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Standing Orders under Section 60(3) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 have provided for the establishment of the Public Accounts Committee. It is the statutory function of the Public Accounts Committee to consider the accounts and reports of the Comptroller and Auditor General laid before the Assembly.
The Public Accounts Committee is appointed under Standing Order No. 55. It has the power to send for persons, papers and records and to report from time to time. Neither the Chairperson nor Deputy Chairperson of the Committee shall be a member of the same political party as the Minister of Finance and Personnel or of any junior minister appointed to the Department of Finance and Personnel.
The Committee Members were appointed by the Assembly on Monday 24 January 2000. They will continue to be Members of the Committee for the remainder of the Assembly, unless it orders otherwise. The Chairperson Billy Bell and Vice-Chairperson Sue Ramsey were previously appointed on 15 December 1999. The full membership of the Committee is as follows:-
All publications of the Committee (including press notices) are on the internet at archive.niassembly.gov.uk/accounts.htm
All correspondence should be addressed to The Clerk of the Public Accounts Committee, Room 242, Parliament Buildings, Stormont, BELFAST, BT4 3XX. The telephone number for general inquiries is: 028-9052-1532. The Committee's e-mail address is: firstname.lastname@example.org.TOP
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Mr Stephen Quinn Accounting Officer for the Department of the Environment.
Mr Jim Lamont Chief Executive and Accounting Officer for the Environment and Heritage Service.
Dr Roy Ramsay Head of the Water Quality Unit in the Environment and Heritage Service.
Mr Felix Dillon Deputy Secretary of the Environment and Road Safety Group
Mr John Dowdall Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG)
Mr Brian Delaney Deputy Treasury Officer of Accounts, Department of Finance and Personnel.
THE PUBLIC ACCOUNTS COMMITTEE HAS AGREED
CONTROL OF RIVER POLLUTION
1. The Public Accounts Committee met on 23 November 2000 to consider the Comptroller and Auditor General's report on "Control of River Pollution in Northern Ireland" (HC 693, Session 1997-98). Our witnesses were:
The Committee also took Written Evidence from Mr Quinn (Appendices 1-2 and 5-8) and from Mr Peter Small, Accounting Officer, Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (Appendices 3-4).
2. The Department of the Environment is responsible for promoting the conservation and cleanliness of waterways in Northern Ireland. The Water Act (Northern Ireland) 1972 requires the Department to have regard to the needs of industry and agriculture, the protection of fisheries and public health, the preservation of amenity and the conservation of flora and fauna. A DOE Agency, the Environment and Heritage Service, has responsibility for carrying out DOE's duties under the Water Act and it aims to protect waterways by monitoring water quality, controlling effluent discharges, taking action to combat or minimise the effects of pollution, taking legal action against those who pollute waterways, and preparing water quality management plans for individual river catchments. The C&AG's report examined the performance of the Environment and Heritage Service in the discharge of these responsibilities.
3. In taking evidence the Committee focussed on a number of issues raised by the C&AG's report. These were:
4.1 We are pleased to see that, following a review, Environment and Heritage Service (EHS) has increased dramatically the length of rivers monitored. We recommend that, to facilitate future review, EHS should set down formally the basis for its current monitoring regime. This should include a statement of the objectives of monitoring and a clear expression of the rationale for the selection of rivers and the extent of monitoring to be carried out.
4.2 We will expect to see EHS taking a proactive stance on water quality management in future. It must ensure that the revised approach, based on smaller sub-catchments, will provide a suitable basis for target setting and for the continued improvement of water quality.
4.3 We find it astonishing that, prior to 1997, EHS was prepared to spend around a million pounds a year on setting and monitoring pollution consents, a key pollution control, without generating basic compliance statistics. We are encouraged by the Department's assurances that EHS is now adequately resourced to deliver an improved service in this area, and we welcome the introduction of the new computerised system as a source of compliance information which is vital to the efficient and effective management of this function.
4.4 The very low level of compliance with consents, and the absence of any clearly defined plan to improve it, is indicative of the unsatisfactory approach which was applied to discharge consents over a long period when EHS was an agency within the old DOE. In a situation where EHS is now adequately resourced to carry out its role, we would expect to see a more concerted effort to improve performance in this area. We recommend that formal targets should be set with a view to achieving a level of compliance, within the medium term, that is consistent with the best performance in Great Britain.
4.5 We find it worrying that nearly 50 per cent of consented dischargers are not subject to any monitoring whatsoever. In our view, this sends a very unfortunate signal to dischargers. We would strongly urge EHS to introduce an appropriate level of random sampling so that there is at least some deterrent and perceived level of control.
4.6 We welcome the fact that the Department recognises the weaknesses in the enforcement procedures employed at the time of the C&AG's investigation. We are also encouraged by its assurances that EHS now has a robust and adequately funded regulatory regime which will strengthen next year when the trigger mechanism for prosecutions is introduced. It is vital that this new regime is a success if the much-needed improvement in levels of compliance is to be achieved. It is important that enforcement procedures are clearly stated and understood by EHS staff, if they are to be applied fully and consistently. To this end, we recommend that the policy is set down formally and is promulgated to all EHS staff with enforcement responsibilities.
4.7 We are glad to see that DOE has set a deadline for the completion of the regulatory framework for Water Service by 2005. We were told that progress on the establishment of this framework had been delayed by the need to discuss standards with Water Service and by lack of resources. Although discussion with the regulated body is understandable up to a point, we can see no reason why it should have taken five years. We are also sceptical that sufficient resources to undertake the work could not have been provided sooner within a large Department such as the old DOE, and we have to conclude that this is further evidence of the deplorably low priority that has been given to environmental issues in the past.
4.8 DOE told us that Water Service and the private sector were now being treated equally, apart from the fact that Water Service cannot be prosecuted because of Crown Immunity. We strongly welcome the creation of a level playing field for the private and public sectors and we are pleased to see that the Department has moved beyond the position expressed in the C&AG's Report. We think that EHS is absolutely right to take this line on more rigorous standards. It is, nevertheless, very worrying to be told that it expects compliance to fall, and Water Service's failure to take prompt action on sewage treatment works already identified as causing environmental problems suggests to us that these matters are not being given sufficiently high priority in Water Service's capital investment programme. There needs to be some effective sanction on Water Service if it fails to meet established standards within a reasonable period. We note the Department's comments on accountability to the European Commission, but we do not consider it satisfactory to leave it to Brussels to police Northern Ireland environmental matters on our behalf. Consequently, we would ask EHS to submit an annual report to the Assembly, providing details of Water Service's breaches of consent during the year and its estimate of the costs of bringing the relevant discharges within consent limits. We would suggest that the Assembly's Environment Committee should consider reviewing progress in this area from year to year.
4.9 Given the major new increase in EHS staff resources, and the reduction in numbers of pollution incidents reported, we expect EHS to set a firm target for bringing Northern Ireland into line with the standard of response service provided elsewhere in the United Kingdom.
4.10 When pollution is reported, it is clear to us that, to take more than eight weeks to trace visible pollution in a small watercourse is indefensible and raises doubts as to whether EHS is really as effective as it now claims to be. We look to EHS to ensure that a phone call reporting a pollution incident will trigger off action to sort the problem out and deal with the polluter accordingly. We consider that EHS must take more robust action against all who cause pollution incidents and demonstrate that the action it takes against Water Service is as rigorous as possible, given the constraints imposed by the latter's crown immunity.
4.11 We note that expenditure on capital grants to prevent agricultural pollution has fallen, owing to the absence of any new grants scheme. However, we welcome the increased expenditure on advisory work, particularly in light of the strong evidence from the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development's own research that good farm management is a key factor in preventing river pollution, and that grants alone will not solve the problem.
4.12 DARD told us that its new Countryside Management Strategy is to be published early in 2001. In view of the importance of the anti-pollution measures included in the Strategy, we urge the Department to implement the proposed measures quickly.
4.13 We welcome DARD's proposals for tackling both farm pollution incidents and diffuse farm pollution through a mixture of regulation, well targeted advice and well targeted capital grant support. In our view, regulation, coupled with careful targeting of anti-pollution measures, has the potential to yield significant reductions in farm source pollution. We also welcome the proposal to include specific targets in the new Strategy and recommend that DARD monitors the outcomes of its anti-pollution activities using clearly defined, measurable impact indicators.
4.14 DOE told us that farm pollution regulations should be implemented in Northern Ireland by April 2001. This will be ten years after their introduction in Great Britain, a tardiness that seems only too typical of the pace of action on environmental issues up to now. EHS told us, however, that it wanted the regulations as another weapon in its armoury as quickly as possible.
4.15 Given that the original target date for introducing charges for consents was 1992, we consider it unacceptable that this matter has been allowed to drag on for so long, leaving the taxpayer to foot a £9 million bill for running the consent operation in the intervening period. It is essential that full charges be implemented without any further delay.
4.16 We were told about an agreement with DFP to use the increase in new receipts from consent charges to finance activities in EHS. We regard this as sensible and would ask DFP to note that we would support similar spend-to-save arrangements in other areas.
4.17 We were also told that a pro forma is now used to record pollution clean-up costs and that, consequently, EHS knows the full costs of clean-up. We welcome EHS's assurance that new guidance to its agents on compiling costs will include all the points suggested in the C&AG's report. We also welcome EHS's assurance that its emergency pollution team monitors all aspects of the clean-up operations conducted by third parties, including Water Service, to ensure that they are appropriate.
4.18 We share DOE's concern at the low level of fines awarded against convicted polluters. In our view, the courts have a pivotal role in ensuring that polluters are made to pay for the damage that they cause. We would urge the Department to make another effort to draw magistrates' attention to the full range of penalties available.
4.19 We note with concern that information supplied to this Committee by EHS during the hearing in relation to Service Level Agreements with agents was incorrect. This is poor practice, and we emphasise that we expect witnesses to be fully and correctly briefed on the subject under discussion. If accurate information is not available at the time of the session, the Committee will normally accept a later note, but inaccurate information given in oral evidence undermines the Committee's proceedings. We expect DFP to ensure that Departments fully understand this point.
4.20 In our view, it is unacceptable for EHS to pay around £1.5 million a year to its agents in local councils and fisheries bodies without any contractual framework to control the cost of the work undertaken. We therefore urge EHS to put a full framework of control in place without any further delay, whether that be entering into a formal contract with agents or bringing their work in-house.
4.21 The Committee appreciates that the current organisational structures for dealing with pollution were endorsed by the NI political parties in 1998. However, we recommend that they be included in the proposed review of public administration in NI instigated by the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister.
4.22 In our opinion, the anti-pollution effort currently looks very fragmented and suggests a worrying lack of cohesion. We consider that this must be taken into consideration when reviewing the structures. We note that the quinquennial review of EHS, due by 2001, has been deferred for reasons explained by the DOE Accounting Officer and which we accept. Nevertheless, the importance of this issue is such that we attach the highest priority to it being addressed in the next calendar year.
4.23 Despite all the promises of progress, we remain deeply concerned about a situation where NI is the only part of the British Isles without an independent environmental protection body. The totally unsatisfactory nature of the watchdog role within government up until now strongly suggests that real independence is essential for building up long-term public confidence that our environment is being properly safeguarded. We think it is vital that any consideration of the future of the EHS takes this fully into account.
4.24 In their responses to our questions, DOE and EHS told us that work was under way in most areas to improve performance. We would ask DOE to provide us, by May 2001, with a written progress report on all the targets and objectives discussed with the Committee.
5.1 The Committee noted that, although the C&AG's report was published two and a half years ago, there are still many areas where progress has been extraordinarily slow. DOE is still not charging for industrial consents, fewer than 50 per cent of dischargers comply with the conditions of consent, Water Service is still not fully regulated and DOE has not yet started the consultation process to implement farm pollution regulations. We would have expected to see more progress by now, with visible results of improvements actually delivered.
5.2 Clearly, resources have been a problem in the past, but we do not accept this as a complete explanation for the shortcomings in the anti-pollution effort. In our opinion, DOE has been slow to the point of lethargic in taking the actions recommended by its own consultants and in the C&AG's report. We welcome the Accounting Officer's assurances that his Department now has sufficient resources to do its job properly and to make very significant advances in the performance of EHS as a regulator.
5.3 In accepting the assurances of the Accounting Officer that he has already put in hand improvements to address the wide-ranging concerns which we raised in our evidence session, we are very conscious that we are relying on EHS to substantially improve on past performance. We recognise that it has set itself challenging targets. However, this is only right in circumstances where we believe EHS has much to do to earn the confidence of elected representatives and the public in Northern Ireland that it is an effective watchdog on environmental issues. We will be watching out for achievement of these objectives.
