Review of Environmental Governance

Private Members’ Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:15 pm on 11th November 2008.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party 2:15 pm, 11th November 2008

The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer will have 10 minutes to propose the motion and 10 minutes in which to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes. One amendment has been selected and published on the Marshalled List. The proposer of the amendment will have 10 minutes to propose and five minutes in which to make a winding-up speech.

Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance

I beg to move

That this Assembly expresses its concern at the failure of the previous Minister of the Environment to take forward the recommendations of the ‘Review of Environmental Governance’; believes that the Northern Ireland Environment Agency is not adequate to deal with the challenges facing Northern Ireland; and calls on the Executive to re-consider this matter urgently.

I have great pleasure in proposing the motion that stands in my name and the names of my colleagues. The motion is similar to one that Brian Wilson and I brought to the Assembly on 25 September 2007:

“That this Assembly calls on the Executive to establish an independent Environmental Protection Agency for Northern Ireland.” — [Official Report, Vol 24, No 2, p72, col 1].

Following debate on a couple of amendments, that motion was passed unanimously — or at least without dissension — by the Assembly. Even the Minister, who subsequently took a different decision, did not oppose the principle of an independent environmental protection agency. However, it is well known that on 27 May 2008, the previous Minister of the Environment refused to implement the recommendations of the review of environmental governance. Rather, she put forward a plan that amounted to little more than the rebranding, on 1 July 2008, of the Environment and Heritage Service (EHS) as the body now known as the NIEA — I am indebted to Friends of the Earth for reminding me that that stands for “Not the Independent Environment Agency”. That is not a criticism of the agency’s staff, but a simple statement of the fact that, at a time when this region, along with every other region on this island, must be seen to have transparent, open and independent environmental governance, it is the only region not to have made any progress in that respect.

Mr Deputy Speaker, I am sure that you studied the Hansard report of 25 September 2007 in detail. Indeed, I think that you supported my call for an independent agency on that occasion. The House clearly accepted the substantial piece of work that had been submitted by the review of environmental governance (REGNI) team of Mr Burke, Professor Turner and Mr Bell. The team submitted detailed arguments for significant changes to environmental governance in general, and they argued in particular for the establishment of an independent agency to meet the needs of our economy, society and environment.

Several major issues that were highlighted during that debate do not need to be reiterated today. However, some key points remain, notably the court ruling that was made a short time before the debate. It dealt with the draft northern area plan and the need for the Planning Service to receive independent advice. Mr Justice Weatherup’s decision stated:

“By the terms of the Directive it is apparent, as the Department accepts, that there be separation between the responsible authority and the consultation body.”

Members are aware that the decision was subject to an appeal by the Department. Nonetheless, it is clear that the Department accepted the fundamental tenet held by the judge that separation is required. The question is whether the Department can argue that there is adequate separation. Patently, the Environment Agency, as currently established, is an executive agency of the Department of the Environment (DOE) that reports to the Minister. To those of us who understand the dictionary definition of the word, the agency is, in no sense, independent.

The Department ought to accept the strong likelihood that it will lose any appeal that it mounts. It could learn a lesson from the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) decision this week and not proceed with meaningless appeals and accept court decisions without wasting more taxpayers’ money.

There is no sign that the Department is preparing for the possibility of change. In May 2008, the then Environment Minister told the House:

The Minister for Regional Development, the Minster of Agriculture and Rural Development and the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure have all set out practical, and even constitutional, reasons why the transfer of functions is not appropriate at this time.” — [Official Report, Vol 31, No 1, p2, col 1].

She continued:

“the Programme for Government commits us to a review of Departments by 2011.” — [Official Report, Vol 31, No 1, p2, col 1].

Given that the Executive will not engage in their present responsibilities, Members will appreciate why those of us at this end of the House are not holding our breath for a review of Departments by 2011.

I am interested to know the constitutional objections to the transfer of powers among Departments. It seems that empire building by Departments is not, in any sense, a valid constitutional reason for objection. Since the Minister’s decision, agencies and bodies that are appointed to advise DOE have outlined their opinions on environmental matters. The Historic Buildings Council was less than happy with the proposals, and the Council for Nature Conservation and the Countryside (CNCC) issued a fairly strong criticism in the minutes of its June meeting, in which it noted that the chairman of the CNCC was the only member with an environmental background invited to sit on the Department’s better regulation board. The Department seems to have lost sight of its key position.

CNCC reiterated independence issues and noted that an agency staffed by civil servants — regardless of those individuals’ skills — will be responsible to a Minister and will not enjoy the necessary degree of independence. As CNCC noted, such an agency will not facilitate the necessary checks and balances. In those minutes — which I presume are not objected to, given that they are published on the Internet — a senior official in EHS explained that the rebranding process is likely to last some years. The fact that that rebranding process, which will merely change the name of a departmental agency, will take some years to complete suggests that taking time to establish an independent agency might have been a better idea.

In recent weeks, an area of special scientific interest (ASSI) at Lisnaragh near Dunnamanagh in Tyrone has had its status rescinded. It has been alleged that there was ministerial interference in that process. I do not make that allegation; I do not know whether there was ministerial interference. However, as long as the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) reports to the Minister, a suspicion of ministerial interference in such decisions will remain. The Assembly must avoid that situation in order to secure good environmental governance and meaningful progress. It is not good enough to say that nothing underhand occurred, because the suspicion exists and will remain.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP 2:30 pm, 11th November 2008

I am shocked at such an allegation. We cannot tolerate the appalling situation of democratically elected politicians taking decisions in this country.

Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance

If Mr Weir is incapable of distinguishing political decisions from decisions based on scientific evidence in accordance with European law, he is a worse lawyer than I had thought.

Since that decision in May, flooding has affected people in Northern Ireland during this year’s so-called summer. Not only did the REGNI report support the rebranding of EHS but the merging of several agencies.

It was specifically recommended that there should be proper river-basin management, and that the Rivers Agency should be in the same body as EHS and that the whole process of sustainable water management should be dealt with by one agency.

The so-called flood map of Northern Ireland has just been launched. Compared to the flood map maintained by the Environment Agency of England and Wales, which is on the Internet, it is fairly low-level. However, even that required the co-operation of two Ministers. That is an example of how a single agency, with absolutely clear and unambiguous responsibilities for dealing with river management, would have had a much clearer line of responsibility and accountability for dealing with flood prevention and its associated problems. Such flooding is likely to continue, affecting homes, businesses and agriculture across Northern Ireland. That is a fundamental issue that should be dealt with by a single agency. That is what REGNI reported, and that is what Ministers deny.

Other issues that may not have the same day-to-day resonance — such as establishing a national park or further aspects of planning guidance — are clear cases where much-needed independent advice is not yet present. That is why we need an independent agency.

Photo of Tommy Gallagher Tommy Gallagher Social Democratic and Labour Party

I beg to move the following amendment: Leave out all after “calls” and insert:

“for the establishment of an independent Environmental Protection Agency which must become fully operational within the lifetime of this Assembly.”

As the proposer of the motion said, a similar motion was proposed last year. In that debate, I proposed an amendment similar to that which I propose today.

I agree that we need an independent environment agency, such as many other countries have. However, the amendment that I proposed last year asked specifically for that independent agency to be established during the lifetime of this Assembly. When it came to the vote, Alliance Members voted against the amendment. Since then, they — and the rest of us — have seen what has happened. As described by Mr Ford, we have ended up with an agency still within the Department of the Environment and not properly independent.

