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8.15 pm

Mr. David Drew (Stroud): So much has already been said in the debate, which is coming to an end, so I hope not to re-rehearse the arguments. However, having been able to listen to so much of the debate, I want to pick up on certain points, even if somewhat briefly.

The Bill is important because it dwells on the vital subject of pollution, which affects us all in one way or another. The underlying principles of the Bill were well rehearsed by the Labour party when in opposition, but it is worth reinforming and reinforcing them. To start with, we have the precautionary principle, which is so important in its own right. We also have the principle that the polluter pays. Both are integral to any legislation that deals with pollution. We can underline those with the principle of transparency and, in particular, the predilection to inform and keep records, to which hon. Members on both sides of the House have referred. Linked to that principle is the increasing awareness of the relevance of participation and, certainly, consultation.

All those are important principles and they have produced legislation that I hope will be supported by hon. Members on both sides of the House--one would hope that no one will vote against it. Interestingly, the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman rightly said that a Conservative Government were responsible for passing the directive--the Bill is very much an enhancement of that directive--but his argument was kicked to pieces on the Conservative Back Benches and I know not why.

I am genuinely pleased to see the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) in his place. I have always found him to be sound on environmental matters, if not

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so sound on agriculture, where we may disagree on some of the antecedents of various features affecting agricultural Britain at present. However, he made a pretty negative speech about the Bill. I thought that he would be genuinely in favour of some of the improvements and enhancements in it.

Mr. Gray: I was trying to point out, perhaps not expertly, that unlike the Millbank tower-controlled drones on the Labour side, we Conservative Members are able to express our own views. My view is that we in the United Kingdom apply the highest possible environmental standards. Therefore, why should it be necessary for us to pay lip service to a European directive to achieve what we are already achieving? I made that point to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley).

Mr. Drew: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. In many respects, the way in which we approach the subject may be laudable, but anyone who has an interest in it--I imagine that all hon. Members have--can recall instances where that has not always been the case. In considering some of the issues that have been raised in the debate, I hope, in a roundabout way, to show that we can always improve and extend our provision and that we can always learn, dare I say it, from examples in other parts of the world where things are not necessarily being done better, but differently.

The hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman), who is not in her place, asked whether we are driving our motor car industry out of existence. I do not think that we are, but some important driving factors come from the United States, where compliance standards are being ratcheted up greatly. They may have different views about congestion costs, but they are worried about the environmental consequences of vehicles whose emissions are too high. We can always learn from abroad and ensure that we are willing to take things forward.

Hon. Members have asked why we need to move to BAT when we have BATNEEC. In a previous life as a councillor, I got well used to BATNEEC. The derogatory reference to it as catnip was interesting. I am not sure what that stands for, but I think that it means that people do what they need to do to avoid prosecution, rather than doing what they should do. My experience of BATNEEC was that it did not work in the most extreme cases. Local authority environmental health officers were often unable to pursue companies.

One case springs to mind. It was understood that companies could introduce a new form of technology involving a centrifuge to remove the residue, which they were putting into the atmosphere, of a nasty green powder. To be fair, the companies themselves thought that, but they kept saying that they could not afford it. It went on year after year. The next-door neighbour was a resident--there were also businesses nearby--who kept demanding that the change be made, but it never quite happened. If we can define BAT more carefully, some instances where an improvement is promised but not delivered could be avoided.

According to Opposition Members, we are anti small business--if not anti business--in the way in which we are making the changes, but one of the biggest gainers is small business. I regularly get complaints from small businesses about how business treats them with regard

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to pollution. Without naming or shaming, I have a case involving a large depot that has a poor record on oil spillage, which directly affects a market garden and a smallholding next door. The neighbours have regularly pursued the matter with the Environment Agency and I am pleased that we seem to be getting somewhere. It is naive to think that small business does not have a view or regards this only as a cost when it can see the benefits in cases where they are affected by the often deplorable behaviour of other businesses. I shall qualify this point in a moment, but while business wants a level playing field and fairness, it also wants to know that the costs of regulation are not being introduced in an unprecedented or unfair manner.

