Transfer of Functions to the Agency

Clause 2 – in the House of Commons at 5:45 pm on 28th June 1995.

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Photo of Mr Cynog Dafis Mr Cynog Dafis , Ceredigion and Pembroke North 5:45 pm, 28th June 1995

I beg to move amendment No. 255, in page 3, leave out lines 19 to 28.

Mr. Deputy Speaker:

With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 262, in clause 21, page 22, leave out lines 30 to 32.

No. 263, in page 22, leave out lines 46 to 48.

No. 265, in schedule 6, page 171, line 45, at end insert—

  1. '15A—(1) The Secretary of State may, by order made by statutory instrument subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliaments provide for anything authorised or required by or under this Act or any other enactment, to be done by SEPA, to be carried Out by a local authority acting as agents of SEPA, within the area for which the said local authority has responsibility.
  2. (2) An order made under sub-paragraph (1) above shall prescribe the extent of the powers and functions to be exercised by a particular local authority acting as agent for SEPA, and may also make provision for any legal or financial consequences arising out of such an agency arrangement.'.

Photo of Mr Cynog Dafis Mr Cynog Dafis , Ceredigion and Pembroke North

I am pleased to have the opportunity to raise again the appropriateness of local government retaining waste regulation functions, rather than transferring them to the new agency. The case for retention was ably made in Committee by the hon. Members for Lewisham, Deptford (Ms Ruddock), for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien) and for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mrs. Jackson). The hon. Member for Hillsborough pointed out that transferring waste regulation functions to the agency would de-integrate environmental policies, rather than otherwise—particularly with regard to easy access by waste regulation officers to detailed planning aspects. Separating the two functions would be to de-integrate, when we should be encouraging greater integration.

The hon. Member for Hillsborough pointed out also the danger that such a transfer would diminish rather than strengthen public awareness of the environmental impact of any development when considered in detail locally. Integration is particularly relevant to Wales, where district councils are the waste regulation authorities and have a range of important environmental functions linked to waste regulation.

On Second Reading, I pointed out that in Wales, integration will be further strengthened with the creation of unitary authorities, which will have comprehensive planning powers from existing district and county councils. It is questionable whether the agency would have the presence on the ground that local authorities have, which enables them to respond adequately to public concern. I refer not only to environmental health and planning department officers but others and councillors, who are in close contact with their communities' everyday affairs. They are in a position to spot any failure to fulfil waste disposal functions and to remedy it. It is easy for them to communicate with environmental health officers, to ensure speedy action on matters of public interest.

The Council of Welsh Districts cites several instances of environmental quangos failing to respond in reasonable time to complaints by local people. In some cases, their local authority stepped in to perform functions that should have been performed by, for example, Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution.

One questions also whether the agency will be anything like as accessible to the public and councillors as it should. Will it offer an urgent response service? HMIP does not provide one in Wales where local authorities do. The Council of Welsh Districts devised five principles that, if implemented, would help to secure an efficient service and on which I seek assurances from the Minister. The CWD insists on a high degree of autonomy for the Welsh region, based on political boundaries.

I thought that I detected recognition by the Minister in the last debate of the importance of the Welsh boundaries being the existing territorial boundaries, which are also the local government boundaries for Wales—but there was some ambiguity in one of his remarks. I would like his assurance that the Welsh region will be the whole of Wales—nothing more, nothing less.

There should be at least 10 local agency offices throughout Wales, so that it can maintain close contact with local authorities—one office for every two unitary authorities. There should also be total transparency of the agency's licensing, consents, authorisation and enforcement policies, as with local government. That issue was discussed to some extent in Committee but requires further clarification. Will the agency be adequately resourced? Will responsibility be delegated to front-line staff, to ensure effective action?

The CWD's fifth principle concerns accountability and representation of elected members on agency committees. I would be glad to hear the Minister's response, even though he has not been listening to a word that I have said, to each of those five principles. I was hoping for assurances on at least some of them. I hope that the Minister will be positive, although I cannot see how he can be. But if he is not, there is every prospect that waste regulation will be less effectively delivered as a result of the Bill and the establishment of an agency.

Photo of Mr Archy Kirkwood Mr Archy Kirkwood Liberal Democrat Chief Whip

I shall be brief. Will the Minister consider in a Scottish context the transfer of the regulatory responsibility for the system of local air pollution control from local authorities to the Scottish Environment Protection Agency? I have corresponded with Scottish Office Ministers on the issue and I certainly accept that there is a balanced argument about whether that responsibility should be left in the hands of local authorities or transferred. However, I should like to know the Government's exact position on the issue.

