Draft Environment (Northern Ireland) Order 2002

[back to previous text]

Mr. John Taylor (Solihull): The Minister may not have served under your chairmanship before, but I certainly have and it is my pleasure to do so again. Rather mysteriously, the hon. Lady referred to herself as a temporary Minister. I am unfamiliar with that concept, beyond saying that, mercifully, all Ministers are temporary or, as Sir John Nott famously said, here today, gone tomorrow.

I invite the Minister to turn her mind, and the collective mind of Government, to an issue that will not be resolved this morning but one that any civilised Government would bear in mind. I have felt for some years, since I served on the Environment Select Committee of this House, that the scope of sites of special scientific interest or, as they are called in Northern Ireland, areas of special scientific interest, should be widened to include sites of archaeological interest. Habitat, flora and geology can all be candidates for their special, benign protection, but archaeological sites seem to lie outside their ambit. That is not a matter to be disposed of now, but I should like to register the thought with the Minister. Departments are superficial divisions of one Government, who are indivisible, so in addressing my remarks to one Minister I am addressing them to the entire Government. I hope that they may have a little time to reflect on that suggestion.

My next point derives from the explanatory memorandum. I hope that you will allow me to speak to the explanatory memorandum, Mr. Hurst, rather than to the order. I know that we are taking a decision about the order this morning. However, one

Column Number: 009

point in the explanatory memorandum disturbs me. On the first page, in article 3 under the heading ''Purpose'', it is stated that this measure

    ''will provide in Northern Ireland legislation broadly similar to that already in operation in Great Britain.''

Members of the Committee may have heard me say on previous occasions that our constitutional arrangements in the United Kingdom impose an important discipline. That harsh discipline—I need not tell you about this, Mr. Hurst, as you know it perfectly well—is that we live in a country in which the citizen deemed to know the law. The Committee will understand that under our arrangements it is no defence, in law, to say that one was ignorant of the law. Originally that was a principle of Roman law, but it has become part of our law. That being the case, I suggest that it is very important that regional variations in our law are kept to an absolute minimum. Thus, if I were to stray from Warwickshire or the west midlands into some other region or part of our country, I should not encounter substantial or significant variations in the law with which I was unfamiliar.

In order to be fair to our citizens, who are deemed to know the law, there should be a minimum of regional variations. However, the explanatory memorandum says that in Northern Ireland the law will become ''broadly similar to'' our general law. I ask the Minister why the law should not be identical, so that when, as a law-abiding citizen, I go to Northern Ireland, I am in exactly the same position as if I were in Solihull. I do not see why it cannot be exactly the same rather than ''broadly similar''. It is a state of grace that Northern Ireland, with all its sensitivities and problems, should as far as possible be subject to the same law as the rest of the United Kingdom.

I am not here to weary the Committee or to trespass on eternity, so I shall merely ask the Minister a question that flows from my earlier remarks. It has been drawn to my attention that the integrated pollution prevention and control directive must be implemented throughout the European Union by 2007. Will the Minister assure us that the Government will not place a greater burden on UK businesses than is placed on their European counterparts?

In other words, if we accept this particular range of disciplines, and apply them to Northern Ireland ahead of their general application in the rest of the European Union, are we at some risk of being at a comparative disadvantage in some industrial processes? Are we putting ourselves at the comparative disadvantage of zero to a good thrashing?

It is important that we should not be seen, as we sometimes are, as the goody goody boys of Europe who always accept the directives and regulations that emanate from Europe, sometimes gold-plating them, and then live within their strictures and their competitive disadvantages while other members of the European Union delay implementation, drag their feet or see no reason to make haste and continue to follow industrial practices that are wholly undesirable environmentally but are, none the less, competitive in market terms. We want a clean environment and

Column Number: 010

disciplines that bind business in pursuit of a clean environment, but we hope that competitors in the same union as us will accept the same disciplines. I leave that important question with the Minister.

