Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, I should like to thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate. As the noble Lord, Lord Monson, points out, by creating a complete ban on handguns this country is likely to be the laughing stock of the world. The noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, has pointed out that the opportunity to make matters very much safer in accordance with the Cullen Report was available under the disassembly amendment which he moved and to which the House agreed but did not have the bottle to insist upon.

My noble friend Lord Williams has repeated his arguments. I believe that my noble friend Lord Howell, who is not at the moment in his place, takes the view, which certainly I share, that there is a risk that the Government's attitude will mean that this is a factor in the hosting of future Olympic and perhaps Commonwealth Games.

I have taken into account the result of the previous vote. Nevertheless, I owe it to the competition pistol shooters, particularly those who have written to me, to test the will of this House. I ask that the House do insist on their amendment to which the Commons has disagreed.

11 Nov 1997 : Column 112

On Question, That the House do insist on their Amendment No. 3 to which the Commons have disagreed for their reason numbered 3A?

4.55 p.m.

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 20; Not-Contents, 151.

Division No. 2


Berners, B.
Blake, L.
Carlisle, Bp.
Congleton, L.
Cross, V.
Grantley, L.
Inchcape, E.
Lindsey and Abingdon, E.
Massereene and Ferrard, V.
Monson, L.
Munster, E.
Newall, L.
Park of Monmouth, B.
Pearson of Rannoch, L.
Prior, L.
Rennell, L.
Simon of Glaisdale, L.
Stockton, E.
Stoddart of Swindon, L. [Teller.]
Swansea, L. [Teller.]


Acton, L.
Addington, L.
Ampthill, L.
Archer of Sandwell, L.
Ashley of Stoke, L.
Avebury, L.
Barnett, L.
Beaumont of Whitley, L.
Berkeley, L.
Blackstone, B.
Blyth, L.
Borrie, L.
Bridges, L.
Brooks of Tremorfa, L.
Burlison, L.
Callaghan of Cardiff, L.
Calverley, L.
Carlisle, E.
Carmichael of Kelvingrove, L.
Carter, L. [Teller.]
Chandos, V.
Charteris of Amisfield, L.
Cledwyn of Penrhos, L.
Clinton-Davis, L.
Cocks of Hartcliffe, L.
Currie of Marylebone, L.
Dahrendorf, L.
David, B.
Davies of Coity, L.
Davies of Oldham, L.
Dean of Beswick, L.
Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde, B.
Desai, L.
Dholakia, L.
Diamond, L.
Dixon, L.
Donoughue, L.
Dormand of Easington, L.
Dubs, L.
Elis-Thomas, L.
Evans of Parkside, L.
Ewing of Kirkford, L.
Ezra, L.
Falconer of Thoroton, L.
Falkland, V.
Farrington of Ribbleton, B.
Gallacher, L.
Geraint, L.
Gilmour of Craigmillar, L.
Gladwin of Clee, L.
Gordon of Strathblane, L.
Gould of Potternewton, B.
Graham of Edmonton, L.
Gregson, L.
Grenfell, L.
Hailsham of Saint Marylebone, L.
Hamwee, B.
Hanworth, V.
Hardie, L.
Hardy of Wath, L.
Harris of Greenwich, L.
Haskel, L.
Hayman, B.
Henderson of Brompton, L.
Hilton of Eggardon, B.
Hogg of Cumbernauld, L.
Hollis of Heigham, B.
Holme of Cheltenham, L.
Hooson, L.
Hoyle, L.
Hughes, L.
Hunt of Kings Heath, L.
Irvine of Lairg, L. [Lord Chancellor.]
Jacobs, L.
Janner of Braunstone, L.
Jay of Paddington, B.
Jeger, B.
Jenkins of Putney, L.
Kennedy of The Shaws, B.
Kilmarnock, L.
Kirkhill, L.
Leathers, V.
Lester of Herne Hill, L.
Lestor of Eccles, B.
Levy, L.
Lockwood, B.
Longford, E.
Ludford, B.
McCarthy, L.
McIntosh of Haringey, L. [Teller.]
Mackie of Benshie, L.
McNair, L.
McNally, L.
Mar and Kellie, E.
Mason of Barnsley, L.
Merlyn-Rees, L.
Milner of Leeds, L.
Mishcon, L.
Molloy, L.
Montague of Oxford, L.
Morris of Castle Morris, L.
Morris of Manchester, L.
Nelson, E.
Newby, L.
Nicol, B.
Northfield, L.
Ogmore, L.
Orme, L.
Paul, L.
Pitkeathley, B.
Ponsonby of Shulbrede, L.
Prys-Davies, L.
Puttnam, L.
Ramsay of Cartvale, B.
Randall of St. Budeaux, L.
Razzall, L.
Rea, L.
Redesdale, L.
Rendell of Babergh, B.
Richard, L. [Lord Privy Seal.]
Ritchie of Dundee, L.
Robson of Kiddington, B.
Rochester, L.
Rogers of Riversid, L.
Sainsbury of Turville, L.
Scotland of Asthal, B.
Selborne, E.
Serota, B.
Sewel, L.
Shepherd, L.
Simon, V.
Simon of Highbury, L.
Steel of Aikwood, L.
Strabolgi, L.
Strafford, E.
Symons of Vernham Dean, B.
Taverne, L.
Taylor of Blackburn, L.
Taylor of Gryfe, L.
Thomson of Monifieth, L.
Tope, L.
Tordoff, L.
Turner of Camden, B.
Walker of Doncaster, L.
Wallace of Saltaire, L.
Walpole, L.
Whitty, L.
Williams of Crosby, B.
Williams of Elvel, L.
Williams of Mostyn, L.
Winston, L.

Resolved in the negative, and Motion disagreed to accordingly.

11 Nov 1997 : Column 113

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I beg to move that this House do not insist on their Amendment No. 3 to which the Commons have disagreed for their reason numbered 3A.

Moved, That the House do not insist on their Amendment No. 3 to which the Commons have disagreed for their reason numbered 3A.--(Lord Williams of Mostyn.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Community Environmental Law:

ECC Report

5 p.m.

Baroness Hilton of Eggardon rose to move, That this House take note of the report of the European Communities Committee on Community Environmental Law: Making it Work (2nd Report, Session 1997-98, HL Paper 12).

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, it is my pleasant duty to present reports of two of the inquiries conducted by the Environment Committee of the European Select Committee during the past year dealing with Community environmental law and freedom of access to information.

The report relating to a review of the Community directive on freedom of information on the environment was published nearly a year ago, but discussion has been delayed, first, because of the press of business in the run-up to the election; and, secondly, in the hope that the new Administration would produce their White Paper on freedom of information sooner than now appears likely.

11 Nov 1997 : Column 114

We are now promised that the White Paper will be produced before Christmas, but it was my feeling that that was too long a time to wait for the debate.

The report concentrates upon the working of the directive in this country, but we also paid a visit to Ireland, where we were impressed by their arrangements. We make also a number of recommendations to the European Commission which is currently reviewing the directive.

In examining the working of the directive in this country, we were critical of the Department of the Environment, first, for failing to provide an adequate definition of information relating to the environment; and for failing to list, or define, the relevant persons to whom the directive would apply. In particular, we were concerned that the water services companies seemed uncertain that the directive applied to them. It seemed clear to the committee that bodies with "public responsibilities for the environment", and "under the control of public authorities", as the water companies plainly are, should clearly include the regimes of the private utilities.

The Department of the Environment's laissez-faire attitude to its responsibilities for the environment was disappointing. As we say in our report, it has led to a perception that compliance with the regulations may be optional.

More generally, we recognised that there may be justifiable reasons for denying access to information to members of the public. Information may be commercially sensitive, incomplete, or a preliminary draft only may have been prepared, which it would not be appropriate to have in the public domain. However, it was our finding that all too often financial barriers and other excuses were used to deny access to genuine researchers and to those with a concern for the environment.

We applaud therefore the growing tendency of the new Environment Agency, for example, and some of the research institutions to set up a web site to provide information on the Internet. That obviates all the claimed costs, search, analysis, duplication, and so forth, that have provided excuses in the past. We comment also upon the failure of the European Commission to practise the freedom of information that it preaches. That has proved a problem in a number of our inquiries, notably in relation to the Byzantine decision-making process that went into the leg-hold traps saga. The lack of access to Council and Commission documents is a theme pursued in our second inquiry.

Our report on making community environmental law work revisits an area first looked at five years ago under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Nathan, and was intended to be a review of progress since then. Some major developments have taken place. The European Environment Agency was set up in Copenhagen in 1993. It has made considerable progress in collecting information and disseminating it to members of the European Community. Another major development was the Maastricht Treaty. Qualified majority voting is now standard procedure for environmental legislation. The Amsterdam Treaty

11 Nov 1997 : Column 115

continued progress in that direction and the co-decision procedure effectively gives the European Parliament a veto. That is a welcome introduction of democratic processes into environmental law making. Furthermore, a network of national pollution inspectors--INPEL--has been set up and various other regulatory changes have been made. Most of those have led to greater transparency and greater encouragement of members of the European Community to take environmental matters seriously.

