Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

The Duke of Montrose: I thank the Minister for reassuring the Committee that in the matter of smells the Government are moved to consider merely large pig and intensive poultry units. At this stage we are not sure what the Government mean by "large", but obviously the noble Lord has a specific level in mind in referring to the numbers that may be affected. Even so, the issue in agricultural terms is not entirely clear because the third consultation paper relating to the IPPC directive covers industries that produce significant levels of biological and chemical oxygen demand (BCODs). These are listed as not being trivial emissions under the IPPC regime. One of the difficulties for agriculture is that a great many of the activities produce matter that can be considered as biological and chemical oxygen demand material. The phrase that is used is "emits

15 Feb 1999 : Column 522

significant quantities". One would like to know at what level the Government pitch their idea of "significant quantities".

Lord Whitty: As I understand the situation, the established thresholds are a read-over from those in other sectors. It is therefore that which has led us to say that only about 1,000 pig and poultry units will be directly affected by the regulations. I understand that the approximate figure for pigs is 2,000 production pigs or 750 sows. The approximate threshold for poultry is 40,000. If there are more complicated read-overs than that I am afraid that the noble Duke will have to await clarification in writing.

Lord Luke: I am grateful to the noble Lord for his reassurance on the several matters that I raised. I believe that my noble friend the Duke of Montrose is also happy. In those circumstances, although I reserve the right to pursue this matter at a later stage, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 31 to 34 not moved.]

Lord Jenkin of Roding moved Amendment No. 35:

Page 7, line 22, at end insert--

("Restrictions on disclosure of information

. Sub-paragraphs 12(b) and (c) do not require the disclosure of commercial information the disclosure of which would significantly harm the legitimate business interests of the business from whom the information was initially obtained.").

The noble Lord said: Amendment No. 35 raises the question of commercial confidentiality. My central point is that this should be in the Bill and not left to be dealt with as currently proposed. In the Environmental Protection Act 1990 Section 22 refers to the exclusion of confidential information. Section 20(1) of that Act imposes a duty on an authority to maintain a register containing matters prescribed in regulations. The subsequent regulations which introduced the register (SI 1991 No. 507) direct the authority to maintain particulars subject to Section 22 of the Act. I believe that this provision should also be in the Bill.

This matter is raised with me at the instance of the offshore oil and gas producers whose industry is regulated by a different department. I believe that they are legitimately anxious. The regulator will need to have a good deal of information, including accounting and technical information. It is very important that the regulator recognises that some of this information may give rise to considerable intellectual rights of commercial value that must be protected. I give an example. If an operator is to justify a decision to modify an offshore power generation plant the regulator will require significant levels of detail of the technical and economic state of the installation, the reservoirs from which it gathers its fuel and the power plant itself. This will inevitably contain information of intellectual and commercial value, particularly to the power plant supplier, and information about the performance of the oil or gas reservoirs that feed the installation. The regulator must be aware of this and take action to protect

15 Feb 1999 : Column 523

the information which the industry advises is confidential. Such information disclosed by the operator should not be held in registers that are open to the public. My amendment is intended to make that perfectly reasonable requirement a statutory obligation in the same way that has been done in earlier legislation. I beg to move.

Lord Whitty: I trust that I can reassure the noble Lord in one respect. I appreciate that his example relates to the offshore oil industry. However, referring to the draft regulations that have already been produced, Regulation 29 uses a form of words that in effect, reflects Section 22 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 to which the noble Lord referred. It is obvious that in ensuring that the public have access to information the presumption must be that details about emissions are as full as possible. However, it may well be necessary to exclude information that the operator deems, and the regulator agrees, is commercially confidential and to give a right of appeal to the Secretary of State in cases where the operator and the regulator take a contrary view.

That provision is clearly reflected in our draft general regulations. I have every reason to believe that it will be similarly reflected in the DTI's system that applies to offshore installations. I hope that in the light of that reassurance the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Jenkin of Roding: I am not wholly satisfied. The previous government thought it right to deal with this important matter in primary legislation. It would be perfectly simple to include it in this Bill. I shall study carefully what the noble Lord said, but as I listened to him I saw absolutely no reason why this matter should be left to regulations. It is a sufficiently important matter that applies across the board to be within the main body of the legislation. Perhaps the Minister is prepared to go a little further and say that he will look at it again. This is regarded as of enormous importance by industries of all kinds. I believe that that is the least that they can reasonably expect.

