Environmental Regulatory Inspection Charges

– in the House of Lords at 3:00 pm on 5th December 2002.

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Photo of Lord Mackie of Benshie Lord Mackie of Benshie Liberal Democrat 3:00 pm, 5th December 2002

asked Her Majesty's Government:

How charges for inspection are fixed in the case of environmental bodies such as the Environment Agency.

Photo of Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton Government Whip

My Lords, there are a number of environmental regulatory charging schemes, covering a range of industrial and agricultural sectors. The general principle adopted is that regulators should set charges to cover the full costs of regulation and that those whose activities impinge on the environment, rather than taxpayers, should meet the cost. The Environment Agency's charges are considered and approved by Ministers each year.

Photo of Lord Mackie of Benshie Lord Mackie of Benshie Liberal Democrat

My Lords, would the Minister like to hear of a specific example that affects agriculture badly? A friend of mine put in four septic tanks to handle the facilities for the students who come to pick his fruit. The cost for the tanks and for putting them in was £3,296 and £400 for labour, making a total of £3,696. SEPA—the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency—which I would relate closely to the English Environment Agency, as they sprang from the same sire—charged £2,320 for an inspection that took about an hour. The British Geological Survey took, with VAT, £646. The VAT on the tanks was £566. For an expenditure of £3,696, the Government collected £3,532. That cannot be good for agriculture.

The charges levied by SEPA and the British Geological Survey should be scaled according to the size of the job. I dare say that, on a job costing £400,000, such a sum would be reasonable, but it is unreasonable for that job.

Photo of Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton Government Whip

My Lords, the noble Lord is right in so far as SEPA originated from the bodies that came together to form the environmental protection agencies. However, as the noble Lord is aware, because he helped the process along, devolution means that he must address his views on what happens in Scotland to the Scottish Parliament. It is a matter for that body.

I reiterate that, for England and Wales, the policy is that the costs must be recovered. From my background in local government, I know that people often fail to recognise that additional costs are incurred in providing services. What happens in Scotland is a matter for the Scottish Parliament, in whose existence the noble Lord rejoices.

Photo of Baroness Byford Baroness Byford Conservative

My Lords, how many schemes are in being? When were they last reviewed? Are they reviewed regularly?

Photo of Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton Government Whip

My Lords, unusually, I am puzzled by the noble Baroness's question. The range of functional responsibilities of the Environment Agency for England and Wales covers flood defence, water resource management, water quality, integrated pollution control, radioactive waste management and waste management. Therefore, it is impossible to provide a comprehensive list of the individual areas in which there is activity that falls under the remit of the agency.

The question posed by the noble Baroness was not clear.

Photo of Baroness Byford Baroness Byford Conservative

My Lords, in her response to the noble Lord's Question, the Minister said that there were various charging schemes. My questions were: how many schemes are there, when were they last reviewed, and are they reviewed regularly?

Photo of Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton Government Whip

My Lords, I go back to the point that the charging systems for England and Wales are fixed in consultation with the Environment Agency. I cannot give the noble Baroness a list giving the exact number of such schemes, although I am happy to write to her. The schemes cover regulation of all the industrial complexes, farming and other areas of pollution.

The recommendations made by the Environment Agency on the level of fees to be charged are, as far as I am aware, adjusted annually. Should I prove to be wrong, I shall write to the noble Baroness.

Photo of Lord Sewel Lord Sewel Labour

My Lords, has a calculation been made setting the charges that properly fall on farmers and on the agriculture industry against the subsidy that they receive from public funds?

Photo of Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton Government Whip

My Lords, I am not aware of any work to create that precise cross-referencing. The scheme is not intended to produce more than the cost of administering the service and should ensure that no additional cost falls on the taxpayer, under the polluter pays principle.

Photo of Lord Greaves Lord Greaves Liberal Democrat

My Lords, Section 46 of the Environment Act 1995 requires that the accounts of the Environment Agency be audited each year by auditors appointed or approved by the Secretary of State. Does that audit include a duty to consider whether the charges levied by the Environment Agency are reasonable?

Photo of Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton Government Whip

My Lords, I would be extremely surprised were that not to be the case. It is part of the terms of reference of the Environment Agency. In addition to the consideration given by the auditors, there is the ministerial responsibility, which, in England and Wales, is held by the appropriate Minister of the Welsh Assembly working in co-operation with my right honourable friend Michael Meacher.