In a letter to me dated 31 May the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro), who is currently gracing the Treasury Bench, made it clear that, as things stood at that time, the balance of the argument in the Government's mind was in favour of transferring control of the system of local air pollution to a centralised agency. Has the Government's view changed on that matter? The letter states that there are about 25 to 30 full-time officers dealing with such control in Scotland, and the Government's view was that with such a relatively small establishment it was better to centralise the responsibility. I take the opposite view.

My experience of my local authorities is that they have been extremely efficient in overseeing air pollution control. That is because they are on the spot and can respond quickly as they are only half a mile down the road from the problems that emerge. Local expertise and the proximity of those councils to the problems will be lost if the control of air pollution is centralised in the agency.

Although there are 25 to 30 professional full-time officers operating in the field in Scotland, a great deal of other expertise has been built up because other staff who have been involved in a hands-on operational basis over many years form an in-house pool of skill and corporate knowledge. They can also anticipate some of the problem areas and identify incidents that may arise in their locality. Although they are not professional, they can bring common-sense expertise and local knowledge to bear on some of those problems.

Photo of Mr Hector Monro Mr Hector Monro , Dumfries

As I stated in my letter to the hon. Gentleman, the decision was finely balanced. We have not changed our view since the letter. I hope the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that SEPA will be a local as well as a national organisation. I think that it will have offices in numerous parts of Scotland, will exercise close control over what is happening and will be in close touch with local authorities. We worked on the matter carefully and thought that that was the best judgment although, of course, some local authorities disagree.

Photo of Mr Archy Kirkwood Mr Archy Kirkwood Liberal Democrat Chief Whip

That effectively knocks my gas to a small peep because that is precisely the answer that I had not solicited. That may be the Government's view, but the Minister knows that there is a body of opinion which does not share it. If the Minister's assurance is borne out in practice perhaps he will win the argument over time. But people will carefully monitor how the service is locally controlled. As the Minister has intervened so early in my speech, I need not argue the point any more. There is a clear difference of opinion, but we shall carefully watch this space in future.

Photo of Jim Wallace Jim Wallace , Orkney and Shetland

I should like to speak to amendment No. 265, which is in this group and stands in my name. The amendment proposes to make provision for the functions and powers of SEPA to be carried by local authorities as its agents. Its purpose is to allow the Secretary of State to designate by order the islands councils as agents of SEPA. It is not intended to apply to the whole of Scotland. Under the new local government arrangements, the islands councils will no longer have their distinctive status. The amendment was drawn to take account of that. The fact that the Secretary of State will be able to exercise the function by way of an order means that he will be able to designate councils and the extent of their powers.

My hon. Friend the Member for Roxborough and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) pertinently observed that there was a need to retain common-sense expertise and local knowledge. That applies many times over to the islands areas.

6.15 pm

When, some time ago, the Scottish Office published its consultation paper on improving Scotland's environment, the foreword by the Secretary of State referred to striking improvements that had been achieved by the existing regulatory agencies over the past 15 years or so, and to the outstanding commitment and expertise of staff in the river purification authorities, in local government and in the Scottish Office. With such expertise and with such plaudits, one wonders why we need a change.

The islands councils originally tried to resist the change and tried to persuade the Scottish Office, but they accept the inevitability of change. However, they wish to see the establishment of some form of agency with the councils carrying out environmental regulation on behalf of SEPA. The islands councils are different for one specific reason. Within their areas of jurisdiction they are responsible for river purification—a responsibility that is held by river purification authorities in other parts of Scotland—as well as the other pollution control functions which are the responsibility of local authorities in mainland Scotland.

To all intents and purposes, integrated pollution control has existed in the islands areas for some time. I am advised that such control applies to almost all premises in Shetland and that only a handful of the larger ones come under the remit of Her Majesty's industrial pollution inspectorate. I understand that Shetland Islands Council is an agent for HMIPI in a number of important respects, including the taking of samples and the putting together of cases that require action under various legislation. Therefore, there is already an integrated approach.