The Commission's communication in 1996, its fifth environmental action plan, looks on implementation as having five links in a regulatory chain. We took that model of implementation as the basis for our report. We looked at each link in turn: first, the preparation of policy; secondly, the drafting of legislation; thirdly, practical implementation; fourthly, the stage of monitoring, reporting and evaluation; and, fifthly, the stage of enforcement and systems of ensuring compliance with Community law.

Since our last report five years ago, we recognise that there have been a number of improvements. First, there is the more frequent use of Green Papers so that greater discussion can take place before policy is finally prepared in a draft directive. That has led to more consultation. Furthermore, some of the previous gross errors have not appeared in draft directives in recent years. Secondly, there has been an adoption of internal guidelines within the Commission which has led to more consultation and better co-ordination between the various directorates.

However, we believe that during the pre-legislative stage more thorough and open consultation is needed between NGOs, governments and industry. We again reiterate our disquiet about the secrecy that surrounds the scientific and technical advice on which the Commission develops policy. It is so contrary to normal scientific practice, which depends upon examination by peers and an understanding of the basic data which leads to scientific recommendations. We have commented on that previously in relation to our several inquiries into water directives, where the standards of water quality are essential and where it has been extremely difficult to discover the basis on which draft directives have been produced.

We are also increasingly concerned about the use of a new expression in European vocabulary, "comitology". Many things which the Commission is unable to do, partly because of lack of time or expertise, have led to the setting up of, it is alleged, dozens and possibly hundreds of specialist committees which meet and make formal recommendations, some by qualified majority voting. Their proceedings seem to be wholly opaque and undemocratic. We believe that their membership proceedings and papers should be in the public domain.

The second link in the regulatory chain is the drafting of legislation. We welcome the increasing use of framework directives which have advantages for subsidiarity and existing national arrangements. It is, however, important that they are not drafted so loosely that varying practices develop throughout the Community.

11 Nov 1997 : Column 116

The third link in the regulatory chain is that of practical implementation. We strongly support the Commission's proposal that all member states should provide confirmation, article by article, of how their national legislation meets the obligations of directives. This information, too, should be publicly available.

The fourth link in the chain is that of monitoring, reporting and evaluation. In 1992, we had high hopes for the role of the European Environment Agency. It has made rapid progress since its inauguration in 1993 and has produced some interesting Europe-wide data which enables comparisons to be made between countries. However, we would wish to see more formal and effective links with the regulatory committees which advise the Commission. We would wish that the Commission itself took more notice of the proceedings of the agency. We recommend in particular that the reports of the agency should automatically go to the European Parliament as well as to the Commission and Council of Ministers. There is scope for the European Parliament to encourage greater conformity between member states.

The Council of Ministers remains preoccupied with the negotiation of new policies and laws, but in our view it should also regularly review implementation. Perhaps that is a hotter potato for the ministers of the various countries to take on board because they may appear to be criticising other member states. Nevertheless, we believe that it should be a responsibility of the Council of Ministers. We are pleased to note the June 1997 resolution which contains a clear commitment to such a process.

The fifth and final link in the regulatory chain is that of enforcement. In 1992, we were very concerned about non-compliance with directives and Article 169 complaints. Our concern remains. There is a continuing lack of transparency. Complainants are not informed about the outcome of their complaints. We therefore welcome the ombudsman's current investigation into their handling and believe that, in this respect, there should be a greater role for the European Parliament.

The Government have responded to both our reports. In February, the Department of the Environment replied to our report on freedom of information. It was a disappointing and complacent response. It sheltered behind the Commission's current view of the directive and considered that no action was necessary in respect of any of our recommendations except one; namely, the setting up of an independent mechanism to hear appeals relating to the refusal of access to information from public bodies. We hope that the current Government's forthcoming White Paper will encourage a greater spirit of openness in all government bodies.

The response to our latest report was, for understandable reasons, received only last week. It was a more positive response and supports most of our observations. There are encouraging trends. The Amsterdam Treaty emphasises the importance of greater transparency in decision making and the Government agree that the papers of the scientific advisers and committees, about which we have been so concerned,

11 Nov 1997 : Column 117

should be more widely available and that there should be greater openness about their membership and results. Time alone will show whether that is the case.

In conclusion, I thank all the members of my committee who have contributed to the reports. They have made my two years as chairman extremely enjoyable. In particular, I should like to express my gratitude to our clerk, Tom Radice, who of course does all the hard work and makes us all appear to be more intelligent and knowledgeable than perhaps we are. I beg to move.

Moved, That this House take note of the Report of the European Communities Committee on Community Environmental Law: Making it Work (2nd Report, Session 1997-98, HL Paper 12).--(Baroness Hilton of Eggardon.)

5.18 p.m.

Baroness Park of Monmouth: My Lords, I feel an agreeable nostalgia as I rise to contribute to the debate because until a few months ago I was a member of the committee which produced the two reports. I had the pleasure of serving its admirable chairman and working with the excellent secretary.

As far back as 1995-96 when the committee was reporting on leg-hold traps, it was expressing concern over the secretive and unrepresentative nature of the working group responsible. In general, the committee questioned the effectiveness of the Commission's internal structure in resolving conflicting policy aims and deprecated the tendency of the directorates general to behave as separate fiefdoms, never consulting each other nor providing information to the NGOs and others who sought it. When we reported on drinking water we could obtain no satisfactory assurances on effective control and audit, still less transparency. The department told us philosophically that it was not obtaining the transparency it would like, but that it was,

    "not right to suggest that there is an absolute darkness".

Now, in the two latest reports the same problems recur.

The committee received evidence on the problems of vertical chains within the DGs, inadequate cross links with other DGs on policy and even of a lack of co-ordination within Directorate XI on the environment itself. Those were all familiar problems, encountered over and over again. An excellent example of the dangers of a lack of co-ordination and consultation between the directorates arose over leg-hold traps when DG XI failed utterly to talk to DG I, which proved to have an overriding interest in the context of the World Trade Organisation and the GATT negotiations.

Another aspect of that problem emerged in the evidence given by one NGO before the committee on its last report when we were told that the absence of inter-directorate consultation at the early stages of the development of the proposal of coastal protection had led to its effective blocking at a later stage by DG XVI because it conflicted with that directorate's own regional policy. Greater transparency and a requirement for inter-directorate consultation early on to determine the possible impact of a proposal could have prevented that. There are, of course, only too many examples of

11 Nov 1997 : Column 118

ecological damage resulting from a failure to assess beforehand the impact on the environment of a proposal for a dam or a road.

The committee felt also particular concern about secrecy over the membership and agenda of scientific and technical committees, as the chairman has said. Without the scientific data being published, there can be no hope of ensuring quality through peer review, and that is all the more important since it is clear that political rather than scientific considerations, thanks to the lack of transparency, are not unlikely to decide the issue on occasions.

The publication by the Commission of papers provided by their expert advisers might, it was suggested by the department, be helpful. As the European Parliament told the committee in written evidence,

    "there is (in the context of Article 169 and the Grievance Procedure) an astonishing degree of interference and non-co-operation by Member States who often appear to display a cavalier disregard for the rule of law which they themselves are bound to uphold".

That was the parliament's view.

However, the unbeatable secret weapon in the Commission's armoury in the battle to achieve transparency which is being fought by the committee, the NGOs and, we hope, governments who wish to know why decisions are taken and on what basis, is a mysterious virus known as "comitology". That is allied to a proliferation of committees. No fewer than 225 committees have been created by the Council of Ministers and 67 advisory committees have also been created. The one thing that rarely seems to emerge from them is a clear and public decision, still less answers to legitimate questions. Files on complaints are closed without the complainants even knowing and the only recourse they have is, only too often, to take the Community institutions to the European Court of Justice through the Article 173 procedure for grievances.

But what is comitology? The word does not appear in either the English or French dictionaries I consulted in the Library. It appears to be a Brussels-created word deriving from the words "comity" in the phrase "the comity of nations", which is defined there in the dictionary as,

    "the courteous and friendly understanding by which each nation respects the laws and usages of every other, so far as it may be without prejudice to its own rights and interests".

At paragraph 33, the committee reiterates its concerns about the unwarranted secrecy that surrounds the scientific and technical advice on which the Commission bases its policies and that, in its evidence to the committee, the Commission appeared to rely on the principles of comitology, the procedures of which are not entirely straightforward. That is an extremely restrained comment on a system which embraces advisory committees, management committees and regulatory committees.

