Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Ewing of Kirkford: I should like to speak to Amendments Nos. 132, 133 and 135 on appointments to the Scottish environment protection agency. However, perhaps I should say first with great respect and deep humility to the noble Lord, Lord Renton, that in my view if legislation specifies that the Secretary of State shall appoint the members of a board, that is that. In my 25 years in both Houses I have never known a Secretary of State to be challenged on an appointment that he has made to a quango, for that challenge to be sustained and for the person who has been appointed to be removed.

17 Jan 1995 : Column 581

If the legislation clearly specifies, as this legislation does, that the Secretary of State shall make the appointment, it is my humble view that Parliament has no further say in the matter. We should not believe that somehow or other there is a further check and balance on the appointments that are made.

As the Committee knows, major changes are taking place in Scotland which are not taking place in England in that local government is being completely reorganised. Indeed, the elections to the shadow authorities will take place in a few weeks. That is significant in relation to the Scottish environment protection agency which, contrary to what the Minister said earlier, is being given powers that are presently in the hands of the democratically elected local authorities.

Let us consider the river purification boards as an example. Until about two years ago, two-thirds of the membership of the river purification boards comprised elected representatives. There were, and still are, reserved places on river purification boards for elected representatives. In my view—I have represented a constituency in which the petro-chemical industry has a centre and where environmental and river pollution have been problems for many years—river purification boards retain public confidence because of the presence of elected representatives. That is the point that I wish to make.

In order for the SEPA to gain the public's confidence, it is essential that the boards' membership should come from as wide a spectrum of interests as possible. We know that the chairman of each of the regional boards will automatically be a member of the SEPA. So there is a strong case for there to be reserved places, at least on the regional boards, for elected members of the new local authorities which will come into being on 1st April 1996.

We say also that members appointed to the SEPA should have knowledge of the work that the agency is expected to carry out. I do not want to give the impression that that is solely the preserve of professional people. There are many good lay councillors on local authorities in Scotland that are being abolished—Central Regional Council is a good example—who make a major contribution to the river purification boards' work and whose knowledge and expertise will be lost unless the Secretary of State takes the advice of the Scottish Consumer Council and the Forth River Purification Board and consults widely and makes appointments according to the knowledge and expertise of the councillors to whom I refer.

I return to the point I made earlier. There must be an undertaking that places will be reserved, at least on regional boards, for locally elected representatives so that local accountability will be continued.

I want to draw the Minister, and gain an assurance from him, on one other aspect of the major changes that are taking place in Scotland. We need an assurance that no one appointed to the three new water quangos that are to be established is appointed also to the SEPA. Scotland is littered with people who are on five, six or seven quangos. It would be the worst of all worlds if, right at the beginning of the work of both authorities—

17 Jan 1995 : Column 582

the new water authorities and the SEPA—there was duplication of membership, because there must be a conflict of interest between those two organisations. I hope that, if the Minister cannot go down the road suggested by the three amendments in relation to the authority in Scotland, he can at least give us an assurance that membership will not be duplicated between the water authorities and the SEPA.

Baroness Hamwee: It was the noble Lord, Lord Ewing, who said earlier that an argument does not improve for being repeated. So I shall merely say that I associate these Benches with the comments he made about local representation and appointments by the Secretary of State. However, in that connection I hope that Amendment No. 9, which seeks to constrain the Secretary of State a little more than the draft Bill does, will attract the Committee. Rather than the Secretary of State having regard to the desirability of appointing someone who satisfies a particular criteria, he should be required to appoint someone who fulfils those qualifications, which in themselves are wide.

With regard to the freedom of information clause to which the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton, has rightly drawn the Committee's attention, and also tabled an appropriate amendment, it is a pity that one has to remember to put down such amendments. It would be so much better if the provisions applied to all our public bodies.

6.15 p.m.

Viscount Ullswater: The amendments are concerned mainly with the appointment of members to the agency's boards. It may assist the Committee if I explain the Government's general approach to such appointments. The Bill requires the Secretary of State and the Minister to have regard to the desirability of appointing a person who has had experience of and shown capacity in some matter relevant to the agencies' functions. It does not require us to assemble boards with one of everything. We do not expect a board to be comprised of a panel of technical experts. The boards will have much more of a policy-setting and strategic decision-making role similar to that undertaken by other boards. Where technical expertise is called for, it will be provided primarily by the agencies' officers. Nor should boards be delegate bodies made up of nominees representing outside interests. The idea expressed in Amendment No. 132 of "a balance of key interests" is alien to the idea of the agencies. Rather, each member will be appointed on his or her individual merits and will be expected to act in the interests of the agency as a whole and in accordance with that agency's functions, aims and objectives.