5.4 Clearly, there is much to be done and we accept that EHS is making a start. However, we would like EHS to adopt, as its long-term goal, that all Northern Ireland rivers should be free from significant pollution. This is not an unrealistic aspiration and EHS should be developing all its policies and setting all its targets with this as its vision for the future.
6. The C&AG's Report highlighted the absence of any formal strategy underpinning Environment and Heritage Service's river monitoring programme. It specifically questioned whether a sufficient length of rivers was being monitored and whether more small streams should be included in the monitoring programme to give a representative measure of river quality in Northern Ireland as a whole. In response, EHS said that the size of the river monitoring network was regarded as appropriate and commensurate with the resources available to run it. However, following a review, EHS now recognises the need for a more comprehensive and robust sampling programme. EHS has increased dramatically the length of rivers monitored - by 69 per cent in the case of chemical monitoring and 95 per cent in the case of biological monitoring. EHS also acknowledged that the upper reaches of rivers were not properly represented in the old monitoring programme and told us that smaller rivers now account for 20 per cent of the new network, to give a broader picture of river quality.
7. The Department considers that the current approach gives a more comprehensive and robust measure of river quality. We note this assurance, but we are disappointed that the Agency has not produced a report recording the results of the review, particularly since the C&AG's Report emphasised the need for any strategy to be clearly articulated. This is necessary to provide an indication of the basis for the revised programme and to facilitate independent assessment of its adequacy. We recommend, therefore, that to facilitate future review, EHS should set down formally the basis for its current monitoring regime. This should include a statement of the objectives of monitoring and a clear expression of the rationale for the selection of rivers and the extent of monitoring to be carried out.
C&AG's report paragraphs 2.21 to 2.28 and Minutes of Evidence paragraphs 12-19.
8. The report records that EHS intended to have water quality management plans completed for the Lagan, Erne, Foyle and Lough Neagh catchments by 1999. It was intended that these plans would provide a framework for setting water quality targets and for undertaking strategic management programmes based on a definitive statement of need. The Lagan, Erne and Foyle plans have been published, but EHS told us that it had found these exercises very difficult and expensive. As a result, future studies will concentrate on sub catchments rather than large catchments and a report on the upper Bann is to be completed by mid 2001 We find it somewhat surprising that three plans were completed before their shortcomings became apparent. It may have been more prudent to pilot the approach with one catchment, particularly in the circumstances of restricted resources which the Department has given as mitigation for poor performance in other areas.
9. When asked how the completed water quality management plans would inform river quality management in future, the Department told us that a great deal of very high quality information was produced which will be of help when addressing the Water Framework Directive. Whether this work is of future benefit remains to be seen, but we will expect to see EHS taking a proactive stance on water quality management. It must ensure that the revised approach, based on smaller sub-catchments, provides a suitable basis for target setting and for the continued improvement of water quality.
C&AG's report paragraphs 2.29 to 2.30 and 2.33, and Minutes of Evidence paragraphs 103-116.
10. We questioned the Department on the amenity use of rivers in Northern Ireland, specifically in regard to the suitability of water for swimming or drinking purposes, and whether fish taken from rivers are safe to eat. We note EHS's assurance that all the fish in Northern Ireland's rivers are safe to eat. However, it also drew attention to the fact that swimming and immersion sports are not safe in certain areas, particularly in stretches affected by sewage discharges and, in appropriate cases, it issues warnings to river users. EHS was also clear that river water is only safe to drink after extraction and appropriate treatment.
Minutes of Evidence paragraphs 168-181.
11. Prior to 1997, EHS did not produce information on how many industrial dischargers complied with the conditions of their consents. The Department explained that this was due to lack of resources but that a computerised system is now in place which can produce this information whenever required. We find it astonishing that, for so long, DOE was prepared to spend around a million pounds a year on a key pollution control without generating basic compliance statistics. We are not convinced that the establishment of a relatively simple system to deal with some 300 trade consents which were monitored at that time, would have required the input of significant resources. However, we are encouraged by the Department's assurances that it is now adequately resourced to deliver an improved service in this area and we welcome the introduction of the new system as a source of performance information which is vital to the efficient and effective management of this function.
C&AG's report paragraphs 3.8 to 3.10 and Minutes of Evidence paragraphs 61-67.
12. Compliance monitoring in the year to August 2000 indicates that only 48 per cent of dischargers complied with the conditions of their consents. We consider this to be unacceptably low given that some areas of the United Kingdom have achieved over 80 per cent compliance with similar standards. EHS has set a target of 10 per cent improvement this year and we asked what would be regarded as an acceptable level of compliance for Northern Ireland and when it would be achieved. We were told that it was difficult to say what the overall improvement would be and when it would be achieved. EHS regards 80 per cent as the best that it can aspire to and told us that it hoped to achieve this "as soon as possible". This very low level of compliance, and the absence of any clearly defined plan to improve it, is indicative of the unsatisfactory approach which was applied to discharge consents over a long period when EHS was an agency within the old DOE. This is unacceptable, given the level of expenditure involved and the potential impact on the environment. In a situation where EHS is now adequately resourced to carry out its role, we would expect to see a more concerted effort to improve performance in this area. We recommend that formal targets should be set with a view to achieving a level of compliance, within the medium term, that is consistent with the best performance in Great Britain.
Minutes of Evidence paragraphs 66-67 and 117-120.
13. The Department told us that, of a total of 882 active trade consents in September 2000, only 458 were monitored to assess compliance. The remainder are smaller discharges of less than 5 cubic metres per day which are not monitored unless there is a problem. When asked to provide an indication of the level of problems experienced with these discharges, the Department told us that this information was not available. We find it worrying that nearly 50 per cent of consented dischargers have no monitoring whatsoever. In our view, this sends a very unfortunate signal to dischargers. We would strongly urge EHS to introduce an appropriate level of random sampling so that there is at least some deterrent and perceived level of control.
Minutes of Evidence paragraphs 33-42.
14. During the period between 1990 and 1995, when EHS was part of old DOE, dischargers could exceed the conditions of their consents to an alarming degree, without any serious enforcement action being taken against them. We also note from information supplied by the Department, covering the period to 1999, that this practice has continued. Of the twelve dischargers originally examined by the C&AG, only one had fully met consent conditions by 1999 and one was no longer discharging. The remainder continued to exceed by as much as forty-two times the consent level, but only two were prosecuted. The Department recognised that, while more prosecutions were taken in Northern Ireland, it was not prosecuting in all cases where this was appropriate. With more resources now available to EHS, the Department expects that a more active prosecutions policy will be applied in future.
C&AG's report paragraphs 7.3 and 7.4, Minutes of Evidence paragraphs 43-51 and Appendices 5-6.
15. When asked what progress had been made on the C&AG's recommendations for improvement in enforcement procedure, the Department told us that all warning letters now require polluters to provide an explanation for non-compliance and the recommended 'trigger' for prosecution was to be introduced in January 2001. This means that when a discharge has failed (at the 95-percentile level) it will be flagged by the monitoring system and a prosecution will be initiated. The Department also told us that it was operating an education programme and that it will acquire powers to force polluters to carry out remedial works in 2001.
16. We welcome the fact that the Department recognises the weaknesses in the enforcement procedures employed at the time of the C&AG's investigation. We are also encouraged by its reassurances that EHS now has a robust and adequately funded regulatory regime which will strengthen when the trigger mechanism for prosecutions is introduced. It is vital that this new regime is a success if the much-needed improvement in levels of compliance is to be achieved. It is important that enforcement procedures are clearly stated and understood by EHS staff, if they are to be applied fully and consistently. To this end, we recommend that the policy is set down formally and is promulgated to all Agency staff with enforcement responsibilities.
C&AG's report paragraphs 7.14 to 7.15 and Minutes of Evidence paragraphs 194-202.
17. Environment and Heritage Service currently has discharge standards in place for 159 sewage treatment works. However, this leaves over 800 works and an uncertain number of combined storm overflows and pumping stations, which are not subject to regulation of any kind. A review of Water Service regulation was started in 1992 and we asked the Department why this was taking so long to complete. The Accounting Officer agreed that progress in this area had not been satisfactory, but explained that this, again, was due to the inadequate resources which had been given to EHS during the 1990s. With additional resources now in place, the Department intends that all major installations, including 1,200 combined storm overflows, will be subject to regulation by the end of 2005. We are sceptical that sufficient resources to undertake the work could not have been provided sooner within a large Department such as the old DOE. We have to conclude that this is further evidence of the deplorably low priority that environmental issues have been given in the past. We are glad to see that the Department has set a deadline for the completion of the regulatory framework and that it is satisfied that sufficient resources are in place to carry this out. This is an important assurance on what we regard as a realistic timescale and we expect it to be achieved.
C&AG's report paragraphs 4.3 to 4.6, Minutes of Evidence paragraphs 139-144 and 204, and Appendices 5-6.
18. We pointed out to the Department that the framework for regulation was the subject of discussion with Water Service for five years before agreement was reached and asked why the body being regulated should have such an input to the process of regulation. The Agency explained that while industry has the opportunity to appeal the conditions of consents with the Water Appeals Commission, Water Service does not have this opportunity and in the past, EHS has sought to reach agreement with Water Service, which has tended to take a long time. EHS told us however, that it no longer seeks agreement and standards are set which are commensurate with the EC Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive. A process of discussion with the regulated body is understandable up to a point. Nevertheless we can see no reason why this discussion should take five years.
C&AG's report paragraphs 4.8 and 4.9 and Minutes of Evidence paragraphs 251-254.
19. Up to now, EHS has set standards for Water Service discharges at a level which was being achieved, rather than the standards applied to private sector discharges, which are determined by the need to avoid deterioration in water quality. At the date of the report, when EHS was an agency within the old DOE, it argued that because Water Service did not have the resources to upgrade its works, it was not possible to set standards based on environmental needs. The Department told us, however, that it now accepts that these standards were too low and that environmental needs standards based on the EC Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive will be applied to all Water Service discharges. Relaxed standards are decreasing as a percentage of standards on the public register and the intention is that, by the end of 2005, all standards will be set on the environmental needs basis, irrespective of the Water Service's ability to comply.
C&AG's report paragraphs 4.7 to 4.10 and Minutes of Evidence paragraphs 139-140 and 161-167.
20. We asked whether the improvements in the level of compliance in recent years was due to relaxation of standards or genuine improvement in water quality. The Department acknowledged that the improvement was due, in part, to relaxed standards, but that there had also been a real improvement in discharges from Water Service installations over the past three years. It also pointed out, however, that, as environmental needs standards are set for smaller works, it expects compliance levels to fall. The extent to which compliance levels could be maintained against a more stringent standard would depend on Water Service's ability to upgrade its facilities and therefore on the size of its capital investment programme.
Minutes of Evidence paragraphs 161-163 and 246-250.
21. The C&AG's report noted that 36 sewage treatment works identified by EHS as causing environmental problems had been treated as priorities and included in the Water Service capital works programme. We see, however, from information supplied by the Department, that 20 of those works have still not been started, and planned start dates have been postponed by as much as ten years. This suggests to us that environmental matters are not being given sufficiently high priority in Water Service's capital investment programme.
C&AG's report paragraph 4.9, Minutes of Evidence paragraphs 281-284 and Appendices 5-6.
22. When asked whether the Water Service and the private sector were now being treated equally, the Accounting Officer said that they were, apart from the fact that Water Service could not be prosecuted because of Crown Immunity. We asked what approach the Department could take to enforcement in the absence of the ultimate sanction of prosecution. The Department pointed out that Water Service was accountable to the European court in relation to compliance with the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive, but that EHS could not instigate proceedings. This is the role of the European Commission whereas EHS's role is solely to report performance to the Commission. The Department also pointed out that Water Service is accountable to the Assembly and its Committees.
Minutes of Evidence paragraphs 152-160 and paragraphs 255-262.
23. We strongly welcome the creation of a level playing field for the private and public sectors and we are pleased to see that the Department has moved beyond the position expressed in the C&AG's Report. We think that EHS is absolutely right to take this line on more rigorous standards. It is, nevertheless, very worrying to be told that they expect compliance to fall. There needs to be some effective sanction on the Water Service if it fails to meet established standards within a reasonable period. We note the Department's comments on accountability to the European Commission, but we do not consider it satisfactory to have Brussels police Northern Ireland environmental matters on our behalf. Consequently, we would ask EHS to submit an annual report to the Assembly, providing details of Water Service's breaches of consent during the year and its estimate of the costs of bringing the relevant discharges within consent limits. We would suggest that the Assembly's Environment Committee should consider reviewing progress in this area from year to year.