I appeal to all Members to support the amendment; on this occasion, the amendment is clear, and I ask Alliance Members in particular to give it their support. If we are successful in persuading the House to adopt the amendment, the leverage of elected representatives in support of a fully independent environmental protection agency will be increased.

For too long, environmental issues have been given a low priority here. We have only to look around the Chamber to see how low that priority is. It is well known that, around the Executive table, the needs of many other Departments take precedence over those of the environment. The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment is one, and OFMDFM is another.

Since the 1980s and 1990s, countries such as the Republic of Ireland and the other countries of the UK have had independent agencies tackling abuses and properly enforcing environmental legislation. We have fallen behind because we do not have the system and structures in place with the capacity to produce the outcomes necessary for better protection of the environment. Granted, the Northern Ireland Environment Agency is an improvement on what went before. However, although it has tried to address some of the issues, the fact is that the Government cannot run with the hare and hunt with the hounds. In this case, it is an Irish hare, but that approach does not work.

As I have said, DOE is one of 11 Departments, and it is very often overruled. Internal Government bodies pose other barriers to effective environmental regulation. First, the necessary confidentiality of departmental policy-making processes and interdepartmental debate creates a serious lack of transparency with regard to the making of regulatory decisions. Such decisions cannot command the confidence of the public or be regulated without proper transparency.

Secondly, officials who administer the regulations are exposed to the real and perceived risk of conflict of interest. The effectiveness of the regulation of internal Government bodies is inhibited since modern environmental governance requires a strong, focused regulator that is able to adopt modern risk-based regulatory practices without a loss of public confidence. Northern Ireland needs such a strong, independent voice to champion and safeguard the environment.

The ‘Foundations for the Future’ report was launched in 2007. It made very clear recommendations about environmental regulation. Following wide-ranging consultations, that report was well put together and very detailed. It set out clearly the functions that should have been retained by the Department in relation to planning and environmental policy. It also spelt out the accountability mechanisms that were necessary for a new environmental protection agency. It recommended that the agency’s purpose should be to protect and enhance the environment and, in doing so, contribute to the achievement of sustainable development.

It is quite clear that a well-resourced, independent environmental protection agency would be crucial to building confidence about environmental governance. There also needs to be a shared vision — one that is developed by the Government and the other stakeholders — on local and agreed standards for the protection of the environment. We must develop effective arrangements for the integrated management of important material assets such as our rivers, uplands and coasts.

We live on a small island, and problems such as air or water pollution can spread very quickly. It is an obvious reality that we cannot partition our environment. Therefore, an all-island strategy is needed to manage the environment.

Last week, the catchment-management programme for Lough Melvin, which straddles the border, was published. That was undertaken by agencies on both sides of the border. The fact that they did that work meant that they have a two-year head start on developing the directives in relation to catchment-management plans. That is an example of the kind of work that can be done when real co-operation occurs. An independent environmental protection agency, to correspond to the same body in the South, would add greatly to such work.

Co-operation is not limited to river catchment. Organisations such as the RSPB and the corresponding body in the South — BirdWatch Ireland — have been working together for years and have formulated initiatives in the interests of conserving some of the bird populations that were at risk.

The reports from those bodies are examples of how we can highlight water pollution and nature conservation by identifying the risks and responding to them.

Unfortunately, as I said, environment management systems here are inadequate. We also have a reputation, particularly in Europe, of being behind with much of our work. The threat of fines being imposed by the EU remains a real possibility.

Given the urgency of environmental matters — some of which I have mentioned — and environmentalists’ concerns that the time for corrective action is running out, we cannot procrastinate on the issue any longer. The SDLP tabled the amendment because it wants to see action happening during the lifetime of the Assembly.

I welcome that the Minister is present for the debate. When a similar debate was held before, it was clear that one party opposed having an independent environment protection agency — that was the Minister’s party. Today, I appeal to him to prioritise the environment rather than his party political interests.

s

Mr Gallagher are you aware that the type of Independant EPA which you call for does not exist any where in the uk or ROI. In the ROI the EPA only contains the functions of the Envionmental Protection of the NIEA. The natural heritage directorate, and built heritage directorate functions of the NIEA, are not in the ROI EPA. The same natural heritage functions for example are undertaken by The National Parks and wildlife service, which is an internal division of the Dept of Environment, heritage and local government.The NPWS is highly reguarded by the green party in ROI.In Gb the natural heritage functions of our NIEA are undertaken by English Nature, and Scottish natural heritage, which are not part of the environment agency.

Submitted by stephen carters

Photo of Alastair Ross Alastair Ross DUP 2:45 pm, 11th November 2008

It will come as no surprise that the DUP will be opposing the motion and the amendment. As has been said, many of the arguments have been rehearsed in the Chamber previously, and I doubt whether we will hear much that is new today.

The DUP advocates having a locally elected, devolved institution, so that locally elected people can make decisions. All the parties here adopted a similar view before the Assembly was re-established in May of last year. Yet, all the other major political parties in the Assembly are now supporting an independent environmental protection agency (EPA)and power being handed to an independent body.

We are not a party of big Government; we are a party of good Government. That is why the previous Minister of the Environment, Arlene Foster, decided on an environment protection agency that is within Government, rather than one that would not be directly accountable to the Assembly or the Committee for the Environment, and that would result in increased bureaucracy for the people living in the Province. That does not mean that the DUP is not committed to preserving the environment for future generations. However, we would rather do so in a way that keeps the Minister directly accountable.

I listened to Mr Ford’s opening comments, in which he mentioned certain things that have happened recently. I agree that we should consider recent events — for example, those involving the energy regulator or Northern Ireland Water. In such instances, Members from all sides of the Chamber are calling for Ministers to take action, or intervene; but, of course, those Ministers cannot do so because power has been devolved to an independent body.

Mr Ford also referred to how, when the Minister of the Environment originally made the decision about the EPA, she noted that many other Ministers had expressed their concerns on the practical difficulties in transferring powers to an unelected, independent body. At that time, various unelected organisations undertook a concerted campaign to establish an independent EPA. However, rather than cave in, as some parties did, we stood firm in our belief that an independent EPA would be expensive, bureaucratic, unaccountable and particularly bad for the farming community in Northern Ireland.

Case studies from around the world have shown that an independent EPA is not a panacea for all our environmental problems — such problems are greater in some regions where independent EPAs operate. We need only look to the Irish Republic or to the Scottish Environment Protection Agency for examples of those. Prosecution for offences involving pollution is sixteen times more likely in Northern Ireland than in Scotland. The new Northern Ireland Environment Agency has hardly existed long enough for Members to come to a view on its successes or failings; therefore, today’s motion is premature, if even necessary.

The premise of the motion is that the Northern Ireland Environment Agency has failed, but that is not the case. As was established in previous debates and in the Minister’s statement, the board of the proposed, so-called independent EPA would be appointed by the Minister. Therefore, the same people would end up doing the same jobs that they are doing now; the only difference being that they would not be accountable to the Assembly or the Committee for the Environment.

Our focus should be on ensuring that the efforts already made by the Minister of the Environment and his predecessor are implemented successfully and are producing the desired effect. Several convictions have been secured since the new Northern Ireland Environment Agency was established. Prior to that, the EHS was starting to make some inroads into catching and prosecuting those responsible for environmental crime, particularly those responsible illegal dumping, which is a serious issue.

An independent EPA would not be as accountable as the current body. It would cost taxpayers an additional £2·5 million to set up, with additional annual running costs of £500,000. It would be no more effective than the body that has been established within Government. For those reasons, I oppose the motion and the amendment.

