Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Renton: Before the noble Lord, Lord Williams, or any other noble Lord replies, perhaps I may put this to the Minister. Of course one must accept that on matters of detail there would have to be flexibility—flexibility based upon experience gained. That is so. But, surely, it must be flexibility within broad principles stated by Parliament. If we are to have a new Clause 1 which sets out those broad principles clearly and adequately, then there would be no need for them to be replaced in Clause 4.

Is not the real trouble that Clause 4 as it stands will not only enable flexibility in the widest sense to take place but that it will be done behind the back of Parliament? Is there not the risk of Ministers themselves varying the guidance and of any one Minister changing his mind sometimes too quickly? The system of guidance, as put forward in the clause, simply will not do.

Viscount Ullswater: Perhaps I may seek to answer that point. It is of course the new proposition that Clause 4 is adding to the Bill that gives the concept of guidance its unusual position, one which has not been applied to other such bodies. I believe that the concept of the guidance being widely debated while the Bill is before Parliament indicates how much we want to hear everyone's views.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley: As my noble friend Lady Hamwee said, we on these Benches would like to see the aims and the objects of the Bill entrenched on

19 Jan 1995 : Column 767

the face of the Bill, and to that extent we support the amendment and, if it comes to a vote, we shall vote for it.

I do not accept the arguments of the noble Lord, Lord Elton, ingenious though they are, that because the aims and objects of all the bodies taken over by the new agency are already entrenched in statute, there is no need to write them into the Bill. If we were simply passing a consolidation Bill that would be a valid argument. But we are not passing a consolidation Bill; this is a very important measure in its own right and the aims and objectives should be written on the face of the Bill.

I, along with many Members of the Committee, have considerable doubts about the details of the schedule. It has, after all, as the noble Viscount said, been adapted from a draft. It seems to me the kind of matter which, if the Committee were to accept the amendment, we should want to put right on Report. I believe that we can leave that aside. The principle is tremendously important, and it is the principle that we support.

Lord Elis-Thomas: Before the noble Lord, Lord Williams, responds to the amendment, I should like to indicate my support for it, and to comment further upon what the Minster said just now, thus prolonging the debate that we had the other evening on sustainable development. I was glad that he took the opportunity to develop the Government's thinking on this matter, but I fail to see why the argument that sustainable development means more than the activity of the agency is an argument against specifying more clearly the agency's role in relation to sustainable development. That is the crux of the argument that we are having.

The agency will obviously be an agency of sustainable development within its own remit. It is hoped that it will also be an agency which will influence outwith its own remit other government activities; an agency that will be able to advise other departments and secretaries of state on aspects of policy arising out of its environmental protection role, and its general remit as an environment agency.

I hope that that is an argument for specifying the agency's role much more clearly. I hope that the Government can have another look at this matter, because there is clearly a feeling on all sides of the Committee that Clause 4, and the whole question of how we spell out the relationship between the specific activity of the agency and the overall objective set out in the January 1994 Government paper, should be clarified.

Lord Moran: I shall speak briefly in support of what the noble Lord, Lord Renton, said. I am not at all happy about Clause 4. It provides for the agency's aims and objectives to be informed by guidance from Ministers to which it has to have regard; that is, not just the Secretary of State for the Environment, but the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and no doubt there would be advice from the President of the Board of Trade on not hampering the activities of industry, and from the Chancellor of the Exchequer on not spending any money.

19 Jan 1995 : Column 768

So far as I can see, the guidance is to be totally removed from Parliament, and although we have been assured that it will be public, it will be worked out in Whitehall, and environmental interests will be subject to all the pressures from other departments that do not subscribe to them. For those principal reasons, it is undesirable and should be removed.

If the clause is retained, as a minimum the Government should indicate that they are prepared to amend the clause to ensure that there is proper consultation on any draft guidance. At the moment there is no requirement on the Government even to consult the new environment agency itself, let alone all the other bodies which should properly be asked for their views. There should also be an opportunity for Parliament to consider and comment upon any guidance before it is made.