In 1995, the European Union budget provided for a total of 333 committees established under the comitology procedure and about 20,000 people are estimated to be serving on them. That is not all. Beside the comitology committees, the Commission itself

11 Nov 1997 : Column 119

appoints a wide range of outside experts, technical and scientific, to advise it on the development of policy and on legislative proposals. And there are, of course, both horizontal and vertical legal entities. Those are the committees whose agenda and membership are secret and whose lack of transparency so concerns the committee.

What does comitology mean for the Commission? When the committee asked DG XI, the environment directorate, why that secrecy was necessary, it referred to the Council decision on comitology which defines the use of delegated powers by the Commission and says that as regards the issue of transparency for the various scientific and technical committees, each committee would have its own rules of procedure and those would need to be consulted to determine the committee's scope for openness. That ruling clearly leaves it for the committees to make their own decisions on transparency and comitology seems to boil down not to courteous and friendly understanding but to a cast-iron method of ensuring against transparency. Indeed, it is difficult to understand how that can be defended. The committee made a strong and just point that the credibility of advances in scientific knowledge must rely heavily on the open process of peer review, a process which can only be frustrated if those outside the circle of committees are denied access to the data and analysis on which legislative proposals are based and may not even know the names of the scientists concerned.

However, it is reassuring that the Government, in their response to the committee's report, have quoted and supported the provision in the Amsterdam Treaty, after the IGC, for introducing greater transparency, although not, I fear, full transparency; a new commitment to more open decision making; a public right of access to the European Parliament, Council and Commission documents; and the compulsory publication of Council votes when Council acts in a legislative capacity. However, I am not reassured by the fact that each institution is to lay down the rules of procedure regarding access to its documents itself.

Equally, it is excellent news that the Government hope to take further steps during their presidency to enhance the transparency of EU decision making and procedures. Let us hope that that remains high on their agenda and that comitology does not win in the end. A change cannot come too soon. We may even see the word "comitology" drop out of Brussels-speak.

5.26 p.m.

Baroness Ludford: My Lords, it is with some trepidation that I rise to address your Lordships for the first time. However, I feel encouraged not only by the sense of honour that I have in joining your Lordships in this beautiful House but also by the generosity of the welcome extended to me by many individuals from all parts of the House. Even though I am a proponent of reform, that does not obscure my appreciation of the distinction of so many Members of your Lordships' House. Guided by the excellent and efficient attendants and other staff, whom I also sincerely thank, I am even learning to find my way

11 Nov 1997 : Column 120

round the building. My 11 year-old niece started her new school this term and I have a strong sense of being in the same boat.

I have not matched the speed record of the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, who delivered his impressive maiden speech within 24 hours of his introduction on a social security matter; nor that of the noble Baroness, Lady Amos, who made an excellent contribution to the Second Reading of the Human Rights Bill. But today's debate gives me an opportunity to contribute on topics close to my heart and of which I have some knowledge and experience. An opportunity to bring together Europe, freedom of information and the environment is, for a Liberal Democrat, like being a child let loose in a sweet shop.

I realise that not every Member of this House will share my enthusiastic and pro-European sentiments and I have no wish to be unduly controversial today. But I hope that I shall unite views in my admiration for the work of the European Communities Committee and its sub-committees. I know from my seven years working in Brussels for the European Commission that the committees' reports are extremely well-regarded both for the thoroughness of their evidence and analysis and the intellectual weight of their conclusions.

The two reports today on European environmental law, which are the subject of debate, do not disappoint. However, before I turn to them directly, perhaps your Lordships will indulge my wish to reflect on Europe more generally in the light of today's date, which is, of course, Armistice Day. As a local councillor in Islington, I took part, as I have done every year, in our local Remembrance Day service. I stood this morning on the steps of the town hall for the two minutes silence. As I reflected on both occasions on the debt owed to those who died and particularly as I looked at all the young people present on Sunday, I knew why my European convictions are unshakeable. It is because Europe offers peace and security, and security in its widest sense is the theme running through today's debate.

The attainment of security in Europe needs not only the absence of war and institutional ties to bind nations together but also an open and effective democracy and a safe environment. There will be no future for our planet in generations to come if our stewardship falls short of sustainability. Freedom of information is also a crucial component of security because well-informed and demanding citizens are vital to a flourishing democracy, not a threat to it.

Dictators and authoritarians have over the centuries mistakenly believed that ignorance and oppression were necessary for the maintenance of order; on the contrary, they allow resentment and irresponsibility to fester and undermine the long-term stability that comes from democracy's vigorous debate and acceptance of disagreement and dissent.

The two reports being debated today play a valuable role in bringing home to us just how essential openness and the rule of law are in the European scheme of things. I hope that Ministers and civil servants preparing the anticipated freedom of informational Bill will read

11 Nov 1997 : Column 121

the report on the directive on freedom of access to information on the environment. It is a very interesting case study for a full freedom of information regime.

The committee concluded that not only the directive and the UK regulations needed strengthening, but also that clear laws need to be backed by a clear commitment by public authorities to removing a culture of official secrecy. The committee says with care that,

    "the UK is one of the countries which has had to devote a relatively high level of effort to reforming deep seated practices and attitudes".

Then, in a sentence which is music to my ears, the committee recommends that,

    "there should be a more forceful assertion in the Directive itself of citizens' rights and a strong presumption in favour of openness".

But, as happens all too often, Whitehall civil servants who drafted the UK implementing regulations fell prey to the temptations of "gold-plating" EU directives. Poor old Brussels sometimes gets the blame unfairly! In this case the regulations made the UK the only EU member state which lets information-holding bodies like the privatised utilities decide whether they are within the scope of the law, with predictable results given that, as we all know, turkeys do not vote for Christmas.

The committee points out that the European Commission and the European Council are not always good practitioners of open government. Secrecy--and perhaps I would say this as a former official at the Commission--is worst in the Council where, in the committee's words,

    "a low level of transparency".

prevails. That phrase surely ranks in the lexicon of euphemisms, along with "economical with the truth".

The Council is co-legislator with the European Parliament. Yet it meets in secret. There is no equivalent of Hansard. We are all familiar with Ministers coming out of negotiations and telling their national media what a great victory they have achieved: they all have, of course. Directives emerge from the scrum too often ambiguously worded and far below the standard of skill of our parliamentary draftsman, such as displayed in the Human Rights Bill.

As has been noted, the Treaty of Amsterdam marks progress on the matters debated today, incorporating sustainable development as a EU objective for the first time and inserting a new article on transparency--not very strong, but a start--giving a right of access to European documents.

It is not healthy for European democracy or for the future of the European Union that European institutions should be remote from Europe's citizens or that the rule of law should be flouted. Our people need to know how they are governed, by whom and from where. They also need to have confidence that everyone is playing by the same rules. We are still too far from those goals. For most people Europe is opaque, confusing and elitist; and words like "comitology" do not help. Indifference, alienation and even rejection will be the inevitable product of ignorance, exclusion and suspicion. Some want that; I do not. As a passionate but candid friend of the European Union, I urge the decision-makers to open up, brush away the cobwebs and let the people in.

11 Nov 1997 : Column 122

In these two reports and in its work generally, the Select Committee has made a very large contribution towards doing just that. It probes the inner workings of the EU and makes it accessible. Though, in themselves, the reports may not be obvious bedside reading in place of, shall we say, Hello magazine or Motorsport, they facilitate a better-informed press and public and help create that desirable citizens' Europe. The topic of the environment is an excellent vehicle for involving people in the European project, as the Foreign Secretary acknowledged in his speech last week on the forthcoming UK presidency.

I look forward to following the further work of the committee under its skilled chairmanship. I pay tribute to the work of the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton of Eggardon in chairing Sub-Committee C which produced these excellent and informative reports. It is timely that they should be debated on the anniversary of the Armistice, on a day when the security of our continent in its broadest sense is on our minds. I thank noble Lords for their patience in listening to me today. I look forward to playing a full part in the proceedings of the House in the future.

5.35 p.m.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, it has been a tremendous pleasure for me to listen to the maiden speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford. She speaks from a base of long experience. Indeed, she has been working with Europe since 1979 and her speech contained little flashes of humour which I thoroughly enjoyed. I am sure that all noble Lords will echo my sentiments when I say that we very much look forward to hearing more of the noble Baroness's expertise and humour in the House in future.

I am grateful to our chairman, the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton of Eggardon, for introducing today's debate. For me, membership of Sub-Committee C is both a fascinating and an enlightening experience and her guidance as chairman invaluable. I should like also to say that the noble Baroness's guidance has its own humour. Indeed, noble Lords who listened to the speech made by the noble Baroness, Lady Park, will understand why we need to have a sense of humour.

Each day, decisions are being taken in our name by committees both in Brussels and in Whitehall which affect the environment which we inhabit and which our successors must inherit. As a working farmer, I am very conscious of the environment in which I live and of the effects of decisions that my husband and I make in the management of our little piece of this earth. Noble Lords will appreciate that we have learned from bitter experience the effects of toxic chemicals on my health. That has taught us to exercise caution, particularly where we do not know the ingredients of animal feed or of agricultural chemicals and, therefore, cannot establish their safety. Membership of Sub-Committee C has further opened my eyes to how much we know and, perhaps more importantly, how much we do not know about the ultimate effects of those decisions, most of which are taken behind closed doors by faceless scientists, technicians and bureaucrats.

