Part of the debate – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 6:00 pm on 5th October 1998.

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Photo of Jim Wilson Jim Wilson UUP 6:00 pm, 5th October 1998

I am the last to speak, but since my name begins with W for Wilson, that is not unusual except, of course, when I top the poll.

Before commenting on the desirability of restructuring the Department of the Environment, I should declare a personal interest. My long-standing involvement with the angling fraternity has brought me face to face with numerous pollution incidents in the Province’s river systems. Some of these have been relatively minor, but others have proved totally destructive.

Even those Members who might not list fish kills following pollution incidents as being items at the top of their daily political agendas cannot, in recent times, have escaped hearing the news of disasters which have hit the River Bush, the Upper Bann, the Blackwater and the Sixmilewater, which is in my constituency. There was also another incident elsewhere, just a couple of weeks ago. I could go on — the killing is endless.

My close association with the Ulster angling scene and the condition of our waterways could, of course, be seen as a narrow and specific interest, but I feel that it heightens one’s appreciation of the whole spectrum of environmental degradation and highlights the concerns of other environmental interests about matters such as planning, industrial infrastructure, the impact on tourism, the marine environment, wildlife, farming practices, and so on.

In recounting a little story I want to make a serious point. An individual who wished to make contact with the Friends of the Earth organisation telephoned the Department of the Environment to enquire about telephone numbers and received the testy reply "Look, this is the Department of the Environment, we are no friends of the earth".

The widespread popular cynicism concerning the sincerity of numerous governmental assertions about protection of the environment is, I believe, well founded. Many issues are facing this Assembly, but I feel that a concerted drive to protect, and be seen to be protecting the environment, properly and effectively, would receive enthusiastic support from all parties and the majority of the electorate.

The Ulster Unionist Party has long argued that the poacher and gamekeeper structure, which was highlighted in the Rossi Report, should end, and let me say that I am not satisfied that yet another executive agency should be the model to be considered.

If Members have not read a Northern Ireland Audit Office report published in April this year on the control of river pollution, they should obtain a copy; it makes very interesting reading. I am not interested in engaging in some form of Department-of-theEnvironment-bashing contest. I want to see efficiency in all areas of Government but that efficiency must not be achieved at the expense of accountability.

Here is what the Ulster Angling Federation said about the Comptroller and Auditor General’s report earlier this year:

"This scathing report comes as no surprise. It confirms what anglers have known for years. Raw sewage periodically enters most of our rivers from treatment works and storm overflows. Consented discharges to our rivers from industry often fail to meet conditions imposed and are often ignored by the agency which is supposed to protect the rivers — the Department of the Environment.

On the rare occasions when prosecutions are taken, the courts impose derisory penalties when the maximum fine is £20,000. The poacher/gamekeeper situation whereby the Department of the Environment’s Water Service is policed by the Environment and Heritage Service — another Department of the Environment agency — must change.

England, Wales and Scotland have environmental protection agencies independent of Government. We suspect that if Northern Ireland had an independent agency, it would expose the disgraceful state of most of our sewage and water treatment plants and would be a major embarrassment to Government.

Lord Dubs recently announced that much of Northern Ireland’s sewerage system was close to collapsing and that an extra £50 million per annum was required to bring the system up to standard. This is a welcome recognition by the Government of the problem, and a change from a succession of Ministers who could only talk about a clean and a pleasant land where sewage treatment plants smelt like roses."

I am reluctant to argue for a simple division of the existing Department, and while I favour the concept of a powerful watchdog body, I most certainly have no intention of creating a new quango. My point is that we do need a vehicle empowered to be the effective guardian of the natural environment.

We need to get this right, and we should be prepared to take a little time to do it. There are subject areas within the existing Department which are properly the remit of local government. If these were to revert to local government —and that begs a further question regarding the possible changes to the existing local government structure — then self-evidently such areas would not need to be covered by branches of the Department of the Environment, nor for that matter by executive agencies.

It seems obvious to me that there are existing branches and agencies in the Department of the Environment which could be transferred to other Departments. One might cite for example the Public Record Office and Land Registry, which could be returned to their traditional home in the Department of Finance.

Maybe we should focus on maintaining an environmental Department centred around an existing branch to deal specifically with environmental conservation, protection and preservation. Such a department would have an environmental impact assessment role in respect of all other Departments, but this role could not be permitted to become a process of bureaucratic strangulation of the function of the other Departments.

Herein is the nub of the issue. I recognise that there are many possible permutations, and I do not want to run headlong into change for the sake of change. I want, through consultation, to arrive at a situation whereby environmental protection in Northern Ireland becomes an example to the world of how things should be done. While sharing the impatience of others to get on with the job, I would caution against undue haste in respect of any piecemeal revamp or interim or temporary change.

The people of Northern Ireland deserve value for money, given that they have had some 30 years of an ever expanding public-service sector which fails my test of efficiency and value for money.

Adjourned at 6.13 pm.