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House of Lords

Wednesday, 17th April 1996.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Bristol.

Westminster City Council: Auditor's Report

Lord Dubs asked Her Majesty's Government:

    When the report by the district auditor on Westminster City Council will be published.

Lord Lucas: My Lords, the timing of this report is a matter for the auditor. However, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, on his prescience as the auditor has today announced that he intends to publish his findings on 9th May.

Lord Dubs: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his helpful Answer. Does the Minister agree that this long-standing saga of allegations of sleaze and corruption against the Conservative Westminster City Council should be cleared up as quickly as possible? Is he aware that many people will say that the delays have been deliberately orchestrated to buy time until after the local elections on 2nd May, as confirmed by the Minister? Will he also give an assurance that there will be a quick resolution of the problem? Does the Minister agree that local government throughout the country is tainted by these allegations and it is important that the whole matter should be cleared up as quickly as possible?

Lord Lucas: My Lords, the entire procedure is a matter for the district auditor and has nothing whatever to do with the Government.

The Earl of Lauderdale: My Lords, can my noble friend tell the House when the auditor will look at Lambeth?

Lord Lucas: My Lords, I have no information, except to say that Lambeth has improved remarkably since the change of party in power.

Lord Williams of Elvel: My Lords, the Minister has said that it has nothing to do with the Government. I rather feel that it has. Will the noble Lord explain to the House exactly what the procedures are once the report is published, whether there are any remedies available to those who are alleged to have been guilty of misdemeanours, whether they are entitled to appeal and whether, if certain persons who have taken up residence outside United Kingdom jurisdiction are found to be culpable, the Government propose any remedy to make sure that they pay their money?

Lord Lucas: My Lords, I do not intend to follow the noble Lord, Lord Williams, into the further realms of

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his speculation. However, I can tell him that the district auditor has said that he intends to make public his report as well as his reasons. Following that, as I understand it, any party to the report has six weeks in which to appeal to the courts against the findings of the district auditor. If that takes place, the matter will follow its ordinary procedure through the courts.

Baroness Seear: My Lords, as a resident of Lambeth I am grateful for the noble Lord's comment about improvements in that area. I would be even more grateful if he would agree that this has resulted from a dramatic increase in the Liberal Democrat vote which now greatly exceeds the Tory vote.

Lord Lucas: My Lords, almost anything is better than the Labour Party.

Lord Harmar-Nicholls: My Lords, now that the two Front Benches have entered into this Question, does my noble friend share my regret that this House, of all places, should descend to this kind of sleazy innuendo which is out of keeping with our responsibilities?

Lord Lucas: My Lords, I would prefer that such questions were not asked, but I shall answer them to the best of my ability if they are.

Earl Russell: My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is not conservatism that corrupts but power, and that if misdemeanours of the type alleged are committed it is incumbent on all of us to see that they are treated in such a way that they do not happen again?

Lord Lucas: My Lords, we unreservedly condemn improper conduct in all spheres of public life, but I have no comment whatsoever on this particular case.

Lord Acton: My Lords, is the Minister aware that power does not corrupt; power tends to corrupt?

Lord Lucas: My Lords, I have it from the horse's mouth!

Lord Jenkins of Putney: My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the correct quotation from Lord Acton is that all power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely?

Lord Lucas: My Lords, as to the quotation from Lord Acton, I prefer the version of the noble Lord, Lord Acton, to that of the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Putney.

Orimulsion: Pembroke Power Station

2.41 p.m.

Viscount St. Davids asked Her Majesty's Government:

    In the light of the "Sea Empress" disaster, what additional safeguards to the Milford Haven waterway will be put in place before they give their consent to the application by National Power to burn orimulsion at the Pembroke power station.

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Transport (Viscount Goschen): My Lords, the final decision whether to allow the power station to burn orimulsion is for the President of the Board of Trade. Permission will not be given unless all the other regulators are satisfied. The jetty alongside the power station requires planning permission, which is subject to environmental assessment. The Secretary of State for Transport must consent to the jetty proposals to safeguard navigation in the Haven. A licence is also required from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to protect the marine environment.

Viscount St. Davids: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer. Is he aware that, although my countrymen welcome the increase in economic activity that the use of orimulsion will bring, they are apprehensive about the plans of the Milford Haven Port Authority whereby it will carry out its statutory duties while also owning and operating the planned orimulsion jetty? I know that this is the common practice of many ports up and down the country but it is new to Milford Haven. Will my noble friend please review the management structure of the Milford Haven Port Authority to ensure that it is capable of what is an apparently conflicting duality of purpose?

Viscount Goschen: My Lords, as my noble friend says, the common position is that the statutory harbour authority is also the port authority. I am confident that that arrangement works well in municipal ports, trust ports and privately owned ports. The other point to remember is that Milford Haven is not the statutory planning authority in this case.

Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove: My Lords, I am sure that the Minister realises that this is an extremely important matter and that given what the people of Milford Haven and that part of Wales generally have been through recently we have to be particularly careful. I understand that orimulsion is considered a dirty fuel. Will the Minister take note of that fact, particularly following earlier debates on this and the statements made in another place by the Secretary of State for Transport? Will the Minister lay down certain conditions, such as that the fuel should be transported only in a ship with at least a double hull? Does he agree that a tug should be on duty at all times in the Milford Haven area instead of having to come from Cornwall or somewhere else? The people of that area deserve extra reassurance.

Viscount Goschen: My Lords, the noble Lord is right that all care should be taken, especially when reviewing the case for possible planning permission for the power station to burn orimulsion. Clearly, all precautions must be taken. I am confident that the planning process and all the different planning hoops that have to be gone through, including that of environmental assessment, will take full consideration of the nature of the orimulsion fuel. Another point is that for technical

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reasons orimulsion is generally carried in double-hulled tankers so that its temperature can be kept above that of seawater.

Baroness Nicol: My Lords, is not this particular area under discussion for designation as a special conservation area? If that is so--I am sure that the Minister will tell me if I am wrong--should not a special approach be required from somebody other than the port authority? Can the Minister say why it appears that someone has been dragging their feet on the question of this designation?

Viscount Goschen: My Lords, I do not think that there has been any dragging of feet. It is true that the question of whether Milford Haven should be designated under the Habitats Directive is currently under consideration, but I hope that I explained in my Answer that, because of all the planning controls that have to be gone through, I do not believe that there is a difficulty in Milford Haven Port Authority being both the operator and the statutory authority. Furthermore, that is the normal situation with port authorities.

Lord Elis-Thomas: My Lords, I know that the Minister is aware, following a meeting that we had earlier this year after the "Sea Empress" disaster, of the environmental sensitivity of the planning application, but will he now consider whether it is appropriate for the whole area of Milford Haven to be designated as a demonstration area for integrated coastal zone management? Will the Minister comment on the successful efforts of the statutory and voluntary bodies in the area in reducing the impact of the appalling pollution?

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