Guidance on Costs and Benefits

Part of New clause 3 – in the House of Commons at 5:30 pm on 27th June 1995.

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Photo of Mrs Helen Jackson Mrs Helen Jackson , Sheffield, Hillsborough 5:30 pm, 27th June 1995

As the Minister will know, the new clause deals not with whether costs and benefits should be recognised by the Environment Agency as important considerations but with whether it is better to include them in ministerial guidelines to the agency or in the Bill. The new clause should be accepted because, if it is not, when there is a query about a pollution incident that needs remedial action, the tendency may be for the polluter to look to the accountant to draw up reasons why the company cannot afford the remedial action instead of looking to its policy development officer to work constructively with the agency to find ways to reduce or remove the pollution. Polluters have to take an important decision. A duty included in the Bill may mean that the agency rather than the polluter could end up in the dock in court.

Since we discussed the matter in Committee, I have received parliamentary answers relating to the enforcement aspects of the existing agencies—Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution and the National Rivers Authority—and the frequency and success of the court actions that they have undertaken in the past three years. In a written parliamentary answer relating to HMIP, which undertook 38 court actions in the past three years, the Minister said: When considering what level of enforcement action to take, HMIP considers not only the environmental consequences and operator culpability but how to ensure that remedial action to prevent a recurrence is carried out."—[Official Report, 23 May 1995; Vol. 260, c. 524.] That is good, but the cost-benefit clause means that when HMIP becomes part of the environmental agency, it will also have to take into account the potential costs or otherwise to the polluter before it considers whether to take enforcement action. That is an unreasonable burden to place on the new agency.

If there is a problem for the HMIP side, there is much more of a problem for the NRA side. The NRA undertook not 38 court actions in the past three years but 830, from which the Treasury gained £3 million in fines. The success rate was very high. Of the 830, 789 were successful; 100 were against water and sewerage undertakers and resulted in fines totalling £500,000.

Are the Government really saying that the enforcement actions of their own agencies have been too successful? Are they saying that the NRA has been unfair to water companies such as Yorkshire Water, which was taken to court 11 times in 1993 and fined £100,000 from its several million pounds worth of pre-tax profits? Are they saying that that was unjust to the polluters?

If that duty is included in the Bill, it will not only weaken the enforcement powers of the agency but will cause delays because of the extra time that the agency will have to take to consider the costs properly before it takes enforcement action. It will also increase the likelihood of the polluter going to litigation rather than taking remedial action on the basis of consensus with the agency, which is what I believe members of all parties on the Committee were driving at.