Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Northbourne: If the amendment were to be put on the face of the Bill, would it not also require a definition of "environment"? I understand that at present "environment" is defined in the Environmental Protection Act, Part I, as follows:

It goes on to say,

    "the medium of air includes the air within buildings and the air within other natural or man-made structures above or below ground".

I am not sure, but does not the Bill refer to the environment in a much wider context? For example, do we not include plants or animals in the environment? Do we or do we not include buildings? I suggest that this is an aspect of the amendment which perhaps needs some thought also.

3.30 p.m.

Viscount Ullswater: At the start of this long Bill it is important to have a statement of what the Government feel about the amendment moved by my noble friend. The Government fully recognise that the protection of the environment cannot be left to the sole concern of environment and territorial Ministers. Indeed, one of the central themes of the Government's approach to sustainable development is that it can be achieved only through the involvement of all parts of government and sections of society. The arrangements we established following the Rio conference are designed to reflect that.

My noble friends Lord Norrie and Lord Marlesford and the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, and I are at one in acknowledging the importance of ensuring that environmental considerations are taken into account by all government Ministers, departments and agencies. It

17 Jan 1995 : Column 543

is to help ensure this objective that the Government have appointed a green Minister in each department, which is what my noble friend Lord Norrie alluded to.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Williams, that the proposed amendment would go much further by placing all government Ministers, departments and agencies under a statutory duty not to damage the environment. My noble friend put his finger on that difficulty. It would additionally place them under a duty to further the conservation enhancement of the environment and of natural resources where that is compatible with their statutory purposes. That would not simply integrate environmental considerations in other government policies but would in many cases override those policies in ways which I believe would clearly be unacceptable. My noble friend Lord Elton pointed out some of the dangers in that method of approach.

The noble Lord, Lord Williams, quoted defence as an example. It is one thing to ensure that defence arrangements avoid unnecessary damage to the environment where that can be done without undermining the successful delivery of defence policy. But it is frankly unacceptable to require that those arrangements must not damage the environment even where that could seriously weaken our defence capabilities or put life at risk. Nor would it be acceptable to require defence Ministers to devote scarce defence resources to furthering the conservation enhancement of the environment, wherever that is not incompatible with their statutory purposes, irrespective of costs and priorities.

Good government involves balancing the need for many different desirable policy objectives and finding ways of delivering those so as to maximise the overall benefit. I believe that the intention behind the amendment—to ensure that environmental considerations are properly integrated throughout government—is in line with government policy and requires no new legislation in the Bill. But by imposing overriding environmental duties on all government Ministers, departments and agencies, the proposed amendment is incompatible with the kinds of judgments which are required for good government.

I hear very carefully what the noble Lord, Lord Williams, says about having some form of strategic amendment, but what I have been at pains to do is to indicate that there is no need for a new form of legislation in the Bill on those lines. I cannot believe that my noble friend is seeking to impose this statutory duty not to damage the environment. I hope therefore that he will consider withdrawing his amendment.

Lord Williams of Elvel: Is the Minister saying that under no circumstances whatever would the Government and Members of the Committee accept a strategic amendment which we could draft together and which would be along the lines suggested by the White Paper and by the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford? Is it the Government's position that they would not accept such an amendment? On the other hand, if at the Report stage

17 Jan 1995 : Column 544

there were general agreement among noble Lords that such an amendment was desirable, would the Government even then turn their face against it?

Viscount Ullswater: My initial reaction is the one that I gave to the Committee earlier. I do not see the need for such a strategic amendment to be placed on the face of the Bill. I was at pains to underline that the policies of the Government are there in other legislation. I would not turn my face so hard against the very reasonable proposal put forward by the noble Lord, but I have to say that that would be without any commitment to agreeing. The noble Lord was almost asking me whether I would agree that a strategic amendment could be placed on the face of the Bill. I would certainly be pleased to look at it, but with no commitment to agree to put a strategic amendment on the face of the Bill.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley: Before the noble Lord, Lord Norrie, makes up his mind what he is going to do about the amendment, perhaps I may make one point which goes to the heart of the Bill. Although on the face of it the Bill is just about the environment, it is in fact about something much deeper. We all know that it stems from Rio and from the whole question of sustainable development. That means that the arguments put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Elton, do not apply. If law and order in this country collapse over the next 50 years, perhaps they can be built up over the next 500 years. The same is true of almost everything he was talking about. It would be a disaster and a tragedy but it would be mendable.

What we are talking about in the realms of sustainable development, and therefore in this Bill, is whether or not this planet is to become uninhabitable. Therefore, there are ways in which it can be right to say that it would take priority over any other duty. I am not deploying my argument at this moment merely to suggest that the noble Lord, Lord Norrie, should press home the amendment. I entirely see that there are reasons why it might be right to withdraw it today. But the principle that this is an overriding and major problem, probably the most important problem in the civilised world over the past 2,000 years, should not be glossed over.

Lord Norrie: I am grateful for the Minister's reply and I am grateful to those who have supported me in the amendment and also to those who have expressed concern. I shall look at Hansard very carefully to see what has been said. I shall then come back to the Minister and decide what to do at the next stage. At the moment, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 1 [The Environment Agency]:

Lord Nathan moved Amendment No. 2:

Page 1, line 12, after ("of") insert ("furthering the protection of the environment and of").

The noble Lord said: This amendment arose in my mind in the first instance out of surprise at reading the Bill and finding that there was no objective or purpose for the environment agency, which constitutes the main

17 Jan 1995 : Column 545

purpose of the first part of the Bill. It is surprising that the purpose of the exercise should not be explicit on the face of the Bill right at the beginning.

The prime reason for putting forward Amendment No. 2 is to make it clear that the overriding purpose of the environment agency will be the protection of the environment. That becomes much more important when one considers the extraordinary breadth of the responsibilities being imposed upon the agency. It is not appropriate to catalogue them all—we shall no doubt be going through them in the coming hours and days—but they are extremely wide and varied. In support of the point which I am putting before the Committee it is only necessary to refer, for instance, to the extent to which it is prescribed that the agency shall conform to guidance given by Ministers. That is made quite clear in Clause 4(1):

    "The Ministers shall from time to time give guidance to the Agency with respect to aims and objectives which they consider it appropriate for the Agency to pursue in the performance of its functions".

More particulars are given later in that clause.

It seems to me invaluable that there should be a statement of the overriding purpose of the environment agency in the terms which I have indicated. That does not mean that there cannot be other purposes which may also be imposed on the agency in carrying out a particular function. There is also the emphasis laid in other parts of the Bill on sustainable development. That is a very important matter which, I believe, is central to the thoughts of the draftsman. I do not in the least object to that, but support it.

One needs something which is quite clear right at the beginning as regards the overriding purpose of the agency which is furthering the protection of the environment. It will not only be helpful to the reader to know what its purpose is, but also to a minor extent, though not in practice, it may place a constraint on Ministers. I do not believe that they will feel it as such because I believe that they accept that that is the main purpose; namely, to protect the environment.

It seems to be more and more frequent with the passing years that there are more questions. The appropriateness of government decisions in particular will be questioned in the courts as to whether the guidance given is in accordance with the terms of the Act. It seems to me extremely helpful that this very brief statement of the overriding purpose shall appear clearly here. For those reasons I commend this amendment to the Committee. I beg to move.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page