Subject to satisfactory answers to the modest points that I have raised, the Conservative party will support the order, not least because of the extent to which these measures have already been carefully considered in Northern Ireland, where they will apply and where the will of the elected representatives of those communities is more important than my opinion as an English Member of Parliament. The order has been the subject of wide consultation and has been well digested in Northern Ireland, so it would be an enormous presumption for me or my colleagues to try to impede it. My questions are worthy of a response, but subject to the Minister's good replies, we shall not divide the Committee.

10.56 am

Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East): In response to the remarks of the hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor), I understand that the statutory instrument is based on European directives, and I hope that the Government, whether in Northern Ireland or some other part of the United Kingdom, will take European directives and, if necessary, gold-plate them, because environmental protection and the health and well-being of people in Northern Ireland and elsewhere is far too important for us not to take them seriously.

I did not intervene on my hon. Friend the Minister in order to be mischievous. Indeed, I welcome her to her post. Having served in a similar capacity during a previous period of suspension, I know that she will greatly enjoy her position, and I am sure that she will make an impact. She should have particular privileges regarding freshwater fishing and I strongly advise her to take advantage of those if the opportunity arises. I certainly did myself.

I have an indirect constituency interest in the order. For the past three years or so, a company in my constituency called Sonae, which produces woodchip, has been a source of major problems, particularly because it is responsible for an offensive odour. I understand that Sonae has a sister plant in Coleraine, which does not have the same standard of technology as the plant in my constituency. There are two potential sources of offensive odour from the production and manufacture of woodchip. One is formaldehyde, concentrations of which can produce strong, offensive odours—

The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman will remain in order if he is speaking of the factory in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Howarth: I am grateful for that guidance, Mr. Hurst. Of course I am speaking about the factory in Northern Ireland, which manufactures exactly the same product as that which is produced in my constituency. Whatever applies in my constituency will apply in Northern Ireland or anywhere else in the world where woodchip panels or sheets are made.

Column Number: 011

Formaldehyde is a problem. I understand that the Health and Safety Executive minimum standards do not prevent the emission of offensive odours. If one visits the Health and Safety Executive website, it becomes apparent that the recommended levels are not enforceable and are much lower than those that apply. I am sure that that is as true in Coleraine as it is elsewhere.

The normal storage of wood in large quantities produces offensive odours. I am sure that that is equally a problem in Coleraine. I raise the issue because I hope that the order will improve the control of such plants. If so, I hope that the rest of the UK has similar prospects.

11 am

Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley): On behalf of the Ulster Unionist party, I welcome the fact that the order largely replicates the provisions of three draft Assembly Bills. It would obviously have been much better if the Assembly were in place to consider the legislation. The fact that I am the only member of the Committee who represents a Northern Ireland constituency demonstrates that, under the direct rule provisions that are in force during suspension, there is little opportunity for local representatives to scrutinise legislation that directly affects Northern Ireland. The Minister expressed the hope that devolution would soon be restored, which I share. I hope that we shall soon see the acts of completion that will enable a more accountable form of devolution to be restored.

For a variety of reasons, the environment has not received the attention that it deserves in Northern Ireland politics from Westminster, from the local political parties or, too often, from the general public. Fortunately, things are beginning to change. Devolution offered the political parties in Northern Ireland the opportunity to make up for lost ground—hence the three Bills that were being considered by the Assembly, and were being prepared prior to suspension.

I well remember taking the former Secretary of State Marjorie Mowlam to visit the Lagan valley regional park in my constituency. I was concerned about pollution in the park, about the continual encroachment of industrial development, and about planners ignoring the integrity of the park and eroding it around its boundary. I shared the then Secretary of State's concern about the lack of legislative protection for the environment in Northern Ireland. The order moves us forward in providing some of that protection.

The order seeks to comply with the European Council's directive on integrated pollution prevention and control. We therefore welcome the advance that it represents in ensuring a high level of protection for the environment through the prevention or reduction of emissions to the air, water and land, as a result of industry.