Mr. Gray: Small businesses that suffer pollution from big business will of course wholeheartedly favour big business being controlled. However, the Federation of Small Businesses, which speaks for small business across the nation, has made it 100 per cent. plain that it opposes the Bill because it will damage small businesses. How can the hon. Gentleman argue that the Bill, which brings 2,000 small businesses into the control mechanism, is good for small business?

Mr. Drew: I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman heard what I said. Of course regulation implies that there may be additional costs, but businesses that are being unduly affected by the behaviour of other businesses will favour the changes. His point did not come up in my consultations with the Federation of Small Businesses locally. There may be a time lag and small businesses may not be sure about what regulations are coming, but I believe that they will welcome what they see as a fair and just system. People who break the regulations should be pursued and the polluter should pay. That cannot be done without regulation. Without it, this policy would be empty gestures, hot air and rhetoric. It is wrong to say that small business opposes the measure. It will see the benefits when clear offenders are dealt with.

I welcome the inclusion of energy efficiency. I hope that we are moving towards examining standard assessment procedures and how we assess building regulations so that we can improve the quality of our stock to ensure that we get the benefit of not allowing energy to escape through walls or roofs. Greater care should be taken in respect of noise pollution, which affects many more people than is often thought.

There is also the question of moving ecological management forward with, for example, EMAS--ecological management auditing systems--schemes. The hon. Member for Billericay may not like some of what is happening, but there is a spirit of enterprise and of wanting to do things better. That can all come together to make our world a better place to live in and to enable business to make a profit through its enterprising activities.

The qualifications that I want to make are not radically different from those of the hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns). Like him, I have been contacted by the National Farmers Union and the Country Landowners Association. We need some clarification on where we are with the directive. I am sure that that will come in Committee, although the Minister may want to allude to it now. Is annexe 1 the way to curtail regulation, or will we go beyond that? There is always an argument about what constitutes harm and how to redefine that.

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With those qualifications, I welcome this excellent Bill. I hope that it gets a fair wind tonight so that all its principles can be implemented.

8.27 pm

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): The hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) obviously made an impression because he has been mentioned by several Labour Members. I will be no exception because I want to refer to his analysis of European directives. He said that there were three ways in which the nations of the European Union could respond to directives. They could respond enthusiastically, as he felt that we did in the United Kingdom; they could ignore the directives, as tended to happen in Italy; or, as he favoured, they could drag their feet by doing only enough to avoid prosecution. That seems to be a strange attitude to adopt towards an organisation with which we are supposed to be associated.

The hon. Gentleman hit on a fourth possibility when he suggested that the Germans did not need to do any of those things because--he claimed--they were already operating the directives and therefore we were adopting their ideas. In fact, the Bill contains a fifth position, because it not only adopts a Council directive, it goes considerably beyond that, which is one of the most exciting things about the Bill. Even the long title of the Bill refers to

It goes beyond the provisions in the Council's directives. That is explained in clause 1(1)(b) and (c), which refer to

    "regulating, otherwise than in pursuance of that Directive, activities which are capable of causing any environmental pollution;"


    "otherwise preventing or controlling emissions capable of causing any such pollution."

There are a series of definitions that add to those provisions and show that the Bill contains serious measures to try to tackle pollution. The method by which that will be done is set out in the regulation provisions in clause 2. Some people are entirely anti-regulation; we have heard some speeches to that effect, such as the one from the hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman). Other people are much more favourable to regulation; they realise the problems of bureaucracy and want to control it, but they believe that fair regulation systems can operate.