11 Nov 1997 : Column 123

In our report, Community Environmental Law: Making It Work, we agree that:

    "Although there have been some welcome improvements, we recommend that the Commission when formulating policy should pursue a more thorough and open process of consultation, which should include non-government organisations".

We express concerns about,

    "the unwarranted secrecy that surrounds scientific and technical advice to the Commission",

and we recommend,

    "that all appointments to advisory and regulatory committees should be through a fully open process".

Unlike our North American cousins and six other Community members, we have a culture of secrecy in the United Kingdom which seems to pervade the corridors of the Commission. We have been conditioned not to question the decisions taken by the Commission or our national governments, upon the advice of scientists and technicians, simply because we are repeatedly told that they are in a position to give what is called, "best advice". We do not know who those advisors are or what are their interests and affiliations. Any individual or organisation who questions the decisions is frequently categorised as a "crank" or a "trouble-maker"; indeed, I have been given that label.

As we stated in the report:

    "Advances in science depend for their credibility upon an open process of peer review".

I would also add that we need to know whether the most recent advances in science have been taken into account during the decision-making process. My personal experience has been that, all too often, scientific advisors appear to be caught in a time-warp of their own experience and do not seem to be prepared to acknowledge that others may have disproved the science which has placed the advisors in their positions.

As is said so often, science is not necessarily about proving that a hypothesis works; it is more about proving that it does not. I believe that we should take new evidence for hypotheses seriously rather than rely on the need for absolute proof of genuineness before current opinion is changed. We should listen to alarm bells. Our recent history is littered with instances where a few brave individuals have sounded the alarm and it has taken years before it is heard. The dangers of asbestos, DDT and other organochlorine pesticides are examples.

As I have suggested, science is not always a discipline which can explain what is happening, or has happened, in absolute terms. During the past 50 years, something like 70,000 man-made chemicals have been introduced into our environment, and despite assurances that they all undergo rigorous assessment by experts before they are licensed for use, there is an increasingly large body of evidence indicating that many, either alone or in combination, are exhibiting signs of subtle, harmful effects upon our environment.

11 Nov 1997 : Column 124

The Government, in their response to the report, seem not to be totally committed to a spirit of openness. They state,

    "On the question of scientific and technical advice, the Government agrees with the Select Committee that it would be helpful if such papers (that is, papers produced for the Commission by its expert advisors) were to be made ... widely available. Publication would allow errors of fact and interpretation to be corrected and would allow errors of fact and interpretation to be aired openly. The Government recognises that where committees are established to give the Commission scientific advice, it may also be appropriate for there to be greater openness about the membership and the results of such committees".

For a government committed to openness, I find that response particularly lukewarm. Where we say that the papers "should be published", the Government agree only that, "it would be helpful". Where we express concerns about the,

    "unwarranted secrecy that surrounds scientific and technical advice to the Commission",

the Government response is that,

    "it may also be appropriate for there to be greater openness".

I am frankly amazed by the Government response to our recommendation that appointments should be made through a fully open process. Does it really matter that the committee meetings are usually attended by civil servants representing the interests of their member state and that personnel may change from meeting to meeting? Surely the rules of procedure are not written in stone. They can be changed. The Government appear to suggest that they will consider the scope for greater openness in these committees as part of their study of possible new initiatives for the forthcoming United Kingdom presidency. May I ask the Minister whether a decision has yet been made and, if so, what it is?

The sub-committee looked into Freedom of Access to Information on the Environment. As the cobbler sticks to his last, I shall reiterate our recommendation that,

    "the recitals to the Directive and Article 1 should contain a more forceful assertion of citizens' rights and a strong presumption in favour of openness",


    "The Directive should be clearly revised to establish that human health is within the definition of environmental information".

It is so often the case that emissions, discharges and releases to the environment of potentially damaging substances are followed by reports of adverse effects upon the health of humans who happen, through no fault of their own, to encounter those substances.

Some scientists now agree that chemicals which, under laboratory conditions, do not exhibit any serious effects upon animals or even upon human volunteers may behave differently when released into the environment, or when they combine with other chemicals. We simply do not know enough about the synergistic or potentiating effects of chemical combinations, or their effects upon the human nervous, immune and endocrine systems, as well as the major organs. The fact that a chemical is apparently not carcinogenic and will therefore not kill us in a short

11 Nov 1997 : Column 125

period of time does not mean that it is safe. Indeed there seems to be an ever increasing section of the population condemned to living in a terrible twilight world of undefined ill health. The sad thing about that is that many of those people are regarded as psychiatric or psychosomatic cases.

While there is a growing body of concerned individuals and organisations who are trying to persuade the Commission and national governments that they should exercise greater caution in the licensing and use of potentially toxic substances, the lack of access to information and the secrecy in the decision-making processes do not serve us well. If only those who indulge in the practice of withholding information on the basis of confidentiality would realise that this immediately raises suspicions, among those who request the information, that they have "something to hide". My own suspicion is that, often, that "something" may be ignorance. Rather than say, "We do not know", or, "We had not thought of that possibility", the "relevant" persons prefer to hide behind a cloak of bureaucratic decisions which they say prevent them from providing the information.

In the context of information relating to the environment I believe that we should never lose sight of the fact that we are only temporary stewards and that our overriding duty is to ensure that we leave this earth either in a better state than we found it in or, at the very least, no worse. On the one hand we have the examples of the middle European countries, where their exploitation of the soil, ostensibly to maximise agricultural production, and their total disregard for the polluting effects of their industries have left a barren, highly toxic legacy and no one knows how long it will take to clear. On the other hand, we have the example of Denmark, which, since 1994, has banned the use of approximately 30 pesticides, many of which are still in common use in the UK. They plan to phase out approximately 100 agrochemicals believed to exert oestrogenic effects by the year 2000, and are now considering the possibility of a total pesticide ban by the year 2010. I am curious that one European Union member state appears to have scientific knowledge that others, including the UK, do not have.

There is a large body of environmentalists who share a concern that the European Union and some national legislative bodies give priority to the survival and growth of industry, particularly the agrochemical industry, at the expense of protection of the environment and its human, animal and plant life. If information relating to these matters was freely given, I am sure that the Government's suggestion that,

    "Publication would allow errors of fact and interpretation to be corrected, and would allow for conflicts within scientific evidence to be aired openly",

would dispel much of the doubt and suspicion which presently accompanies much of the current and proposed legislation. We need to know that decisions are based on the full, presently known facts and that, should there be any subsequent evidence which might cast doubt on the basis upon which the original decisions were made, remedial action will be promptly

11 Nov 1997 : Column 126

taken. A culture of denial is not healthy, the assumption that the majority of the population would not understand, an insult.

I urge the Minister to respond positively to the recommendations in both these reports and to ensure that she and her colleagues in government do not become mired in the desire of particular interest groups to preserve the status quo during the discussions which accompany the production of their forthcoming, and eagerly awaited, freedom of information White Paper. The United States legislation, held up as a model for us, has its limitations. I ask the Minister to try to ensure that this Government do better.

5.48 p.m.

Baroness Wilcox: My Lords, before I entered your Lordships' House I was already familiar with its select committees. Among my colleagues at the National Consumer Council it was recognised that this was not a House of generalists where we were likely to know our subject rather better than the committee, but a House of specialists who could, quietly and with great courtesy, cut to pieces those of us who did not have well researched evidence to back the opinions we were putting before your Lordships. "Well prepare and treat with care" were the watchwords we used.

On entering your Lordships' House I was delighted and not a little nervous when the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, invited me to join Sub-committee C under the guidance of our most able chairman, the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton of Eggardon, and comprising colleagues whose interests and expertise enliven our deliberations. I am now happily on the receiving end of evidence given by the NCC and other bodies. Although I have served on it for barely a year, I hope I may take this opportunity to express my admiration for the work of the European Communities Committee and particularly for the work of Sub-committee C.

I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, on the confidence she displayed in her subject. Knowing Europe as well as she does, she will have to duck in the coming weeks or she will find herself on one of the committees with us. And very welcome the noble Baroness would be.

I have spent many years promoting the consumer agenda in the European Union across a range of activities wherever we are users of goods or services, whether publicly or privately provided. The environment is such an area. The policies are of great concern to consumers, from water, its safety, availability and regulation--I refer to the most recent inquiry of Sub-committee C--to landfill waste and the implications for householders of the proposed programme curtailment of the simplest disposal option. That is the current inquiry of Sub-committee C.

I hope that your Lordships will agree that our being part of the European Union should mean that British consumers, indeed, all the Union's consumers, of goods and services, especially essential services, have the right to choice, access, information, safety and equity to redress, and that their representatives should be accommodated, included and properly informed.

