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The Earl of Onslow: It is up to the public to look at the flood of information garbage, call it what you willand make a judgment whether or not it is valuable. Above all, it gives the environmental protection agency the right to say, "It is in the public domain. You have all known about it, so do not complain", whereas if it has to be levered out of the agency with a crowbar it is to its disadvantage. If in doubt, publish.
Viscount Mills: To respond to my noble friend Lord Marlesford, I believe that the figures to which the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, referred are the maximum charges for the most complex data that the NRA provide. I can assure the Committee that the NRA provide a great deal of information free of charge. I wholly concur with the remarks of my noble friend that
Lord Elton: If I have correctly understood the discussion so far, the issue is a very narrow onethat is, whether or not the authorities should be able to make deterrent charges or those which roughly reflect the cost of making available that information. I hope that is the issue my noble friend will address, rather than the question of oceans of garbage, etc. Nobody will pay money for garbage. People will pay money only for what they want to obtain.
Lord Lucas of Chilworth: I have some sympathy for Amendment No. 200B and the proposal to take out the word "appropriate". In every major Bill in Committee that I can recall somebody has wanted the word "appropriate" taken out and the word "reasonable" put in. The main reason for that is that "reasonable" is a condition that is easily challenged in the courts, whereas "appropriate" is not.
The charges that local authorities in the tendering system have employed as appropriate charges to be taken into account have included, one might almost say, everything including the kitchen sink. What one is trying to establish by the use of the expression "a reasonable fee" is a fee that is reasonable in the circumstances under which that particular piece of information is made available and bearing in mind the purpose for which that information is to be used. It seems to me, therefore, that my noble friend Lord Peyton of Yeovil is really quite wrong in suggesting that charges should be set so as to discourage the use of such information or wild or frivolous inquiries. All of us who have had anything to do with public authorities, institutions or research organisations know full well that one gets a whole raft of frivolous information, whether it comes from the press or from people thinking that they might do a piece of research on their own one day. That is one of the hazards of life in that kind of environment.
I hope that my noble friend the Minister will give serious consideration to this single word "reasonable". Fees have to be paid. Everyone knows that. The fee has to relate to the amount of work that goes into providing the information. It is not good enough to use the word "appropriate". "Appropriate" means very many different things to those who begin to build up the Bill. I hope that my noble friend the Minister will be sympathetic to that amendment.
Baroness Nicol: I hope that in the general discussion the Minister will not lose sight of Amendment No. 224ZB because it is important that the agency should publish its report and that it should be readily available. After all, it will have considerable interface with the European environment agency. It is important that the information which will be going to that agency from ours should also be freely availableI do not mean free of charge but available freelyto members of the public in this country and particularly to NGOs, which cannot
Viscount Ullswater: I certainly take note of the large number of your Lordships who have spoken to this group of amendments. I consider that there is a fundamental point here which we need to clear up on the first occasion. My noble friend Lord Elton indicated that the whole of this debate was about whether reasonable charges should be made or whether deterrent charges should be made. That was the point put forward by my noble friend Lord Peyton. I do not believe there is any intention on the part of the agency to make deterrent charges. We ought to start from that basis. There is no intention to make deterrent charges.
Amendment No. 200A, introduced by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, would oblige the agencies to make available any research which they carry out. As I explained on the second day of Committee, much of this work will be available under the Environmental Information Regulations. However, this amendment goes much further and would remove any discretion on the part of the agencies to restrict access even if the research were commercially confidential or carried out by third parties.
Amendment No. 200B seeks to change the basis on which a new agency may charge a fee for making available the results of research or related activities. As it stands, the Bill provides that the fees should be such as the relevant agency considers appropriate. This amendment would replace the term "appropriate" with "a reasonable fee" and would also remove the onus from the agencies in considering what fee would be reasonable. That would unnecessarily leave unclear who has this responsibility.
Amendment No. 201A would make this provision explicitly subject to Article 5 of the EC directive on freedom of access to information on the environment. That is the article which provides for reasonable charges.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, referred to reports which she had seen in the press regarding very high photocopying charges being made by the NRA. I am advised that perhaps the noble Baroness may have missed the subsequent letter from the NRA which was published explaining that the report was in error. It is again a case of perhaps not believing everything one reads in the paper.
I do understand the concerns behind the amendmentsthat the fees in question should be reasonablebut I believe that the concerns are unfounded. I have said that the agencies will be subject to the Environmental Information Regulations. The regulations transpose the EC directive into domestic law. But for the research which falls outside the scope of the regulationsresearch not related to the state of the environmentI believe an "appropriate" charge is preferable. That would enable the agency to sell, on a competitive basis, research such as work it might undertake on new analytical methods.
We have already discussed at some length the agencies' powers and duties concerning the provision of information to the general public. Amendment No. 224, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, seeks to give to each new agency powers to furnish the general public with information relating to each new agency's property, functions and responsibilities generally. Once again I assure the Committee that I fully agree that it is right that the agency should have the ability to provide information to the general public and that it should actively try to contribute to public information and debate on environmental issues, but it has that ability without this amendment.
I appreciate the concerns that have been expressed in the debate about transparency. That is why we have included in the draft guidance on Clause 4, as one of the objectives of the agency, that it should provide clear and readily available advice and information on its work. We are satisfied that its incidental powers under Clause 35(1) are sufficient to enable it to do that. However, Clause 48 is not concerned with information for the public. It is a provision which is designed to ensure that Ministers can get the information they need from each agency about its property, functions and responsibilities generally in order to be able to do their own job properly.
Amendments Nos. 224ZB and 224ZD, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton, seek to replace the duty on the Secretary of State to arrange for the publication of the annual report with a duty on each agency to publish it. I do not see that that is necessary. What is important is that the report is published and made available to the public and it seems right that the Secretary of State, who is responsible to Parliament for the agency, should be responsible for ensuring that that happens. I see no reason to change that arrangement.
Amendment 224ZF, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton, seeks to place a duty on the advisory committee for Wales and on the regional environmental protection advisory committees to prepare each year a report on their activities which they would send to the appropriate Minister and publish. As far as concerns the advisory committee for Wales, the equivalent committee of the NRA prepares such a report each year for the Secretary of State for Wales and copies of it are placed in the Libraries of both Houses. I would expect the agency's Welsh advisory committee to continue that practice.
As regards the regional environmental protection advisory committees, it is important to remember that they are advisory and not executive bodies. They do not have a budget for which they are responsible; nor do they carry out any functions; so there is a limited number of matters for them to cover in a published report. It would seem unnecessarily bureaucratic and costly to put such bodies under a statutory duty to produce an annual report which would simply cover the matters they had considered during the year. The NRA's annual report contains a brief overall summary of the work of its regional committees. I would expect the agency to continue that practice which seems to me to represent an appropriate level of reporting on advisory committees.
I understand that there is a difficult balance to be drawn on the question of transparency. I believe that the measures in the Bill allow the agency to publish the material that is at its disposal and that that is as far as the agency and the legislation should go. I therefore ask whether the noble Baroness feels able to withdraw her amendment.
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