greener than the rest.

I welcome the new clause and the Minister's announcement that there will be a duty to compile a register of contaminated land. I and my colleagues have campaigned for that for a long time. In areas where there is land development, if people think there may be some contamination it is a matter of concern and it is right and proper that we should have scientific evidence.

I take a somewhat different view from the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Mr. Devlin) who spoke earlier. The presumption should be in favour of the public having the information. Although in theory the idea of everyone having the right to prosecute is wonderful, in practice it is probably a good idea that there is a set process, such as when one applies for a judicial review, so that the starting point for a case is established. I take the point that the little person does not stand much chance against a large company, but there are plenty of little people with fairly cranky ideas who could occupy the courts for a long time.

I have some anxieties about the Bill. I am not yet satisfied that the Government understand that the best way to protect the environment is to maximise the amount of information given to people. Education is the best means of environmental protection.

The new clause gives the Secretary of State a let-out power. Certain confidential information will be excluded from registers. I listened carefully to what the Minister said, but we still do not know what would prejudice to an "unreasonable degree" the interests of the individual. I am not persuaded that a decision by the Secretary of State, whoever that may be, would be impartial and would be the best decision, based on a balance between the right to know and commercial interests. That is where I disagree with the hon. Member for Stockton, South.

My colleagues and I do not think that one can argue against freedom of information on environmental matters by saying that it might harm competition. The market economy has to take second place to the environment, not first place. When it comes to the crunch one cannot say that industry can be allowed to play its competitive games, although I understand that the hon. Member for Stockton, South represents the chemical industry in Stockton and I know of the contribution that that industry makes in the north-east. However, the environment must come before the rights of corporations and their profit. Only then will corporate activity in Britain become environmentally acceptable.

Photo of Mr Timothy Devlin Mr Timothy Devlin , Stockton South

Surely if one seeks to protect the environment what matters is what comes out of the factory, whether it comes out through the floor, the roof or into the local river. The Bill seeks to control every aspect of the production process and make it publicly available. Most of that information will be used by competitor companies. That is not necessary for the protection of the environment.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Commons), Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

I understand that point, but it is not true that the information will be principally put to that use. It is right that people should be able to monitor what a private enterprise—be it a large or a small company—or an individual is doing rather than risk a process causing environmental problems. It is a question not only whether the product and any discharges are environmentally safe and publicly acceptable but whether the process is safe from beginning to end. One of the lessons that we have learnt from the nuclear industry here and in Russia is that often it is the process and not the product which is dangerous.

Photo of Mr Timothy Devlin Mr Timothy Devlin , Stockton South

Surely that objection can be overcome by providing the public with information on all the emissions from a plant. The internal workings of the plant could be monitored by the Health and Safety Executive for the protection of the people working there. There is no need for information on the entire process to be made available to the public.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Commons), Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

Of course the process is relevant. However, this is a detailed debate and we do not have time to go into that issue. The Health and Safety Executive has a role to ensure that the process is safe for the work force and for the community. Two of the criticisms levelled by the Opposition are that health and safety control mechanisms are depleted and there are not sufficient resources and people to do the job. However, there is another element, which is to ensure that the process and the product are environmentally safe. That does not mean that everyone has to know details of every single nut, tool and lathe used in the process, but there needs to be a framework for access to information.

Another important point is that there must be access to publicly held information. I fear that because the Government are privatising so many processes, people cannot get at information that was previouly available. For example, we often ask questions in the House about the energy industry and we are told that we cannot have ministerial answers because it is a matter for the Central Electricity Generating Board. However, if one asks the CEGB one does not get the information because the barriers go up. That is a dangerous trend. If there is to be an increasing number of privatised Government agencies rather than Government Departments, we must guard against the danger that we will not have access to information that we had access to in the past.

Photo of Mr Timothy Devlin Mr Timothy Devlin , Stockton South

The biggest cover-up that ever took place in process technology was in the nuclear industry when it was in the public sector. Surely the whole thrust of the Bill and of the privatisation of the electricity industry was to meet the hon. Gentleman's objections and to put that information into the public sector.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Commons), Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that the remedy would have been to have a freedom of information Act a long time ago, as they have in other countries. Then we would know what goes on in the public's name and in the public sector. Then the secrecy, which is manifest and accepted in the nuclear industry, would not continue and all those things that have happened to the detriment of scientific knowledge and the environment would have been prevented.