11 Nov 1997 : Column 127

Soon our Government will hold the presidency of the Union, and given their commitment to a freedom of information Act in Great Britain this would be a good opportunity to take the lead in ending unnecessary secrecy in the community. Freedom of Access to Information on the Environment would be a good start. Some issues in the report are particularly important. I shall highlight two. First, I refer to the position of public utilities--it was mentioned by the noble Countess, Lady Mar--and the need for them to be more open with their customers. These are often monopoly services. There is nowhere else to go or to inquire. All power is with the provider, for good or bad.

Secondly, there is the continued lack of a proper mechanism for appealing against refusal to provide access to information. It is hopeless to have it in the word but not in the deed--promised but not delivered or, worse, delayed beyond use. An enforceable mechanism across each directorate is needed, and quickly, before all confidence is lost and single issue groups take things into their own hands.

It will help our cause immensely if the Government use the presidency to ensure that consumer bodies are able to make their views known and that the institutions of the Union have to make clear how they have taken the consumer interest into account. The principle of consumer integration needs to be pursued vigorously. In that connection, I suggest that consumer impact statements would benefit us all, written in plain language so that we can know the impact that a course of action will have on each and every one of us across 12 nations--soon to be more.

I turn to the other report, Community Environmental Law: Making it Work. Perfect policy and legislation is of no use if enforcement is weak or inadequate. The time has come for a concerted effort to make enforcement more even across member states. One of the principal aims of the Commission's communication is,

    "to ensure a level playing field in the implementation and enforcement of community environmental law".

That is good news. We live in hope.

I believe that a robust mechanism with serious penalties for member states will go a long way to making the Union more relevant to the lives of its citizens. At present the good enforcers--I include the UK--are undermined by some members who seem to see environmental law as aspirational law, rather like the 10 commandments--ideal but mostly beyond the grasp of mere humans.

We are fortunate in Britain that our Government have been taking, and are seen to take, the environment and the laws that will govern our actions as a Union seriously. In the past few days the Government have come forward with a positive response to our report and clearly welcome it as providing support for some of the initiatives planned for our presidency; and for that we are most pleased.

11 Nov 1997 : Column 128

There are of course questions that we hope the Minister will be able to answer. As regards transparency of scientific advisory committees, should not the Government press for full openness rather than for greater openness? With reference to costs in public interest cases, how soon are the Government likely to arrive at a decision on the funding of public interest cases?

I am hopeful of progress. I believe that the reports have tackled the fundamental consumer issues of access to information and enforcement of law as applied to the environment; I commend them to the House.

5.54 p.m.

Lord Elis-Thomas: My Lords, as an instance of the humour that attaches to the work of our committee, my noble friend Lord Walpole, dared me to say that I now bring gender balance to our debate!

It is a particular pleasure for me to congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, on her maiden speech, knowing of her work in local government. She brings to this House experience of the European Commission. Perhaps I may endorse what she said about our study on the freedom of information being a case study for the wider issue. The environment as a policy issue covers all aspects of social and community life. It provides much evidence which is relevant in other fields.

Perhaps I, too, may add my thanks to our chair, the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton of Eggardon, for the way in which she conducts our proceedings in committee. Drawing perhaps on her experience of social control in other fields, she is able to lead us on in that gentle but firm way which we appreciate. I thank, too, our clerk, Tom Radice for bringing his expertise in the environmental field to bear on our work; and to our specialist adviser on the Community environmental law report, Professor Richard Macrory. I remember that he provided us with an audience at one of our committee meetings by bringing his Imperial College students along.

All that indicates the way in which our committee sought to tackle the issue in an expert and detailed way. My text is taken from evidence given in the first report, Freedom of Access to Information on the Environment. It was given by Professor David Rhind, the director general and chief executive of the Ordnance Survey, an organisation which I am pleased to cite since it has saved my life many times in Snowdonia, and I hope will do so again. He instanced one of the major issues in this field: that of environmental variables occurring at national boundaries. In other words, it is the difference between the data and the way in which the data is collected that causes so many of the problems of comparability.

I wish to concentrate my remarks on that aspect of the regulatory chain. I recognise, as did our chairman, that the process of the regulatory chain--that is, the conception, drafting, adoption, implementation, enforcement and assessment of legislation--are all part of that activity. If one link in the chain no longer holds, the whole chain falls apart.

11 Nov 1997 : Column 129

In the evidence gathered from witnesses, the Environment Agency for England and Wales expressed its strong support for the regulatory chain concept. The Scottish Environment Protection Agency believed that it was important for more emphasis to be placed on evaluating environmental improvement. It was one thing to emphasise procedure but it was important also to consider evaluation.

English Nature supported the need to change the culture to integrate environmental considerations into other aspects of policies so that enforcement was seen as a last resort.

The European Commission highlighted the role of the European Environment Agency in the regulatory chain and I shall speak briefly about the importance of the work of the agency. I was pleased to be able to visit the agency with my noble friend Lady Mar last year. The visit emphasised to us the way in which the agency has developed since a committee of this House first studied it when it was set up. Its role in monitoring and ensuring the comparability of data and the harmonisation of methods of measurement is one that we highlight very strongly in the report, taking that theme from the evidence that we gleaned.

There is a potential, also emphasised by our chair, for the EEA to take responsibility, either as the Commission's agent, or with extended powers for producing implementation reports as required by directives. That is a point that we emphasise.

The European Parliament, through the working document on the implementation of Community environmental policy, which is quoted as one of the appendices to our report, also emphasises the role of the EEA in ensuring comparable data on the overall state of the environment. The importance of ensuring reliability and comparability of data was emphasised by the executive director of the EEA, Sr. Beltran, who said that he worried much more about reliability of information than he did about comparability of information.

So we are dealing with a field in which the European Union is developing and sensitising its own information base and its own approach. Naturally, NGOs in evidence to us, particularly Friends of the Earth and the RSPB, emphasised the importance of taking the monitoring role even further. FoE stressed that it was not enough to examine data in relation to the outputs of the economies--that is, waste and pollution data--but that we should also examine the wider issue of sustainability in relation to measures of inputs of environmental resources to our economy. The European Environment Agency has already shown an interest in that report, in the seminar that it held in March last year. That shows the way in which the whole issue of environmental monitoring is being refined by the agency.

Turning to the idea of strengthening the role of the EEA, there is contention, not least along the lines of subsidiarity. Being a devolutionist, it is a principle that I endorse. However, it is important to ensure, where there are processes of subsidiarity, that there is always comparability of data, so that when subsidiary regional bodies deal with issues relating to environmental assessment and monitoring, the basis of that assessment

11 Nov 1997 : Column 130

is the same throughout regions. That point was stressed in evidence given to us during our debate emphasising the role of IMPEL--the institute responsible for the monitoring of the implementation of environmental legislation. I try not to use too many acronyms, but IMPEL featured largely in our discussion on implementation. It emphasised that, in its role, it was important that it was seen as networking--a point made by the European Environment Agency in its evidence to us and by others--not only with the topic centres that existed within the agency or with the inspectorates of member state governments, but that is should also integrate its activity with the regional bodies responsible for environmental monitoring.

Commenting on the Government's response, we welcome the Government's commitment to taking forward the agenda of strengthening the role of IMPEL. Will the Minister, in her response, say whether the Government feel that the role of IMPEL requires a greater autonomy or independence from the Commission, which acts as its present support secretariat? Is it not the case that IMPEL, as a professional organisation bringing together the inspectorates of pollution in different member states, would be more effective were its activity to be strengthened by ensuring greater autonomy and, as it were, setting it at greater arm's length from the Commission.

We welcome the Government's positive response to the report, as contrasted with the rather negative response of the previous government to our previous report. Nothing highlights more fully the commitment of the new Government to environmental policy. We look forward to the crowning of the UK presidency at the Cardiff summit, when I hope that some issues of environmental import will be agreed.

6.5 p.m.

Viscount Bridgeman: My Lords, I speak as another recycled member of the sub-committee after four very enjoyable years. I know that our chairman discouraged in advance any compliments; but I should like to pay tribute to the skill, and the pleasure, with which she ran the committee.

I endorse the noble Baroness's remarks about our visit to Dublin, where we found the level of transparency in environmental information very impressive. I suggest that our own Department of the Environment might well take note of that. We also found very effective the ombudsman system based on the Australian and New Zealand models--in which this Mother of Parliaments might take a modest maternal pride.

I was also privileged to be a member of the party from Sub-Committee C which, two years ago, visited some of the countries of central and eastern Europe which seek accession to the European Union: Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary in the first wave, and Romania, which is some way down the line. I am glad to note that the committee's support for the enlargement of the Community is shared by the Government.