Photo of Cathal Boylan Cathal Boylan Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat. I welcome the opportunity to speak to the motion and the amendment, and I reiterate that Sinn Féin has continually called for an independent environmental protection agency.

In May 2008, I stated in the Chamber that the then Minister had missed a good opportunity to establish an independent environmental protection agency. Instead, she chose to rebrand the EHS as the NIEA.

Sinn Féin calls on the current Minister to ensure that environmental matters, such as illegal dumping, waste management, the built and cultural heritage, and river pollution, are addressed properly through an independent environmental protection agency.

Recently, we witnessed NIEA’s failure to consult properly about declaring Lisnaragh as an area of special scientific interest. Surely that should have caused alarm bells to ring in the Minister’s Department. Although the matter received a great deal of press and media coverage and the Minister spoke about it, opportunities were not afforded for a proper consultation. I place on record the fact that Sinn Féin is not opposed to designating ASSIs, but in this case, the consultation was inadequate.

Anglers throughout the Six Counties are incensed that the pollution of local rivers, leading to numerous fish kills, happens regularly, with NIEA taking little or no action. In addition, illegal dumping, especially in border areas — which I am sure that Mr Ross will be glad that I mentioned — continues unabated, with no co-ordinated response from NIEA.

Mr Ross mentioned expenses. Although I am in danger of becoming parochial, ratepayers in the Armagh City and District Council area have paid to have illegal dumps cleared on numerous occasions, and I want the Minister to take that on board. Armagh people have yet to see results from NIEA —

Photo of Ian McCrea Ian McCrea DUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Cathal Boylan Cathal Boylan Sinn Féin

No; I am sorry.

In short, NIEA is perceived as those who are opposed to it said that it would be; that is, as an ineffective, inefficient entity. The dissatisfaction with EHS, which led to a sustained campaign by a coalition of environmental organisations for an independent body, continues to be felt about the rebranded, but unchanged, NIEA. The opportunity to replace lost confidence by creating a transparent and accountable independent body was missed.

The latest campaign for an independent body is not new. Between 1962 and 1996, several reports called for — and encouraged — the creation of such a body. It has been argued that an independent body, operating outside Government bodies, would have little impact on policy. However, the same might be said about the EHS/NIEA to date, for all the impact that they have had. If an independent body were given a chance, surely it could do better.

It should be noted that the purpose of an independent body would be to deliver results, rather than to formulate policy. However, I do not mean that policies and guidelines are not required. An independent body would hold everyone — members of the public as well as private and statutory bodies — to account, and Sinn Féin believes that an independent environmental protection agency would get the job done and inspire confidence while doing so, much more so than —

Photo of Jim Wells Jim Wells DUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Cathal Boylan Cathal Boylan Sinn Féin

No, I am sorry; I am in full flow. Members from across the Chamber will have a chance to speak later.

Such a body would do so much more than the NIEA is doing. Sustained criticism highlighting the failure of the EHS — and now the NIEA — to deal with environmental governance must cause the Minister to realise that change is required. The Minister must have witnessed the ridiculous role that NIEA has played in planning — it is the last body that people consult in most planning applications.

The only question that remains to be answered is whether the Minister is prepared to accept responsibility and show leadership, or will he, like Nero, continue to fiddle while Rome burns. Comparing the Minister to Caesar is, perhaps, a bit much; Sid Caesar may be a better comparison — he was a comedian as well.

I hope that the Minister will take the views of the majority of Members — and people beyond — into consideration. He should tell us that he will reconsider the previous Minister’s position and revisit the matter of an independent environmental protection agency.

Before finishing, I inform the Minister that I have taken his advice from last week, and I am now drinking from a glass. I tell him that in case he wants to comment on it. [Laughter.]

I support the motion and the amendment. Go raibh maith agat.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. On behalf of the Committee for the Environment, I thank Mr Ford, Mrs Long, Mr McCarthy and Mr Lunn for tabling the motion on the review of environmental governance, and my colleague Mr Gallagher for his amendment. Indeed, it was he who previously tabled an amendment to a motion on the subject.

In July 2007, Professor Sharon Turner briefed the Committee for the Environment on ‘Foundations for the Future — The Review of Environmental Governance’, which had been published the previous May. I compliment her and her colleagues for their detailed and comprehensive work on that topic. She informed the Committee that, during the previous year, the then Minister with responsibility for the environment, Jeff Rooker, had appointed a panel of experts to conduct an independent review of environmental governance in the North. The panel’s challenge was to identify how the assets that were available to manage Northern Ireland’s environment might be better arranged to deliver higher-quality and more consistent environmental outcomes.

In thinking about those assets, the review addressed the focus, structure, roles and relationships among the elements of the governance regime, but it was notable that the review did not include an evaluation of existing environmental policies.

A few months later, the Committee for the Environment considered Criminal Justice Inspection’s report on enforcement in the Department of the Environment. In July 2008, the Committee received a briefing from departmental officials, who set out their goals for the future of environmental governance. Those goals focused on the better-regulation agenda of the previous Minister of the Environment, Arlene Foster. In considering her approach to providing effective systems of governance and regulations, Mrs Foster took account of the recommendations contained in the review of environmental governance’s final report and Criminal Justice Inspection’s report on enforcement in the Department.

The Minister maintained that the restoration of the Assembly and the Executive had changed fundamentally the context of environmental governance, because the initial review had been commissioned under direct rule — we have heard similar comments today from Members on the Benches opposite. She noted that the Department was now being scrutinised by the Committee for the Environment and that accountability arrangements were much improved under devolution. However, that does not mean a great deal at present.

Arlene Foster argued against the review’s suggested organisational changes and said that Ministers from other relevant Departments wanted to retain their responsibilities rather than have them transferred to the Department of the Environment. As a consequence of that, her logic probably leaned towards the establishment of an independent EPA. She also said that the Programme for Government’s commitment to a review of the Departments in 2011 meant that then would be a more appropriate time to consider any fundamental restructuring of responsibilities among Departments. Those are the arguments that the then Minister advanced, but we may hear more arguments today.

Minister Foster announced that she would retain the Environment and Heritage Service and reorganise it as a DOE executive agency, but, at the time of the announcement, some compared that to Marathon’s transition to Snickers. She acknowledged that some people would be disappointed at that decision but maintained that, as Minister of the Environment, she, along with her Executive colleagues, would make decisions that the Assembly and the Committee for the Environment would scrutinise. She said that such scrutiny would bring some degree of accountability to her Department and allow a close degree of scrutiny that had not been possible under direct rule. She also announced that the new agency’s transparency and openness would be increased by the appointment of two new independent members to its board and that board meetings would be held in public.

Committee members asked for details of the new board’s position and to see the DOE’s finalised action plan in response to Criminal Justice Inspection’s report.

Despite the time constraints and priorities placed on the Committee for the Environment, it has kept a close watching brief on environmental governance in the North. However, the Committee is not an agency; it does not have to hand a full-time workforce working to capacity or with the resources that are available to the Northern Ireland Environment Agency — I almost reverted to form and said the EHS in error. I hope that the Northern Ireland Environment Agency has not reverted to form.

It takes its responsibilities in scrutinising the work of the Department seriously and carries out those responsibilities conscientiously, thus ensuring that it plays its full part in the accountability of the Department conferred on it by devolution.