I have two main anxieties, because the Minister should realise that there is a long way to go. The first is about ozone at ground level, which is accepted as a health hazard. In August 1989 the Department of the Environment issued a press release entitled, "Low-level ozone—Goverment makes information available." The first paragraph was: A special daily summary of low-level ozone concentrations around the country will be available from the Department of the Environment for the rest of the summer. In March this year an incident occurred but no information was forthcoming from the Department. People in Sussex noticed a high incidence of ozone and its effects on particular plants at ground level. I recently asked why no announcement was made. I had the following honest and wonderful answer from the Minister: In accordance with the Department's news release of 3 August 1989, information on ozone levels occurring on 17 and 18 March and also on 31 March and 1 April was available from the Department's press office the morning of the day after the episode commenced. No journalist asked for this summary."—[Official Report, 24 April 1990; Vol. 171, c. 121.] Therefore, in a Kafkaesque fashion, only if one knew that something had happened could one could ask about it. Unless one knew, one could never find out. That is not how freedom of information should work. The purpose of a freedom of information Act and open government is that one is given the information. One ought not to have to hope that one will get it if one asks the right question at the right time.

Secondly, there is still no public right to access to information in relation to the data used to justify authorisation of pesticides—both old ones and more recently authorised ones. Ministers have power to make the data available, but there is no public right to that information. Although the regulations stipulate that data relating to new approvals can be seen on request at the registration department—that is, the Department of Health—by anyone with good cause, when the Friends of the Earth asked recently for that information it was told that it could not have it; even if it could see it, it could not photocopy that information. That is not an open society. Information about the environment is not being made available.

The Government's new clause and the Minister's announcement are to be welcomed, but we are still a long way from an open information society. Until we have such a society, we shall not have the best protected environment that both this country and the world as a whole yearn for increasingly every day.

Photo of Mr Peter Pike Mr Peter Pike , Burnley 6:30 pm, 30th April 1990

It may help the Minister if I say that the Opposition Front Bench do not intend to intervene in the debate. Furthermore, the Opposition do not intend to press new clause 3 to a Division.

We welcome the Government's new clauses. It has been said more than once that we are grateful for the way in which the Bill has been dealt with throughout its passage through the House, particularly in Committee. Parliament was then at its best. The approach to the debates was positive. The Government responded to criticism and constructive proposals from all sides. The result is the many Government amendments and new clauses. The Minister may be reflecting on the fact that if the Government had adoped the same approach two years ago when the Local Government Finance Bill was being considered, they would not be faced with some of the difficulties that confront them now.

Subsection (8) of new clause 11 illustrates the fact that the Government have responded positively to a point that I made in Committee. It states: For the purpose of enabling the National Rivers Authority to discharge its duty under section 117(1)(f) of the Water Act 1989 to keep corresponding particulars in registers under that section, the chief inspector shall furnish the Authority with the particulars contained in any register maintained by him under this section. That covers a deficiency in the Bill. We welcome the Government's response to that point.

Photo of Mr Robert Adley Mr Robert Adley , Christchurch

I share entirely the hon. Gentleman's sentiments about the mood and spirit of the Committee's proceedings. On reflection, therefore, does he agree with me that the Opposition's opposition to the water privatisation proposals should reflect the fact that the creation of the National Rivers Authority resulted, in the first case in which it took action against a major company, in a fine of £1 million being levied on that company? On reflection, does he agree with me that on that occasion the Opposition were not always right?

Photo of Mr Peter Pike Mr Peter Pike , Burnley

No. I have great respect for the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Adley), but he fails to recognise that at every stage of the water privatisation proceedings we supported the creation of a National Rivers Authority. However, we believe that the water industry should not have been privatised. The National Rivers Authority was created after a unanimous recommendation by the Select Committee. The Opposition supported its creation on every possible occasion. We queried whether it would be given sufficient powers and funding, but we fully supported its creation and we recognise that it is doing good work. We hope that good work will continue and that the NRA will he provided with additional powers and resources, should they be required, to enable it to fulfil its functions. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman chose to intervene on that point. He may have thought that he was being helpful, but he was not particularly helpful.