My constituency is one of the more industrialised regions of Northern Ireland. The river Lagan was for

Column Number: 012

years one of the most heavily polluted rivers in the United Kingdom. I am thankful that that issue is now being addressed. I commend the work of the Department of the Environment in Northern Ireland, Belfast city council and Lisburn borough council to clean up the river Lagan and turn it into a recreational facility for the whole community. I hope that the order will assist the work of making the river Lagan much more attractive for recreation and other purposes. One of my ambitions is for the Lagan canal network to be restored so that people can travel up the Lagan, all the way to Lough Neagh. That would be a tremendous boost for tourism in the area, and I hope that the order will contribute to the restoration of the Lagan and its function as a canal.

A less polluted environment for this and future generations is something that every politician and political party in Northern Ireland should work towards. My party certainly stands ready to play its part in achieving that objective.

The legislation is unavoidable and necessary to comply again with the European Union directive on ambient air quality assessment and management. As the Minister stated, it will also satisfy the Executive's commitment in their programme for government to have in place by May 2003 a policy and legislative framework to deliver Northern Ireland's contribution to targets in the UK air quality strategy.

Dunmurry in my constituency sits on the mouth of the Lagan valley, squeezed between Greater Belfast and the city of Lisburn. It has among the highest levels of air pollution in the UK, and the highest level of pollution in respect of certain particles in the air. I was very much involved in a campaign by the local community to prevent a plan by the roads service of the Department for Regional Development to construct new slip roads on to the M1. One of the main objections to the proposal was not that we did not want the slip roads but that they would have added to the pollution of the air in Dunmurry. I welcome the decision of the public inquiry to refuse the Department approval to put the slip roads in that area.

St. Anne's primary school is the largest primary school in Northern Ireland, and when I visited it I discovered high levels of asthma among its children. That is again down to the high levels of air pollution. I find similar cases in many places in my constituency. When I visit primary schools, the number of children using inhalers and other forms of medication to treat their asthma is alarming. That must have some connection with deteriorating air quality.

I hope that the order provides the legislative powers needed to improve air quality in Northern Ireland, including in my constituency. Adequate resources are vital, and my party welcomes the £1 million per annum grants package that will be given to district councils to assist them to review and assess local air quality, and to identify problem areas and necessary remedial areas. We trust that the figure will be kept under review, and that additional resources will be made available if necessary to help to tackle the problem.

The order contains measures to improve the protection and management of areas of special

Column Number: 013

scientific interest. Those sites represent the finest examples of semi-natural habitat and species sites to be found in Northern Ireland, due to their fauna, flora or geological or physiographical features. We are proud of our natural environment in Northern Ireland. I welcomed the Minister's remark that it is a beautiful place, and it sometimes saddens me to see how pollution can spoil the beauty of our local environment. The measures to protect the ASSIs further are welcome. The ASSIs are assets that should be enjoyed not only by this generation but by future generations.

We recognise, however, that some sensitivity needs to be exercised with regard to how the ASSIs affect the farming community. As the Minister will be aware, Northern Ireland agriculture has suffered greatly in recent years with BSE, foot and mouth disease and a dramatic drop in farm incomes. We welcome the willingness of farmers in Northern Ireland to protect ASSIs, and consequently we urge that steps are taken to work with the farming community when protecting those vital areas, in a genuine spirit of partnership. That will benefit everyone.

Where a farmer's land is adjacent to such sites, the advantages to him must outweigh the disadvantages. The Government must therefore provide good management and work with farmers, not add to the perception that such schemes will increase bureaucracy. The Government have often repeated that they lack the staff to manage the ASSI scheme. Meanwhile, farmers are not receiving the money to which they are entitled. The Government have a duty to ensure that staff are in place before the scheme is more fully introduced.

If the Government's agreements with farmers are not being honoured, they should be, and farmers should be paid what they are due. Such behaviour would be bad practice that would turn farmers off the idea of being partners in protecting ASSIs. I hope that the Department will address that issue when it implements the order and increases protection for ASSIs.

My party welcomes the order. It largely replicates the provisions in the draft Bills brought before the Assembly, and we hope that it will make a genuine contribution towards cleaning up the environment in Northern Ireland and making it a better place for everyone to live in.

11.10 am

Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 3 December 2002