Speaking as a constituency MLA, I have to say that we have a long, long way to go on environmental governance, and with implementation in full of the review of —

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

The Committee for the Environment can help and can prepare a watching brief on environmental governance in the North. However, it will be nothing like a well-resourced, independent environmental protection agency with vision, as referred to by my colleague.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I welcome the debate as an opportunity to raise this important matter. I support the motion and am content with the amendment.

The Ulster Unionist Party engaged constructively with the review of environmental governance group and supported its subsequent recommendations, chief of which was the setting up of an independent environmental protection agency, and we remain committed to our manifesto.

It is worth pointing out that the two main parties in the current Assembly and Executive — the DUP and Sinn Féin — did little to engage with that review of environmental governance at the time. Perhaps it is unsurprising that a DUP Minister decided to cherry-pick the report and ignore its main findings. That decision, and the entire farce of the DUP stewardship of the environment, mirrors the mismanagement of education by Sinn Féin, and the dysfunctional nature of the current non-working Executive. We have the two extreme ideologues that ignore expert opinion and have no comprehension of the importance of achieving a consensus on issues that are important to the people of Northern Ireland.

The authors of ‘Foundations for the Future: The Review of Environmental Governance’ were tasked to identify — [Interruption.]

Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party

Order, please. The Member has the Floor. Any remarks must be addressed through the Chair.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Mr Deputy Speaker, the clock continued to move. I hope that you will take that into account.

The authors were tasked:

“to identify how the assets available to manage Northern Ireland’s environment might be better arranged to deliver higher quality and more consistent environmental outcomes.”

That was supported by the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), which indicated its importance in giving confidence to those who wished to invest, that decisions would be taken in a consistent manner. In other words, it suggested the best way to organise our existing resources.

Even if one were to look at the area of the co-ordination of river-basin catchment management, the report highlights the fact that the Rivers Agency, the then Fishery Conservancy Board, the Loughs Agency, the Drainage Council, and Waterways Ireland were all involved. If anything can be done to reduce the number of bodies that are involved in discussions in alleviating flooding — which is what we are actually talking about — the bureaucracy would be reduced, leading to better and faster decisions. To run with the line that an environmental protection agency would mean increased bureaucracy is not true. There are many areas where more efficient and better processes can be put in place.

‘Foundations for the Future’ was first published in June 2007, and the experts set out in detail the reasons for their recommendations. I encourage all Members who have not yet done so to read the report. The failure to follow what the title of the report suggests, supported by such cogent argument and content, does not bode well for the current rebadging process. The report recommended that:

“Responsibility for environmental regulation in Northern Ireland should be transferred to a new independent Environmental Protection Agency”,

so that decisions would be:

“immune from unwarranted interference by Ministers or officials.”

The report also stated that the EHS, as an executive agency of the Department of the Environment, would be:

“increasingly out of step with good governance practice elsewhere” in the United Kingdom or the British Isles. A key recommendation was:

“to separate institutional policy making from regulation”,

which means that we are presently out of step. The Minister and the Assembly would have the responsibility of setting the policy in which the EPA would operate.

It was proposed that a whole range of functions would co-ordinate into one body, which would result in significant expertise being amassed in one agency. Those resources would enable better and possibly speedier decision-making and better governance.

One finding of the report was that there is a serious lack of transparency around the making of regulatory decisions. We know that there were significant issues around the designation of Lisnaragh as an ASSI. First, there was a lack of transparency in the process. Next, the Minister’s management board recommended approval, but the Minister decided against — a lack of transparency, resulting in a conspiracy theory. Clearly, there are failings in the process. How will the geologically significant features in that general area be protected? The Minister must answer that question.

I am aware that there is concern about the percentage targets for ASSIs. ASSI status must be clearly designated based on the quality of the landscape and not purely by geographical area.

Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party

I ask the Member to draw his remarks to a close.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I support the motion and the amendment.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

It will come as no great surprise that I oppose both the motion and the amendment. Mr Boylan made a somewhat inaccurate reference to Nero fiddling while Rome burned. Given the general attitude towards the establishment of an EPA, the historical character with whom I most feel a connection is perhaps Custer.

A range of issues must be tackled. The proposer of the amendment, Mr Gallagher, said that there must be no more procrastination — I certainly agree with that, but I have reached the opposite conclusion to him. We are faced with several choices. Are we prepared to take action on the environment now, or do we simply want to be seen to be doing something about the environment? If it is the former, the House must reject the amendment and support the NIEA, which can be developed now, rather than support the call for an EPA that might take a couple of years to establish. Would we prefer to see money spent on the environment or on administrative structures? We could take advantage of the fact that an agency has already been set up, or spend somewhere between £2·5 million and perhaps £4 million to set up an EPA. Would that money not be better spent on environ­mental protection rather than administrative structures? Indeed, it might be better spent in a range of other areas where there are pressures on front-line services.

The nub of the matter is accountability. My colleague Mr Ross mentioned places in which environmental bodies have been set up. It was not that long ago that energy prices were raised, and, at that time, there were many calls — particularly on the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment — to intervene in the work of the energy regulator. However, the regulator was set up in exactly the same way that the independent EPA would be set up. With the best will in the world, the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment did not have control over the regulator and was therefore unable to introduce the range of measures that she would have liked to.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

No, the Member will have his chance to speak later.

Likewise, mention has been made of ASSIs. In particular, Mr Boylan mentioned the Lisnaragh ASSI. However, the overturning of that decision — which was done by the Department — would not have been possible if an EPA were in existence. The Member is very much arguing against himself. Having fought long and hard to ensure that there is democratic accountability in Northern Ireland, we should not lightly throw it away.

Similarly, complaints have rightly been made about the level of consultation that EHS has provided for in the past — both about the slowness of the consultation process and the lack of consultation in general. However, if we establish an independent EPA that is completely outside the Department’s and Minister’s control, who could apply pressure to ensure that the consultation process is improved? The matter would be completely out of our hands, and a level of accountability would be lost.

When considering the effectiveness of an EPA, we must learn from the mistakes that others have made. Have independent EPAs been successful on other parts of this island? No, they have not. We have only to look down South at the shambles over the development at Tara. The matter is supposedly under the control of a Green Party Minister. However, he is presumably not able to intervene as much as he wants to, because the issue is in the hands of an EPA.

The Scottish Government have had major problems with the Scottish Environment Protection Agency. Let us consider the statistics: the number of prosecutions for pollution in Northern Ireland is 16 times the number in Scotland — which has an independent EPA — and four times the number in Wales. Therefore, if this is an argument about effectiveness, the statistics are very much in favour of the current structures.

The current structures are also favourable in respect of consistency and bureaucracy. I pay tribute to the consistency of the proposers of the motion and those who tabled the amendment. The Alliance Party and the SDLP have been fairly consistent on the issue. However, two of the other parties that have spoken in favour of the motion have not been so consistent. The Department for Regional Development (DRD) and DARD were two of the obstacles to drawing in powers that could form part of an EPA. I wonder which party controls those Departments.

The party to my right lectures the DUP on its failure to do this, that and the other in respect of an EPA. Curiously enough, there were two Ulster Unionist Environment Ministers during the last Assembly mandate — Minister Sam Foster and Minister Dermott Nesbitt — but an independent EPA was not established under their tenures, despite UUP assertions that the issue has been on the table since 1962. That party has shown no consistency on this matter.

However, all the parties are consistent in the message that they send out to farmers.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

The Ulster Farmers’ Union is strongly opposed to the substance of the motion. Therefore, I hope that parties will not be mealy mouthed when explaining their position to farmers.