Although there have been positive debates, it would be wrong to say that there has been no disagreement. The Opposition believe that the Government ought to go further, in particular on access to information. At the beginning of her speech my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) made the point, which was echoed, although in different words, by the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes), that the Opposition approach the issue of access to information on the presumption that the public have a right to that information. The Government approach the issue frorn the other direction. It is an important difference of approach. The Government ought to think again about the issue and make further concessions in the other place. We believe that the public have a right to know.

On commercial confidentiality, the hon. Member for Langbaurgh (Mr. Holt) referred to the period of four years. The Minister said that if a request were made towards the end of the four-year period to extend it, the request would be considered—that the four-year period is not finite. New clause 3 proposes a shorter period—that no information shall be withheld from a public register concerned with pollution for a period longer than two years.

Photo of Mr Richard Holt Mr Richard Holt , Langbaurgh

I hope that the hon. Gentleman has taken on board my point that it is not a question of there being a review at the end of four years. It is that if, before any commercial undertaking began the exercise, there was the slightest risk that at the end of the four years the investment would be jeopardised, it would not necessarily make the investment, with the result that those jobs and that work would go overseas.

Photo of Mr Peter Pike Mr Peter Pike , Burnley

We discussed all these points at great length in Committee. We need to achieve a balance.

The Minister made an important statement about contaminated land. I had intended to argue that there should be a register of contaminated land, but the Minister has said that a register will be created. However, I remind the Minister of the Select Committee's report. I served on that Committee, as did several other hon. Members who are in the Chamber. The report referred to the type of register that should be created. Paragraph (5) states: We recommend that the Government bring forward legislation to lay on local authorities a duty to seek out and compile registers of contaminated land. We consider that registers should be developed using common methodology which should be speedily refined and published by the DOE. Additionally the local authorities should use compatible computer hardware and software in compiling their registers to facilitate transfer to the DOE. I hope that the Minister will take that recommendation into account when he formulates his proposals. I hope that he appreciates that I refer to that point only because he did not specify exactly how he intends to deal with it.

The hon. Members for Stockton, South (Mr. Devlin), for Langbaurgh and for Southwark and Bermondsey referred to subsection (2) of new clause 3 which deals with the right of members of the public to prosecute. That is a difficult issue. The Opposition do not believe that anyone should be able, for malicious, trivial or unnecessary reasons, to prosecute. However, if the authority is to be responsible for ensuring that there is no pollution and that our environment is protected, we want the Bill to include a backstop that will give the public the right and the genuine ability to take action where appropriate.

We were not intending to provide a finite proposal, but the Government have not got it right. The public should be protected. I am not talking about protecting industry or anything else; I am talking about protecting the people of this country. If the public believe that those who have a duty to perform on their behalf are failing in that duty, they should have the right to take legal action themselves. That is the spirit in which we are proposing subsection (2) of new clause 3.

Photo of Mr David Trippier Mr David Trippier , Rossendale and Darwen

I shall be brief, but in all cases I shall attempt to reply to the pertinent points that have been made in this interesting debate. I am grateful to all hon. Members for the way in which they welcomed my initial statement about the register that is to be compiled by district authorities.

The hon. Members for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) and for Burnley (Mr. Pike) asked me to elucidate that point. I am certain that they will welcome the fact that the register will be compiled along the lines suggested by the Select Committee. Part of the discussions and negotiations with the local authority associations will relate to the detail of that. We estimated and gave evidence to the Select Committee to the effect that it would cost half a person a year—I love those terms—to compile the register. I cannot imagine how that could be done, but that was accepted by the Select Committee. The problem is not so much the compilation of the register, as its upkeep and updating. Nevertheless, do it we will. I am not only committed to the principle, but will ensure that the provisions are set in statute in the form of an amendment to be moved in the House of Lords. I am grateful to the House for its welcome for that.