The position of the official Opposition was given by the hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns), who is sitting on the Opposition Front Bench. He said that we could evade the regulations by having the measures clearly set out in the Bill, so that it explained the type of matters that would be dealt with. The problem faced by the Government in introducing the measure is the complexity of environmental protection and how to handle it. For example, in relation to dioxins, only one criterion is set down for unacceptable levels of dioxin--that is for dioxin in water. Apart from that, there are various examples of levels that people judge create dangers and difficulties and on which action is needed. In those circumstances, it would be difficult to introduce measures--the legislation would be massive--that tried to set out every level that had to be adhered to, every

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provision and every complex arrangement that would have to be made in one firm, so that it could establish the difficulties that it faced and so that the provisions for action in the Bill's schedules could be undertaken.

The procedure set out in the Bill is the best that can be managed. There are a series of avenues through which regulation can be introduced, but it will be introduced by affirmative procedure so that there is an opportunity to kick an item into touch if people disagree with it and feel that it is unduly bureaucratic. We can overcome the difficulties expressed by the hon. Member for West Chelmsford by considering that general provision.

A problem in my constituency would have been handled much better by this Bill than by the existing provisions. About a year ago, there were two massive incidents involving the escape of acid gas at the Sarp plant at Killamarsh. As a result, the population of the area mobilised and organised; they were adamant that they wanted rid of that chemical reclamation plant and the pollution that they had suffered over many years. The two incidents that had led to that crisis and the mobilisation of those people were extreme examples of pollution. Since then, enforcement notices have been issued in relation to other shortcomings of the firm and prosecutions in respect of the two incidents are currently taking place.

Clause 2 would make available to the Secretary of State a regulation procedure that could have applied in those cases. Clause 2(3)(b) states that he can

That might appear to be a very wide-ranging potential power to put in the hands of the Secretary of State, even if any regulations he made would have to pass the affirmative resolution procedure before they could take effect. However, in the case I described, such a power would have allowed the possibility of consulting the Environment Agency, local government, the industry itself, the small businesses in the area affected by Sarp's operations, and the local action committee which was organised, Residents Against Sarp Pollution. All those views could have been taken on board.

In fact, my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment did all that, by visiting the plant and meeting members of the action group and local councillors on 30 July last year. However, he was restricted in terms of possible avenues of action. The Bill would open up those avenues. The Bill might also present the Secretary of State with some problems, because he will face pressure from various local organisations that want to push him into taking action on certain matters, but such democratic pressure is good and healthy.

The Bill will be of great advantage to us in the work to contain and control pollution. It will help us to ensure that people operate according to best practice and that pollutant-creating plants do not affect the population in their locality. Having a healthy local population strikes me as being of great economic advantage: people live longer, earn longer and pay more taxes, and they do not go to hospital as often, so the cost to society of their treatment is less. Therefore, even if we treat people as mere economic units working to create wealth in society, legislation that is sensitive to the need to tackle the problems of pollution cannot be said to impose an excessive burden on society; rather, it is a benefit to

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everyone in the long run. The Bill will be of economic and social benefit and it will improve the quality of life of everyone in society.

The Sarp site at Killamarsh is next to a school playing field: they now send out what is known as a sniffer patrol before letting young children play on that field. Tackling and overcoming such problems can do much to enhance the quality of human life. Ultimately, it is all about running an effective, well-organised society that creates wealth and distributes it properly among its people. We should not accept the views of those who want to do nothing and who would leave it to industry to act out of the goodness of its heart. In a system that produces goods but also produces pollution, people benefit, but they also suffer. If we weigh up the costs and benefits of such a society, the overall balance is supposed to be to our advantage, but there are such things as diseconomies, which should be subtracted from the benefits of social activity.

The Bill is important. Governments always have to be watched when they produce regulations, so we must have opportunities to scrutinise and debate such regulations. Some Governments will not produce regulations that are good enough, and they will have to be prodded into doing so. However, I do not see any means other than the Bill of building a system for the future that results in a decent society that protects us from the worst of pollution.

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