11 Nov 1997 : Column 131

What struck all of us in that party was the depth at which democracy has taken hold in those countries in a space of less then 10 years since the overthrow of communism, and the intimate knowledge on the part of so many, particularly in the younger generation, of Western institutions and in particular the workings of the EU Commission.

In those countries there is a very genuine desire to enhance environmental standards as soon as practicable. They do of course have a large carrot, since accession to the EU is conditional on some measure of progress in environmental improvement--a matter of which the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, will be well aware. We very much enjoyed her impressive maiden speech.

But that approach has to be seen against the background of quite dreadful environmental problems inherited from the communist period--for instance, the Black Triangle, on the borders of Saxony, northern Bohemia and Poland, where as a result of lignite burning, trees are dying and children are growing up malformed; or the appalling water pollution in Poland caused by mine workings; or the refinery town of Ploiesti in Romania, where you strike oil at two metres as a result of the fracture of pipes by allied bombing in 1944, with serious implications for water supply and sewerage.

So in their differing degrees there is a real determination on the part of the authorities to recognise and address the environmental problems. They are receiving assistance from a number of quarters. We found the aid provided by the European Commission under the PHARE programme to be on the whole useful and well audited. The European Environment Agency, IMPEL and the European Environment Bureau are playing their part too.

I know that the noble Lord, Lord Walpole, will speak of the work of NGOs. I merely state that NGOs operating in central and eastern Europe have had in many cases to overcome, among other things, a culture gap, since NGOs had no place whatever in the communist administrations. But the NGOs are vital to the progress to be made in raising environmental standards, as are individual government agencies, of which the UK Know-how Fund is a shining example. We found nothing but praise for its hands-on effectiveness--the only criticism being the all too familiar one that it was too small.

All those bodies play their part in assisting the applicant countries with the serious problems--almost all coming down to lack of resources--which they face and in fostering the very real environmental progress that those countries have made.

Let us not forget that it is a two-way process. When Austria and Sweden joined, they brought with them high standards of openness about environmental information; and we found similar isolated impressive instances in Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic.

11 Nov 1997 : Column 132

Perhaps I may relate that to the central theme of the debate: the need for greater transparency in the sharing of environmental information and the sanctions which we should like to see in some cases for non-performance. I am, for instance, disappointed that the Government feel unable to accede to the committee's request for the publication of correspondence relating to Article 169 on disciplinary procedures. I suggest that transparency of information goes hand in hand with transparency of discipline.

I, in common with many noble Lords in all parts of the House, share the Government's desire for an early enlargement of the European Union. However, it is incumbent on the existing members of the Union, with their far greater resources, to get their house in order in setting standards--not merely of transparency in exchange of information but in implementation too--which will be acceptable and attainable standards for the countries of central and eastern Europe as and when they join.

It is a cliche of which we are all guilty to say that environment knows no frontiers. However, this is a vital time for the EU as it now exists to make preparations for what we hope will be a common environmental practice and standard by the whole of the enlarged Community.

6.11 p.m.

Lord Walpole: My Lords, as the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, suggested, I intend to restrict myself to a sketch of the role of the environmental NGOs and their input into national and European thinking and eventually into law and monitoring.

I have no financial interest to declare, but I am a long-standing member of CPRE--whose chairman has just left the Chamber, which is a pity--and of the RSPB, though I am in no way involved in their committees or councils.

In this country the environmental NGOs are involved in a wide range of activities, from running nature reserves through monitoring, lobbying and even direct action. But they all have one thing in common: a deep concern for the environment and a breadth of knowledge and expertise not found elsewhere.

For our first report on freedom of environmental information it was the NGOs who told us about the difficulty in identifying "relevant bodies" and finding out what was confidential. They pointed out that, if something was confidential, it took a long time to find out why it was confidential; there was no appeal; and the process was time consuming. They also pointed out the amazing inconsistency in what people charged for the information when it was available. In other words, they were very good at explaining to us the general problems of "people seeking information". It was difficult for us to assess whether the problems were greater in this country or in other EU countries. I suspect that it is easier to find things out in the north of the Union than in the south.

11 Nov 1997 : Column 133

In the report on environmental law the NGOs really came into their own. It was interesting to note how many statutory and governmental bodies, both here and in the rest of Europe, had a high and positive regard for the work done by the NGOs and their input to environmental thinking. They were certainly consulted at an early stage of policy-making and indeed before directives were issued. Their role in monitoring and data-collecting was much welcomed, but their role in enforcement, other than in giving evidence, was perhaps felt not to be so appropriate--which may not be surprising. Other speakers in the debate have covered enforcement, but we must commend what I still call the Department of the Environment's Wildlife Law Enforcement Group, referred to in paragraph 111.

So far as British NGOs working in Europe are concerned, there is a body of all European NGOs called the European Environmental Bureau, which meets in Brussels. Referring to what the noble Baroness, Lady Park, said, it is supposed to be consulted by DG XI, and we think it probably is. I see that the noble Baroness is not sure, either.

We also considered whether NGOs should receive direct payment for their work and help from Europe, national governments and local government. Perhaps this is too topical a matter to go into in much detail. The committee felt that limited support, with strict safeguards, was appropriate: for instance, help with office space and meeting rooms and a small amount of funding, but not so much as to compromise either side. Perhaps I may give a very parochial example. My own district council in north Norfolk makes plenty of rooms available for meetings for various organisations such as CPRE and tourist and hoteliers' groups and gives very small grants. That is the kind of funding that I believe the NGOs should be given.

Finally, like the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, I believe that NGOs have a very important part to play in central European countries. They are not well known there. It is noticeable that, according to all the supporting Commission papers on Agenda 2000, every potential member in eastern Europe has major environmental problems. There is no doubt about that. It is all very well to say, as some have said, that the problems are not of their making. The problems exist. One of the ways that these countries can begin to assess those problems and remedy them is by using NGOs. We believe that such organisations could and should be supported by the PHARE programme of assistance.

The House should appreciate the amount of work that is done by NGOs and their potential for improving our environment in the UK, the European Union and prospective member countries.

6.17 p.m.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley: My Lords, in making this speech I am discharging a triple role. First, for most of the time I was a member of the sub-committee which produced the reports. Secondly, as my party's spokesman on conservation and the countryside, it is my job to comment from the outside. Thirdly, I am bidding a farewell to the sub-committee as pressure of work takes me on to other things.

11 Nov 1997 : Column 134

I should therefore like to commence by saying what a pleasure it has been to serve on the sub-committee, with a number of highly rewarding colleagues whose merit can be judged by their contributions to the debate and their wit and good humour, under a firm but always kind chairman, aided by a supremely competent clerk and with a succession of fascinatingly erudite and helpful special advisers. I shall not pretend that I do not welcome my new freedom on Wednesday mornings, but I shall miss the intellectual stimulus that my thraldom provided.

Not only was I a wholehearted subscriber to the reports, but, as my party's spokesman on this subject, I wholeheartedly approve of what they say. I very much welcome the speeches made today, particularly the maiden speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford. I had the pleasure of serving with her on my party's Federal Policy Committee for a number of years. When I heard that she was coming to this House I very much looked forward to it, because I knew that she would have much to contribute. Her maiden speech has given us a foretaste of that.

I single out also, if I may, the contribution of the noble Baroness, Lady Park, whose to the point, pithy and helpful comments hammer home some of the messages which the committee was perhaps slightly mealie-mouthed about putting into the report itself.

It is in the field of the environment more than any other that I welcome the considerable powers of the European Union. The appalling tendency of international bodies at all levels to play into the greedy hands of transnational corporations is to a degree offset by the fact that the EU, as ought to have been expected from the tradition of its member nations but was not inevitable, takes the preservation of the environment and the establishment of a regime of sustainability with proper seriousness--a seriousness, I am glad to say, beginning to be on a par with that with which its members used to fight one another.

Nonetheless, there is a series of possible dangers in the handing over of powers to any bureaucracy. Two in particular are the need to depend on the accuracy of the information which is being fed into that bureaucracy and the need for democracy in the shape of both the European Parliament and the parliaments of the member states to control what is going on.

In a debate last week, and subsequently in Tokyo, we caught some horrifying glimpses of what ill-informed and "I-want-it-now" democracy can do to our plans to save the planet. Too many of the world's powerful nations are behaving like Gadarene swine. The cure for that is, as noble Lords were saying in that debate, "education, education and education".

It must be said that two kinds of education are concerned. One is the kind which spells out the facts of life on this planet and encourages citizens, particularly the young, to continue to absorb those facts. The second is the moral education which encourages them to care for the welfare of their neighbours and indeed of the world. Without being smug, I believe that we can be proud that both forms of education are thriving in this country.

11 Nov 1997 : Column 135

However, in order for that to continue we must go on doing our bit, and rather more than our bit. And that means, among other things, that where we would like to see uniform action taken by EU nations we must not just sit by if it does not happen. We must go on exerting our influence to see that it does happen and we must if necessary be prepared to take possibly costly unilateral action in order to give a lead.