24. In light of Environment & Heritage Service's failure over the last three years to meet its own target for responding to reported pollution incidents, we asked why performance in this area had deteriorated in spite of a reduction in the numbers of incidents reported. EHS expressed dismay at its performance and said it was undertaking pro-active work, visiting industries by sector to try to eliminate the need for emergency response. We share EHS's dismay about the much poorer incident response service provided to the public in Northern Ireland than in Great Britain. Given the major new increase in EHS staff resources, and the reduction in numbers of incidents reported, we cannot see any reason why EHS should not achieve its response target within a short time, and maintain that achievement. We also expect EHS to set a firm target for bringing Northern Ireland into line with the standard of service provided elsewhere in the United Kingdom.
C&AG's report paragraphs 6.6 to 6.8, Minutes of Evidence paragraphs 92-98 and Appendix 2.
25. We instanced to the Accounting Officer the case of a river in Portadown where oil pollution had lasted for eight weeks. We were told that oil spills can be difficult to trace, especially from industrial estates, where several sources might flow into one outlet. We did not find this response satisfactory. It is clear to us that, to take more than eight weeks to trace visible pollution in a small watercourse is indefensible and raises doubts as to whether EHS is really as effective as it now claims to be. In our opinion, EHS could, and should, do more to harness the efforts of volunteers, such as anglers, who could play a greater part in early detection of pollution and in tracing it back to its source. This should include investigating the feasibility of providing appropriate individuals, such as river bailiffs from local angling associations, with the necessary training and legal authority to take early samples of pollution as soon as it is descovered. We also look to EHS to ensure that a phone call reporting a pollution incident will trigger off action to sort the problem out and deal with the polluter accordingly.
Minutes of Evidence paragraphs 129-132, 285 and 292.
26. We questioned the Department about its approach to dealing with serious pollution incidents, including those caused by Water Service, in light of a long history of pollution from that source. We were told that Water Service pollution is just as unacceptable as any other sort and that, since devolution, the new DOE has a much stronger sense of its role as the environmental regulator, as it is now both organisationally and politically independent from Water Service. In our view, the public judges performance by action on the ground, and we are not persuaded that the action is effective. We consider that EHS must take more robust action against all who cause pollution incidents and demonstrate that the action it takes against Water Service is as rigorous as possible given the constraints imposed by the latter's crown immunity.
C&AG's report paragraph 2.10 and Minutes of Evidence paragraphs 121-128.
27. The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) told us that, since the C&AG's report was published, expenditure on anti-pollution capital grants has fallen, owing to the absence of any new general scheme for these capital grants since 1995. However, we welcome the increased expenditure on advisory work, particularly in light of the strong evidence from DARD's own research that good farm management is a key factor in preventing river pollution, and that grants alone will not solve the problem.
C&AG's report paragraphs 5.8 - 5.9, 5.21, 5.23, 5.28 and Appendix 4.
28. DARD told us that it did not complete the planned review of its Countryside Management Strategy until early 2000 and that the new Strategy will now be published early in 2001. In view of the importance of the anti-pollution measures included in the Strategy, we urge the Department to implement the proposed measures quickly.
C&AG's report paragraph 5.31 and 5.32 and Appendix 4.
29. We welcome DARD's proposals for tackling both farm pollution incidents and diffuse farm pollution through a mixture of regulation, well targeted advice and well targeted capital grant support. In our view, regulation coupled with careful targeting of anti-pollution measures has the potential to yield significant reductions in farm source pollution. We also welcome the proposal to include specific targets in the new Strategy and recommend that DARD monitors the outcomes of its anti-pollution activities using clearly defined, measurable impact indicators.
C&AG's report paragraph 5.16, 5.34 and 5.35, Appendix 4.
30. We asked DOE why it had still not begun consultation on implementing farm pollution control regulations even though it had acquired powers to do so under the Water Order in March 1999. We were told that the delay was due to lack of resources available to the old DOE. The Department said that it hoped it was now on top of the situation, as staff resources had been doubled, and regulations should be implemented by April 2001. This will be ten years after their introduction in Great Britain, a tardiness that seems only too typical of the pace of action on environmental issues up to now. EHS told us, however, that it wanted the regulations as another weapon in its armoury as quickly as possible.
C&AG's report paragraphs 5.2 to 5.7 and 5.33 and Minutes of Evidence paragraphs 133-137.
31. In pursuit of the government's 'polluter pays' policy, charges for pollution discharge consents were introduced in Great Britain under legislation made in 1991. As the Exchequer is losing at least £870,000 a year in potential income from this source in Northern Ireland, we questioned DOE as to when similar charges would be introduced here to make the consents scheme self-financing, and when full cost recovery would be achieved. The Department told us that it hoped to introduce charges in April 2001 and to achieve full cost recovery in April 2002, three years after the making of the Water Order 1999. Given that the original target for introducing charges was 1992, we consider it unacceptable that this matter has been allowed to drag on for so long, leaving the taxpayer to foot a £9 million bill for running the consent operation in the intervening period. It is essential to implement full charges without any further delay.
C&AG's report paragraphs 8.2 to 8.6 and Minutes of Evidence paragraphs 20-24.
32. We asked the Department of Finance and Personnel what action it had taken to tackle the long-running problem of the absence of income from consent charges. We were told that, while DFP encourages Departments to bring forward proposals aimed at minimising revenue loss, responsibility for bringing forward the necessary legislation rests with the Department concerned. DFP has not taken any specific action in relation to these charges since publication of the C&AG's report. We were told about an agreement with DFP to use the increase in new receipts from regulatory functions to finance activities in EHS. This Committee regards this as sensible and would ask DFP to note that we would support similar spend-to-save arrangements in other areas.
Minutes of Evidence paragraphs 27-32 and 68-84.
33. Consultation on a fees scheme for discharge consents, scheduled for the summer of 1998, only just began in November 2000, more than two years later. DOE told us that, for the ten years before devolution, the unit responsible for bringing forward legislation was inadequately resourced to do its job and that the Executive has now given this policy area much greater priority than before. We take this as evidence of just how unsatisfactory arrangements were in this area until very recently. It is difficult to credit that the body that is supposed to be protecting our environment commanded so little priority in the old DOE.
C&AG's report paragraph 8.6 and Minutes of Evidence paragraphs 20-32.
34. In view of the new powers acquired under the Water Order 1999, we asked DOE about progress on providing its staff and agents with formal guidance on calculating and recording costs associated with pollution clean-up operations. The Department told us that new guidelines would be issued early next year. We were also told that a pro forma is now used to record costs. Consequently, EHS knows the full costs of clean-up because it engages in the first active reaction to the incident and is in a position to monitor the costs of clean-up at all stages. We welcome EHS's assurance that new guidance to its agents will include all the points suggested in the C&AG's report.
C&AG's report paragraph 8.13 and Minutes of Evidence paragraphs 52-59.
35. EHS told us that clean-up was undertaken by Water Service's own staff if it caused a pollution incident, and that Water Service also reimbursed fisheries bodies for any necessary re-stocking of rivers. Other polluters may conduct their own clean-up or incur a contract debt to EHS if it undertakes the work and this is recovered direct from the polluter. We welcome EHS's assurance that its emergency pollution team monitors all aspects of the clean-up operations conducted by third parties, including Water Service, to ensure that they are appropriate.
C&AG's report paragraph 8.11 and Minutes of Evidence paragraphs 85-90, 272 and 306.
36. Although the maximum fine for causing river pollution was increased to £20,000 in 1994, the highest fine awarded to date has been £5,000, with the average in the last year of only £569. The Department expressed some concern at the low level of fines and assured us that courts were provided with full costs to indicate the extent of the damage caused. It also said that it had contacted the Northern Ireland Court Service and the Northern Ireland Resident Magistrates Association to emphasise the need for fines to be meaningful, and to offer awareness training. We share the Department's concern in this matter and, in our view, the courts have a pivotal role in ensuring that polluters are made to pay for the damage that they cause. We therefore urge the Department to continue to draw magistrates' attention to the full range of penalties available.
C&AG's report paragraphs 8.15 to 8.17 and Minutes of Evidence paragraphs 211-229.
37. Service Level Agreements (SLAs) with agents conducting anti-pollution work on behalf of EHS were originally planned for 1996. EHS told us that they were in place for all agents except local council staff, because SLAs were not appropriate in this case. However, supplementary evidence supplied to the Committee by DOE showed that, in addition, EHS does not have a Service Level Agreement with either of the fisheries bodies. We find it totally unacceptable that Departments should provide this Committee with information that is incorrect. This is poor practice, and we emphasise that we expect witnesses to be fully and correctly briefed on the subject under discussion. If accurate information is not available at the time of the session, the Committee will normally accept a later note, but inaccurate information given in oral evidence undermines the Committee's proceedings. We expect DFP to ensure that Departments fully understand this point.
38. EHS said it was satisfied that its agents did a very good job that is commensurate with the amount of money paid. However, EHS is currently developing proposals to bring the work undertaken by fisheries bodies and local councils into the Department, because it can be done more effectively and efficiently that way. In our view, it is unacceptable to pay around £1.5 million a year to these agents without any contractual framework to control the cost of the work undertaken. Clearly, EHS shared that opinion in the past, since the C&AG's report records its intention to introduce such a framework in 1996, and we are concerned at the change of view on this issue. We therefore urge EHS to put a full framework of control into place without any further delay, whether that be entering into a formal contract with agents or bringing their work in-house.
C&AG's report paragraphs 1.6 to 1.8, Minutes of Evidence paragraphs 229-245 and Appendices 5-8.
39. We asked the Department whether it saw any scope for rationalising the current organisational structures for dealing with river pollution. In particular, we drew attention to the large number of other organisations with responsibilities in this area. The Department said that the relationships work quite well in practice, particularly that with DARD, whose role is complementary to, and supportive of, its own role. The Committee appreciates that the current organisational structures were endorsed by the NI political parties in 1998. Nevertheless, if there clearly is unnecessary overlapping, duplication, falling between two stools and inefficiency, it is quite unacceptable from a public purse point of view. We recommend that current structures be included in the proposed review of public administration in NI instigated by the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister.
C&AG's report paragraphs 1.1 to 1.3 and Minutes of Evidence paragraphs 300-305.
40. We have noted that everywhere else in the UK has had an independent environmental watchdog since 1996 and that the Republic of Ireland has clear separation of duties in this respect also.
41. In our opinion, the anti-pollution effort currently looks very fragmented and suggests a worrying lack of cohesion. We consider that this must be taken into consideration when reviewing the structures. We note that the quinquennial review has been deferred for reasons explained by the Accounting Officer and which we accept. Nevertheless, the importance of this issue is such that we attach the highest priority to it being addressed in 2001.
C&AG's report paragraphs 1.16 to 1.17 and 1.20 and Minutes of Evidence paragraphs 100 and 275-278.
42. Despite all the promises of progress, we remain deeply concerned about a situation where NI is the only part of the British Isles without an independent environmental protection body. The totally unsatisfactory nature of the watchdog role within government up until now strongly suggests that real independence is essential for building up long-term public confidence that our environment is being properly safeguarded. We think it is vital that any consideration of the future of the EHS takes this fully into account.
43. In their responses to our questions, DOE and EHS told us that work to improve performance was under way in most areas, for example:
We would ask DOE to provide us, by September 2001, with a written progress report on these matters, and on all the other targets and objectives discussed with the Committee.
Minutes of Evidence, paragraphs 68-69, 133-134, 139-140, 237-239 and 275-280.
Members Present: Mr Billy Bell in the Chair
Mr John Dowdall, Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG) was examined
Mr Brian Delaney, Deputy Treasury Officer of Accounts was examined.
The Comptroller and Auditor General's report on The Control of River Pollution (HC 693, Session 1997-98) was considered.
Mr Stephen Quinn, Accounting Officer, Department of the Environment, Mr Felix Dillon, Deputy Secretary, Department of the Environment, Mr Jim Lamont, Acting Chief Executive, Environment and Heritage Service, Dr Roy Ramsay, Head of the Water Quality Unit, Environment and Heritage Service were examined
[Adjourned until Tuesday 28 November at 11:30am]
* * * *
TUESDAY 6 FEBRUARY 2001
Members Present: Mr Billy Bell in the Chair
Mr John Dowdall, Comptroller and Auditor General, was further examined.
The Committee deliberated.
Draft Report (The Control of River Pollution in Northern Ireland), proposed by the Chairman, brought up and read.
Ordered, That the draft Report be read a second time, paragraph by paragraph.
Para 1 to 3 read and agreed to.