On the question of sustainable development, we have all said a great deal—probably too much—but I still have a strong feeling that the word "development" should not occur in the Bill. I cannot think that the environment agency should have anything to do with development. There are plenty of organisations concerned with economic development, and rightly so. It is for government to balance the needs of economic development and environmental protection. The agency should be concerned with all aspects of environmental protection and not with development. That is fundamental. I hope therefore that the Government will be prepared to think again about that issue.

4.15 p.m.

Lord Elton: Perhaps I may respond to the noble Lord, Lord Moran, on the issue of sustainable development. It seems to me to be a separate issue within the clause, and might be seen by some Members of the Committee as the baby within the bath water. Surely when there is an agency such as this, which will control the manner in which development is permitted to interact with the environment—that is its function—a balance must be struck between short and long-term gain. It is not at all unlikely that there may be some things which, when considering the immediate benefits to the environment, may be considered to be a loss, and which, if not permitted because of a simple interpretation of the statute, would deny us the benefits of doing something which, in the long term, would be sustainable.

I am finding it difficult, because I am trying to think of an illustration, and that is not easy to do. I hope that I have made the point that my noble friend the Minister has made clear that sustainable development is an issue which touches every department of state and every economic and leisure activity of mankind. That cannot be within the sole right of action of one agency such as this. It must therefore be subject to some direction so that it is kept in step with the remainder of the economy and human activity.

That being so, it may well be that where there is a balance to be struck between the short-term benefits to agriculture, the community, or the purity of the atmosphere and the sustainability of our economic

19 Jan 1995 : Column 769

activity altogether, it is necessary for the national body—the Government acting through Parliament—to give a direction to the agency.

Lord Moran: With the leave of the Committee, I understand what the noble Lord, Lord Elton, is saying, but it may be difficult for the environment agency to apply the principle of sustainable development—whatever it may mean—to, say, functions such as fisheries or flood defence. I cannot offhand think how it will do that.

Viscount Ullswater: Before the noble Lord, Lord Williams, gets to his feet, perhaps I may say to the noble Lord, Lord Elis-Thomas, that under Clause 35(2), for instance, the agency has a duty to provide the Secretary of State or the Minister with such advice and assistance as he may request. Then the noble Lord, as I understood him, said that it must be for Ministers to decide on advice. They must be able to decide about sustainable development. That is the premise to which I return: it is for Ministers to decide what guidance they should give to the agency about the contribution that the agency makes towards sustainable development. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Moran, who said that the agency cannot decide for itself what it should be doing towards sustainable development; it must act on the advice of Ministers who have the responsibility for that decision.

Lord Williams of Elvel: I am most grateful to Members of the Committee who have participated in this important debate. I believe that I am right in saying that most Members of the Committee, bar the noble Lord, Lord Elton, believe that Clause 4 is in some way defective; that we do not like it. I do not need to spend much time on the arguments of the noble Lord, Lord Elton. Do I think the amendment is necessary? I think yes. Is it apt? I think yes. I want to spend a little time on the arguments of the noble Lord, Lord Renton, and the Minister.

If the Committee decides that it wishes to accept the amendment, I would happily accept a negotiation between the Opposition, the Benches to my right, and, indeed, any interested party, as to how this might be translated into what I think the noble Lords, Lord Renton and Lord Marlesford, wish, which is a strategic amendment at the beginning of the Bill saying, "This is what the Bill is about". I should be perfectly happy to accept such a negotiation but this Committee has gone beyond that. I am afraid that the Committee is faced with a choice of either accepting something that is subject to negotiation and will be brought back on Report or of saying with the Minister, "There is no need to change Clause 4 of the Bill". That is the position that I understand the Minister to take.

The Minister said that there should be no detailed guidance on the face of the Bill. I accept that; it would be absurd that there should be guidance on the face of the Bill. Nevertheless, perhaps the Minister will be good

19 Jan 1995 : Column 770

enough to look at my proposed schedule. I apologise for its drafting, which has been widely criticised. All I can say is that it is not my drafting—

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page