Photo of Daithí McKay Daithí McKay Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the motion, as amended. When the review of environmental governance was launched in Belfast last year, I recall the hope that was felt by many people who work in environment-related occupations on a daily basis. I recall the hope that was felt by non-governmental organisations — which do not hold a particular political opinion — in respect of the review’s recommendations.

The review was broadly welcomed across the political spectrum, but not by the predictable, naysaying Democratic Unionist Party. Given the decision taken by the previous Environment Minister, Arlene Foster, the current Minister’s position is not surprising.

The independent experts who undertook the review took account of the importance of a high-quality environment for the population’s immediate well-being. They also stated that a high-quality environment was a key attractor for inward investment and tourism, and essential to sustain and develop the sectors of the economy that are dependent on the environment.

Protecting our environment can yield many economic benefits, such as increased tourism. Furthermore, if we do not take action on environmental governance and climate change now, damage to the environment could have a massively negative impact on the economy 20 or 30 years down the line.

Photo of Jim Wells Jim Wells DUP

I have listened to what the Member has said — after he was quite finished striving to cover north Antrim with bungalows. When the then Environment Minister discussed this matter within the Executive, the Sinn Féin Ministers — the Regional Development Minister and the Agriculture Minister — sat on their hands and did absolutely nothing. They were perfectly content with the decision.

In public, they claimed that they were in opposition, but they sat on their hands again when the matter came before the Executive after Mrs Foster’s statement to the Assembly. They did not lift a finger to oppose her decision. It is all very well for the Member to say in the public that he is in favour of an environmental protection agency, but his party is saying something very different in private.

Photo of Daithí McKay Daithí McKay Sinn Féin

It is important to knock that nonsense on the head. The decision that came before the Executive clearly stated that an NI environmental agency would be set up.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

Did you mean Northern Ireland?

Photo of Daithí McKay Daithí McKay Sinn Féin

It is the North of Ireland. There was no decision on an environmental protection agency that Sinn Féin could have blocked. Sinn Féin wants an independent environmental protection agency to be established. The Rubicon must be crossed in respect of that matter before the Committee can discuss what remit that environmental protection agency will have.

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

Does the Member agree that the establishment of an independent EPA falls under the definition of a “significant and controversial matter” in accordance with the ministerial code of conduct, which can force a collective decision to be taken by the Executive?

Photo of Daithí McKay Daithí McKay Sinn Féin

No proposal on an EPA has come before the Executive. That would be clear to the Member if he had done his homework. He has had about six months to check the facts, and I urge him to do some research on the matter.

Independence is absolutely necessary. I agree with Members who said that independence is needed because a regulator must command public confidence and act, and be seen to act, in a consistent manner. Nevertheless, Ministers and elected representatives must have a central voice in environmental regulation while retaining the power to direct an independent agency as well as the right to issue guidance on how its powers are exercised. Therefore it is not a question of an independent environmental protection agency being totally beyond the oversight of this political institution. The remit to do that exists and can be put in place by the Assembly.

In May, the ministerial statement was made to the dismay of many environmental non-governmental organisations. The new Environment Agency was nothing more than a repackage; it has been no more effective than its predecessor. It has been rebranded with no extra substance. The DOE has continued to come under fire since the rebranding of the Environment and Heritage Service, particularly in respect of water pollution.

Therefore it is clear that the new Environment Agency, in common with the new Minister of the Environment, is not fit for purpose and delivers little of substance. On reflection, it seems that over the past two or three weeks, hardly a week goes by without the Minister being criticised by all parties bar his own. Every week more and more is heard about how the Minister is falling behind with his work. He has a great deal more to do for the environment; he must take responsibility for it rather than sit on his hands. Go raibh maith agat.

Photo of Ian McCrea Ian McCrea DUP 3:15 pm, 11th November 2008

Members will not be shocked to learn that I will not be supporting the motion or the amendment.

On 1 July 2008, I attended the launch of the Northern Ireland Environment Agency. Only four months later, the Assembly is debating a motion more or less calling for the abolition of that agency.

It is unbelievable that, after only four months, some Members can be so certain that the agency is doing such a bad job. If an independent environment agency had been established, I doubt that we would be debating whether it should be abolished after four months. Some Members are so fixated on the idea of an independent environment protection agency that they do not want to see the Northern Ireland Environment Agency succeed. That is why they ask for it to be abolished.

In the debate on 27 May 2008, the then Minister of the Environment, Arlene Foster, stated her belief that an independent review should be carried out in 2011. That review must consider any problems with the Environment Agency and, as the then Minister said, make changes if necessary.

I accept that there were many problems with the EHS, and other Members have spoken about the problems with planning consultations and other issues. It seemed that the EHS was a law onto itself, and it took ages to respond on planning matters. However, while others shouted from the sidelines it was a DUP Minister who faced the issue head-on and took the right decision to form the Northern Ireland Environment Agency — an agency that is accountable to the Minister and to the Assembly and its Committees. The Committee for the Environment is charged with scrutinising the Minister and the Department; as a member of that Committee, I take that responsibility seriously. Yet the Minister is once again being called upon to hand over his powers to scrutinise the Environment Agency by making it independent.

In my Mid Ulster constituency, there was severe flooding in August this year when the Moyola River burst its banks. Many homes were badly damaged and their contents destroyed, and farmers lost livestock, crops, equipment and other material. Many people believe that the flooding was made worse because environmental constraints meant that badgers, fish and even trees were deemed more important than property. That is because there are only a few weeks in the year in which the Rivers Agency can carry out maintenance work — remove debris, cut back trees or repair river banks.Surely, there must come a time when the lives and property of people are put before fish, birds and badgers.

In January 2007, the Ulster Farmers’ Union launched its campaign to cut excessive red tape in agriculture and received unanimous support from the Assembly. If Members truly support a reduction of red tape, it is time for them to support the Northern Ireland Environment Agency and reject the notion of an independent environment protection agency that would, ultimately, increase red tape.

Photo of David McClarty David McClarty UUP

The Ulster Unionist Party regards Northern Ireland’s diverse and beautiful natural environment as one of our greatest assets; it is also a crucial component of our local economy and will be an even greater component in a peaceful future.

However, we are also acutely aware that we have not been good stewards of our natural environment; for decades, we have been one of Europe’s sick men and considered a special case. We have continuously failed to meet European regulations and continued to pollute at unacceptable levels. However, times have changed, and we must change with them.

The review of environmental governance held out some hope for the reform that was required. However, as with so many issues, the Minister has proven that he would rather go it alone, centralise power and remain outside the considered mainstream. As a party of the Union, the Ulster Unionist Party is deeply aware of the grave disparity that exists between the levels and mechanisms of environmental protection in Northern Ireland and those in the rest of the United Kingdom.

The review of environmental governance highlighted what has been realised across the rest of the United Kingdom and in the Republic of Ireland for more than a decade — to ensure the required environmental protection, legislative responsibilities must be meaningfully separated from the regulatory and enforcement functions of any environment protection agency. The continual failings of the EHS have proven that over past decades. The Minister is not allowing us to implement best practice.

The previous Minister of the Environment paid homage to that fact in her statement on 27 May 2008, when she outlined proposals for the new Environment Agency:

“I want to see clear blue water between the role of the core Department as policy-maker and legislator and the role of the environment agency as protector, regulator and enforcer.” — [Official Report, Vol 31, No 1, p4, col 1].