Para 4 postponed
Para 5 to 17 read and agreed to
Para 18 read and agreed subject to update of departmental position
Para 19 to 27 read and agreed to
Para 28 read and agreed subject to amendment.
Para 29 to 33 read and agreed to.
Para 34 read and agreed subject to update of departmental position
Para 35 to 46 read and agreed to
Para 4 read and agreed subject to changes to be made to reflect amendments agreed in paras 4-46.
[Adjourned until Wednesday 14 February 2001 at 10:30am]
* * * *
Thursday 23 November 2000
Mr W Bell (Chairperson)
Stephen Quinn ) Department of the
The Chairperson: I welcome Mr Quinn and his team. I notice that, once again, Mr Dillon is here. He and Mr Quinn have the rather dubious honour of being the two officers who have appeared most frequently at the Public Accounts Committee. I do not know if you would want to include that in your CV.
The Department of the Environment has taken action prior to today's evidence to address some of the issues highlighted in the Audit Office report, by issuing a press release on Tuesday. I might be wrong, but we seem to have been facing another pre-emptive strike from your Department in advance of this hearing. No doubt you will have something to say about that later on.
Mr Quinn: I would be happy to address that matter now.
The Chairperson: No, later on will be fine. Some Members might also have something to say about the matter. Thank you for your useful letter updating some information; Members will wish to refer to that as well.
At this session we will be considering the performance of the Environment and Heritage Service (EHS) in monitoring river water quality and in combating pollution. The pollution of our waterways is rarely out of the news and some of these incidents cause enormous damage to our environment. It has been a long-established principle of Government policy that the polluter should pay for the damage caused. We wish to hear what the EHS has been doing to achieve that aim.
We are aware that the Fisheries (Amendment) Bill, which has passed the Second Stage in the Assembly, will make the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure responsible for inland waterways, while increasing the powers of the Fisheries Conservancy Board. However the EHS will still have responsibility for monitoring water quality, minimising the effects of pollution and ensuring that the polluter pays. Before I ask you some questions, you may wish to introduce your team and comment on the pre-emptive strike.
Mr Quinn: I will take the pre-emptive strike first. You are absolutely right, Chairman, we were very anxious to make progress on that issue prior to our appearance before the Committee. We hope that the Committee welcomes that fact and does not treat the matter with scepticism. It needed to be done on its own merits. The report established that point clearly and we wanted to make progress as quickly as possible on the matter. It was worth responding to the report and I hope that the Committee welcomes this.
It is not a coincidence that the Department addressed the issue and gave it very high priority before the Committee sat because we wanted to demonstrate to the Committee that we take these things seriously and that we do get on with the work.
The Chairperson: I deliberately provoked you so that you could respond in that manner.
Mr Quinn: I was grateful for the opportunity.
I will introduce the team of witnesses. Mr Felix Dillon is the Deputy Secretary responsible for environment and road safety and, with me, he is primarily responsible for advising the Minister on the policy legislation and resources framework within which the EHS operates. On my left are, Mr Jim Lamont, Acting Chief Executive of the EHS and Dr Roy Ramsay, the Head of the Water Quality Unit. They are respectively responsible for the operational management of the EHS and the operational management of the Water Quality Unit of the EHS. That is the broad division of labour and responsibilities in the team.
The Chairperson: You are all very welcome. Thank you for your clarification. Mr Quinn, Paragraph 2.21 of the Northern Ireland Audit Report states that the Halcrow Report was extremely critical of the EHS' river monitoring programme and said that it was:
"wholly insufficient to measure the performance of regulatory authority or to give an indication of overall water quality in the Province."
The EHS advised the Northern Ireland Audit Office, as stated in paragraph 2.28, that it intended to review the monitoring programme. What were the findings of the review? Secondly, was a report produced setting out those findings and what action has been taken by the EHS as a result of these findings?
Mr Quinn: May we take those questions in reverse order Mr Chairman? I am happy to deal with the last one but I will ask Mr Lamont and Dr Roy Ramsay to elaborate on the other two.
Regarding the output of the review, the Department now monitors 4178 km of rivers for chemical quality and 5212 km of rivers for biological quality. Those are increases of 69% and 95%, respectively, from the 2476 km of rivers monitored when the report was prepared. It is fair to say that, as a result of the report and for its own reasons, the extent of river monitoring has increased substantially, and we now have a much more comprehensive and robust sampling programme.
Mr Lamont: We did not publish a report on the outcome of the review, but we put in place the extended monitoring network, giving us a representative sample of a river network across Northern Ireland.
The Chairperson: Paragraphs 225 and 226 and table 3 of the Comptroller and Auditor General's report suggest that your monitoring programme might not be representative of water quality generally, and that smaller streams were markedly worse than the larger rivers which are being monitored. What steps have you taken to ensure that the current monitoring programme gives a representative picture of the overall total river quality in Northern Ireland?
Mr Quinn: The answer to the second question is similar to the answer to the first. We have increased the chemical monitoring to nearly 4200 km and biological monitoring to approximately 5200 km. We now have a much more representative sample. Mr Lamont will confirm that that includes a certain number of smaller rivers and tributaries to make it even more representative.
Mr Lamont: We acknowledge that the network did not reflect water quality in the upper reaches of rivers and we were aware that specific studies and investigations, such as referred to in the report, indicate that the upper reaches of some rivers had been impacted. The then Department of Agriculture studies which are quoted provide a good example. The expanded network will include small rivers, accounting for 20% of the total network, to give that broader picture.
The Chairperson: Paragraph 8.6 of the report indicates an estimated expenditure of £1 million a year on discharge consents. I understand that the latest estimate is £870,000. If a fee scheme for consents is not introduced until 2002, that will be ten years after the original target date, and a loss to the taxpayer of some £9 million. The "polluter pays" principle has certainly not been implemented. When will you introduce charging? How long will it be before the full cost recovery is achieved?
Mr Quinn: We take your point, and the report's point about the delay in introducing the system. It would have been better had it been introduced earlier. I am happy to offer an explanation of why it was not, if you wish. For the future, we are consulting on the introduction of a charging regime. The consultation period ends on, I think, 31 January 2001, and we hope to bring the charges for applications into effect from 1 April 2001, and the annual charges from 1 April 2002. At that point we will be recovering the full cost of the discharge consent process.
The Chairperson: Do you agree that ten years is a bit lengthy?
Mr Quinn: I will offer an explanation, rather than an excuse. We want to highlight in our evidence to the Committee today, the extent to which, since devolution, the Executive has given this kind of policy area much greater priority than before.
If the draft budget that Minister Durkan presented to the Assembly is confirmed, the EHS and the Environmental Protection Division (EPD) will next year get a 36% increase in their gross budget. Within that, the Water Quality Unit, for example, will increase its staffing from 44 to 69 people. That is a huge increase in the resources required to do the job and it reflects the recognition that, for the preceding 10 years, the Water Policy Branch in the EPD - a unit of three people - and the Water Quality Unit in the EHS were inadequately resourced to do their job. The Executive has made a major improvement in the resources of the Environment Service. I hope that we will demonstrate some of the benefits of that in our evidence.
The Chairperson: We agree that devolution has made a big impact.
Mr Quinn: It has made a huge impact.
The Chairperson: The absence of any income to the Exchequer from the consent charges has been a long-running problem in Northern Ireland. What action have you taken to encourage the Department of the Environment to introduce these charges to reduce the overall burden on the taxpayer? This is a very important issue for the taxpayer.
Mr Delaney: The figures quoted add to the budgetary pressures on the Department, and to the system as a whole. The Department of Finance and Personnel is constantly looking at those areas through its supply function, and discussing them with the Departments. The action rests with the Department to bring that legislation forward. The Department of Finance and Personnel, in its discussions with the Department in drawing up the budget, will encourage the Department to brings its plans together so that any revenue loss is minimised in the Northern Ireland block. We encourage the Department to bring the legislation forward as soon as practical.
The Chairperson: Have you taken any action since the publication of the audit report?
Mr Delaney: No specific action has been taken.
The Chairperson: Do you intend to take action?
Mr Delaney: We will discuss that in the memorandum of response to the PAC report, and with the Department. That is part of the process that we are here to advance.
Ms Ramsey: In your letter to the Committee, you state that there are 882 active trade consents, but each year you only have statistics for 40% of these. That does not give a complete picture of what is happening. Why are statistics not produced for all the trade consents?
Dr R Ramsay: Are you referring to the compliance figures we offer?
Ms Ramsey: In point two of the letter, you state that many trade consents are currently monitored by the EHS. How is the total split between industrial and sewage operations?
Dr R Ramsay: Whether we monitor trade consents will depend on the flow, as consistent with the Environment Agency's approach in England and Wales. Trade discharges to rivers below a certain volume are not monitored, so our monitoring relates to the volume of the trade effluent discharge. The greater the volume of the discharge, the greater the monitoring regime.
A substantial majority of our trade effluent consents are less than 5m3 a day, where the monitoring is discretionary. Based on an economy of resources, we channel our monitoring towards the bigger discharges. The bigger the discharge, the more we monitor.
Although we have a certain number of active consents - industries that are consented - a large proportion of those have a very small flow, and we gear our monitoring regime accordingly. That would be reflected in the fees and charges payable. Those trade discharges of less than 5m³ per day, which do not contain toxic material, are not subject to an annual monitoring charge.
Ms Ramsey: On that point, how many incidents have there been on the discharges that you do not monitor?
Dr R Ramsay: The statistics would not enable us to answer that. However, if we have a problem with the discharges that are not routinely monitored, we would add those to the monitoring programme.
Ms Ramsey: You add them after a problem arises?
Dr R Ramsay: If there were a problem with the ones on which we have discretionary monitoring, we would look at them more closely. If there is a problem we would then monitor them, but with a very small trade discharge there is not usually a problem.
Ms Ramsey: I will move on, but I am not too happy about that because there are points in this report relating to the size of the discharge into rivers.
Table 9, page 73, includes examples of 12 cases where polluters have exceeded the consent level over a period of five years. From your last answer, I believe that there is a lack of effectiveness in your approach to enforcement and this sends a dangerous message to people that are going to pollute. From this table, can you tell this Committee if any of these polluters still fail to comply with the consent standards?
Dr R Ramsay: I have to recognise that, certainly in those days, we did not have the same regulatory regime in place. We now have a robust regulatory regime which will strengthen next year when we introduce a trigger mechanism for prosecutions. This system will enable us to tell readily when an industry is not satisfying the consent conditions, and that will trigger the prosecution mechanism. Many of the past difficulties occurred because we had not fully appreciated what industry was discharging - we do now.
Ms Ramsey: I take your point on that. In this specific table we are given 12 cases of people polluting. Can you tell this Committee now if any of these people are still failing to comply with the consent standards that you set?
Dr R Ramsay: I would have to come back to the Committee on this point.
Mr Quinn: I will expand this. That table worried me when I looked at it. It seemed that in one or two cases, we were seen to be fairly active, such as cases F and L, where we prosecuted three times in each case. That reassured me a little. Other cases were altogether more questionable, and there is a paradox here. Paragraph 6·20 of the report highlights the point that, in Northern Ireland, you are seven or eight times more likely to be prosecuted for polluting than in England or Wales. That reflects a fairly aggressive prosecution policy. However, when you compare that point against the table, are we picking up or pursuing all the prosecutions we should? Each case must be treated on its individual merits. However, with the increase in resources available to the Water Quality Unit from the draft budget, broadly speaking, I would expect a rather more active prosecutions policy. The resources will be there to pursue that.
Ms Ramsey: I welcome what you are saying, Mr Quinn, and I do not want to be seen as harping on about this. You did mention that there have been prosecutions in some of the cases pointed out in this table. When you look at Case A, in 1990, the discharge was eleven times greater than the consent level and, in 1995, it was seventeen times greater, but no prosecution was taken. That indicates to me that these cases are being looked at willy-nilly.
Dr R Ramsay: I can only reassure the Committee that this situation would not happen at present, and it certainly will not happen when we introduce the new system for looking at trade effluent discharges next year. We are introducing a system that will tell us immediately when the consent conditions are being repeatedly exceeded, and that will trigger a prosecution mechanism. So the situation that existed then will not happen again.
Ms Ramsey: I take your point. The proof will be in the pudding because it is not in this report, and that is what we are looking at.
In paragraph 8.13, page 81, the Northern Ireland Office noted that the EHS intends to develop a cost recovery strategy and issue its staff and agents guidelines on how to calculate and record costs when the Water (NI) Order 1999 comes into force. When was this guidance issued to staff?
