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2.7 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Keith Hill): As is customary, I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) on securing the debate. He raised important points about the management of waste and explained with great clarity the concerns of local residents about the plant operated in his constituency by Cleansing Service Group and the company's proposals to develop it further. Indeed, a petition of 10,000 signatures is tangible evidence of that concern.

The company's proposals would enable it to store a range of hazardous wastes--in legal terms, special wastes. It is perfectly understandable that those who live or work close to hazardous waste sites should be concerned about them. In this case, I also understand why the concerns of the hon. Gentleman's constituents should be increased by events at another of the company's sites at Sandhurst in Gloucester. I hope to be able to provide reassurance for the hon. Gentleman and his constituents. Before I do so, however, there is an important point that I must make.

At present, the company operates on the site under the terms of a waste management licence issued in April 1991. That licence allows the treatment of mixtures of waste oil and water, with the aim of recovering the waste oil. However, in December 1997 the company applied to the Environment Agency for a new licence that would allow it to store a range of special wastes in drums, pending recovery of the wastes on site or disposal or recovery elsewhere.

The Environment Agency is prohibited from issuing a licence unless any required planning permission is in place. West Berkshire council refused the company's planning application and it appealed against that decision. Following an inquiry, an inspector appointed by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State issued his decision on 26 October. That decision was to allow the appeal and to grant permission for the construction of a transfer station for waste in drums.

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In reaching that decision, the inspector took into account five considerations: whether a transfer station of that kind is needed on the site; the level of risk that the operation would impose on human health, taking account of the nature and proximity of nearby land uses; the effect that the perception of risk would have on the amenity of those living in the area; the effect of the proposal on the appearance of the landscape; and whether the proposal was in accord with the development plan for the area.

I have also noted from the inspector's decision letter that he recognised the strength and sincerity of residents' fears about the development. In the end, however, he was unable to conclude that their perception of the risks was justified on the evidence of the extensive risk assessment work that had been carried out.

The company's application for a waste management licence has been held pending the outcome of the planning application. The licence application is now being considered by the Environment Agency. This brings me to the important point that I have to make, and it relates to the hon. Gentleman's question about the future issuing of a licence to CSG for the Greenham site. The Environment Agency has the legal responsibility of considering licence applications. Each and every application must be considered by the agency on its merits. My Department does not have the power to direct the agency to refuse an application. It would also be improper for us to intervene with the aim of influencing the agency's decision.

Licence applicants have a right of appeal to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in any case in which the Environment Agency refuses an application. In other words, he has a quasi-judicial role in relation to the appeals. That means that we must avoid commenting on any individual case that might come before us on appeal. To do so would prejudice the applicant's right of appeal.

I shall now deal with the hon. Gentleman's other specific questions. He asked why it was not known that BSE-contaminated waste was stored at Sandhurst and why checks on the site had failed to reveal that fact. We have asked the Environment Agency to review the matter and to report to us on the effectiveness of its supervision of the Sandhurst site. That will confirm why the BSE- contaminated waste was not found.

The hon. Gentleman asked about evacuation plans should a similar explosion occur at Greenham. Evacuation plans are a matter for the local authority and the emergency services in consultation with the Environment Agency.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about the adequacy of the Environment Agency's powers of regulation. One of the main objects of my speech is to reassure him that the agency has adequate powers to regulate the company's activities and to protect human health and the environment.

Unfortunately, waste is a fact of life. Each year we produce huge quantities of it--more than 100 million tonnes from households, businesses and industry. Earlier this year, the Government published "Waste Strategy 2000", which makes clear the Government's commitment to ensuring that we use our natural resources sensibly and increase the value that we get from them. At the heart of this commitment are the needs to tackle the amount of waste produced and to put the waste that is produced to good use--through substantial increases in re-use, recycling, composting and recovery of energy.

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We are committed also to improving the quality of life now and for future generations. The Government's sustainable development strategy, which was published last year, is based on four key elements: effective protection of the environment; prudent use of natural resources; social progress that meets the needs of everyone; and high and stable levels of economic growth and development.

The way in which we manage our resources and the waste that we produce can make an important contribution to sustainable development. However, the priority, above all, is to ensure that the waste that we produce is recovered or disposed of in ways that ensure that human health and the environment are protected.

The need to protect human health and the environment is why the Government have made sure that the operations of companies, such as CSG, are subject to stringent controls. The fact that planning permission has been issued for the company's site at Greenham does not mean that the Environment Agency will simply rubber stamp its application for a waste management licence--far from it. If the Environment Agency is satisfied that rejection of a licence application is necessary to prevent harm to human health or pollution of the environment, it must reject it.

Before granting a licence, the agency must be satisfied that whoever is applying for the licence is a "fit and proper person". The "fit and proper person" test has three parts. First, the agency must be satisfied that the waste activity authorised by the licence will be managed by someone who is technically competent. Secondly, it must be satisfied that the applicant has made adequate financial provision to discharge the obligations of the licence. Thirdly, it must consider any convictions that the company--or any person in a position of authority--has for environmental offences.

Mr. Rendel: I thank the Minister for giving way. I hope he will excuse me for intervening, given that there is a little more time than I expected.

The Minister said that companies, or individuals, must prove that they had no convictions. Can he reassure my constituents that the agency will grant no licence until the completion of any court cases that might arise from the explosion at Sandhurst?

Mr. Hill: I must phrase my responses very carefully, for the reasons of quasi-judiciality that I cited earlier. I will say, however, that we would expect all appropriate considerations to be taken into account by the agency.

When considering licence applications, the agency must have regard to statutory guidance issued to it by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. It is set out in waste management paper No. 4, and it emphasises that, when approving a licence application, the agency must set conditions to prevent harm to human health, or environmental pollution.

Our statutory guidance makes it clear that all waste management facilities must be prepared, developed and operated to high standards. Those objectives will be achieved by the setting of licence conditions that are necessary, enforceable, unambiguous and comprehensive. The conditions must leave the licence holder in no doubt about the standards that he must meet. Breach of a licence condition is a criminal offence, with serious consequences. In cases involving special waste, the maximum penalties are an unlimited fine and imprisonment for five years.

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The granting of a licence is not, however, the end of the matter. The Environment Agency has a legal duty to inspect all licensed sites. Earlier this year, we issued statutory guidance to the agency to enable the introduction of a risk-based system for site inspection. The new system further improves standards by targeting the agency's inspections of sites where they are most needed: the higher the risk, the higher the rate of inspection.

Each site is now subject to both an environmental appraisal and an operator performance appraisal. The environmental appraisal takes account of factors such as the types and quantities of waste and sites' proximity to houses, schools, shops and public open spaces. The purpose of the performance appraisal is to ensure that operators improve their performance and reduce risk.

Those controls are supplemented by a legal duty of care, and by even more stringent controls on the consignment of any waste classified as special waste. The Environment Agency must be "pre-notified" before special waste is removed. That allows the agency to track each consignment of hazardous waste from the moment at which it is moved from the place of its production, and to ensure that it is sent only to sites that have licences and safeguards enabling it to be dealt with safely.

If, despite those controls, something goes wrong, the agency has the power to step in. It has the power to suspend or revoke licences. Those powers can be used when the licence holder has been convicted of an environmental offence, and the agency is satisfied that he is no longer a "fit and proper person". It can also be used when the site's continuing operation would cause harm to human health or the environment.

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