However, despite the former Environment Minister’s sleight of hand, it cannot be denied that the new Environment Agency remains firmly under the control of the Department of the Environment and the Executive. No clear blue water has been established and, like the continued pollution of rivers such as the Six Mile Water, there is nothing but a murky opaqueness between the two.

The former Environment Minister went on to make much of the better regulation board, only to inform us that its members would be leaders in the agriculture, construction, water and business sectors. The Minister made no mention of representation from environmental experts or advocates. The former Minister of the Environment called them critical friends — I am concerned that in order not to offend a friend people sometimes refrain from telling them the whole truth.

Unfortunately, such lazy thinking and language is what we are coming to expect from the Minister of the Environment. However, the Ulster Unionist Party does not support regulation for regulation’s sake. That has been proven by the actions and decisions of the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. However, we believe in good and fair regulation, and the creation of an independent environmental agency would be good regulation. The recent incidences of flooding provided a less than obvious example of the benefits that a functioning Department and an independent environment agency can deliver.

Detailed flood risk assessments are produced by the EPA in England and Wales. That information is then integrated into a climate-change adaptation strategy. However, although we have created preliminary flood maps, our inability to join up the dots will mean that we will probably not utilise them to their optimum. We have an Environment Minister who does not believe in climate change, and we do not have an independent environmental protection agency from which independent advice can be sought. Under the DUP’s leadership, we will be unable to join up the dots to ensure that good regulation and reform are put in place.

As Mr McGlone said, changing the name of Marathons to Snickers did little to change their flavour. In the same way, the Environment Agency has made little difference during its short lifetime, and it is time that the Minister recognised that fact. I support the motion.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

I am not sure whether people who have listened to this debate will welcome it, because the Assembly is becoming more like the BBC, with repeats almost every week, especially on issues relating to the environment. Members trotted out the same old arguments, and no new ideas were suggested. There was no recognition of the good, hard work that the Department is doing on the entire area of the environment.

I want to address as many of the Members’ points as possible, but I wish to make something very clear from the start — there will be no review of the current governmental arrangements for the Environment Agency during the lifetime of the Assembly. There are three reasons for that. First, a new agency has been set up, and it needs time to be assessed and to prove itself. We have heard Members speaking nonsense and writing the agency off after only three or four months, without one shred of evidence that it is not doing its job, and without one example of where it has failed. They have simply written the agency off, saying that it is not fit for purpose, it is not up to the job, and it cannot perform as well as other agencies. I could repeat statements that other Members have made.

The proposer of the motion, Mr Ford, said that the Environment Agency is not up to the challenge. Mr Ford was a social worker, and I am sure that if anyone had dared suggest to him that a social policy could have been evaluated and a judgement made on it after four months, he would have said that they needed to have their heads felt, because he knows that a policy cannot be evaluated in such a short time. He did not do himself or his argument any justice when he came off with the nonsense that we heard in his speech today.

Standards in the Assembly have been criticised at times, but if a GCSE student had proposed some of the arguments that Members made today, they would not even get a grade C for them, because no justification was given for any of the sweeping statements that were made.

Secondly, new members of staff have been appointed to the agency, and independent members have been appointed to the board. Those people must be given some sense of security and a long-term objective to work towards. Time and again, Members raised issues for party political reasons, but that creates a degree of uncertainty. Some Members are simply pandering to groups that will applaud them for it, despite the fact that many of them are not even clear about what they mean when they talk about the role of an independent environmental agency — but I will come to that issue in a moment.

I believe that we owe it to the agency’s staff, who have been given rigorous targets, to have some kind of stability over the next few years.

My third reason for opposing the motion is that I have worked with many of those staff members. They have presented me with policy papers, arguments and plans, and I have visited them at their places of work, some of which are not in very pleasant conditions. I have seen their commitment to the agency. Some of them make their telephone numbers available to members of the public so that they can be called out to incidents, 24 hours a day.

I owe it to those totally dedicated staff who, despite the impression given by some Members here, feel aggrieved when the environment is damaged, when some part of the job for which they are responsible has not been adequately done or when someone has escaped prosecution for a pollution incident. I have spoken to some of those staff members, and when a polluter escapes prosecution, they feel as sore about it — sorer, perhaps — than those who, in their mock rage, make statements to the papers that give the impression that the agency’s staff are doing nothing and turning a blind eye to some things that are happening.

For all those reasons, the Assembly, rather than continually sniping at the organisation, ought to fall in behind those dedicated staff. I do not always agree with them; sometimes I have rows with them, and we have words. They may have different views and ideas, but at least they are dedicated. They are owed, until they have shown otherwise, the support of the Assembly. They do not deserve the headline-grabbing criticisms that are sometimes made of them.

I will turn to some of the issues that were raised. The agency has been criticised because it is not accountable or independent. I did not have time to find quotes from every Member of the Assembly, although I suspect that I could have found examples had I dug long enough. However, every party in the Assembly that has talked about the importance of having an independent environmental protection agency has, at some time or another, questioned the value of having independent regulatory bodies, whether they are for energy or for water. To use the broad language of the proposer of the motion, there is nothing wrong with the objective of cutting back on unaccountable and over-bureaucratic bodies.

Either we have an independent agency, or there must be some regulation. I note that the Ulster Unionist Party’s Minister has said that he has no confidence in regulators. He did not want an independent body. He said that, having seen how the electricity and gas regulator operates, he does not do a particularly brilliant job for the consumer. Independence, therefore, does not guarantee that a good job will be done.

Sinn Féin, of course, demanded in September 2008 that the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment should interfere with the work of the Utility Regulator. When we talk about independent regulators and independent bodies in the Assembly, some Members do not like to see that independence being exercised too strongly.

I suspect that they would have the same difficulty were an independent environmental protection agency established.

Mr Boylan and other Members let the cat out of the bag when they mentioned Lisnaragh. I am not sure whether they welcomed the fact that, given that the agency is not totally independent, the Committee for the Environment was able to consider the issue and bring a recommendation to me. Mr Beggs was not sure what recommendation was made because, according to the minute of that Committee meeting, he said that he was not sure what was proposed. He, therefore, sat on the fence on the issue.

Mr Ford thought that it was so important to scrutinise the work of my Department and that of the regulator that he did not even stay to the end of the Committee meeting, so he did not know what decision was made. Therefore, before Members start to criticise the Department and the agency, they ought to consider their own involvement.

Members mentioned transparency. NIEA has open board meetings, and on its website, it publishes papers that show how it reached decisions, what decisions have been made, and what targets have been set. There is information on team briefs, corporate plans, business plans, performance data, accounts and other matters. The agency is totally transparent, and anyone can see how it conducts its business and how the Department regulates it.

Mr Gallagher’s amendment calls for an independent agency to be fully operational before the end of the current Assembly mandate so that it can protect the environment. He ignored the fact that that will involve a cost, but other Members pointed out that perhaps he would prefer £4 million to be diverted to the setting up of a new agency. I, however, would prefer that money to be spent on better regulation and on ensuring that people are in place to make sure that that regulation occurs. His amendment is an example of the naivety of some Members who think that I am able to wave a magic wand tomorrow that, hey presto, will create a brand new, costless, independent environmental protection agency.

Establishing such a body would not be costless, and it could not be done immediately, anyway. Primary legislation would have to be drafted, and the legal entity would have to be set up to cover its management and financial relationships with the DOE. An independent environmental protection agency would have to seek resources from the DOE — money would not fall from the trees or come from the sea. A chairperson and a board would have to be appointed, and there would have to be a shadowing period to allow the chairperson and the management team to bed in. That would not work, and it would not happen overnight. An agency exists that is working towards achieving its objectives.

