Guidance on Costs and Benefits

Part of New clause 3 – in the House of Commons at 6:45 pm on 27th June 1995.

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Photo of Mr Robert Atkins Mr Robert Atkins , South Ribble 6:45 pm, 27th June 1995

I intended to mention that matter, but as the hon. Lady has asked about it, I shall deal with it now. I said in Committee that, in 1991, my Department issued a guide called "Policy Appraisal and the Environment". There was a follow-up in 1994 illustrating its applications to specific cases, and it was entitled "Environmental Appraisal in Government Departments". Also relevant is a document entitled "A Guide to Risk Assessment and Risk Management for Environmental Protection", which we published earlier this month.

As I said in Committee, the National Rivers Authority has developed a manual on the assessment of costs and benefits, which it currently applies when, for example, assessing proposals for water quality standards. Hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell), have regularly pressed me for greater precision and specification in the requirements that are to be incorporated in the Bill. However, it is important to appreciate that, the more precise and detailed a requirement is, the greater the inevitable risk that it will prove inappropriate in a particular case. The risk that the agencies will be open to challenge for failing to pursue that procedure will follow.

I have made it plain why the Government are not prepared to delete clause 38. Much as Opposition Members may deny it, it is hard to see amendment No. 3 and new clause 3 as anything other than delaying tactics to avoid the early introduction of the duty. They certainly show a lack of confidence in the ability of the new agencies to use their judgment and professional expertise in dealing with a reasonable requirement, and their wide discretion on discharging their duties.

There is an erroneous belief among Opposition Members that somehow there is a generalised right way to take account of costs and benefits, and that it can be applied to all the circumstances that the agencies will face. They also think that it could be discovered if only there was sufficient prior effort and consultation. That is simply unrealistic.

As I said earlier, considerable work has been done on this matter, and I do not think that any technique will be equally applicable in every circumstance. Clause 38 implicitly recognises that the agencies must be able to exercise their judgment on what sort of consideration is appropriate in any particular circumstance. That is likely to lead to a modest and desirable evolution rather than a single sudden shift in the way that the agencies approach their tasks compared with their predecessor bodies.