General review of consents

Schedule 22 – in the House of Commons at 10:45 pm on 28th June 1995.

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  1. 38A.—(1) If it appears appropriate to the Secretary of State to do so he may at any time direct SEPA to review—
    1. (a) the consents given under section 34 of this Act; or
    2. (b) any description of such consents,
    and the conditions (if any) to which those consents are subject.
  2. (2) A direction given by virtue of subsection (1) above—
    1. (a) shall specify the purpose for which; and
    2. (b) may specify the manner in which,
    the review is to be conducted.
  3. (3) After carrying out the review, SEPA shall submit to the Secretary of State its proposals (if any) for—
    1. (a) the modification of the conditions of any consent reviewed pursuant to the direction; or
    2. (b) in the case of any such consent which is unconditional, subjecting the consent to conditions.
  4. (4) Where the Secretary of State has received any proposals under subsection (3) above in relation to any consent he may, if it appears appropriate to him to do so, direct SEPA, in relation to that consent—
    1. (a) to make modifications of the conditions of the consent; or
    2. (b) in the case of an unconditional consent, to subject the consent to conditions.
  5. (5) A direction given by virtue of subsection (4) above may direct SEPA to do, in relation to any such consent, only—
    1. (a) any such thing as SEPA has proposed should be done in relation to that consent; or
    2. (b) any such thing with such modifications as appear to the Secretary of State to be appropriate.".'.—[Mr. Atkins.]

Photo of Miss Janet Fookes Miss Janet Fookes , Plymouth Drake

With this, it will be convenient to discuss also the following amendments: Government amendment No. 225.

No. 119, in page 310, line 19, at end insert— '129A. After section 88(2) of that Act (Defence to principal offences in respect of authorised discharges) there shall be inserted—(2A) Nothing in any consent given under this chapter shall be treated for the purposes of subsection (1) above as authorising a discharge of any significant quantity of poisonous, noxious or polluting matter or any solid waste matter other than is specified in that consent.".'. Government amendments Nos. 101 to 103 and 109.

Photo of Mr Cranley Onslow Mr Cranley Onslow , Woking 11:45 pm, 28th June 1995

I wish to speak briefly on this group of amendments, in particular my amendment No. 119.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment and Countryside for his patience and courtesy, and for the way in which he has dealt with this Bill and the improvements that I have tried to make to it. Also, this is the first opportunity that I have had to congratulate him on his admission to the Privy Council.

It may seem churlish of me to point out that, in spite of the courtesy that my right hon. Friend has shown me in Committee and subsequently in written exchanges, he has not been able to satisfy the National Rivers Authority, which is very concerned about a problem that has arisen. It has been legally advised that it cannot prosecute a discharge consent holder in respect of a pollution incident, no matter how serious, if the pollution is caused by substances that are not identified in, or limited by, the terms of the consent.

The Minister has seen the letter from the chairman of the NRA on the subject, and will know the details behind the position. I can summarise it by saying that the noble Lord Crickhowell is still of his original opinion that, of the two possible options for solving that problem, the legislative option is better than the administrative solution that the Government seem to be proposing.

The House should know that that situation has arisen, and I hope that hon. Members will share my view that the NRA and the Environment Agency must be free to prosecute when a pollution incident occurs because of a discharge of unconsented or uncontrolled substances. The proposal embodied in the Government amendments does not deal with that problem.

My right hon. Friend the Minister will no doubt deploy a number of arguments against my proposal, which is for legislative change, but I hope that he will not pray in aid the fact that the proposal that he has advanced will be no burden on the agency.

The House should know that there are 95,500 consents on the register, of which 14,800 are currently monitored because of their potential or actual environmental significance. If the solution that the Government propose in the amendment is accepted, the cost of monitoring consents will be more than £1 million, and a great deal of NRA manpower and resources will have to be applied. I simply want to put the facts on the record, because it may well be that the matter will come up again for consideration in another place. But it would be wrong for the House to think that there is a solution yet to this tiresome problem.