Mr Gallagher also said —

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP 3:30 pm, 11th November 2008

The reason that Ministers have given for not setting up an independent environmental protection agency could equally be given as a reason not to review public administration and local government. The redevelopment of local government is progressing, so why does the Minister use that argument against establishing an independent environmental protection agency?

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

Every time that the Member opens his mouth on such issues, he shows his ignorance. As I will demonstrate, the Northern Ireland Environment Agency serves its purpose well. Local government, on the other hand, will be reformed in order to give it additional powers and to improve it. That is why the review is progressing and why the Northern Ireland Environment Agency should stay.

Arguments were made about the effectiveness of the agency. I will not repeat all the statistics that other Members gave, but the Northern Ireland Environment Agency prosecutes more people than any independent agency in the United Kingdom, even though Northern Ireland is a smaller area. The agency pursues polluters effectively, and its sentencing is effective. It does not discriminate between semi-governmental bodies and bodies that are unattached to Government; Northern Ireland Water feels the weight of my Department as much as any private individual. Infraction proceedings against other parts of the United Kingdom, whose agencies are independent, occur more often.

Therefore, there is no guarantee that an independent environment agency would lead to a form of governance in which pollution would not occur and the environment would not be damaged.

Cathal Boylan asked about the border areas. The agency pursues the issue of waste management in border areas to the point where it forces councils in the Republic to pay for the removal of waste that was dumped illegally in Northern Ireland. I have pursued that vigorously to the point where illegal dumpers have had their assets seized and some of the illegal dumpers have been put in jail. Therefore, do not tell me that the Environment Agency is not effective. The agency is effective, and, for that reason, we ought to give it the opportunity to prove that is capable of doing the job. In its short life, it has shown that to be the case, and over time, it will continue to show that. The Assembly should fall in behind the agency’s staff and give them the help and encouragement to ensure that the environment is cleaned up.

Photo of Tommy Gallagher Tommy Gallagher Social Democratic and Labour Party

Something of Dr Paisley’s legacy has clearly rubbed off on the Minister of the Environment, who began his contribution to the debate with a no, no, never approach.

I want, first, to set the record straight and to correct the Minister’s implications that I was attacking staff from the Department of the Environment, or any other staff for that matter. I have never verbally attacked staff, and I know that all staff work hard in difficult circumstances.

The motion, however, is not about staff, but the regulation of the environment. We are debating the issue again because the Minister’s predecessor, Arlene Foster, with the support of her party, who contributed to the debate on the day that the new agency was introduced, put the staff in a difficult position. The Department of the Environment is the only Department that tries to have it both ways: to be poacher and gamekeeper. Members from the other side of the House attempted to draw other regulators into the issue. The Department of the Environment is unique in having a regulator that tries to be poacher and gamekeeper at the same time. That does not work. It is clear that the public has no confidence in the agency, and that is why so many Members have again provided their views on the issue.

Furthermore, the views of experts were simply sidelined and dropped. The review of environmental governance provided several recommendations after long, drawn out consultations. Yet what we got from the Minister of the Environment was simply moving furniture around and repackaging the EHS. The Minister can shout for as long as he wishes, but he will not change the fact that the public increasingly care about the environment, and this issue will not go away.

We are criticised on this side for daring to say that we need a better body after only four months. The Minister has tried to tell us that the agency is the most effective regulatory body in the UK. May I remind him of a well-known tyres incident that happened under the new Environment Agency not so long ago when an individual was found disposing of tyres illegally. He was intercepted by the agency, taken to court, and fined £200.

It turned out that the true cost of the tyre disposal was £1,000. What has happened to the polluter-pays principle? That is just one example of why this debate must continue until we have an independent environment agency. [Interruption.] I will not give way. The scale of protection — [Interruption.]

Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party

Order, please. The Member has the Floor.

Photo of Tommy Gallagher Tommy Gallagher Social Democratic and Labour Party 3:45 pm, 11th November 2008

The issue is the scale of protection for the environment and, as I have said, that is completely inadequate; the public has no confidence in it. The way in which regulation is being taken forward is not independent, and that is not the fault of the staff of the Department of the Environment.

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

We are pleased that we have the opportunity to discuss this critical issue today. Although it has only been a few months since the decision was taken by the Minister’s predecessor, this is a matter of considerable public concern.

Like many other Members, I have received a large postbag full of letters from constituents on the issue. Ninety-nine per cent of them are in favour of having an independent environment protection agency. People recognise that the arrangements for institutional governance of the environment in Northern Ireland are not fit for purpose and need to be modernised. They also recognise that independence and transparency need to be taken into account when decisions about the environment are made.

There has been a significant evolution in thinking during the decade following the last review. The decision that the previous Minister of the Environment took on the matter was not based on any sound rationale in policy-making; the decision was political, and it was taken to reflect the needs of a narrow section of the community in Northern Ireland rather than the wider needs of society. It ran against the recommendations of the review of environmental governance set up during direct rule by Lord Rooker — hardly an example of a pro-environment Minister. Nevertheless, he went along with it.

Major environmental issues must be considered by an EPA, including the prevention and control of pollution, waste management, biodiversity, inland and coastal waterways and our built heritage, and some Members have stressed that independent EPAs are the norm, not just in these islands but in the world.

A number of different themes have emerged in the debate, one of which is the notion that having an independent environment protection agency runs contrary to the idea of having a devolved Assembly with local, elected MLAs and Ministers taking decisions. Democracy is more sophisticated than simple majority voting in a legislature followed by a Minister doing whatever he or she likes. Democracy is about having a rules-based system; it is about the rule of law and putting in place proper checks and balances to ensure that the law fully takes its course. Such checks and balances need to exist in an independent environment protection agency. Other democratic jurisdictions — Scotland, which has its Parliament, and the Republic of Ireland — are able co-exist satisfactorily with an independent EPA. There is no reason why we cannot do the same while not undermining the quality of democracy in the Chamber.

The DUP is not consistent when making its comments. When it comes to private finance initiatives, the DUP is quite happy for major contracts to be handed over to the private sector to run on behalf of Government — for example, the Workplace 2010 contract. Although that is on hold, temporarily, it will potentially cover two-thirds of the Civil Service estate. Once the contract is signed, Members will have no control over how it will roll out because that will be set out in law. The DUP is happy to do that while arguing against having an independent EPA — it is not being consistent. It shows that the argument is more about political expediency than logic.

A rather demeaning comment was made about unelected NGOs. Let me tell the House something about the RSPB: it is a mass-membership organisation throughout the UK that, I dare say, has more members in Northern Ireland than every political party in the Assembly combined. That puts the matter in context. That organisation’s views reflect those of its members.

We have been told that there cannot be an EPA because its set-up costs might range from £2·5 million to £4 million and it would incur running costs of £600,000 each year. We do not hear about the costs of not having a proper system of environmental governance in Northern Ireland, which may include financial costs in the increased likelihood of fines and infraction proceedings, and the wider impact on the economy.

The DUP seems to operate on the notion that developing the economy and protecting the environment are mutually exclusive. They are not at all. Indeed, they are more than simply consistent; there is a social imperative to grow a green economy. In the United States, where there will be a change of leadership in the next few months, one key aspect of the new Obama Administration will be the development of the “green new deal”. It recognises that development of the economy and protecting the environment go hand in hand. That is significant, given the American legacy on the environment. Northern Ireland should be heading in the same direction. Although change does not happen overnight, as Jeffrey Sachs pointed out in today’s ‘Irish Times’, it is important that we start to head in that direction.

