I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
We come to the end of the discussions on the Environment Bill. It is a substantial piece of legislation, which makes progress in environmental protection on a broad front. The Bill has been further strengthened during its Commons stage in ways that I believe have been widely welcomed.
I acknowledge the scope for disagreement on the details of the Bill, but I believe that the House and the country will recognise that the Bill is an important milestone, which further marks the Government's commitment to responsible environmental protection. I believe that it is a Bill that has properly sought to place sustainable development as the centrepiece of what we seek to do, and I much welcome the comments on both sides of the House that have enabled us to bring much of it forward with a common degree of support.
I believe that, in future, people will look back to the Bill as representing a major change and a considerable milestone on the march towards a society in which the environment takes a very much more central place in our consideration.
I commend the Bill to the House.
First, I wish to place on record my sincere thanks to all my right hon. and hon. Friends who have contributed so substantially to the preparation of our scrutiny of the Bill. I also want to thank the local authority associations and the many conservation groups and green organisations that have helped us again to provide opposition to many of the things that are wrong with the Bill and helped us to tackle the Government and obtain greater clarity where that has been necessary.
The Bill began with a great deal of promise, especially the establishment of the environment agencies and the national park authorities, both of which the Labour party had advocated in the past and which we supported in the Bill.
After many months of debate, the Bill is now 365 pages long and contains 123 clauses and 24 schedules. It has not had the scrutiny that it deserved, a result not of any lack of diligence by the Opposition, but of the late and excessive tabling of amendments by the Government and the lack of clarity at times in ministerial replies. As the Secretary of State said, there have been additions and improvements to the Bill—not least in the areas of air quality, contaminated land, old mineral planning permissions and hedgerows. But, sadly, the Bill remains fatally flawed. The cost-benefit duties imposed on the agencies fundamentally undermine their central purpose and their aim. Everywhere in the passage of the Bill we have seen the pressure of commercial interests lead to changes in the Bill and to conflicts that we believe will not be resolvable in practice.
We have outlined the fact that polluters have potential recourse to the law, and nothing that the Ministers have said has allayed the fears of the Opposition and of many of the conservation bodies with great expertise in that area. The cost-benefit duty remains and it is a very deep concern as the Bill reaches its concluding stages in the House.
On the issues of contaminated land, old minerals, abandoned mines and, perhaps worst of all, today's removal of quiet enjoyment from the purposes of national parks, commercial interests have been put ahead of the interests of the environment. For all those reasons, we believe that the balance that the Government claim to have sought may result in conflict. If that is so, only the environment will be the loser.
Because of our concerns, we considered very carefully whether to vote against Third Reading. We shall not do so tonight because we remain committed to many of the ideas that are contained within the Bill. We shall abstain tonight, but our consolation is that, by the time the agencies come into operation, we can expect to be the Government, charged with the conservation and enhancement of our shared environment.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed, with amendments.