In the comments of the Government on these reports, such as those in paragraphs 9, 14 and 15 of E/97/C/83, I seem to detect a disinclination to be out there in front. This Government are clearly taking their obligation to be a wholehearted member of the EU seriously. There is less certainty, as I pointed out last Thursday, about their commitment to costly environmental action as opposed to cheap lip service. On these Benches it is the action for which we shall be looking, and we will continue to be grateful for the stimulus to such action that reports like those of this committee and others provide.

6.23 p.m.

Lord Bowness: My Lords, we on these Benches also thank the committee for its work. I thank especially the chairman, the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton, for her full explanation of these voluminous reports and the findings. I take the opportunity also of congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, on her maiden speech. I can assure her that we needed no patience to listen and that we look forward to hearing her again when she brings her practical experience of Europe to our debates. I am sure that she will take the opportunity to dispel some of the myths about methods and motives when the occasion arises.

There is no doubt, as has been said, that without the means to implement and enforce, the environmental policy of the Union will be totally ineffective. It is vital also that implementation takes place across the Union in such a way as to complement and not distort the single market. That is particularly important where commercial interests are involved.

It follows that enforcement and monitoring must also be pursued equitably across the Union to maintain a level playing field. Implementation and enforcement in some member states but not others can only lead to dissatisfaction and accusations of unfairness from those affected and a consequent feeling of dissatisfaction with the Union itself and its legislation. My noble friend Lord Bridgeman and the noble Lord, Lord Walpole, referred to possible expansion and new members. If new members are to come into the Union with the enormous problems to which reference has been made, they must do so in the knowledge that the rest of the established members are enforcing environmental policy fairly, uniformly and on the same basis.

The Union clearly has a responsibility to ensure that its legislation is well founded following adequate consultation with interested parties both public and

11 Nov 1997 : Column 136

private. My noble friend Lady Wilcox referred to consumers. There is a role for the consultating local and regional government through the Committee of the Regions. Clearly, legislation not only needs to be well founded, but also, in so far as this is possible, it must be capable of one interpretation only. Ways of improving the legislation and the drafting need to be examined.

Having said that, while consultation is important, organisations and individuals also need to understand the workings of the Union so that they can make their input at the appropriate stage. It follows that member states have a similar responsibility when converting directives into domestic legislation. They have a responsibility accurately to reflect the directives; and to keep the legislation specific and not complicate it or expand it and then perhaps blame the European Union for any shortcomings which result. At all levels it must be clear who has the responsibility for implementing the legislation and the means for monitoring and enforcing must be put in place, whether it is through the European Environment Agency or other means yet to be devised.

The other report before your Lordships' House tonight follows rather neatly on that point. The Council directive says that,

    "access to information on the environment held by public authorities will improve environmental protection". Not, of itself, I would say, and certainly not without adequate policies of implementation and enforcement such as those we have been discussing.

An examination of the article and the regulations represents an interesting test of the effectiveness of both. The recommendations in the Select Committee report for a review of the article will lead to greater clarity and accountability and the changes to regulations would bring about similar gains. I shall be interested to learn from the Minister her views on comitology. The strictures of Members of your Lordships' House on the lack of information about committees are no doubt justified in some ways. However, before we relish with enthusiasm the implicit criticism of the European Union, we might ask ourselves, even if the membership of our committees is published, in practice how many people know that they exist and how and where they can be contacted.

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton, and the members of the committee for the reports and look forward to hearing the response of the Minister to the many points that have been raised.

6.29 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Baroness Hayman): My Lords, perhaps I may begin by thanking my noble friend Lady Hilton of Eggardon, as many speakers have done tonight, both for her chairmanship of the committee which produced these reports and for the characteristically lucid and

11 Nov 1997 : Column 137

crisp way in which she introduced tonight's debates. I, too, join in the congratulations to the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, on what was a well-judged maiden speech. It had wit and some passion as well as experience and expertise. I am sure that those are qualities that made all of us in the House feel that we want to hear a great deal more from her in the future.

The noble Baroness said that the reports with which we are dealing are not immediately recognisable as bedside reading. Perhaps debates in this House on Select Committee reports are also not immediately recognisable as "peak viewing", even for aficionados of the parliamentary channel. However, they deal with extremely important issues. The issues we have been considering today--those of the environment, of the role of Europe and European institutions and of access to information--are central to this Government and their policies.

Perhaps I may deal, first, with the report Freedom of Access to Information on the Environment. The report was published in November last year and the previous government responded in February in terms which, as was clear from contributions to the debate today, were not wholly satisfactory to the committee. This is, however, the first opportunity that noble Lords have had for a debate on this important issue.

The Government are fully committed to a policy of greater openness, including improving the arrangements for access to environmental information. A freedom of information Act was a key pledge in our manifesto. We agree with the well-phrased comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, about a well-informed citizenship being essential to a healthy democracy.

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has signalled that a White Paper containing the Government's proposals for a freedom of information Act will be published before the Christmas Recess. This will set out options for handling access to environmental information in the context of freedom of information legislation as a whole.

Among the issues that the White Paper will deal with, which were raised in today's debate, will be the mechanisms for appeals against refusals to provide information. At present these are only possible through the courts. An appeals mechanism for environmental information is now being considered in the context of wider freedom of information legislation, and the freedom of information White Paper will set out options for an independent appeals procedure on freedom of information issues. The option of an information commissioner could be one way forward.

The Government are determined not to allow abuse of any exemptions to the disclosure of information. The nature of exemptions is being considered very carefully in work on a freedom of information White Paper, and making exemptions subject to a harm or public interest test is an option that is being considered carefully. I hope noble Lords will understand that there is not a great deal more that I can say at this stage. We must all await the White Paper. But I shall ensure that the

11 Nov 1997 : Column 138

comments made tonight, as well as the comments made in the report itself, are drawn to the attention of my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.

We are of course in a different position with the report Community Environmental Law: Making it Work, which was published only in late July and to which the Government have responded last week with a memorandum. On behalf of the Government, I thank the Select Committee for its report, which looks at ways of improving the way European environmental law works across the Community. At the same time I apologise to noble Lords for the fact that they did not receive the Government's memorandum earlier. The noble Baroness, Lady Hilton of Eggardon, was generous about that. I am sure noble Lords will appreciate that the timing of the report's publication, just before the Summer Recess, meant slower than normal progress in the early stages of preparing a response.

The committee's report is wide-ranging, covering all aspects of the process of drafting, implementation and enforcement of Community environmental law. It recognises the improvements that have taken place since the Select Committee last considered these issues, but shows that there is still room for improvement. The report contains a number of what we consider to be useful recommendations for further progress. It is a helpful and timely contribution to the continuing debate. The Government find much to agree with in the report.

The issue of transparency, which was raised by several speakers in the debate, perhaps most notably by the noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth, was rightly highlighted early in the Select Committee's report. Transparency is vital in ensuring that regulation commands confidence and support, one of the keys to improving its effective implementation and enforcement. The Government have made clear their strong commitment to greater openness in the European Union. Speakers will, I hope, welcome the fact that the Treaty of Amsterdam, which resulted from the inter-governmental conference, will help to introduce greater transparency, and for the first time help to give it a firm legal base in the treaty.

These new provisions include a new commitment to more open decision-making; a public right of access to European Parliament, Council and Commission documents; and the compulsory publication of Council votes when the Council acts in a legislative capacity. I was grateful for the welcome given by the noble Baroness, Lady Park, to our decision to take further steps under the UK presidency to enhance the transparency of EU decision-making and procedures. My honourable friend the Minister for Europe gave evidence on these matters this afternoon to a committee of your Lordships' House and, in what I hope is a proper spirit of openness, we shall be providing more details as the negotiations develop during our presidency.

11 Nov 1997 : Column 139

The importance of consultation while legislation is being prepared was also raised in the report. The Government agree with the Select Committee that there should be full consultation of interested parties on early drafts of legislative proposals. I am glad that the EC Environmental Council's resolution in June, on the drafting, implementation and enforcement of Community environmental law, reinforced this. Legislation on which there has been full consultation from the earliest stages is not only more likely to reach political agreement quickly; it will also be easier to enforce.

In response to the points raised by the noble Countess, Lady Mar, and by the noble Baroness, Lady Park, we have looked carefully at the question of greater openness in EU committees. The Government agree with the Select Committee that it would be helpful if papers prepared for the Commission giving scientific and technical advice on which the Commission draws in preparing and formulating legislation were to be made more widely available. Publication would allow errors of fact and interpretation to be corrected and would give an opportunity for the conflicts which occur within scientific advice to be aired openly. We agree that it may also be appropriate for there to be greater openness about the membership and results of advisory committees.