Photo of Mrs Helen Jackson Mrs Helen Jackson , Sheffield, Hillsborough

I associate myself with comments of the right hon. Member for Woking (Sir C. Onslow). The Minister said in Committee that he was not an unreasonable man, and that, if it was clear from further discussions with the NRA that there was a major problem with redrafting all the existing discharge consents, he would be prepared to consider that.

The Minister will know of the press release issued on 24 June by the NRA, in which the director of water management, Clive Swinnerton, said that the loopholes we are talking about here have effectively turned the NRA's discharge consents—which are intended to control pollution by setting limits on what the holders can discharge into rivers—into licences to pollute.

Dr. Swinnerton said that he felt the Government's proposal will place an impossible burden on the NRA, and added that it was vital that an amendment to close the loophole be immediately included in the Bill. It would have been nice if immediately were to mean tonight, but I am disappointed that the Government have not taken on board their further discussions with the NRA.

As hon. Members have placed the matter on record tonight, it may be taken up in another place before the Bill ends up as legislation. I am sure that the Minister will agree that there is an unresolved issue here, which needs to be resolved before the Bill becomes law.

Photo of Mr Robert Atkins Mr Robert Atkins , South Ribble

I am extraordinarily grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Sir C. Onslow). A compliment from one such as he—particularly on matters relating to such a distinguished body as the Privy Council—is one to be treasured, and I do so.

In relation to his amendment, my right hon. Friend was kind enough to say that he and I have tried to address this matter together—so far, regrettably, without the success that my right hon. Friend apparently required. The effect of amendment No. 119 would be to change the law, but not in the largely declaratory manner suggested. In fact, the amendment would have the potential to change overnight the requirements placed on dischargers, without any prior consultation and with unpredictable consequences, the precise effect of which would depend on the wording of the discharge consents.

The amendment would leave dischargers throughout the country uncertain as to their legal responsibilities and about the threat of prosecution. I need hardly say that that would be highly controversial. Not surprisingly, the representatives of some major dischargers were concerned about the potential effects of the amendments. Any approach on these matters therefore needs to be thought through fully.

In relation to the letter to which my right hon. Friend referred, I have had an opportunity through his kindness to be able to seek some advice. The figures in the NRA letter are inevitably based on assumptions, and the estimates made by the NRA seem to be at the top end, as it admits. It is far from clear whether all the consents need to be reviewed, and the NRA accepts that some types of consent are likely to be more significant than others. In particular, it is not clear whether descriptive consents would need to be reviewed, and those form the bulk of current consents.

The amount of effort involved will clearly depend on the degree of standardisation in consents, and it is not unreasonable to assume that there will be a high degree of standardisation within regions and between dischargers of the same type. Before issuing any direction to the NRA, they would clearly want to consider how the amount of effort involved could be minimised. The fundamental point remains: that the easiest or cheapest course of action is not necessarily the right one.

I assure my right hon. Friend that I shall keep a close eye on this issue, about which I know he feels strongly. The representations that he has made to me will be conveyed to those who make the decisions in these matters. In those circumstances, I hope that he will understand why I ask him not to press his amendment No. 119.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendments made: No. 225, in page 269, line 15, at end insert— '() in subsection (1), in each of paragraphs (b) and (c), for the words "the preceding section" there shall be substituted the words "section 38 of this Act";'. No. 226, in page 273, line 38, leave out 'if the mine or part of the mine' and insert 'to the owner or former operator of any mine or part of a mine if the mine or part'. No. 227, in page 274, leave out lines 33 and 34 and insert—

  1. '(aa) requirements for consultation, before the service of a works notice, with persons other than the person on whom that notice is to be served;
  2. (b) steps to be taken for the purposes of any consultation required under subsection (4) above or regulations made by virtue of paragraph (aa) above;'.
No. 228, in page 274, line 37, at end insert— '(5A) A works notice shall not be regarded as invalid, or as invalidly served, by reason only of any failure to comply with the requirements of subsection (4) above or of regulations made by virtue of paragraph (aa) of subsection (5) above.'. No. 229, in page 274, line 47, after 'or' insert 'former'. No. 230, in page 275, line 10, at end insert—