Dr R Ramsay: This guidance was issued to staff several years ago. It will be updated with the new powers that we are acquiring under the Water (NI) Order. The Order will give us greater powers to recover costs so we will be issuing new guidelines to staff when the Order comes into effect early next year.
Ms Ramsey: You say that it will be updated. Will it include the points covered and recommended by the audit report?
Dr R Ramsay: Yes. It will.
Mr Quinn: There was a suggestion that a pro forma approach to the identification of costs should be adopted, and that has been done successfully. In every prosecution case the full range of costs is made available to the courts through the Director of Public Prosecutions and that is part of the embedded system in the agency.
Ms Ramsey: How can the agency managers plan any budgets for pollution clean-up, and the work involved in that, or recover adequate amounts from the people who pollute, when they do not know how much a clean-up costs?
Mr Lamont: They would know how much a clean-up costs because we engage at the first stage of the clean-up. We quantify that and complete the pro forma which sets out that component among the other components of the cost of the incident. We are engaged in a proactive, first reaction to the incident to carry out the clean-up. We hand that on if we find that, ultimately, someone is responsible for the incident and they take over. We are in a position to monitor the costs of the clean-up at all stages.
Mr Quinn: The clean-up costs would be dealt with as a contract debt rather than through the prosecution process.
Mr Beggs: It is appropriate for me to formally register the fact that I am connected with the agriculture industry, which is mentioned in this report. It would be proper to put that on the record as I assist with my parents' farm.
I will refer to paragraphs 3.8 and 3.10. It states that, prior to 1987, the EHS did not compile information on how many discharges actually complied with the terms of their consent. This seems to be a very careless way to control pollution. You give consent and approval and then fail to register a list of those who are complying with those regulations. Why was that?
Dr R Ramsay: As I said earlier, we have now computerised those systems so we can tell at the press of a button which industries are complying and which are not. That enables us to produce a more robust prosecution system. Computerisation gives us a greater feel for how industries are complying with our consents.
Mr Beggs: We are looking historically here, particularly the early period, 1991-95. There were no figures available and those figures that were uncovered by the Audit Office showed worrying levels of non-compliance. Why has it taken so long to introduce such a system?
Dr R Ramsay: As the Secretary said in the opening remarks, we had a resource problem in the early and middle 1990s. That problem has now been addressed and I am satisfied that, over the next few years, I will have the wherewithal to deliver on all these issues.
Mr Beggs: Will you accept that, even since the computerised system was introduced in 1997, your figures show that only 44% of those monitored complied with the consent conditions?
Dr R Ramsay: Our intention is to ratchet up that compliance by a number of means. One is educational, where we have a very pro-active side. We have targeted a number of industrial sectors with seminars and we are going to introduce a more robust prosecution policy next year. We are confident that the compliance will rise. Indeed, we have set a target of a 10% increase during this year, and I hope that that can be ratcheted up to compliance levels in England and Wales.
Mr Quinn: The level of compliance during 2000, up to 1 August, was 48·1% - that was against absolute levels of compliance. It is moving in the right direction, but still some way short of where any of us would want it to be. We have a mix of policies and resources that will enable us to make substantial progress.
Mr Beggs: I will refer back to the lack of resources you had in the early days. I refer now to paragraph 8·6, which states that in 1996, the agency had begun work on a cost recovery system. We are advised that you intended to carry out a public consultation on a fee scheme in the summer of 1998, but, as we have learnt just this week, that consultation actually started this week - why is this two years late?
Mr Lamont: Essentially, it was dependent on the revision of the legislation with the Water (NI) Order 1999. Once the Order was passed last year, the process was begun to take that forward.
Mr Beggs: Can you confirm when this charging for consent occurred in the rest of the United Kingdom, and why the Order did not extend this to here two years ago?
Mr Dillon: These requirements have been in place in the United Kingdom for about ten years.
Mr Beggs: Ten years? Why have we waited a further two years since 1998, when you originally indicated that you would open it for consultation here?
Mr Dillon: It was mainly resources. Again, not wishing to make this sound like an excuse, it is worth bearing in mind that the water policy team, in the EPD, numbered three people under the direction of a principal officer. The principal officer post was vacant for long periods because of retirement. One of the three posts was vacant for long periods because of ill health, and the subsequent death in post of the incumbent.
Mr Beggs: I hear what you are saying, but this charging would have brought in almost £1 million per year, which would have been self-financing in a very short time. Previously, we heard about road safety educational officers. The money was not spent there, although there was a lack of them - it was spent on pollution or on historic monuments. Clearly, additional money could be brought in to the Department to resource this - do you accept that?
Mr Dillon: I partly accept it. It is only since devolution took place that we have actually secured an agreement with the Department of Finance and Personnel to use additional regulatory receipts to support the cost of the function. That was not available to us before devolution, so any additional posts in that area would have had to be funded from our gross running cost budget, and it simply was not.
Mr Beggs: I heard that it was coming from the Treasury Accounting Officer, was that factually correct? Why would the Department of Finance and Personnel not allow this additional money to be spent where it was badly needed?
Mr Delaney: I can confirm that that is factually correct. It is self-financing, but the Department of Finance and Personnel would not take that into account in relation to budget setting.
Mr Beggs: You are at odds there. Can you explain?
Mr Quinn: This is not the case. The budget, out of which the Water Policy Unit was financed, was gross-controlled. The fact that there were receipts generated by the activity did not actually increase that gross budget. That was the departmental running cost regime, specifically designed by UK Ministers to control the size of the Civil Service. That was one of the constraints within which the EPD and EHS had to operate. As you can well imagine, the people who had to work within that constraint found it very frustrating.
That systemic constraint was eased by an agreement between Minister Foster and Minister Durkan this year.
Mr Beggs: Are you saying that it is purely the Minister's fault and that the senior civil servants advising him have no input?
Mr Quinn: No, I am certainly not saying that. The gross DRC regime was a public expenditure regime that applied throughout the UK to all central Government Departments during direct rule. That regime could only be varied once Northern Ireland was devolved. As soon as that happened, it was varied.
Mr Beggs: I do not accept -
Mr Delaney: Maybe I could add that, as we move into resource accounting and budgeting, that sort of problem should be a thing of the past.
Mr Beggs: Paragraph 8.7 describes some costs incurred in dealing with pollution incidents. Although the Water Service enjoys Crown immunity from prosecution, does it still have to pay to clean up pollution that it has caused?
Mr Lamont: Yes.
Mr Beggs: What clean up costs do you recover from the Water Service?
Mr Lamont: We have quite often used the direct labour force of the Water Service while using our equipment to do a clean up, so the costs would have been mainly carried by the Water Service, and its costs then move into restocking where it, by agreement, extends to fisheries.
Mr Beggs: If the Water Service does a clean up, how does your Department inspect the work to ensure that it is suitable?
Mr Lamont: The emergency pollution team continues to monitor the incident until it is closed. It monitors all of the aspects of the clean up to ensure that it has been achieved to the appropriate extent.
Mr Dallat: The tone is that there is a ring of confidence in this new era. I hope that is right, and I hope that the policies, the resources, the legislation and the whole cohesive approach will be put in place to turn our cesspools into mountain streams because that is critical.
In paragraph 6.8 of the report, you state that your agencies set a target of responding to 95% of high and medium-severity incidents within four hours. I see from Annex C of your letter to the Committee that you have not achieved this target and, despite the fact that the number of incidents has been reduced, your performance is deteriorating. Why is your performance deteriorating, in spite of what looks like a reduced workload? What steps will you take to improve your performance, given that you now have these extra resources from Finance Minister Durkan?
Mr Lamont: We are dismayed at the reduction in our response performance. One of the factors to be considered is the 24 hour reporting mechanism we now have. A significant number of incidents were recorded close to the hours of darkness and there is a response delay for health and safety reasons. But we are not satisfied with our performance at the moment. We have set a target in our business plan to do much better and we are confident that we will achieve it.
You asked what we are doing to that effect. Apart from expanding the emergency pollution response team, we are doing a lot of proactive and preventative work on pollution control: visiting industries by sector to try and obviate the need for emergency responses. So there is a combination, a pincer movement, coming at it from two sides and we are working hard to get people out there. We recognise that there is now a 24 hour emergency 0800 number, which has had a significant impact on the number of reports that we have received.
Mr Dallat: Can you assure the Committee that the pass the parcel practice of the past, where one Department simply shuffled callers to another Department, has ended and that, when someone calls that number, they can be certain that they will not be redirected to some other agency?
Mr Lamont: We are the recipients when a call is made to the emergency number, which is a national number. As soon as it is identified where the incident has taken place, it is presented to our emergency pollution officer.
Mr Dallat: I hope that everyone in Northern Ireland will receive this service and that when an incident occurs, one phone call will trigger off a mechanism which will sort the problem out and deal with the polluter accordingly.
Mr Lamont: We are totally committed to doing that.
Mr Dallat: Paragraph 1.7 states that environment agencies were set up in the rest of the UK in 1995. However, we still do not have one here. Instead, your Department established a next-steps agency in 1996. I understand that the Republic of Ireland also has a clear separation of responsibilities in this area. Why is it accepted that we should be the only part of the British Isles without an independent environmental watchdog? Surely, that is a disgrace.
Mr Quinn: This is a policy matter for Ministers. The Programme for Government has committed itself to a review of public administration, and such an issue may well surface and be dealt with in this context. The Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister will lead that review. Furthermore, there is a choice to be made between the advantages that may arise from having a freestanding independent environmental agency, and the advantages that might flow from the EHS operating under the direct control of an elected Northern Ireland Minister. An obvious advantage of the latter is that the Minister for the Environment has taken such a strong personal interest in the proper resourcing of this function and the success he achieved in the draft budget. Would the Minister have quite the same motivation if the organisation were at arms length from his Department? Perhaps he would. However, it is not a black and white issue. That is the kind of trade-off that might be considered in a wider review.
Mr Dallat: I have no doubt that the present Minister for the Environment has established himself as someone who cares for the environment. Will your Department be knocking on his door every day to ensure that our environment is restored to its ideal level.
Mr Quinn: It is our obligation to provide him with the fullest possible support. We hope that we will do that.
Mr Carrick: There has been long-standing concern about the quality of the water in our rivers and streams. For example, since 1964, there have been repeated warnings and complaints from members of the public regarding the persistence of pollution and deterioration in parts of the River Bann and Lough Neagh systems. Since 1975, there has been a succession of EEC and EU directives relevant to the well-being of waters such as these. With reference to paragraph 2.30 of the report, you had expected to have water quality management plans for the Lagan, Erne, Foyle, and Lough Neagh catchment areas in place by 1999. Have those plans been completed? If so, how will they inform the river quality management strategy in the future?
Mr Quinn: The plan for the Foyle was published in 1997. The Erne and the Lagan plans were published later in 1998. There is not, as yet, a comprehensive plan for the Bann. The conclusion reached by the EHS - in light of the experience of those first three exercises - is that they are very difficult and expensive operations. It is proposed that the Bann catchment area be divided into more manageable sections for study. The initial studies already underway on the Upper Bann and studies on the rivers Tall and Bush are to start relatively soon. My colleagues will elaborate on that.
Dr R Ramsay: A great deal of very useful information came out of studies on the Foyle, the Erne and the Lagan. We felt that those were not manageable units, so we have looked very carefully at water quality data and those smaller areas where there are significant water quality problems, of which we have identified six: the Upper Bann; the Tall; the Strule; the Bush; the Lagan; and the Bessbrook. We are picking them off one by one and looking quite closely at them with our colleagues in the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. On the Upper Bann, for instance, we have been working with Department of Agriculture and Rural Development officials to identify agricultural pollution.
While there has been a demonstrable improvement in water quality right across the Province, we are increasingly concerned about low dissolved oxygen levels, which we believe are linked to eutrophication. In my opinion, the biggest single water quality problem in Northern Ireland at present is eutrophication, which relates to diffuse discharges.
To answer your question, we must look very closely at sub-catchments rather than large catchments. In pursuing the proposals for the Foyle, Erne and Lagan, we gathered a great deal of very high quality information which will help us when we come to address the Water Framework Directive. This Directive tasks the Department with looking at river basins and developing plans for each river basin district.
Mr Carrick: Have the three reports you completed been published?
Dr R Ramsay: Yes. Proposals for the Erne, Foyle and Lagan were published. We are presently awarding a contract to revisit the Foyle and Erne proposals.
Mr Carrick: Could the Committee have copies of those reports?
Dr R Ramsay: Yes.
Mr Carrick: When do you expect your study on Lough Neagh and the Upper Bann to be completed?
Dr R Ramsay: I expect a report on the Upper Bann in 2001.
Mr Carrick: In what part of the year?
