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5.33 pm

Mr. Gray: It is a pleasure to participate in the Third Reading debate of this flimsy little Bill. I followed its progress from its introduction in the other place to its Second Reading here but, sadly, I was unable to serve on its Standing Committee because of commitments elsewhere. However, I have watched its progress with some interest.

It is extremely disappointing that, two and half years into this green Government's hold on power, this is the first environmental Bill that they have introduced--and what a flimsy little thing it is. The Government could have done something about air pollution in a much bigger way, or about water pollution. Their tiny Bill on water charging did not mention water purity. They have introduced no other environmental legislation. That stands in stark contrast to their claims before the general election that they would be the greenest Government ever. I think that the expression was that every piece of legislation would have a green tinge. They said that they would be greener than green, but we have seen only this flimsy little Bill, which merely enacts something which my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) rightly points out was initiated by the previous Conservative Government.

The Conservative Government signed up to the European legislation which requires this Bill. My right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), who is in the Chamber this afternoon, was then Secretary of State for the Environment and I was one of his two special advisers. It should not be inferred from that that we necessarily agreed on the measure. I seem to recall that I advised my right hon. Friend that I thought that his proposed action would not be sensible, to which he said, "That is precisely why I intend to do it."

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But, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford rightly said, it was the Conservative Government's idea, and this little Bill merely puts that into effect. However, it does so with some significant downsides.

The Bill has not been thought through properly. The original Bill was badly flawed, as was pointed out in a number of procedural ways in the other place, largely by my noble Friends. Some significant amendments were made to the Bill there, so that when it came to be debated on Second Reading in this House it was marginally better. However, having gone through a lengthy and turbulent process in both Houses, the Bill still has some significant flaws, which is a real worry.

First, my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford correctly highlighted the centralising power in the Bill. It gives the Secretary of State extraordinary powers that he has not had before. It is not exactly a Henry VIII Bill, but it is along those lines. It says, "I, the Secretary of State, know what is good for the country and for air and water pollution. I do not need to put it in the Bill and spell out what we intend with regard to regulation. I need only sit in my room and decide what will be regulated and how that will be done." Some of the centralising powers that the Secretary of State accrued to himself were watered down in the other place, which I welcome, but, none the less, the powers given by the Bill to the Secretary of State are typical of new Labour, which says, "We know best. We are the nanny state. We are the bosses. We understand what the world needs. We don't intend to discuss it with the world. We don't intend to go out to consultation. We don't intend to put details in a Bill which can be read and whose processes can be followed in Parliament."

Ministers in their eyrie, high in the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, will decide what is best and lay it down by regulation. Admittedly, on this occasion, they will do so by affirmative rather than negative resolution, but it still has the stamp of the control freak so typical of new Labour.

In particular, the Opposition are concerned about a number of detailed effects that the Bill will have on businesses, both large, small and agricultural. Large businesses already largely comply with the Bill. I would be surprised if many did not already do so, although some may not, in which case they will doubtless welcome the strength of the Bill to remind them what they have to do. However, the number of sites to be regulated has been increased from 1,000 to 6,000, and the 4,000 extra sites are largely small businesses. They are the very businesses least able to understand the Bill and to conform with it.

During the Bill's passage through the other place, the Federation of Small Businesses raised its severe concerns about the Bill with the Government but, far from taking note of that and inviting the representatives of the federation in to discuss the Bill's implications for small businesses, the Government failed to acknowledge the federation's letter and it has attacked the Government fundamentally for that.

On Second Reading, I invited the Government to say what they intended to do to ensure that the Bill did not bear down particularly heavily on small businesses. I invite the Minister again today to tell us what he has done during the month or two since Second Reading to consult the Federation of Small Businesses and others.

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I would be interested to know if they have had a meeting. It would be useful if they had. I hope that he has invited its representatives in and, if so, I welcome the fact that he listened to the Opposition's recommendation. I should like to know what he said to them and what they said to him, and what, in particular, he intends to do when the Bill becomes law to ensure that it does not bear down particularly heavily on small businesses.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ashford raised the issue of the difference between BATNEEC, or best available technology not entailing excessive costs, and BAT, or best available techniques. I certainly feel that nothing could be more sensible than to provide the best available techniques without excessive expenditure. It must be sensible to say, "Let us work out the cost-benefit analysis. We are not going to gold-plate our environmental provisions. We want the country to be as clean as it can be, we want the air to be as clean as it can be, and we want the water to be as clean as it can be. However, we will be cautious in implementing that. We will consider how much this will cost business, and how much the economy will be damaged by the achievement of demonstrably worthwhile environmental ends."

I enjoyed my hon. Friend's reference to CATNIP, an acronym that I shall use in the future. I do not think that the Government are considering the damaging effect on business; they are merely paying lip service to environmental benefit. Cost-benefit analysis should be involved in all environmental legislation, but I suspect that the Bill tends towards gold-plating.

I am concerned about the effects of the Bill on certain businesses. The small businesses on which it will bear down are not belching fumes into the air. We are talking about, for instance, small landfill sites and small farmers. On Second Reading, the Minister suggested that the chicken and pig farmers that the Bill would affect were large farmers. By no means are they large farmers; they are very much towards the small end of the spectrum. The average chicken farm and the average pig farm will be affected.

What consultations has the Minister had with bodies other than the Federation of Small Businesses--the National Farmers Union, and the Country Landowners Association--to discuss the effect on our hard-pressed farming industry? Thanks to what the Government have done to them, these people are on their knees in any event; this may be the straw that breaks their backs. It is easy to knock the landfill operators, but many are struggling to provide a worthwhile service, and the Bill will bring extra pressures to bear on them.

The effect of the Bill on farmers involves a curious conundrum. The Labour party is in favour of outdoor farrowing, because it thinks that it is green and more organic. It would also like more free-range hens, because that system sounds better and suits it better. I am not sure that the party understands the implications of either system. The truth is, however, that if pigs are outdoors, it is almost impossible to control what happens to their dung. The only way to control a pig's dung is to keep the pig indoors, standing on slats. The dung falls through the slats on to the concrete floor below and is easily removed.

The same applies to chickens. If chickens are out of doors or in barns, it is almost impossible to separate their dung from the earth, or from the soil at the bottom of the barn. The conditions laid down by the Bill are therefore

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difficult to apply. The fact is that the less animal-friendly farms are, the easier it will be to comply with the conditions and terms of the Bill. We must think carefully about this. What effect will the Bill have on the pig farmers and chicken farmers in my constituency? Are we, perhaps, driving them towards the establishment of conditions on their farms that, by many other standards, would be considered non-animal friendly?

We must also consider the conditions that we are imposing on our farmers--in the Bill and elsewhere--to which overseas countries do not conform. It is hardly known that most of the chicken that we eat here is bred in Thailand.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman is straying from the subject of the debate.

Mr. Gray: I accept your admonition, Mr. Deputy Speaker. My point was that, if we bear down heavily on chicken farmers in this country without bearing down equally heavily on chicken farmers in Thailand and France who are competing with ours, we are doing our chicken farmers a disservice.

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