Deregulation (No. 2)

– in the House of Commons at 3:32 pm on 22nd June 1993.

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Photo of Anthony Steen Anthony Steen , South Hams 3:32 pm, 22nd June 1993

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to empower the Secretary of State and the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food further to control the activities of self-financing regulatory authorities. Last month I sought leave to introduce a Bill to repeal unnecessary rules and regulations which restrict the competitiveness of British industry. Not surprisingly, the Labour party—the guardian angels of red tape—voted me down. Although driven by the same distaste for regulations, this time I seek leave to introduce a Bill to strike a blow at a far more sinister development which not only chokes profitability, but will lead ultimately to economic paralysis.

I am referring, of course, to the emergence of SEFRAs—self-financing regulatory agencies—the most prominent of which are the National Rivers Authority and Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution. They make the quangos of the 1980s look like cuddly toys and have created an entirely new and additional layer of bureaucracy. For instance, the National Rivers Authority employs 7,500 staff—officials paid out of the public purse.

Let me explain what SEFRAs are and how they work. They were created with the best possible intention by the Government to improve the standards of health, safety, hygiene and pollution. Their detrimental impact cannot, for once, be blamed on Europe so much as on the over-zealousness of our officials in interpreting far beyond what Brussels intended. [Interruption.] I am having great difficulty, Madam Speaker, in hearing myself, so I do not know how my hon. Friends are managing.

Photo of Miss Betty Boothroyd Miss Betty Boothroyd Speaker of the House of Commons

I am terribly sorry. I can hear the hon. Gentleman very clearly and I am most interested in what he has to say. The rest of the House must come to order so that we may all hear.

Photo of Anthony Steen Anthony Steen , South Hams

I am delighted, Madam Speaker, that you are so interested in what I am saying.

The detrimental impact cannot, for once, be blamed on Europe so much as on the over-zealousness of our own officials in interpreting far beyond what Brussels ever intended. It makes one think that we may have a kind of bureaucratic fifth column in the heart of Westminster and Whitehall.

Most SEFRAs are rather modest and small to start with, often set up to carry out what local authorities used to do. But, once established, they grow fast, with a life force of their own. Many of the 2,945 statutory instruments passed in 1991 increased the powers of SEFRAs and their ability to issue licences, serve notices and demand compliance. Today they set targets, issue codes of practice and have become bodies which alone can grant legitimacy.

To do this, they employ armies of officials to make inspections, and only when satisfied will they grant licences. In fact, the modus vivendi of SEFRAs is to create rules and regulations, then employ officials to enforce them, charging the unfortunate victims for inspection and the issue of licences.

Some of the rules have helped us to clean up our act; others are simply an additional form of taxation, authorising individuals to do what they have done previously without charge. I will give some examples.

The National Rivers Authority insists on charging a householder in the Lake district a fee because she collects the water that runs down the side of a mountain. She puts the water in a tank and uses it in her house. She has never been charged before, but she is now charged for collecting the water, because the National Rivers Authority says that the water that she takes for her own use could be used by somebody else if she were not using it.

Then there is a case in Birmingham where a company has a building with a large corrugated roof on which water falls. The water runs off the roof, into a down pipe and into a stream. The National Rivers Authority charges the company for that because, it says, the water will erode the banks of the stream.

There is another example in my own constituency. The Harborn garage has a forecourt into which rain occasionally falls. The water goes down a little conduit under the road into a stream. Never before were the garage owners charged, but now they are charged £60 a year in case any of the water that falls on the forecourt should pollute the stream. It is shameful to charge a small garage in this way.

If individuals do not pay the charges that are heaped on them, they are pursued into the courts. Thousands of lives have been made miserable by the contagious nature of SEFRA-isation. Without licences, all organisations are trapped. They cannot trade, and they are branded as defaulters.

SEFRAs generate their own life force. They produce codes of practice, they enforce. Lifting standards is all very well if the organisations targeted have the resources to pay. During the recession most businesses have contracted, whereas SEFRAs have grown and grown, with more publicly paid staff, more rules, more regulations and more red tape.

The scrap metal industry is worth £3 billion a year and is pursuing environmental objectives, whereby it recycles 99 per cent. of the material that it handles, with 1 per cent. going to landfill. Its problem emanates from an emerging SEFRA—the waste regulation authority—which, in interpreting the Environmental Protection Act 1990, has muddled disposal of waste with recycling and forced on the scrap metal industry a raft of new regulations. Scrapyards have to pay £3,000 for a licence and £8,000 for an inspection. If they want to go out of business and surrender their licence, they have to pay another £3,000. Operators are quitting the business in droves. The result is that there will be more material to landfill and less will be recycled, resulting in additional pollution.

Apart from the ordinary household waste, all other waste is classified as controlled waste. To carry controlled waste, one must have a waste management licence: cost £95. To receive controlled waste, one needs another licence, a waste management licence, which costs £1,800. A brewery that for years has been sending barley mash, a by-product of the brewing process, to a local farm for pig fodder has been told that it is recycling waste. Under the new regulations, the brewer must pay £95 to transport the stuff to the farm whereas the farmer with his pigs is viewed as a receiver of waste and has to pay £1,800 to receive it. The House can guess the result: the pigs go hungry. Instead of the waste being put to good use, it goes down the drain and, no doubt, helps to pollute the local river.

The most vivid example of creeping SEFRA-isation is encapsulated in the Spanish coffins saga. Unfortunately, 200 to 300 Britons die in Spain each year. Naturally, they are shipped home in Spanish coffins. However, due to European environmental directive 84/360, coffins can be burnt in a crematorium in this country only if they do not contain certain banned substances, such as certain glues. Although Spain is a signatory to the directive, surprise, surprise, it has not got around to enforcing it. That means that when the body arrives at a British crematorium, it is decoffined, as the parlance goes, from the Spanish coffin and then recoffined in a British-made coffin which, surprise, surprise, conforms to EC regulations. The coffin can then be burnt at the crematorium in full compliance with the directive and with the Environmental Protection Act. Britain, as ever, has done its bit in conforming to the regulations. However, when one asks those working at the crematorium what happens to the Spanish coffins, one is told that they are taken out the back and burnt on a bonfire.

That story was related to me by one of the most famous SEFRA-hunters of all time, Christopher Booker of The Sunday Telegraph. It is such bureaucratic absurdities that have prompted me to seek leave to introduce a Bill to curb the creeping growth of SEFRAs and to rein back their power to introduce new and punitive regulations which are doing unnecessary and untold damage. That is apart from their appalling cost which has to be supported by the public purse and which, no doubt, contributes to the nation's £50 billion deficit. In short, our nation's enterprise is being inhibited. Any talk of lifting the burden will have a hollow ring unless something is done about the growth of SEFRAs. That is an important task and I ask the House to give me leave to do something about it.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Anthony Steen, Sir Michael Grylls, Sir Michael Neubert, Sir Anthony Durant, Sir Donald Thompson, Sir Keith Speed, Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith, Mr. Dudley Fishburn, Mr. Quentin Davies, Mr. John Sykes, Mr. Bernard Jenkin and Mr. Roger Evans.