The second main point raised by the hon. Member for Dewsbury was about the ability of an individual to begin legal proceedings against a company that had offended in some way or had breached the conditions that are outlined in the Bill. We dealt with that proposition at some length in Committee, but I underline once again the fact that that facility is already available to individuals. Such prosecutions are not unknown because, as the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) knows well as a lawyer, such action is within the ability and the power of the individual. Quite honestly, I do not want to interfere with that and nor should I because if such a right is vested in the individual we avoid the difficulties that were encountered by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South (Mr. Devlin). We had what was at times a lively discussion on that point in Committee. Of course, we always welcome such discussions. When we discussed that matter in Committee, I said that there was no need for any amendment to achieve the objective that is now outlined in new clause 3 because any individual could bring a private prosecution. I ask the House to accept that point.

Several hon. Members, especially Opposition Members, have questioned whether matters of dispute should go before a tribunal as opposed to going before my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. I find it more compelling to say that such matters should go before my right hon. Friend because he is answerable to the House. It is perfectly clear that whoever is the Secretary of State for the Environment, in whatever Administration, that person would be subjected to more pressure—certainly environmental pressure—than that to which any tribunal would or could be subjected. Therefore, on balance, I believe that that matter is better left in the hands of the Secretary of State for the Environment instead of with the bureaucracy that always attends such tribunals.

I have no difficulty with appeals that are made to my right hon. Friend being as open as possible—that would be entirely consistent with increased public access to environmental information—but, for goodness sake, let us not invent a new bureaucracy and set up a new tribunal—

Photo of Dr Mo Mowlam Dr Mo Mowlam , Redcar

What about the new bureaucracy that was set up for the poll tax?

Photo of Mr David Trippier Mr David Trippier , Rossendale and Darwen 6:45 pm, 30th April 1990

I can assure Opposition Members that in the unlikely event of them ever becoming the Government of this country, they would wish to reserve those powers for their Secretary of State for the Environment. I found it amusing that the Opposition should seek to raise that point by way of a new clause. I also found the discussion about commercial confidentiality amusing. Although by itself it is not an amusing subject—it is serious and interesting—I must advise the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey and my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South that, at the risk of hammering the nails out of sight, we bashed this one to bits in Committee. It resulted in me issuing a press notice, which I am anxious to send to the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey, in which I made clear the way in which we interpret matters of commercial confidentiality.

I agree with the hon. Members for Soutwark and Bermondsey and for Dewsbury that there should be a presumption in favour of revealing as much as possible. The only thing with which I disagreed in the hon. Lady's initial speech was when she said that there seemed to be a great difference of opinion on that point. I do not accept that. I believe that we are all pointing in the same direction. I clearly remember an intervention on Second Reading by the hon. Member for Knowsley, North (Mr. Howarth), suggesting that we should clearly spell out that which we would consider to be commercially confidential, but that at all times there should be a presumption in favour of releasing that information. As I have said, secrecy breeds fear, which is just what we want to avoid in these circumstances.

My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Adley) has been co-operative throughout, especially in Committee, and we have tried to meet many of his points. He will draw comfort from the fact that the scope of our wider noise review will be extended to cover aircraft noise. My hon. Friend is fully entitled to draw to himself the credit for having drawn our attention, as Ministers, to the importance of that issue, and I hope that he will do so.

Photo of Mr Robert Adley Mr Robert Adley , Christchurch

I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for responding yet again. May I presume to assume that my other point about vehicle emissions will also feature in discussions between his Department and the Department of Transport so that ere long he will be able to say the same thing about that?

Photo of Mr David Trippier Mr David Trippier , Rossendale and Darwen

Vehicle emissions will certainly be covered in the scope of the proposed White Paper, which is to be introduced in September. I am afraid that I am not empowered to go further than that at this stage. Perhaps my hon. Friend will be satisfied with half a cake this afternoon. I am delighted for him that aircraft noise will be included in the noise review.

The hon. Member for Dewsbury asked me about the conditions that are not included in new clause 11. That is because the issue is covered in subsection (1)(b). The reference to "authorisations" includes emissions. The hon. Lady also asked about registers—

Photo of Mr Andrew Bennett Mr Andrew Bennett , Denton and Reddish

Did I hear the Minister correctly? Did he say that the White Paper would he published in September? Will that be for the Tory party conference? Would not it have been better to publish it while the House of Commons is sitting so that we could debate it at an early opportunity?

