Select Committee on Regulatory Reform Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 240-254)


20 MAY 2008

  Q240  Phil Wilson: The Hampton Implementation Review of the Environment Agency said you have a good reputation as far as influencing issues and initiatives in Europe. How will you continue to achieve more commonality in the European arena on environmental regulation?

  Ms Young: We set up a modern regulation interest group across the European Environment Protection Agencies about four years ago now. We have been working on a series of ways of influencing the debate. We have produced a number of reports which we will leave with you. One is on the contribution of good regulation to competitiveness and another is on the barriers to good regulation at the European level, Member State level, and then implementation. A third, which we have just reached agreement on and which we are now peddling around Europe, is called A Vision for Good Regulation for the Future to try to get some principles and models accepted. We think that needs to be linked with a UK Government approach on a wider basis, adopting the same sorts of principles of recognising where the problems are in terms of getting good regulation from Europe and trying to sell a common regulatory model. Business tells us that one of the most difficult things for them is successive regulatory regimes coming out of Europe in a completely different fashion. They have different definitions, different time periods, different data requirements, different inspection regimes, and they have to invent a new process, a new language, a new system for each of those. We are trying to bring all the environmental regulation under a common regulatory model, so that when something new comes out of Europe we just bolt another bit on the end and it looks remarkably as though it is just another requirement and so it is easier for business and easier for the regulators. That sort of approach is the one we would like the BRE to peddle in Europe—and, indeed, UK ministers.

  Mr Mitchell: Of course we support Defra and other government departments when they are negotiating over individual instruments and stuff because we are the ones who have the evidence about what it will be like in practice for the regulated community.

  Q241  Phil Wilson: Is it an ongoing scenario really or is there light at the end of the tunnel or will you always be having to go at it?

  Ms Young: We hoped that the European better regulation initiative, which got a head of steam a couple of years ago, would deliver more than it has. It is a bit flabby, to be honest. That is why we are trying to invigorate it with this vision of modern regulation. If you go and talk to Directors General and Commissioners about this, it is interesting that you get different reactions from different bits of the system. There is a lot of selling of the idea still to happen.

  Q242  Dr Naysmith: Why did the initiative become flabby?

  Ms Young: I think DG Enterprise saw the vision but hardly anybody else did. I think what happened is what happens in Europe a lot: DG Enterprise tries to put in place something that crosses the Commission and individual bits of it go at it in a slightly half-hearted way and it just diminishes and dribbles out the bottom of the door really. It is a very good way of dealing with government initiatives you do not like the look of!

  Q243  Chairman: The Hampton Implementation Review did make a few criticisms of the Agency or identified areas for improvement. What steps have you taken to address those?

  Ms Young: The first thing we did when we got the Hampton Implementation Review was to reach a view with our board as to which of the propositions in it for further work we accepted we would implement and go through, and which we did not. There were some issues in the report that we felt, in spite of quite a lot of debate with the team, they had not quite got their head around and were facing in the wrong direction. We have been very clear in terms of what it is we are now going to implement. We have a programme underway to implement the changes and there are others where we will continue to debate with them because we do not really think what they were proposing was necessarily the right way to go.

  Q244  Chairman: What are the areas of debate?

  Ms Young: One was the whole issue of inspection. The report was rather unclear about that. It made a bald statement that we inspect comparatively more than other regulators, but there is to be a further report shortly, a kind of overarching compendium report which the National Audit Office is going to do drawing on the Hampton Implementation Review reports on the five separate regulators and drawing common messages out. We were interested to see in that that we inspect comparatively little compared with some other regulators. It is the whole principle of what inspection is about: when is it valuable, what is the basis for it, how do you get a risk-based approach to inspection, and whether the folk you are regulating like inspection or not. Quite often our regulated customers do not see inspection as us coming along wagging the finger, saying, "Don't do this" and "Don't do that." They welcome it as an opportunity to talk about some of the issues they have and get our advice on how they can move forward. That was just one example where we do not think they bottomed out the issue well enough. Ed will no doubt remember other things.

  Mr Mitchell: The one that particularly strikes me is the balance between consistency across all our regulators and local discretion. We have been on a journey of several years really to improve the consistency of decision making between individual frontline staff in response to business saying that is what they want. The audit team, which was not just the BRE, recognised that that was an issue, without really giving us much to go on as to whether they thought we had the balance right or not, but just leaving a sense that we had not quite. It is an area where, as I say, we have been working very hard to move towards more consistency and will continue to do so.

  Q245  Judy Mallaber: In your very first answer in relation to relations with the BRE you talked about data sharing and wanting to work with them on it. The Hampton Review itself highlighted that as an area for improvement by the Environment Agency itself, and not just your original point about working with the BRE on it. What are you doing about that and about improving data sharing? Are there any pitfalls? What is the positive side? What is the progress like?