Lord Whitty: In the spirit of this afternoon, noting the noble Lord's point that he reflects the widespread view of industry, I am certainly prepared to look at it again. However, I would have hoped that the good intentions of the Government were already clear from the draft regulations that are available, which I have every confidence will be repeated elsewhere. As indicated by my earlier comments, all new regulations will be subject to the affirmative procedure of the House in any case. I shall however undertake to consult my colleagues in relation to the noble Lord's request.

Lord Jenkin of Roding: I am most grateful to the noble Lord. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

15 Feb 1999 : Column 524

Lord Jenkin of Roding moved Amendment No. 36:

Page 7, line 39, at end insert--

("Matters pending appeal

. Where an appeal has been brought under paragraph 19, the operator may continue to operate an installation until the appeal has been heard and determined.").

The noble Lord said: I beg to move Amendment No. 36. The intention of the amendment is to try to avoid the problems that arise which can be quite serious if a plant or operation is required to be shut down pending an appeal. In the case of a dispute regarding enforcement notices businesses should be reassured that additional and unnecessary costs will not be imposed upon them. The noble Lord himself indicated at Second Reading that the Government wished to implement a system that minimised the burden of compliance. I believe that this amendment is therefore entirely in tune with the Minister's wish.

It is possible to envisage that an over-zealous regulator may require business to adopt costly changes that may not be justified and should be challenged. The cost of suspending operations could be substantial in monetary, and probably employment, terms and could also introduce safety aspects. In the extreme, it could result in the closure of the installation. Again this is a matter which particularly affects the offshore oil and gas industry. It has no desire to see pollution continue while it drags out an appeal. That is not the spirit in which that vitally important industry conducts its business. Where it is obvious that significant environmental damage could be sustained, the industry would expect regulators to act robustly. But there are situations where there might be differences of view of the level of impact of emissions from, say, a power plant; and it is important that the plant should be allowed to continue to operate until the appeal is heard.

These are continuous processes, closely integrated with all parts of the plant. To require one part of it to close down might well involve the closure of the whole. It could imperil the safety of the whole plant and it could lead to the situation where it might never be able to be reopened. If one is extracting, perhaps in the secondary or tertiary phase, oil from a deep oil reservoir, and one has complicated arrangements to ensure that the oil comes to the surface, once one stops one probably cannot start again. It seems to me that account needs to be taken of that kind of situation. It could have serious consequences for the industry if a regulator required closure pending appeal.

There may be serious health and safety aspects for operating personnel, not only offshore but also onshore. The chemical industry has made a similar point. Many of its plants operate continuously and can be shut down carefully in a programmed manner with plenty of notice so that it can be done safely and properly.

The amendment proposes statutory provision for those circumstances. I hope that the Government are prepared to consider it sympathetically. I beg to move.

7 p.m.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: In speaking to the amendment, perhaps noble Lords will forgive me if

15 Feb 1999 : Column 525

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, for his earlier comment on the detail of the response made available by the department. The department always wishes to respond fully to points made at any stage in a Bill when amendments are moved, not only because it wishes fully to inform members of your Lordships' House but also because of the level of knowledge among noble Lords. The noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, is one clear example of that.

Under Section 15 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990, operators are able to appeal to the Secretary of State against decisions taken by the regulator; and that right will remain under the new regime. The detail of the appeal system is to be included in the regulations for which the Bill provides. Our intentions are set out in Regulation 23 in Schedule 8 of the draft regulations consultation which ends on 28th February. They largely reflect the current position which I think it is important for me to outline briefly.

If an operator appeals against a decision to revoke the permit--the most serious action which the regulator could take short of prosecution--the revocation would not take effect until the appeal was finally determined. I hope that that reassures the noble Lord.

Where a variation, enforcement or prohibition notice has been served against an operator, bringing an appeal does not currently prevent the notice from taking effect. We propose to maintain that provision.

A prohibition notice is served where there is imminent risk of serious damage to the environment. That emergency safeguard would be ineffective if the notice were to be suspended while an appeal was heard. In the case of a variation notice served, for example, because a cleaner piece of technology had become available, the operator should also comply pending any appeal. The alternative invites wholesale abuse of the appeal system with appeals likely to be lodged as a matter of course.

The system has worked well and we see no need to change it. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page