Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Lucas of Chilworth: Before my noble friend sits down, he spoke earlier about the agency being able to charge competitively. Is he suggesting that in its preparation of research documents the agency should compete with other institutions involved in the same area of research and that it should therefore use some of its powers to engage in competitive tendering for pieces of research? That suggestion seemed to emanate from my noble friend's earlier remarks, but perhaps I completely misunderstood.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil: I wonder whether I may intervene in respect of one or two of my noble friend's comments. I should like to make clear what I should have said and what I mean. In my view, the agency should be free to charge the full costs of replying to questions. If that cost is surprising to some people—so surprising that it deters them from asking questions—that cannot be helped.

The Earl of Onslow: Perhaps I may return to what my noble friend said earlier. It appears that the agency may arrive at something commercial in the course of its research. Does my noble friend follow the precedent of the Admiralty which during the 19th century took charts of the world and sold them to anybody wanting one? Or does he follow the precedent of finding the maximum economic value to be derived from information or research obtained by the environment protection agency? I am not quite sure where I stand on this. It is perfectly reasonable that the agency should face that dilemma, especially when money and government funds are involved. Can my noble friend help?

There seems to me a difference between something which is commercially useful to the outside world, discovered and developed by the environment protection agency during the course of its business, and general information which should be available to the public. If a noble Lord asks a Question, he is not charged personally for the hard work that is done by my noble friend's civil servants in finding an obfuscatory Answer—or an informative Answer. Given that a noble Lord is not charged for that, why should the public be charged for a piece of information which should be available in the public interest? There is a difference between information which should be available and information which it is perfectly reasonable to say is commercially useful and should be confidential to the agency.

Baroness White: We in Wales expect to have fully adequate reports of the activities of the agency in the Principality. If our advisory committee is not allowed to give an adequate description of its activities, we shall be considerably disappointed.

Viscount Ullswater: I agree with my noble friend Lord Peyton that to charge the full recovery costs might

31 Jan 1995 : Column 1362

be off-putting. Although they would not be levelled as a deterrent to making inquiries, I have to agree that in some instances the costs may be a deterrent. It would depend on how deep the pocket and how deep the requirement to know the information. I have some sympathy with my noble friend's suggestion that the information should not be so freely available as to encourage the agency to do nothing else but provide free information. It has other duties to perform.

In reply to my noble friends Lord Lucas and Lord Onslow, the agency's research will need in the first instance to be related to its activities. That research may reveal results which could be exploited by a third party. That is why I distinguished between information subject to the environmental information regulations, which relate to the state of the environment, and other information. Some of the research will relate to the state of the environment. It is, however, right that the agency should be able to sell some of its other research on a basis that is competitive with other research institutions. I stress that the agency is not primarily a commercial organisation. It will be undertaking research that relates to its activities. I have not sought in anything I said to put the agency in the place suggested by my noble friend Lord Onslow who said that it occupies a commanding position and can therefore charge competitively for its research. What I am talking about is where, in undertaking its activities, it strays into areas where its research may be sold on a competitive basis.

I believe that I said—I was questioned on this by the noble Baroness, Lady White—that the equivalent committee of the NRA prepares a report for the Secretary of State for Wales. I would expect the new Welsh advisory committee also to report to the Secretary of State for Wales. A copy of the NRA committee report has been placed in the Libraries of both Houses to date and I see no reason why the new advisory committee should not continue that practice.

Baroness Hamwee: The debate has highlighted the importance of the issue. The noble Lord, Lord Peyton, referred devastatingly to my amendment as being "plausible" on the basis that the agency must first have an opinion—I believe that the noble Lord is referring to subsection (5) (a)—as to whether it will undertake a piece of work, and that it is only after that that the issues of accessibility and copying come into play. The noble Lord's comments are always attractive—

Lord Peyton of Yeovil: I assure the noble Baroness that there was absolutely no intention in my mind of being "devastating" towards her personally. Many other people are much higher on my list for that purpose.

Baroness Hamwee: I am not sure what it will do for my reputation if I thank the noble Lord for that. Nevertheless, I accept the noble Lord's point that the agency has first to decide whether to undertake a certain piece of work. But, as we have said many times in our consideration of its commercial and quasi-commercial activities, the agency is a public body. I think we should start from there. Subject to the question of licence fees, the agency is publicly funded. Therefore, the results of its work should be publicly available.

31 Jan 1995 : Column 1363

On the question of setting the level of the fees, it was not so much the word "appropriate" and the substitution of "reasonable" that was in my mind as the phrase, "such fee as it"—that is, the agency—"considers appropriate". I stress the word "considers". What concerns me is the agency's element of discretion leading to the setting of the fee and not whether the fee is reasonable or appropriate.

The Minister said that there was no intention to make deterrent charges. As the agency is not the Government, I wonder how he knows, although I am glad to be assured that the question has been taken up and the Government know what the agency will or will not do. I shall of course consider the Minister's response. Today may not be the day to take this matter further, but it is a subject which should be taken further on Report. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 200B to 201A not moved.]

5 p.m.

Viscount Mills moved Amendment No. 202:

Page 30, line 5, at end insert ("or consents or approvals involving or relating to land drainage").

The noble Viscount said: The amendment seeks to rectify an omission. Clause 35(7) empowers the agency to charge for advice and assistance prior to the application for environmental licences. Thus time spent on advising on abstraction licences and discharge consents will be rechargeable. However, much of the agency's time will be spent on advising individuals and companies who wish to build or create structures under, over, or on main water courses for which a land drainage consent is required.

At present the NRA grants some 6,000 land drainage consents per year. The Bill as drafted does not include the ability to charge potential applicants for those land drainage consents. That is what the amendment seeks to redress. This is an important issue, given the scale of some of the projects involved. An example I can give is of proposed barrage schemes. They have involved NRA staff from a variety of different disciplines in weeks or even months of work, both in assessing the environmental implications of those schemes and advising potential promoters.

The amendment will ensure that advice sought not just for abstraction licences or discharge consents but land drainage consents will be charged for in a consistent manner. I beg to move.

Viscount Ullswater: Amendment No. 202 would extend the agencies' powers to make agreements to charge fees in connection with requests for advice (or assistance) in relation to environmental licences to requests for land drainage consents or approvals. My noble friend gave instances of how that works.

The amendment could give rise to problems of interpretation. Consents and approvals relating to land drainage are subject to provisions in the Water Resources and Land Drainage Acts of 1991 which we propose to retain. Both Acts include a power to charge a fee of £50 and would therefore be covered by the

31 Jan 1995 : Column 1364

savings in subsection (8) (b) of this clause. I appreciate that a fee of £50 may not cover costs in all cases. However, there is also provision in both Acts for other sums to be specified by order made by Ministers. I am sure that Ministers would be prepared to consider proposals for changes to the fees put to them by the agency if those were well founded. That procedure provides for some flexibility and seems preferable to extending the provisions in this clause which require the agreement to the fee by the person being charged.

I hope that that explanation will satisfy my noble friend and that he will not press the amendment.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page