In making appointments in general, we wish to appoint the best available talents for the task, whoever they are. Indeed, we have followed that approach in appointing the Environment Agency Advisory Committee. The committee members are drawn from a wide range of backgrounds and experience, including industry, local authorities, environmental science and finance, each member distinguished in his own right but each equipped to make a distinctive contribution to running a large organisation such as the agency.

17 Jan 1995 : Column 583

With that background, I hope that the Committee will understand why I cannot accept any of the amendments in this group.

Amendments Nos. 8 and 13 together raise basic questions about parliamentary accountability. Amendment No. 8 would require the appointment of the agency's members to be agreed by the Select Committee on the Environment. Amendment No. 13 would add to that a requirement for their remuneration, travelling and other allowances to be subject to Select Committee approval.

The amendments risk drawing the appointment of agency members further into the political arena. Such an approach could well inhibit many people from accepting public appointments, with a detrimental effect on the quality of public appointees. Unless the agency were to be a special case, such procedures could not be applied realistically to the numbers of appointments and reappointments made each year.

As my noble friend Lord Renton rightly pointed out, these amendments would be a significant departure from current practice. It would be unwise to legislate in that way at a time well before the Nolan Committee on Standards in Public Life has reported. Issues relating to public appointments are a major area which that committee will consider.

I should stress that rejecting the amendments would not mean that there was no opportunity for Parliament to question Ministers about the grounds for appointments. Ministers remain accountable to Parliament for their actions, including the appointments they make, and this provides an opportunity to question their decisions.

Amendment No. 9, spoken to by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, seeks to require any person appointed to meet the test of having experience and proven capacity in some matter relevant to the functions of the agency. Amendment No. 132 would limit the membership of the SEPA in a similar way. The amendments also take too narrow a view of what is needed on the boards of the agencies. The agencies will be large organisations with a full range of issues—such as management, personnel and finance—for which the boards must take responsibility. It would be wrong to suppose that all members must necessarily have experience of the agencies' specialist functions if they are to make a useful contribution.

Because the agencies are not to be bodies of delegates, I cannot accept the idea in Amendment No. 135 that the Government should seek "nominations from national organisations" when making appointments to the SEPA. The noble Lord, Lord Ewing, asked whether there would be a role for elected councillors on SEPA. The Government will be keen to secure the services of effective board members from all sources. We certainly envisage elected councillors playing a full part on the regional boards. Perhaps we should return at another time to the noble Lord's anxieties. I am not sure that tonight I am able to give the assurances that he seeks on whether the same people will be appointed to the water authorities and to SEPA. I need to take further advice on the matter.

17 Jan 1995 : Column 584

Nor should we carve out a list of reserve slots for various fields. Therefore, I cannot accept Amendment No. 10 in the name of my noble friend Lord Lucas of Chilworth. However, I understand the view that he put forward. He seeks to promote the claims of waste management for consideration when appointments are made to the agencies' board. I believe that it would be wrong for me to give him the assurance that he wants, although I am certain that my right honourable friend will consider carefully what he said tonight.

The same applies to Amendments Nos. 11 and 133, which seek to take account specifically of business, the voluntary sector, local authorities and environmental and consumer interests in appointing members to the boards of the two agencies.

Finally, Amendment No. 15 would provide for public access to meetings of the agency and to its papers, agendas, reports, minutes and related background papers subject to the exemptions set out in the Local Government Act 1972. I believe that the amendment is unnecessary. Under the Environmental Information Regulations 1992, the agency will be under a statutory duty to make available environmental information to every person who requests it, subject to the exemptions in those regulations. Generally, the agency will be expected to conduct its affairs fully in accordance with the code of practice on access to government information.

We want neither to impose unnecessary controls on the agency nor to fetter unduly Ministers' discretion to obtain the best boards for both agencies. I hope that those explanations will convince Members of the Committee that the proposed amendments should find no place in the Bill.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page