Dr R Ramsay: I should like to think we that we shall have a report on the Upper Bann by the middle part of next year.
As you know, the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development has been visiting farms on the Upper Bann to review the impact of earlier visits -they visited approximately 180 farms during 1998-1999. That information will be available soon, and we shall use it to develop our plan.
Mr Carrick: I will return to the question of compliance. In your letter to the Committee, you said that in the last two years, compliance has ranged from 38% to 48%, compared with 44% at the time of the report. This does not represent much of an improvement over two years, and, given that some areas of the United Kingdom have over 80% compliance, it seems very low. First, what is the point in setting and monitoring these standards when you are content to live with such high rates of non-compliance? Secondly, what do you consider to be an acceptable level for Northern Ireland, and how long will it take to achieve?
Mr Quinn: We do not regard the present level to be acceptable. You are right in saying that improvement has been gradual, although I mentioned that in the year to 1 August 2000, compliance levels had risen to 48%. With the improvement in the resource framework within which the EHS is to operate, and with the new powers delivered by the Water (NI) Order, I expect the rate of improvement to accelerate. What that will be and when we shall achieve it is very difficult to say. I defer to my professional colleagues on that. It is not merely a matter of policy and public-sector action, because the whole community contributes to this and must accept its part of the responsibility.
Dr R Ramsay: There are wide fluctuations in compliance in England and Wales, and, although compliance in 1997 ranged from around 40% to 80%, the average was about 68.8%. There was a slow improvement up until 1996 and a dramatic drop in 1997. The best we could aspire to would probably be 80% compliance, though I shall certainly be pressing for 100%.
Being realistic, and bearing in mind these are absolute standards, as opposed to being 95-percentiles, in terms of absolute standards, 80%, is the figure we are aspiring to, and which we hope to achieve as soon as possible.
Mr Carrick: We have become quite accustomed to headlines such as the 'Department of the Environment Admits Fishkill', 'Fears Over Vanished Fish', 'DOE In Dock Over Water Pollution'. Section 2.10 of the report lists some very serious incidents, and a number have been reported since, such as a major fishkill at Moyola. This is quite a calamitous tale indeed, and it is quite unacceptable. Mr Quinn, what follow-up action was taken on each of these cases, and what was the outcome?
Mr Quinn: Do you refer to the outcome of each of the cases listed in the report? I will probably have to defer you to my professional colleagues on that, but could I just make a point about those headlines? It is a case of journalists not having caught up with devolution. The headlines should not refer to the Department of the Environment, but to the Department of Regional Development, if you are talking about the Water Service.
Mr Carrick: We are referring to quotations from the press dated 19 November 1995, 28 March 1996, and 21 November 1996.
Mr Quinn: In that pre-devolution period, the Department of Environment included both the regulator and the Water Service. I imagine the Committee would agree that the post-devolution situation is much better, with the regulator operating in a different Department from the Water Service. That has substantially improved relationships. I will have to refer to my colleagues, regarding the three cases that you have drawn our attention to.
Mr Carrick: The authority may change, but the rivers and the problems remain the same, and that is why we are here today.
Mr Quinn: If there is a difference, it is in the structure, and the approach which flows from this. We have a much stronger sense of our role as the environmental regulator in a department which is both organisationally and politically independent from the Regional Development Department, and that is a major advance.
Dr R Ramsay: Pollution from Water Service installations is just as unacceptable as pollution from the other installations. Where the Water Service causes the pollution problem, we would follow it up at a number of levels - at an official level, operational level and up to a board level, if that is necessary. We seek an explanation, and an assurance from them that it will not happen again.
We have to be satisfied that they have put measures in place to ensure that it will not happen again and they have done that. In one case, there was a telemetry problem at an installation on the Ballynahinch River which we followed up, and were given an assurance that the telemetry had been rectified. We do follow these up with the Water Service as far as we can, we get an agreement and assurances that they have put measures in place to ensure that a problem will not recur.
Mr Carrick: I am not persuaded that the action is effective. You may be doing your best, but the action is not effective enough to remedy the problem of a polluted river in Portadown. It has been some eight weeks, and the oil is still flowing down the river. In the latest letter I had from environmental health officials, they said that they have not yet traced the source of this pollution, and that it is still flowing.
People judge your performance by your ground action, and I am afraid we are not getting good reports.
Mr Lamont: The investigations of the appearance of oil film on rivers is quite often very difficult. Industrial estates have all sorts of interconnections of foul drainage and storm water drainage, which produces discharges into streams which eventually find their way into rivers, and a film of oil appears. The investigations involve back-tracking through the tributaries and into the drainage system, and we do investigate industrial estates to look specifically at all the discharges made. But, wrong connections are made, and interconnections are made between storm drainage and foul drainage.
It is difficult. We recognise that much has to be done and it is something that we constantly address. We take action teams into a particular area and attempt to get to all the potential pollution points. It is difficult to follow up incidents like that, and to pinpoint the original source when there is a small volume of oil, which is volatile and perhaps shows up for miles downstream.
Mr Carrick: I refer to paragraph 5.33 of the report. It recommends that the Department introduce farm pollution regulations as soon as it acquires the necessary powers under the Water (NI) Order. The Water Order came into force in March 1999. However, I note that you have not yet issued a consultation paper to begin the process of implementing these regulations. Do you agree that it is your responsibility to make these regulations? Why is it taking so long, and when do you intend to implement these regulations?
Mr Quinn: Yes, it is our responsibility. We expect to implement them by April next year. The delay is largely rooted in the limited resources available to the pre-devolution Department.
Dr R Ramsay: The regulations depend upon the Water Order being made. The delay in introducing the Water (NI) Order has meant that there has been a delay in the regulations. The EHS wants these regulations to be put in place as quickly as possible. The English and Welsh experience since 1991 has been that they have had a major impact in reducing pollution in waterways. I want these regulations to be another weapon in our armoury as quickly as possible.
Mr Dillon: By way of further explanation, Mr Chairman, the same resource issue that I described to Mr Beggs has delayed the Water (NI) Order and subsequently, these regulations. It is not as if that small team of people have been sitting on their hands. Until now, their life has been a constant round of fire-fighting, dealing with the next threat of infraction proceedings, or new policies emanating from Brussels that require a UK negotiating line. They have spent their time responding to new pressures - they have simply not had the time to do the work on these regulations. We hope that they will now be on top of the situation, not least with the new resources that are proposed in the draft budget, which will allow the unit's size to be more than doubled.
Mr Quinn: Mr Dillon said earlier that this unit has been operating with three members of staff. The draft Budget presented to the Assembly will enable it to have eight members of staff. Therefore, we are talking about a major expansion in the resources available to do that essential work.
Dr R Ramsay: Perhaps I could add a footnote to that. As you know, these regulations deal with the storage of fuel-oil, silage and slurry on farms. It is interesting to note that the recent allocation of funding to the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development will help in that respect. My understanding is that £0·5 million has been targeted to assist farmers with storage. The regulations and funding now being made available to the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development will lead to a significant improvement in the number of pollution incidents, and also in relation to eutrophication, because leakages from farms have a bearing on both.
Mr Close: I want to turn to pollution from discharges by the Water Service, specifically pages 48 and 49. I will start with paragraph 4.5, which states that the EHS began a review of Water Service regulations in 1992. We are still a fair way away from full regulation. Why has it taken so long?
Mr Quinn: We share the view of the report that that has not been satisfactory. There are at least two dimensions to this. One is how standards are set for the Water Service, and the report sets out fairly the practice that prevailed during the 1990s. The practice is now changing in a significant way. From now, the EHS sets standards for the Water Service which are at least equivalent to the requirements of the EC Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive. Those standards will be on the public register, so the lack of transparency, which was a problem in the 1990s, will be dealt with. Proper standards will be set for the Water Service and it will be monitored against them - the Committee may have a copy of our programme for doing that. Essentially, we are taking it in order of priority, and, by around the end of 2005, we expect to have subjected all the major installations to proper environmental needs standards, rather than the interim standards that are described with reservations in the report. Therefore, we are going in the right direction. That leaves the unresolved question of the effectiveness of regulation in the absence of prosecution powers.
Mr Close: Thank you for that information. Again, I find myself - as will the general public - in anticipation of things to happen. My question was directed at what effectively has been going on in the past eight years. Why do we not have information on that? In anticipation of your responding 'resources', give us another answer.
Mr Quinn: That is my best answer.
Mr Close: Your best answer is resources? We have been in a bad way for some years.
Mr Quinn: I am not trying to make an excuse retrospectively. Look at Northern Ireland public expenditure strategically over the last 10 or 15 years. Law and order, strengthening the economy and Targeting Social Need took precedence over environmental issues. Beyond that, the health and education budgets made huge demands on the Northern Ireland block, so very little was left for the environment functions. That was the parlous state in which we found ourselves when we came to present our budget submissions to the new Executive. I am very gratified by the response. We got a very fair hearing from the Executive and from the Department of Finance and Personnel in the 2000 budget round. It does reflect on what went before.
Mr Close: Does the Treasury officer confirm that they were provided with hardly any resources at all? That they were denuded?
Mr Delaney: Every Department looks for more resources, and we take that point on board. Mr Quinn has mentioned the pressure in Northern Ireland of major programmes. Education, roads and some of the smaller programmes do get squeezed, and that is part of the budget-setting process. It is to be hoped that devolution will assess and decide whether we have the balance and priorities right. That is a matter for the Assembly to decide.
The oddities of the cash accounting routine were mentioned earlier. Let us hope that these things are behind us. Resource accounting and budgeting are in the early stages of development and roll-out, and it is to be hoped that these problems will be addressed.
Mr Close: You mentioned in passing the consent standards. Are they in the public domain?
Mr Quinn: Yes. As we roll out this programme of applying more stringent environmental need standards, they will all go onto the public register. In the past, we set interim standards and environmental need standards, but only the interim standards went onto the public register. That resulted in a lack of transparency. In retrospect, that was unfortunate, and we are now rectifying that. People will now know precisely to what extent the Water Service is complying with appropriate environmental needs standards, and it will become part of public and political discourse.
Mr Close: Is that happening now?
Mr Quinn: Yes.
Mr Close: Paragraphs 4.7 and 4.8 talk about Water Service discharge standards. I see that a level is being set which the Water Service can achieve. As you will be aware, that standard determined by the need to avoid deterioration in river quality is very different from that which applies in the private sector. Why should a public-sector body be subject to less stringent controls than those which apply to the private sector? Would that not appear to the general public as a case of "We are Big Brother - do not do as we do, do as we say"? Does not that draw the whole issue into disrepute?
Mr Quinn: There is a weakness in that approach, and I have tried to convey that it has changed. We now apply environmental needs standards to the Water Service, as we would to any other part of the economy. That is the new approach. The practice prior to devolution and the introduction of this new policy in the EHS can be criticised along the lines you described.
Mr Close: So the goose and the gander will be treated equally?
Mr Quinn: Yes, with the exception, of course, that one is left with a difference. Although broadly the same standards are applied, one can prosecute the private sector. One cannot prosecute the Water Service at the moment, for it retains Crown immunity.
Mr Close: Would you like to see that changed?
Mr Quinn: That is a matter for Ministers.
Mr Close: You would not like to see it changed?
Mr Quinn: That is also a matter for Ministers [Laughter]
I am very conscious of not wanting to step into political territory. The previous Regional Development Minister expressed a policy preference for keeping the Water Service in the Department for Regional Development, and he will have had sufficient reason. It is a matter for Ministers to address as an aspect of broad policy.
Mr Close: Paragaph 4.6 on page 49 states that, in 1992, 85% of sewage treatment works failed to comply with standards, but your letter to the Committee in annexe B states that 87% now comply. That certainly deserves a massive pat on the back with congratulations all round, for it is a fantastic figure, but to what extent is that due to a relaxation of standards, rather than an improvement in effluent quality?
Dr R Ramsay: The standards in the report were judgements against river needs. When we set up the register, we introduced interim standards, and compliance improved, since the interim standards were based on operational discharges from Water Service installations. There has been a real improvement however in discharges from Water Service installations over the past three years, but one must look at that compliance figure against the environmental river needs standards. The current compliance figure is based on a mixture of interim and environmental needs standards, although the interim standards are slowly decreasing as a percentage of the standards on our register.
Currently, 37% of the standards on our register are based on the environmental needs of the river, while the rest are interim standards. The EC Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive dictates that, by the end of 2005, all standards shall be consistent with environmental needs, and we are moving all our standards to that end, irrespective of the Water Service's ability to comply.
Mr Close: Is that is a form of admission that standards were too low, and that the bar is now being raised to more acceptable standards?
