Gummer's `weak' environment Bill faces attack

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Labour yesterday promised to exploit the Government's current weakness in Parliament in an attempt to strengthen the new Environment Bill, which receives its crucial second reading in the House of Lords tomorrow.

The Opposition's new environment protection spokeswoman, Joan Ruddock MP, said the Government's Bill was a weak, ambiguous "catalogue of missed opportunities''.

The Bill sets up two new environment protection agencies, in England and Wales and in Scotland, by amalgamating existing bodies such as Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Pollution and the National Rivers Authority (NRA).

It also gives the Secretary of State for the Environment powers to protect "important'' hedgerows. It also confers more autonomy on the committees of councillors and appointees which are in charge of planning and development in the 11 national parks of England and Wales. The Bill will first go through the House of Lords before being sent to the Commons in the spring.

Mrs Ruddock said the Government was leaving far too much outside the Bill, depending instead on regulations and official ministerial guidance to the new environmental protection agencies to implement its policies. The Bill failed to spell out founding environmental principles which the Government had long claimed to have signed up to. And it failed to give the new agencies an explicit duty to further nature conservation in respect of their most important function - licensing and controlling pollution ofair, land and water.

Environmental protection groups claim that in this respect the England and Wales agency will actually be weaker than the body it replaces, the NRA.

But yesterday a Government spokeswoman said it was difficult to square such a duty with licensing the discharge of pollution. The legislation underpinning the NRA was confusing and could be improved.

In the Lords Labour will be looking for support from Lord Crickhowell, chairman of the rivers authority and a long serving Tory Secretary of State for Wales under Margaret Thatcher. He has reservations about the bill, and Labour claims he was passed overas chariman of the new agency because he showed too much independence of mind and too strong a commitment to protecting the environment.

Mrs Ruddock would not comment on whether she would want Lord Crickhowell to replace the Environment Secretary John Gummer's appointee, the Conservative, hereditary land owing peer, Lord de Ramsey, if Labour came to power.

But she did say that not all of the agency's board should be appointed by the Secretary of State. Local government organisations should have the right to appoint one or more members, and if industry had a seat on the board then so should trade unions.

Labour's environment spokesman in the Lords, Lord Williams of Elvel, said the party was in favour of a separate Welsh agency.

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