Clearly, much of what the DUP says on the issue has been influenced by one sector of society, namely farmers, through the Ulster Farmers’ Union. Other aspects of the economy must also be borne in mind. That is reflected in the support of the CBI, among other bodies, for an independent environmental protection agency. Members are aware that the CBI tends to be hard-nosed when it comes to economic matters; however, even it recognises the new opportunities to rebalance and transform the Northern Ireland economy. Many aspects of the economy depend on a good, clean environment.

Another notion is that there cannot be a review because the Northern Ireland Environment Agency has been in place for a mere four months. The reason for this debate is that there was no sound, policy-making rationale for the decision that was taken on the agency: it was flawed. A proper review has already been conducted — the review of environmental governance. Its recommendation is quite clear: an independent EPA is needed. There is no point in Northern Ireland hanging around for years and missing out on the opportunities that arise from a different way of doing things and for society to lose out as a consequence. Rapid progress must be made now.

The decision-making process must also be examined. Four out of five parties in the Assembly seem to believe in the importance of an independent environmental protection agency. We are not too sure about Sinn Féin; however, we will take it at face value for the purposes of this debate. The DUP is the one exception.

There is supposed to be power-sharing in this society. To me, that means an Executive that can take collective decisions on “significant or controversial” matters. However, the outcome on this important matter is subject to the lucky dip of d’Hondt — the fact that the DUP, rather than another party, has taken on the Environment portfolio. My understanding was that the St Andrews Agreement would stop that type of outcome. To use another example, there is a risk of the Education Minister being able to take a polarising decision on education simply because Sinn Féin has the Education portfolio. Collective outcomes are needed from the Executive. Mechanisms for that exist through the ministerial code of conduct.

As far as the Assembly is aware, the former Environment Minister informed her Executive colleagues of the decision that she was going to take. However, her decision had a cross-cutting impact on other Departments such as DCAL, DARD and DRD. However, it was also a “significant or controversial” matter under the definition in the code of conduct. At no time did any party in the Executive challenge the Minister’s decision and seek to force a collective vote in the Executive that could have delivered a different outcome.

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

Sorry, I have no time.

After the Minister was challenged on her decision through a petition of concern, the First Minister and deputy First Minister accepted that the issue of environmental governance was a “significant and controversial” matter under the definition in the code of conduct. That means that all future decisions on environmental governance will have to be collective decisions of the Executive.

However, given that all future decisions are supposed to be collective, it begs the question of why the first decision was not. Had it been, the outcome and the nature of today’s debate would have been different. Members must bear in mind that major flaws exist in the Executive. I am glad that the Minister was listening to that part of my speech, and I hope that he will heed the remainder when he reads the Hansard report, because he was rather inattentive during the first half.

The Alliance Party is happy to support the SDLP amendment. However, I must point out that the SDLP’s tabling of a similar amendment last autumn was tactically unsound. At that stage, the priority was to seek the maximum level of consensus in the Chamber on the principle of an independent environmental protection agency.

As it turned out, the motion received the support of all parties in the Chamber, including the DUP, on that important topic. Since then, the DUP has wandered off and, rather than acting for the common good, has given in to special interests in society. However, that is a decision for the DUP to justify in due course. I am happy to support the motion and the amendment.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

The Assembly divided: Ayes 48; Noes 29.

AYES

Ms Anderson, Mr Attwood, Mr Beggs, Mr Boylan,  Mrs M Bradley, Mr P J Bradley, Mr Brady, Mr Brolly, Mr Burns, Mr Butler, Mr W Clarke,  Rev Dr Robert Coulter, Mr Cree, Mr Doherty,  Mr Elliott, Dr Farry, Mr Ford, Mr Gallagher,  Mr Gardiner, Mr G Kelly, Mr Kennedy, Ms Lo,  Mr A Maginness, Mr A Maskey, Mr P Maskey,  Mr McCallister, Mr F McCann, Ms J McCann,  Mr McCarthy, Mr McCartney, Mr McClarty,  Mr McElduff, Mr McFarland, Mrs McGill,  Mr McGlone, Mr M McGuinness, Mr McKay,  Mr Molloy, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O’Dowd, Mr O’Loan, Mrs O’Neill, Mr P Ramsey, Ms S Ramsey,  Mr K Robinson, Ms Ruane, Mr Savage, Mr B Wilson.

Tellers for the Ayes: Mr Burns and Mr A Maginness.

NOES

Mr Bresland, Lord Browne, Mr T Clarke, Mr Craig,  Mr Dodds, Mr Donaldson, Mr Easton, Mr Hamilton, Mr Hilditch, Mr Irwin, Mr McCausland, Mr I McCrea, Dr W McCrea, Miss McIlveen, Lord Morrow,  Mr Moutray, Mr Newton, Mr Paisley Jnr,  Rev Dr Ian Paisley, Mr Poots, Mr G Robinson,  Mrs I Robinson, Mr P Robinson, Mr Ross, Mr Shannon, Mr Simpson, Mr Spratt, Mr Weir, Mr S Wilson.

Tellers for the Noes: Mr Bresland and Mr Ross.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Main Question, as amended, put.

The Assembly divided: Ayes 48; Noes 30.

AYES

Ms Anderson, Mr Attwood, Mr Beggs, Mr Boylan,  Mrs M Bradley, Mr P J Bradley, Mr Brady, Mr Brolly, Mr Burns, Mr Butler, Mr W Clarke,  Rev Dr Robert Coulter, Mr Cree, Mr Doherty,  Mr Elliott, Dr Farry, Mr Ford, Mr Gallagher,  Mr Gardiner, Mr G Kelly, Mr Kennedy, Ms Lo,  Mr A Maginness, Mr A Maskey, Mr P Maskey,  Mr McCallister, Mr F McCann, Ms J McCann,  Mr McCarthy, Mr McCartney, Mr McClarty,  Mr McElduff, Mr McFarland, Mrs McGill,  Mr McGlone, Mr M McGuinness, Mr McKay,  Mr Molloy, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O’Dowd, Mr O’Loan, Mrs O’Neill, Mr P Ramsey, Ms S Ramsey,  Mr K Robinson, Ms Ruane, Mr Savage, Mr B Wilson.

Tellers for the Ayes: Ms Lo and Mr McCarthy.

NOES

Mr Bresland, Lord Browne, Mr T Clarke, Mr Craig,  Mr Dodds, Mr Donaldson, Mr Easton, Mr Hamilton, Mr Hilditch, Mr Irwin, Mr McCausland, Mr I McCrea, Dr W McCrea, Miss McIlveen, Lord Morrow,  Mr Moutray, Mr Newton, Mr Paisley Jnr,  Rev Dr Ian Paisley, Mr Poots, Mr G Robinson,  Mrs I Robinson, Mr P Robinson, Mr Ross, Mr Shannon, Mr Simpson, Mr Spratt, Mr Storey, Mr Weir, Mr S Wilson.

Tellers for the Noes: Mr Bresland and Mr Ross.

Main Question, as amended, accordingly agreed to.

Resolved:

That this Assembly expresses its concern at the failure of the previous Minister of the Environment to take forward the recommendations of the ‘Review of Environmental Governance’; believes that the Northern Ireland Environment Agency is not adequate to deal with the challenges facing Northern Ireland; and calls for the establishment of an independent Environmental Protection Agency which must become fully operational within the lifetime of this Assembly.

(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McClarty] in the Chair)