There is also the question of publicising the membership and results of committees established to assist the Commission in exercising implementing powers--the so-called comitology committees. We learn something new every day. "Comitology", I have to say to the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, is a concept with which I have not had to deal before. The Government believe, for reasons explained in detail in our memorandum, that in most cases different considerations apply. In particular, many of these committees do not provide scientific advice to the Commission. Instead, they are more akin to negotiations between member states. What is important is not which officials attend but what positions the 15 member states adopt. For this reason the Government are currently considering the scope for greater openness of such committees as part of their study of possible new initiatives for our presidency, to which I referred a moment ago. We are currently discussing a number of possible measures with other member states. We will keep the House informed of the measures as these ideas develop.

Turning to the question of transposition of Community law into national law, the Government have given careful consideration to the Select Committee's view that there would be value in having discussions with the Commission in the period between the adoption of a directive and the deadline for implementation by member states. We agree that such a process would help to identify ambiguities at an early stage. On the other hand, there is a potential problem where the member

11 Nov 1997 : Column 140

states and the Commission have different views about what is required in the national measures. In these circumstances the Government believe that the member state must reserve the right to implement in accordance with its own legal advice. If necessary its interpretation can be tested in the European Court of Justice. It will perhaps reassure members of the committee that, as far as our own practice is concerned, the Government consider that informal consultation with the Commission can sometimes be helpful, and we always keep this possibility in mind. The Government are by no means clear, however, that the balance of advantage lies in the establishing of formal mechanisms across the Community.

The noble Baronesses, Lady Hilton of Eggardon and Lady Ludford, referred to the role of the Council. The Government endorse the Select Committee's view that the Council of Ministers should give more consideration to the implementation of environmental law. The Environment Council discussed implementation issues in June when it adopted its resolution on drafting, implementation and enforcement of Community environmental law. It is likely that these issues will return to the Council's agenda in the context of the further action that was called for in that resolution. We would certainly welcome that.

As regards the role of the European Environment Agency, raised both by my noble friend Lady Hilton and the noble Lord, Lord Elis-Thomas, the United Kingdom is a strong supporter of that agency and agrees that the primary role should remain the provision of information about the state of the environment and related pressures on it in order to inform the development of policy within the Commission and member states.

The EEA has an important role, as many EU policies in the past have not been based on sound science. The EEA is attempting to address that. There has also been the lack of a level playing field as regards the reporting of data by member states under EEA/EU legislation; for example, the bathing waters directive, the standardised reporting directive and so forth. That means that it has been difficult to compare the environmental performance of countries. If the EEA's attempt at harmonisation is successful, that situation should also improve.

The noble Lord, Lord Elis-Thomas, referred to the importance of inspection. The Government believe that consistently high inspection standards across member states are essential in ensuring the full and effective implementation of Community environmental law throughout the Community. The Council resolution asked the Commission to propose minimum criteria or guidelines for national inspectorates, and a paper is currently being prepared by the EU Network for the Implementation of Environmental Law (IMPEL). Our own Environment Agency has been in the forefront of preparing this paper.

11 Nov 1997 : Column 141

IMPEL was set up as a network of inspectors of industrial installations in order that they should be able to exchange information and expertise, and the Government would not like to see the network move too far away from its core objectives. The Government agree with the Select Committee that it is important for IMPEL to continue to be an independent network of professionals and they share your Lordships' concern that it should not develop into a semi-regulatory body. I can say to the noble Lord, Lord Elis-Thomas, that IMPEL has recently put a new structure in place and its relationship with the Commission is still evolving. We agree that it is important for it to speak with an independent voice.

Perhaps I may now turn to the issue of the confidentiality of correspondence relating to Article 169 issues, raised by the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman. The issue is the publication of Article 169 letters, reasoned opinions and responses to them--that is, correspondence which relates to alleged infractions of Community legislation by member states. It is a well established convention agreed between the Commission and member states that such correspondence between the parties should be confidential. Very often it contains unsubstantiated allegations and provisional legal opinions which may be modified subsequently in the light of further information received. Article 169 correspondence forms part of what can be a delicate process which might be prejudiced if both the Commission and member states were having to take a public position at an early stage.

We recognise that the committee's recommendation is a modest one; namely, that the correspondence should be made public only at the stage of a case coming before the European Court of Justice, and therefore retrospectively. Nevertheless, the knowledge that this could happen might influence the Commission or national governments in their drafting of such letters. It could thus inhibit frank exchanges and the possibility of compromise. Indeed, the European Court of First Instance decided in the WWF case earlier this year that the Commission would be justified in refusing to disclose Article 169 correspondence on precisely these grounds, even in cases where a period of time has elapsed since the Commission closed its investigation. Moveover, the point does not concern only environmental law but has to be considered across the whole range of legislation and, as a matter of principle, it goes far beyond the scope of this debate alone. The Government do, however, endorse the Select Committee's welcome for the Commission's decision to make greater use of Article 171, which allows for fines to be levied on member states who fail to comply with judgments of the European Court of Justice. The threat of fines under Article 171 has already proved effective in a number of cases.

I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, had a previous engagement. She and, I believe, other speakers raised the issue of the importance of access to justice. To ensure effective compliance with European

11 Nov 1997 : Column 142

environmental law, it is important that where there are alleged breaches of that law, access to the judicial system should be available to all on a fair and equal basis. The Government are fully committed to this principle. It is already possible for environmental organisations to bring judicial review actions. We are also considering how, in public interest cases, we can deal with any in-built financial disincentive to bringing well-founded cases before the court.

Perhaps I may now turn to the issue of non-governmental organisations, which was raised by several speakers, notably by the noble Lord, Lord Walpole. It is the Government's practice to consult with non-governmental organisations, industry and local authorities on all proposed Community environmental legislation. There is a clear role for responsible NGOs in helping to ensure compliance with Community environmental legislation, as in promoting public debate and concern for the environment generally. Representatives of NGOs meet Ministers on a regular basis to discuss current issues. On European issues, UK representatives of the European Environment Bureau, an umbrella organisation which brings together NGOs from all over Europe, regularly meet environment Ministers before Environment Council meetings to discuss the main agenda items. Ministers find these exchanges of views very useful. The Government will continue to consult and work closely with NGOs.

The noble Lord, Lord Walpole, also referred to the importance and the potential role of NGOs in an enlarged community. The Government are a strong sporter of enlargement. They believe that the Community must make full use of the excellent opportunity it offers to raise environmental standards in Central and Eastern Europe--a point alluded to by the noble Lord, Lord Bowness--and to extend the single market, with its common standards for environmental protection.

We have had a wide-ranging debate tonight, but basically, as the noble Lord, Lord Elis-Thomas, pointed out, we have been reviewing a chain of activity which starts with the drafting of European environment law, moving on to transposition into national laws, turning to monitoring and enforcement by the Commission, and then to the institutions that make the law work within member states (the inspectors of pollution; the courts; the environmental pressure groups). We are agreed that each link of the chain has to be well forged, and that action can be taken to strengthen each link.

It may seem to some that the UK has a good record in implementing EU law, and that further monitoring or enforcing would be unwelcome. It is worth reminding ourselves, however, of the UK's true interests here. We have a very firm and fundamental interest in securing uniformly high levels of observance.

Effective standards of protection across the EU will not be achieved unless there are similar standards of implementation and enforcement. We know that these do not exist at present.

11 Nov 1997 : Column 143

Variations are recognised, by the Commission and member states alike, as they are also in the Select Committee's report. The Community has already achieved much in environmental protection, and the drive to improve implementation and enforcement still further has a vital role to play. The report from the Select Committee echoes this and I am pleased that in so many ways the Select Committee and the Government have similar views on what remains to be done.

I say to the noble Countess, Lady Mar, that I hope that she has not taken the view that the support of the Government is lukewarm in these areas. There is a great deal of common ground and a great deal that can be achieved. I hope that there is a great deal that can be achieved within our own presidency in order to share the committee's goal of a more effective application of environmental law within the EU.

6.48 p.m.

Baroness Hilton of Eggardon: My Lords, it has been a short but important debate. I am very grateful to all those who have taken part. I join in the congratulations to the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, for an entertaining as well as informative contribution. I hope that she will join in future debates on the environment in the same manner. I am grateful to the Minister for her informative

11 Nov 1997 : Column 144

and sympathetic response. I feel some disappointment over the response on Article 169 complaints, but I shall read carefully tomorrow what the Minister said and perhaps my disappointment will be alleviated.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Freedom of Access to Information on the Environment: ECC Report

Baroness Hilton of Eggardon rose to move, That this House takes note of the Report of the European Communities Committee on Freedom of Access to Information on the Environment (1st Report, Session 1996-97, HL Paper 9).

Moved, That this House takes note of the Report of the European Communities Committee on Freedom of Access to Information on the Environment (1st Report, Session, 1996-97, HL Paper 9).--(Baroness Hilton of Eggardon.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Lloyds TSB Bill [H.L.]

Committed to an Unopposed Bill Committee.

        House adjourned at eleven minutes before seven o'clock.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page