Dr R Ramsay: Yes, very much so.
Mr Close: Will the bar be at the right level by 2005?
Dr R Ramsay: Yes. The EC Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive talks about appropriate treatment in certain instances by the end of 2005. In the EHS, we deem appropriate treatment to be environmental river-needs standards. By the end of 2005, all standards will protect the environment, irrespective of whether the Water Service can comply.
Ms Morrice: In the questions and answers so far, I have found the debate to be of a highly technical level, and that is obviously appropriate given the nature of the discussion. Do you recommend we eat the fish in our rivers?
Mr Lamont: Absolutely. I should have no hesitation in doing so - as an Environmental Health Officer first and foremost, as Director and now as Chief Executive.
Ms Morrice: Can we swim in all our rivers?
Mr Lamont: That is an interesting point, for there are no legal constraints on inland waters. Bathing waters, which are essentially marine sites around our coast, are required to meet standards. In certain waters with an extensive discharge of treated sewage, one would have to have certain concerns about immersion close to a discharge, for it is dependent on dilution by the water.
Ms Morrice: So we cannot necessarily swim in all our rivers, although we can eat the fish? Is there not a contradiction in that?
Mr Lamont: No, I see no contradiction. A natural biological process means the fish would not necessarily be unfit for human consumption.
Ms Morrice: Can we drink the water from our rivers?
Mr Lamont: No. It does not meet drinking water standards. It is not required to do so. It can be abstracted and treated, and then used for drinking water. That is universal practice and not merely specific to Northern Ireland. I know of very few places where water would be abstracted from rivers and drunk directly without treatment. It is a public health requirement that water be disinfected and treated to render it fit for human consumption.
Ms Morrice: What are you doing to protect members of the public swimming in the rivers?
Mr Lamont: There are areas of concern - essentially with canoeing and immersion sports - where we would occasionally offer advice and put up notices together with local councils and health authorities.
Ms Morrice: Will you be working towards a situation where, on the Lagan or the Bann, for example, it is safe to swim, canoe, water-ski or take part in water sports?
Mr Lamont: Not specifically. Our requirement is to meet other standards which do not necessarily fully match the standards you suggest for swimming and immersion sports. We are not seeking to bring all our rivers up to that standard.
Ms Morrice: Why not?
Mr Lamont: Our commitment is to meet statutory requirements derived from European directives.
Ms Morrice: We have had a tendency to ignore the implementation of European directives in Northern Ireland. Has that changed? For example, the EC Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive was supposed to come into force between 1998 and 2005. What stage have we reached?
Mr Lamont: Regulations giving effect to the directive were put in place. The series of timetables from 1998 to 2005 you mentioned are milestones in the process. We talked about that with Mr Close. We are meeting water service and sewage treatment provision for particular sizes of agglomerations of housing. We are on target in setting standards and fulfilling our commitments under the directive.
Ms Morrice: Have we been very tardy in implementing European directives in the past?
Mr Dillon: I cannot support the word "ignore" which you used previously. It is very hard to ignore a European directive.
Ms Morrice: We have done our best.
Mr Dillon: We have a record of transposing European directives into domestic law and subsequently implementing them which lags far behind the rest of the United Kingdom.
Ms Morrice: And the rest of Europe.
Mr Dillon: I cannot speak for the rest of Europe, but it certainly does not match the United Kingdom programme. We are currently facing the threat of infraction proceedings in certain areas.
Ms Morrice: Why did the rest of the United Kingdom implement them while we did not?
Mr Dillon: Once again, it is a matter of resources. We have simply not had sufficient numbers of staff to keep up with those timetables. As you will appreciate, there is a constant stream of directives from Brussels. We now fully expect that the additions proposed in the draft budget for the policy unit will overcome that problem, and we have a commitment in the Programme for Government for the progressive removal of the backlog of European directives.
Mr Quinn: This was a major theme in Minister Foster's Budget submission to his Executive colleagues. He pointed out very clearly the extent to which we were not complying with our obligations to transpose EU directives into domestic legislation and follow it through with monitoring and implementation. That is partly the reason why the Executive Committee came up with its Budget proposals, for which we were obviously very thankful.
Dr R Ramsay: While these water directives were not formally transposed, it does not mean that they were not implemented. A number of directives were implemented by administrative means before formal transposition. That is an important point.
Ms Morrice: From the answers we have received, it does not look as if the standards have been met administratively. When the report was published in March 1998, there was clearly an urgent need to improve enforcement procedures. You will see in paragraphs 7.14 and 7.15 that the Comptroller and Auditor General makes detailed recommendations for improvements. What progress have you made in this area since 1998?
Dr R Ramsay: After receiving warning letters, the polluter must, without exception, provide an explanation for his non-compliance. The predetermined triggers mentioned earlier will come into effect on 1 January 2001, as we look at industrial discharges. We feel that the 95-percentile approach gives a better picture of effluent quality, enabling industry to lose a certain number of lives in its compliance. As soon as it has lost those lives by failing samples, we shall instigate a prosecution mechanism.
Ms Morrice: It is obvious by this report that not everyone is prosecuted, and there is also the matter of Crown immunity.
Dr R Ramsay: I fully accept that the situation in 1995 in relation to the discharges mentioned earlier would not happen next year, and it will not. We shall have a robust mechanism in place which will not allow that to happen.
Ms Morrice: Will you be prosecuting every offender? Since the whole idea is that the polluter pays, are you coming out to ensure that those who pollute do indeed pay?
Dr R Ramsay: We want to educate industry to comply, and to help them to do so. We are doing that in co-operation with colleagues in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment. We have seminars with industry in which we present joined-up government. That Department offers the "carrot" of investment, while we wave the "stick" of prosecution. We hope that this educational process will result in greater compliance on the part of industry. However, if that educational programme does not work, we shall prosecute where appropriate.
Mr Quinn: In the course of next year, we shall acquire the power to issue enforcement orders on consent holders. If the consent holder fails to act in conformity with the enforcement order, it will constitute an offence for which prosecution will follow.
Dr R Ramsay: The report highlights the fact that, if industry said to us that it was going to do something, we would back off from prosecution. The enforcement notices will enable us to make it compulsory for people to do as they say. Failure to do so will be a criminal offence.
Ms Morrice: The letters you send are written in a "Dear sir, could you please" style, and do not represent serious enforcement.
In paragraph 4.15 of the report, it says that, in 1998, there was very little information on the number or location of sewer overflows discharging into rivers. Furthermore, the report stated that you had no controls over the network of different channels by which sewage, industrial waste or fertiliser can escape. There is evidence from farming areas of manure flowing directly into rivers, rather than going down sewage tracks. How can you monitor that? What are you doing to monitor how many overflows there are in Northern Ireland and subject them to your standards?
Mr Lamont: The Water Service, which owns, manages and runs the sewerage system, is carrying out a series of detailed studies to identify all storm-water overflows. In Belfast, for example, there is a Victorian sewerage system, and not a great deal is known about certain aspects of it. We must build a picture up right across Northern Ireland, establishing where all existing sewers and the overflows associated with them are. The system, being finite, ought to have an emergency release through a storm overflow in certain situations. Such things exist so the system does not back-up and cause flooding. Our methods of identifying these systems include the use of people who walk riverbanks looking for overflows, and we target industrial estates and other places to identify where such places are and build up a total picture. From these accounts, we can regulate overflows.
Mr Quinn: The agency's plans include a provision for applying standards to approximately 1200 combined storm overflows and pumping stations by the end of 2005. A substantial amount of work will be going on in that, with a body of 1200 installations to be dealt with.
Mr Lamont: Manure running off is one of the bigger issues. One aspect is "point sources" which come out at the end of a pipe where it is possible to track, identify and deal with the problem. Diffuse pollution load causes a great deal of concern. Material is put onto land in inclement weather and then washed off - or onto frozen ground, and washed off immediately. The issue is very complex and difficult, and dealing with it will need the combination of farm management and proper storage envisaged in the regulations on the storage of silage and slurries.
Ms Morrice: I shall not continue, for I might get a chance at the end.
The Chairperson: You might.
Ms Morrice: I was concerned about the Water Service and sewage system in relation to households faced with the cryptosporidium bug. What are you doing to prevent that sort of thing happening?
Mr Lamont: The Drinking Water Inspector, in another part of the EHS, is tasked with both ensuring that what the public water supplier, the Water Service, does, is consistent with protocols laid down for cryptosporidium and with reviewing the risk assessment of the Water Service's delivery of the public water supply. We take a direct audit interest in what is done about cryptosporidium in public water supplies.
Ms Armitage: In March you mentioned that you thought all polluters should pay. Perhaps, when I get this answer, that will ease your concerns. Paragraph 8.15 on page 81 states that the upper limit of fines for water pollution incidents was increased in 1994 from £2,000 to £20,000, but I see from your letter to the Committee that the average fine last year only rose to £569, the highest being £5,000. That does not seem very much, and, although it is moving in the right direction, the level of fines is still very low. What is preventing the levying of more substantial fines?
Mr Quinn: The judiciary is independent and makes its own independent determinations within the framework of fines set down in law. However, without being unduly critical, we share the concern that the fine does not in every case match the seriousness of the event.
Mr Lamont: Following publication of the report mentioned in paragraph 8.15, representations were made to the Court Service and through it to the Northern Ireland Resident Magistrates' Association. That was followed up at the behest of the National Water Council, and earlier this year I wrote personally to the Northern Ireland Court Service recommending the matter be raised with the magistrates. I pointed out the fact that, with a stick-and-carrot approach, the stick must be meaningful, and that we felt that, from time to time, there were situations when fines were not appropriate.
There is a very strong feeling in the legal profession that it is the responsibility of the magistrates themselves to determine the penalty. Dr Ramsay often talks about an approach Lord Hailsham took, namely, that fines should start as £20,000 in this case, and work down rather than up as mitigating factors are found.
Ms Armitage: Table 11 on the other page shows that the level of fines fell after the change in the law. What effect would it have on the level of fines for pollution offences if your Department supplied courts with information on the full costs of environmental damage caused?
Mr Lamont: We do that routinely, detailing to the courts not only the cost of prosecution and attendant labour, but also the impact on the receiving water.
Ms Armitage: Is there any evidence that it is having any effect? How long have you been giving them that information? How often is "routinely"?
Mr Lamont: We give them that information on every case.
Dr R Ramsay: The average level of fines has increased.
Ms Armitage: It has increased, but is still nowhere near the upper limit.
Dr R Ramsay: There is also a feeling that the more costs presented to the courts, the smaller the fine awarded by the magistrate. The magistrate looks at the total cost - the fine plus costs - and there is a suspicion that the fine drops in inverse proportion to costs presented.
Mr Lamont: The offender is tasked with paying the costs, and in some instances the magistrate therefore appears to say that he can reduce the fine, since the offender is to pick up the rest of the bill. That happens at the magistrate's discretion.
Ms Armitage: There is not much we can do about that.
The Chairperson: Can we discuss this matter with the Court Service?
Mr Lamont: In my last letter to the Court Service, I timorously suggested that it might be helpful to get involved in awareness training for magistrates. I was walking on eggshells, but the EHS was prepared to meet the Court Service and explain the importance of fines rather than sending out letters saying they were not high enough.
Ms Ramsey: Take them out fishing.
Mr Quinn: We do not want to be held in contempt.
Dr R Ramsay: The opportunity to meet the Court Service has not been refused, so we are still hopeful.
The Chairperson: I am pleased to see that you have been addressing that issue.
Ms Armitage: Paragraph 1.8 on page 28 of the report states that the EHS planned to introduce service level agreements with agents, the fisheries bodies and local government in 1996, but those have not been put in place. Are they in place now?
Mr Lamont: We have service level agreements with the fisheries bodies, but not with local government, the reason being that service level agreements are an inappropriate mechanism for it. The river inspectors and water quality inspectors are made available to the Department under the Employment of Public Health Inspectors Order 1973, so there is a statutory basis.
The EHS sets out a work programme and management regime which controls those dedicated officers' work. They operate solely on behalf of the EHS and have no other district council functions. They are identified with and dedicated to the functions of the EHS. EHS has a work programme, management regime, targets and indicators for those officers as part of its routine paperwork and management.
Ms Armitage: Should local government be removed from paragraph 1.8?
Mr Lamont: The Northern Ireland Audit Office decided that it should be there, but at the moment the EHS is reviewing how to work with those agents. A service level agreement was not an appropriate mechanism with which to link them, for they were provided under statute, and the EHS has underpinned that with its operational work programmes.
