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Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): I apologise for having missed my hon. Friend's initial speech, but I was in Committee. I understand the point that there have been no prosecutions of people for not having site licences in the past. Have there been any prosecutions for assumed violations of site licences that were not in place? Is it possible for the House, perhaps through the Library, to obtain information about the 202 sites involved?

Mr. Meale: So far, the agency's review has revealed no prosecutions on the basis of expired licences, nor any penalties levied. The new clause is retrospective and would apply in such cases.

The hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) asked about the burden that the new clause would place on businesses. The necessary legislation was already in place and the agency carried out inspections thoroughly throughout the period. The amendments will ensure that those inspections are validated and that the process is continued.

Finally, I can tell the hon. Member for Ashford that the Government are confident that the Environment Agency provides a system that can deal with these matters fairly and justly and ensure that the public are protected.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second Time, and added to the Bill.

Schedule 1

Particular Purposes for which Provision may be made under Section 2

Mr. Meale: I beg to move amendment No. 1, in page 7, line 41, after 'information', insert '--


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin): With this, it will be convenient to discuss Government amendment No. 2.

Mr. Meale: During the Committee proceedings on the Bill, we had an excellent debate about the public's right

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to full information about the pollution in their midst. That was in response to amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) and by the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake).

Pollution is an intrusion. For the moment, it is impossible and unrealistic to eliminate it altogether, but the least that people can expect is to be fully informed about exactly what the factory down the road is putting into their community, street and homes.

In May, we launched the Environment Agency's new pollution inventory. People now have access to up-to-date information about emissions from the installations that the agency regulates under the integrated pollution control regime. It is proving extremely popular: the inventory website is receiving an average of 700 to 800 visits a week.

It is our ambition that it should be even more informative. I know from our debate in Committee and from the correspondence that the Department has received that there is a great deal of support among Labour and Liberal Democrat Members for expanding the inventory.

The Environment Agency will shortly be consulting on extending the inventory to cover the landfill sites and sewage works that it regulates. I am pleased to announce that my Department will be consulting on the possibility of including information on emissions from the 13,000 or so installations that local authorities regulate under the local air pollution control system.

Mr. Green: The Minister says that information will be gathered from the 13,000 sites regulated by local authorities. That will add another burden on those authorities, so do the Government propose to give them any money to meet the extra costs involved?

Mr. Meale: The hon. Gentleman and I know that Ministers, regardless of how lowly or powerful they are, cannot give such cost commitments. However, we are confident that the mechanism that is in place will allow local authorities to regulate under the local air pollution control system, and to generate the information that we require so that people can access it centrally.

4.45 pm

We shall not prejudge the consultation's outcome, but shall listen carefully to what industry says about costs or any other implications. The Bill contains the power to cover additional installations, but does not permit information to be gathered on energy use and the destination of waste from installations. Those matters are the subjects of amendments Nos. 1 and 2, which are enabling provisions.

Energy use is an area already crowded with policy initiatives, and we hesitate to add more without careful thought. A great deal of information will be produced because of the energy efficiency requirements of the new integrated pollution prevention and control regime. There are negotiated agreements on energy use and it is possible that carbon trading regimes may be established. It is by no means certain whether further measures for information gathering will be necessary, but it would be sensible to take the opportunity that the Bill provides to enable such information to be gathered in future.

Mr. Green: Is the Minister saying that the amendments are being inserted in the Bill at this late stage even though

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the Government think that they may not be necessary? Are the Government tacking an enabling power on to the Bill without having any intention of implementing it? I may have misunderstood the Minister, but that is what he seemed to say.

Mr. Meale: No. The amendments are enabling amendments. It is better to include any expansion in the scope of the inventory in the Bill so that we can achieve it if possible. Expansion would be considered only after thorough consideration of the costs and benefits and after full consultation. Our key concern will be to place the minimum burden on those providing information. We would not expect businesses to have to track the journey of their waste through its multifarious stages.

We are keen to promote continued development of the pollution inventory, but at a sensible pace and after proper dialogue. Our first priority is to consult on broadening the scope to cover landfill sites, sewage works and local authority-regulated installations. We may later consider including energy and waste information. The Government are committed to modernising Britain by involving people more closely in decisions that affect their lives and by changing the culture of secrecy that has prevailed until now. Access to information about pollution is vital to a fair, modern and open society. In the United States, it has become a powerful force for environmental improvement, and the same will be true in the UK when the Bill becomes law.

Mr. Green: The Minister's introduction has left me more alarmed than I was when I read the amendments. It is a shame that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) is not here because the amendments seem to be a partial victory for her. In Committee, she tabled a more detailed amendment proposing a long list of new obligations on firms to provide information. The Minister for the Environment instructed his troops to vote against that amendment, but said that he would consider it sympathetically. I had looked forward to hearing whether the hon. Lady would be satisfied by the Government's partial move in her direction. Perhaps the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake) will tell us whether he is satisfied.

The Minister introduced a new and disturbing point in his remarks. The Government appear to be including in the Bill powers that may or may not be worth while and may or may not place onerous responsibilities on business. That flatly contradicts what the Minister for the Environment said repeatedly in Committee, which was that trying to define matters too closely on the face of a Bill such as this was bad practice and would lead to inflexibility.

The Opposition tabled various sensible amendments to tone down the powers of the Secretary of State. We were constantly told that putting such provisions on the face of the Bill would lead to inflexibility and clog up parliamentary proceedings. Having insisted on that, it is not good enough for the Government to table amendments that would do precisely the same and add new and possibly onerous burdens on business without any particular intent, or certainly any explanation of why those are urgently needed now when they were not needed during any of the previous lengthy stages in the passage of this Bill.

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During the passage of the Bill, we discussed the necessary balance for the provision of information to enable an intelligent debate about environmental issues. The idea that the more information was provided the more likely we were to avoid some of the more hysterical debates that sometimes arise on environmental matters was certainly non-controversial on both sides of the Committee. Ministers agreed that one needed a balance and there was not simply a right to completely free information. Indeed, the Government introduced a clause to allow commercial confidentiality to be used as a reason for not providing information in certain circumstances.

When the Minister replies, I want him to consider the costs that will be put on business and, possibly, agricultural and other operators by gathering the information that is required under the amendments. Amendment No. 2 would gather information

Those will be interesting statistics and, in the long run, they will no doubt be useful. However, are we expecting everyone who runs a pig farm to gather that sort of information? While that will not be an onerous burden for big and sophisticated businesses, it could be extremely onerous for smaller businesses. It is not clear from what the Minister said that he has done any sensible cost-benefit analysis of what those provisions would involve and of the full extent of the obligations. The efficiency with which energy is used can cover a multitude of measurements. It is not clear from the Bill how much detail will need to be provided.

Similarly, the Government will be entitled to information

Does that mean the immediate, the ultimate or all the intermediate destinations?

Since one of our objections to the Bill throughout has been that it would give Ministers powers that are too sweeping, the amendment is a step in the wrong direction. This is the Bill at its worst. Presumably, to give some sort of sop to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North as I said, the Government have decided to add a little more information. They have not thought through what that will mean in practice; still less are they defining the practical effects.

The Minister has said that these are simply enabling provisions, but enabling provisions that do not appear to be based in anything concrete and do not have any particularly urgent purpose can be dangerous. It is deeply regrettable that he has introduced such an amendment at this late stage.

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