Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): My right hon. Friend will know of the tremendous controversy about pollution from the cement industry. Will he say more about the content of the public registers that are to be given details of the integrated pollution control processes? If some of that information is to be out of bounds to the general public because it is allegedly commercially confidential, many people's faith in the new system will be badly dented.

Mr. Meacher: I strongly support my hon. Friend's point, and I want the maximum amount of information to be made available. I am well aware that commercial confidentiality can be construed in a way that is designed to prevent the public from obtaining information that is not genuinely confidential, but whose publication would be inconvenient to the company concerned. I am determined to ensure that the way in which we extend the use of the pollution inventory--which, together with the Environment Agency, I announced last month--will not enable such manipulation to take place.

Through public registers and over the internet, the inventory will give the public free access to information about pollution from all IPPC-regulated installations in the local area. However, that is only the first step: the Government are considering plans to extend the inventory further, to the landfill sites and sewage treatment works that the agency regulates and, further still, to the 13,000 or so installations regulated by local authorities.

Through the Bill, we shall increase public participation, extend openness and enable people to make informed decisions based on their having access, for the first time, to comprehensive information about what is being emitted in their midst. I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House will welcome the Bill and so reflect the broad

8 Jun 1999 : Column 502

consensus of support among industry, the regulators and environmental groups. The Bill will lay the foundations for an updated pollution control regime, strengthen environmental protection and bring benefits to industry and individuals alike.

One of the beauties of the regime is its adaptable and evolving nature: it is a flexible, interactive form of regulation in which experience and good ideas can be shared and spread, and I am keen that that should happen. The very process of regulation promotes the development and improvement of technologies and techniques that bring wider and greater benefit. That process will be far more dynamic now that the whole of the European Union is part of it. I commend the Bill to the House.

6.3 pm

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford): As the Minister said, the Bill implements European Union directive 96/61, to which the last Conservative Government signed up in 1996. It will come as no surprise to him to learn that we stand by our commitment to the directive and that we agree with the broad principle underlying the Bill. However, although the Minister was charming, helpful and reasonable, I noted his failure to mention the massive and glaring omissions from the Bill.

The Minister knows that the Bill, which started life in another place, has had an extraordinarily rocky and chequered career since receiving a Second Reading there on 7 December last year. What causes me most concern is not the philosophy that the Bill reflects or the regimes that it would introduce, for those command widespread cross-party support--I am most concerned about its constitutionality. We have before us today a piece of primary legislation which simply gives the Secretary of State wide-ranging powers to issue regulations to implement it. Nothing of importance to do with the control of pollution is on the face of the Bill, which consists of a series of clauses giving the Secretary of State powers to impose secondary legislation to flesh out the skeleton of the primary legislation.

That causes me great concern for the simple reason that the procedures of the House do not allow us to amend secondary legislation in any way. Some statutory instruments are fortunate enough to be debated in Committee, and I accept that, thanks to the actions of Members of another place, a large proportion of the regulations to be promulgated under the Bill are to be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure and so will probably be debated in Committee. However, the regulations will have to be accepted, or rejected in their entirety. Anyone can do the mathematics: given their majority, if the current Government want to get a statutory instrument through a Committee, they can ensure that it gets through. The Government nominate hon. Members to sit on statutory instrument Committees and, as an ex-Whip, I fully understand what happens. Therefore, the potential lack of scrutiny causes me great concern.

Hon. Members who have followed the Bill's progress through the other place will be aware that it has not had the smoothest of passages. The House of Lords Select Committee on Delegated Powers and Deregulation reported that the Bill represents

and called for amendments to

    "specify with more precision the ambit of the legislation".

8 Jun 1999 : Column 503

    I welcome the concessions that their lordships extracted from the Government to improve what was initially an extremely flawed piece of legislation, but the process resembled extracting teeth from an unwilling patient.

Mr. Meacher: The hon. Gentleman raises an important point, but he has drawn the wrong conclusion. In fact, a set of regulations is a far more flexible instrument than a piece of primary legislation. It is in the interests of those who are regulated that their problems and their needs are dealt with as expeditiously as possible. We have ensured a proper degree of parliamentary control: the regulations will be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure when they are first made, and thereafter when certain important amendments are made to them. I should point out that the House of Lords Select Committee, which the hon. Gentleman quoted, believed that to be adequate.

I repeat the commitment given by my noble Friend Lord Whitty in another place that

I believe that that fully meets the hon. Gentleman's concerns about parliamentary control.

Mr. Burns: In response to the latter half of the right hon. Gentleman's intervention, I paraphrase Mandy Rice-Davies--he would believe that, wouldn't he?

I was going to raise this point later in my speech, but now might be an opportune moment for the Minister to develop the argument and so help us to determine whether the Government's actions are satisfactory. Will he tell me, in plain simple language, the exact meaning of clause 2(7)?

Mr. Meacher indicated dissent.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. We will have to treat that as a rhetorical question.

Mr. Burns: I am left with no choice but to treat it as a rhetorical question. I am rather stunned that the Minister did not respond. It is his Bill, and he should be conversant with it. I assumed that he would be able to give me a straightforward answer. Even if the right hon. Gentleman does not think so, it is an important question, given what he said in his intervention about the Government's commitment on the affirmative procedure. If the Minister does not want to respond, we will pursue the matter by other means.

Mr. Bercow: In the light of what we have just witnessed, does my hon. Friend agree that, as Baroness Thatcher once observed in a different context, the right hon. Gentleman does not appear to be entirely the master of his subject? Does my hon. Friend agree, furthermore, that if, in future, significant numbers of regulations are to be subject only to the negative procedure, not to the affirmative procedure, that will undermine the importance

8 Jun 1999 : Column 504

of the maximum consultation period set for draft regulations in order to accommodate the needs of small businesses?

Mr. Burns: My hon. Friend is right. I could not agree with him more. Proper scrutiny is crucial, as the primary legislation gives the Secretary of State powers to issue secondary legislation to define how the system will operate. It is important that we should have a clear explanation of what clause 2(7) means. If it means what I think it means, it devalues--I do not means this in a rude way--the assurances given about the use of the affirmative resolution. The Minister is entitled not to answer, but I will get to the bottom of the matter. I see that the civil servants are passing him a note, so I hope that we shall be able to clear it up.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman has experience. He should know that there can be no references to anyone other than hon. Members in the House.

Mr. Burns: I am extremely sorry, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I genuinely did not realise that. I will not repeat the error.

As drafted, the Bill gives the Secretary of State carte blanche to impose regulations. There is little to require him to bring matters to the proper attention of Parliament. With such powers, it is clearly an unacceptable procedure for the Government to use secondary legislation in such a sweeping and all-embracing manner.

The problem is not that the Secretary of State will have too much power to benefit the environment. Because of the way in which the Bill is drafted, it gives him the potential to do a great deal of damage in the name of the environment, without being exposed to the cautionary voices that a process of full and proper parliamentary scrutiny can offer.

As was done in another place, we will seek in Committee to examine carefully the powers being granted to the Secretary of State, and to ensure that his decisions are subjected to an appropriate degree of scrutiny.

It should be incumbent on the Secretary of State to demonstrate that any regulations that he makes under the Bill will address a significant problem. Any regulations made under the Bill should be measured against pre-determined criteria. A point of reference should be established in advance with which regulations would be required to comply. If they did not comply, it would be for the Government to justify them before Parliament.

Next Section

IndexHome Page