The fear that has been expressed is that to transfer some functions from the islands to SEPA could lead to the break-up of the integrated approach. At the moment in Shetland, environmental protection is delivered by 12 or more staff. Six staff carry out SEPA functions, but their work on functions that would be transferred to SEPA is equivalent to three full-time posts. The fact that people who are in post carry out some of those functions means that there is adequate back-up for leave or for illness. That back-up, which includes an administrative element, would not exist if SEPA were a completely separate entity.

The cost would be lower if the council were an agent, and perhaps that is the kind of argument that appeals to the Government. It would also allow the good working relationship that has been built up with local industries over many years to continue because local officers know how to apply the regulations in a locally sensitive manner. It will allow access by council staff to the senior management of SEPA to ensure that policies which are relevant to the islands are applied with proper sensitivity.

It is fair to say that the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, who is sitting on the Front Bench, and who has made numerous visits to the islands during his ministerial term of office, has, over that time—I know this from dealings with him—acquired some sensitivity to the number of respects in which the islands regions are different. I hope that it will be possible to recognise those difficulties, as the consequence of not doing so is that teams would be broken up, which could impinge on some of the other services that are provided by the environmental services department.

I am informed by KPMG, whose recommendations the Government are only too keen to accept on other occasions, that the benefits of having agency status were picked up in a KPMG report, but, unfortunately, the Bill as it stands makes no provision for that. The amendment should commend itself to the Government. It achieves their objective of having SEPA in place. It ensures that a team of experts is retained and it means that environmental protection in islands regions would be delivered at an efficient cost. I therefore hope that, even if the Government are not able to accept it tonight, they might be willing to consider it in future.

Photo of Sam Galbraith Sam Galbraith , Strathkelvin and Bearsden

I support the comments of the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace). He probably knows that I raised this matter informally with the Minister in Committee on behalf of councils and as the Scottish representative on the Committee. The Minister did not accept my points and I conveyed that to the hon. Gentleman's council. However, the Minister should reconsider the matter. The islands are unique in the way in which they function and in their social structure. They work closely together and it is important to retain that. There are difficulties if the base is in Aberdeen or wherever it might be. We have always treated the islands in a unique way; the health services and local government have been managed differently. That should continue.

The hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) raised the subject of the right to air pollution control. We raised the matter in Committee, pushing it to a vote against the Government, who seemed intent on not moving on it. If they wish to change their mind again tonight, I would be only too pleased.

Photo of Mr Robert Atkins Mr Robert Atkins , South Ribble

I make no apology for explaining once again the main reasons for the Government's belief that waste regulation would benefit from being transferred to the agency. The three key arguments in support of our policy are integration, consistency and expertise. First, our proposals will ensure integration of waste regulation with the agency's other pollution control functions. Secondly, the Government are not persuaded that genuine consistency in waste regulation across the country can be combined with the separate discharge of the function by a large number of different regulators. Thirdly, the need to pool expertise is an important reason for including waste regulation within the remit of the agency.

I understand the concerns voiced here and in another place about local accountability and about the importance of the agency providing a locally accessible service. The Government certainly intend the agency to be responsible and responsive to citizens' concerns, but I cannot accept that such sensitivity can be achieved only by local authorities.

We shall expect the agency to be organised so that it is accessible to people in every part of the country and can respond rapidly to problems concerning waste. That is reflected in the requirements of the agency's draft management statement. No doubt it will take a little time for the public to get used to the new system, but the National Rivers Authority has within a few years established a clear place for itself in the public consciousness, and I am sure that the agency will do the same.

In an intervention, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland answered the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood), but the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) mentioned amendment No. 265. As was often the case in Committee, I have sought advice from my distinguished hon. Friend. He tells me that amendment No. 265 could potentially undermine the reasons for establishing the new single cross-media authority by transferring on a piecemeal basis some functions back to local authorities.

In those circumstances, the integrated approach applied on the mainland would break down, with the loss of a consistent approach in each islands authority.

The amendment would also allow a local authority to regulate its own landfill sites, which is totally against the principle of separating regulation from operation, which is at the heart of the Government's proposals for SEPA. Following those explanations, I hope that hon. Members will be able to withdraw their amendments.

Photo of Mr Cynog Dafis Mr Cynog Dafis , Ceredigion and Pembroke North

Some of the things that the Minister told me were welcome. He did not respond specifically to my suggestion that in Wales there should be 10 local offices, but he emphasised the importance of a presence on the ground, a decentralist structure and accessibility to local communities. I do not want to press the amendment to a Division, so I beg to ask leave the withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.