Photo of Mr David Trippier Mr David Trippier , Rossendale and Darwen

The hon. Gentleman might have had a point if the promise to produce the White Paper had been made initially to the House of Commons, but my hon. Friends will recall that that promise was made at the Conservative conference in Blackpool when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State promised the party workers, who were sitting there with bated breath, that before the next conference they would have a White Paper. They were clearly overjoyed. It is important that we secure the support of our own supporters before making such a document available to the waiting world.

Photo of Mrs Ann Taylor Mrs Ann Taylor , Dewsbury

Perhaps the Minister can clarify one point. He seems to imply that the White Paper is designed to satisfy, and perhaps abate, some of the criticism that the Government are expecting at this year's Tory party conference. If the White Paper is an internal Tory party document, why is the taxpayer paying for it and not the Conservative party?

Photo of Mr David Trippier Mr David Trippier , Rossendale and Darwen

The hon. Lady knows better than that. As I recall, the White Paper was welcomed by the Opposition when it was announced. That form of announcement—at a party conference—is common to all political parties, especially when they are in power. It is clear that the White Paper will be an agenda for the 1990s, and the Conservative party intends to be in government at the end of the 1990s and to ensure that its proposals are implemented.

The hon. Member for Dewsbury also asked about registers in any form. New clause 11 makes wide provision to cover all the ways of maintaining a register—paper records, computer-held data microfiche and photographic registers. That is why the existing clause has been changed—to allow all or any forms of register to be kept.

I have some sympathy with the point raised by the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands). A similar point was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Walden). The provisions in the Bill for waste disposal have been tightened up and as a result of the legislation standards will be raised. Of that there can he no doubt. The precise provisions that both hon. Members seek would best be incorporated in planning legislation. That was rightly pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham. Obviously we hope to ensure that the legislation is tightened up sooner rather than later.

Photo of Mr David Trippier Mr David Trippier , Rossendale and Darwen

May I finish this point? Although the matter is in the purview of the Welsh Office, there are provisions in the Bill concerning the importation of hazardous waste—principally from abroad. That clearly needs tightening up. Under part II of the Bill, which deals with waste, I shall try to introduce a national strategy—I stop short of saying "plan"—to ensure that regions of the United Kingdom remain self-sufficient in how they deal with their waste. That will be welcomed by the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney.

Photo of Mr Ted Rowlands Mr Ted Rowlands , Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney

The key point was emphasised by the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Walden). We should bring that type of activity under planning control, so that local authorities can say no, public inquiries can take place and everyone, including the Health and Safety Executive, must make their case before an independent inspector. That is the key change—as opposed to allowing 7,000 drums to turn up in my constituency without planning permission being required.

Photo of Mr David Trippier Mr David Trippier , Rossendale and Darwen

I agree, and I understood the hon. Gentleman's earlier point. However, I know that he accepts that that type of planning provision cannot be included in the Bill. We hope to address that point in more detail in the near future: a legislative window should be found for such a planning Bill.

I give a solemn undertaking to the hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) that my officials and I will do whatever we can to improve the Bill to relieve the problems that he has experienced in Wath upon Dearne. That could include amendments made to the Bill in another place. The hon. Gentleman knows that I have every sympathy for his predicament. Furthermore, I shall make it my business to ensure that there are international agreements to cover all his points. If we do not co-operate with other countries—especially developed countries—we shall be at a competitive disadvantage.

Let me explain to my hon. Friend the Member for Langbaurgh (Mr. Holt) that we arrived at a figure of four years as something of a compromise, between Labour Front-Benchers who wanted a tighter turnaround time and a reapplication of the conditions of commercial confidentiality, and those in the industry—certainly the chemical industry—who would have wanted much more time. We thought that four years was satisfactory, although I am sure that the figure will be re-examined in another place. The Government consider that that is a satisfactory length of time to elapse before an application is made.

I notice that my hon. Friend the Member for Langbaurgh shakes his head. I must say to him and my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South that when he was praying in aid the contribution of the right hon. Member for Halton (Mr. Oakes), he must have forgotten that the right hon. Gentleman said that the Chemical Industries Association was content with the provisions in that part of the Bill, with the exception of his amendment. I believe that what he said was not conjecture, but a statement of fact.

I hope that the amendment and the new clause in the name of Opposition Members will not be pressed to a Division, and that the House will support the Government's new clauses.