  Ms Young: Ed will probably want to talk about the exact work we have in the working group on data sharing between a number of regulators at the moment. We also need to look at it in the context of the processes of collaborative work in general on the regulation. For example, there are a number of industries that we regulate in parallel with other regulators, particularly the HSE, where we have described quite clear regulatory models of how we will work together and how that will look a seamless whole to the folk we are regulating, from which data requirements flow that are consistent with that model, so they have a logic to them and we reduce the amount of both organisations looking for data. It is a single parallel regulatory process. We do quite a lot of that with HSE. We have done quite a lot of that, particularly with farmers as customers, through our integrated regulation process and also in the work that we do with Natural England as the overseer of agri-environment schemes and in their role as the regulator for biodiversity and natural resources. There again we try to have joint regulatory processes which are not just about data sharing but also about providing joined-up regulation that suits the customer. Some farmers want everybody who is regulating them around a particular issue to arrive on one day and get it over with; others, particularly small-scale operators, would be overwhelmed by that and want you to turn up in different years in different months. It has to be based on the right regulatory process for that client group and then the data issue flows from that. But we do have a working group on data sharing.

  Mr Mitchell: We were also picked up slightly on making it clear to business that it was not just about sharing but about the collection of data in the first place. We have put a lot of effort into making sure that not only do we ask for the information we need but we also use that information to produce environmental outcomes: it does not just sit in a database somewhere. But we are going to go back through all of our data request requirements and make sure we are not asking for anything we do not use. The difficulty there is that there are some specific regimes in the way they have come through, particularly from Europe, that specify exactly what data you have to collect, which in a better regulatory world you perhaps would not do but they are there within the regime. On the data sharing side, we felt we could have benefited from input from the BRE in our working with other regulators to look at some of the legal constraints around data sharing and data protection type stuff. We felt they could have added value to that process. At the moment they are preferring us to deal with that as a group of regulators rather than them being involved in it.

  Q246  Chairman: I asked Defra about a specific local example that affects my own area. We are shortly, I understand from the minister, going to get a Dee Estuary Regulating Order, at last governing cockle fishing in the area. I have been working on this for years. At one stage I had a huge obstacle coming from Environment Agency Wales. I said, "All you have to do to help, in the absence of an order, is put on the form which licenses someone to collect cockles: `The information on this form may be shared with other government departments'." This was intended to frighten off some of the people in the black economy, with millions of pounds dodging HMRC's interests, but your officers did not think they could do it. They said it would be in breach of the Data Protection Act. Is there a gap there in your own field staff's training in the way they manage data and the way they relate to other government departments?

  Ms Young: I do not know enough about the particular circumstances but certainly there are some real constraints in data protection. Also, with some other regulated groups there are real anxieties about competition issues and confidentiality of data that would be business sensitive. What you are suggesting is an entirely sensible approach but I suspect the reason they were saying that was that they were aware of the legal constraints.

  Q247  Chairman: They were wrong on the legal constraints, as it happens. I corrected them and the following year they amended the form precisely as I suggested.

  Ms Young: We thank you for that. This may be a best practice sharing issue that we can take away with us.

  Q248  Chairman: I am just trying to probe as to whether your own colleagues have the right level of understanding.

  Ms Young: We do have some really good examples of data sharing between ourselves and other agencies, particularly local government, in the whole business of illegal waste dumping and fly-tipping. We have developed a joint database which allows us to share information with the police, the local authorities, ourselves. Being able to share intelligence has resulted in us being able to catch people we would not otherwise have caught. That is an approach we would like to do more of.

  Q249  Judy Mallaber: The week after next we are making a brief visit to several European countries, Sweden, Holland and Denmark. We were talking earlier about some of your experience in dealing with European agencies and I wondered if you had any thoughts on whether any of those countries have particularly good models that you think we should be asking about.

  Ms Young: I do not know about models, but they are certainly the three that have thought about it more than the others. There is the usual north/south gradient. Italy has thought a bit, but, unfortunately, even though the model is probably interesting in Italy, it is undermined by the fact that the Mafia run the waste industry, so that what you see on the surface is not what happens in practice as far as I can understand.

  Q250  Dr Naysmith: Which are the best ones for collaborating with you when you talk about doing your initiatives?

  Ms Young: Certainly the Danes and the Dutch have collaborated well with the BRE on the administrative burdens reduction issue. To be honest, we have driven the pan-European process. We have had some willing supporters in the Dutch and the Danes and the Norwegians and the Swedish but I am not sure that the better regulation initiatives are as live in some of the other countries to be honest.

  Q251  Judy Mallaber: That is interesting.

  Mr Mitchell: It depends slightly which issue it is. For instance, if you are interested in the regulatory budget debate that is in the Enterprise White Paper, the Dutch have some interesting experience there. It slightly depends which issue it is that you are interested in. We could provide further advice on that.

  Q252  Chairman: That would be interesting if you were able to do that in the next few days.

  Ms Young: The other area where there has been very good pan-European collaboration is in some of our regulatory regimes on things like integrated pollution control. It is a European regime. There has been a lot of collaboration by experts across Europe and there is now quite a lot of collaborative work on streamlining and harmonising.

  Q253  Chairman: Thank you very much. That was an extremely interesting session. I hope the Mafia were not listening in!

  Ms Young: Before we break, could we say on the regulatory Enforcement Sanctions Bill that we endorse entirely what the previous witnesses said. To be frank, a very promising bill with some very promising flexible sanctions is being so hedged around with checks and balances that, quite frankly, we are also thinking it is not perhaps going to be worth much to get hold of them—which is a real shame because the Macrory proposals were excellent.

  Q254  Dr Naysmith: Perhaps the Lords will amend it and add something in.

  Ms Young: We had a good go at that. I think we need to rely on you now really.

  Chairman: Thank you very much.

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