Ms Armitage: Paragraph 1.2 and 1.3 on page 28 state that the EHS pays approximately £1·5 million per year for services purchased from fishery bodies and local government employees. That it is a great deal of money without having a contractual agreement in place.
Mr Lamont: That is covered by legislation. I understand that it is sufficient cover, and it has been examined from time to time. The EHS is constrained by that, and it is built into our system, but at the moment we are reviewing whether it is the best way to provide the function. Not everyone is attracted by it, but I am pleased that there are 27 people across Northern Ireland based in local government offices working for the EHS through the system. It is an important way of getting local people on the site at any given time.
Ms Armitage: In the absence of the service level agreements with agents, fisheries bodies and local government referred to in paragraph 1.8, how can anyone judge whether the services applied by them are appropriate to the needs of the EHS? Do they provide value for money?
Mr Lamont: We are examining the situation constantly, and it has been reviewed on a number of occasions. We are doing so again at the moment to see whether this is the best way to provide the service.
Dr R Ramsay: We are developing proposals in the unit to bring the work undertaken by district councils and fisheries boards into the Department. I recognise that they do a very good job, and I am satisfied that it is commensurate with the money we pay them. However, I feel the work they do could be done better, more effectively and efficiently by bringing it into the Department. That is what we are developing in the EHS, subject to the Departmental view.
Mr Quinn: It is also subject to the Minister's views, for the review of public administration will clearly look very carefully at the range and extent of local authority functions. I should have thought that this kind of issue would be likely to be swept up by the wider review, although it is important that we first look at it in an analytical way.
Ms Armitage: Mr Chairman, all my questions seem to be under review. Should I be concerned, or is there any particular reason for that? [Laughter]
Dr R Ramsay: I am satisfied that the programmes we have in place with the district council and fishery boards are appropriate. They are properly monitored and supervised and are accountable to us. I am satisfied that the work we undertake is done as expeditiously and efficiently as possible. However, we must look at the bigger picture and consider whether it might be done better by our staff.
Ms Armitage: Will you come back once the review is carried out?
Mr Lamont: Certainly.
Ms Armitage: I shall look forward to that.
Mr McClelland: Paragraph 4.8 at the top of page 50 acknowledges that standards have been relaxed to reflect what is achievable - a remarkable sentence. Given that standards were relaxed to what was seen as being achievable, should the compliance levels not have been much higher? Have you any more up-to-date compliance levels than 1996?
Dr R Ramsay: The current compliance level is now 84%, and that represents an increase over the past three years. That compliance may well drop as we set standards for the smaller works.
Mr McClelland: Why is that?
Dr R Ramsay: I do not think the smaller works will comply as well as the larger works. I must point out to the Committee that the current compliance figure, although an increase on previous years, may well fall, and may fall further by 2005. The standards that we shall set by the end of 2005 will be environmental river needs standards, irrespective of the Water Service's ability to comply.
Mr Quinn: I should make the important distinction between what our responsibility is, which is to set standards and monitor against them and what is the responsibility of Water Service, which is to comply with those standards. We can do the first but not the second, which is essentially dependent on the Water Service's investment programme. We are now stepping up to the mark through the programme of setting environmental needs standards rather than what the report described as relaxed standards. That is our duty and the extent of our duty and obligation under the legislation. The Water Service must be monitored against that and answer for itself. Compliance levels may well drop as we set progressively higher standards.
Mr McClelland: That brings me to the next question, for in paragraph 4.8 the report states that the EHS entered into discussions with the Water Service for five years before any agreement was reached, which seems an incredibly long time. It goes on to say that the EHS had proposed upper-tier standards, but that the Water Service successfully resisted the use of that control. It seems remarkable that a body which should have been regulated has such an input into the process of regulation - five years of discussion and a say in the level of control.
Dr R Ramsay: I should point out that, when we regulate industry, it has the opportunity to take our consent standards to appeal. However, the Water Service does not have that opportunity. We would seek to reach an agreement with them in relation to standards to a greater extent than with industry. We are denying the Water Service the opportunity of a third party judgement on appeal.
Mr McClelland: To whom is the appeal made?
Dr R Ramsay: We set standards for industry, which has the opportunity of going to the Water Appeals Commission and asking that body for its view on whether our standards are reasonable. The Water Service does not have that opportunity, for there is no appeal process when we regulate it. In the past, it has taken longer to reach an agreement with the Water Service. However, we now say that, irrespective of whether they agree with us or not, we shall set standards commensurate with the EC Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive. We are no longer seeking their agreement in relation to the standards we set.
Mr McClelland: I understand that the ultimate sanction of prosecution is not available, since the Water Service claims Crown immunity. What is the process for dealing with that?
Dr R Ramsay: In the context of the EC Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive, there is the sanction of the European Court. If the Water Service does not comply with standards relating to the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive, it will be accountable to that body.
Mr Quinn: The Water Service also has a political accountability to Members of the Assembly. When we set proper environmental needs standards and put the Water Service on the register, transparently demonstrating the extent to which it complies or not, that goes on public record and can become a matter for political discourse. The Assembly, this Committee and the departmental Committees for Regional Development and the Environment can all take the matter up, so political leverage as well as legal leverage will be available. You are right that there is no legal remedy in the domestic Northern Ireland courts to prosecute the Water Service under present arrangements.
Mr McClelland: It would seem to be a long, drawn out process if the only sanction available to us is for one Government Department to take another Government agency or Department to the European Court for a successful prosecution.
Mr Lamont: It would not be EHS which would instigate that. We must report directly to the European Commission, and the present performance is reported through to the Commission routinely, as is our response to the EC Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive. Proceedings are for the European Commission to initiate.
Mr McClelland: Do you agree that the length of time for the processing of such a procedure is relatively slow and prolonged?
Mr Lamont: It undoubtedly takes some time.
Mr Quinn: To be fair to the Water Service - and I am pleading the same case for it as for myself - we did not get to the present situation with the Water Service overnight. It is fair to say that there has been a long period of time when capital investment in the Water Service was not as high as it might have been, which makes it more difficult for it to comply. The real constraint on achieving compliance might be simply the time lags involved in getting the right investment in place. If it is to be taken before the European Court and have infraction fines slapped on it, I am not sure it will be any great advantage, as this would amount to writing a cheque to the European Court instead of to a contractor to accomplish some investment. There is a "Catch-22" situation.
Mr Chairman: One or two members wish to ask supplementary questions, but before I call them, does Mr Dowdall wish to say anything?
Mr Dowdall: No, not at the moment.
The Chairperson: Throughout the discussion, you have spoken about the advantages of devolution. We all agree with you on the matter. One of the main advantages of devolution is the fact that the Committee has been established where you can come and put your case and we can question you. We would agree that devolution has made a big difference as far as the administration of the Province is concerned.
Mr Quinn: Before you move on, I had better get myself on the right side of the constitutional line. Our experience as a service under devolution has been better than under direct rule. Obviously, it is not for an official to make a point as to whether devolution is a better system of government than direct rule - that is entirely a matter for your judgement.
The Chairperson: The Minister has been very successful in persuading the Executive on both road safety and river pollution. I doubt that could have been done under direct rule.
Mr Quinn: As a body affected by the political process, we feel better now than we did before December 1999.
Mr Close: I am delighted that Mr Quinn is speaking so well of it, and I am delighted to be here. I was struck by one of your later phrases, which I have noted down - "We do not get to where we are overnight". I am very conscious that there have been 30 years of direct rule, and I hope there will be a lengthy period of devolved government. During that period, I want to ensure that promises in the reviews we understand are being laid down are met - and I am not saying that in a facetious way at all.
All these dramatic changes which have taken place within a very short period must be not only put into operation but built upon, for the issue is very serious, and it is up to us in the Committee, the Executive and other Departments to ensure the message goes out loud and clear. We can turn the situation around from "Big Brother is watching", for we in the Committee will be watching - Big Brother and Big Sister.
There are one or two other loose ends I should like to tie down. I am still not clear about the difference between costs and fines in court cases, a subject to which Mr Lamont earlier referred. I understand the notion of court costs. However, in a pollution case that led to the death of some thousands of fish, who would pick up the tab? Is that covered by the fine or recovered from costs?
Mr Lamont: Once a case has been proven, we pursue it as a contract debt.
Mr Close: That will be paid by the polluter?
Mr Lamont: Yes.
Mr Close: So you could have the contract debt, the court costs and the fine. Thank you for clearing that up. Let us turn to paragraph 1.21, where you refer to the reviews which are to take place in the "next steps agencies". When do you plan to undertake the quinquennial review of the EHS?
Mr Quinn: All things being equal, it would have started during this calendar year, but we deferred it for at least three reasons, the first being the December 1998 agreement on the distribution of departmental functions, which was a clear political constraint on addressing certain structural issues raised by the report. Secondly, there was a widespread expectation that the new Executive would initiate a review of public administration, and that has now been confirmed in the Programme for Government.
Thirdly, we took the view that our priority was to try to meet the needs of the new institutions and that the resources - particularly human resources - we should need to put into a quinquennial review might be better used, at least in devolution's first year, in coming to terms with the new political circumstances and the substantial workload generated. It is on hold, and we understand that Ministers may look at the question of Next Steps status in the review of public administration, but that is not absolutely clear.
I should have thought we might be likely to start looking at the quinquennial review during the course of the next calendar year, but much will depend on the review of public administration's specific terms of reference. There would be a risk of nugatory effort if our work were effectively sidelined by the wider review.
Mr Close: In that review, if it gets rolling, would they consider an independent type of agency, regarding the matters we referred to before?
Mr Quinn: Subject to whatever terms of reference Ministers set, that kind of issue could arise in the review of public administration. By and large, people tend to expect that it will be more concerned with things like the numbers, size and functions of the district councils and non-departmental public bodies. It does not seem that there is any reason why issues like that could not be brought in, but this is a matter for Ministers, as they will be setting the terms of reference for the review, and we can obviously alert them to the interest of this Committee on that kind of structural issue.
Mr Close: Paragraph 4.9 on page 50 referred to the Water Service capital works programme up to 2006, dealing with the upgrade or replacement of 36 works known to be causing environmental problems. At the time of the report, there appears to be significant slippage in its completion. Does the Environmental and Heritage Service monitor this capital works programme? What stage is it at now? These works are causing great problems.
Mr Lamont: We do not actually monitor the capital works programme, but we have direct inter-board meetings from time to time, where we make representations about elements of these works which are creating problems through overloading. My team reports back to me about these works, and I make representations on that, but I do not receive an update of progress on the capital works programme per se.
Mr Close: Could the Committee have a list of those 36 troublesome works, along with the exact stage they have reached?
Mr Lamont: Yes. We shall certainly do that.
Mr Beggs: Annexe C of the additional information which you supply to the Committee states that, during this year, only 78% of high and medium severity incidents were investigated within four hours of being notified, which is unsatisfactory. Have you considered providing training for volunteers such as anglers or water bailiffs, who may be on site or even discover the problem, so that early samples can be taken and the full severity of the pollution analysed? Surely this would be more effective than picking up samples four or five hours later, when much of if will have been washed down the stream. I believe this occurs elsewhere. Have you considered it?
The overall picture of this report on the EHS does not show it on top of its responsibilities. Paragraph 1.8 states that the service level agreements with agents recom- mended by Halcrow had not been fully implemented at the time of the report. Neither were Halcrow's proposals for river monitoring in paragraph 2.22. Bear in mind that the Halcrow report was 1989, not 1999.
Paragraph 4.21 states that, five years into the review of the Water Service, much remains to be done. Paragraph 7.8 says a letter giving warning of pollution breaching consent took three months to be issued.
You have been slow to the point of lethargic in taking the actions your own consultants and the Northern Ireland Audit Office recommended. Are you now satisfied that you have sufficient resources so that we shall not have to revisit this issue in such detail again, and that your Department has sufficient clout within the Government machine to do its job properly?
The Chairperson: Please be as brief as possible in your answer.
Mr Quinn: Broadly speaking, yes. If the draft budget is confirmed, we believe we shall have the necessary resources to make very significant advances in the performance of the EHS as a regulator as described in the report.
Mr Lamont: We have come a long way since this report and the work done leading up to it, and I am confident.
We have not addressed the role of volunteers. I should be concerned about the health and safety aspects and about authorisation for going onto land, so there are difficulties there. We rely very heavily on volunteers to report pollution. Every angler who is a member of a club receives a card detailing whom to contact should he come across anything. We see an important role for them. I am not sure to what extent we could take that further, but -
Mr Beggs: Many angling groups actually control the rights on the waters, so there is no problem of access.
Mr Lamont: Yes. Sorry for interrupting, but they may need to go onto an industrial site to look for spillages and so on. It is something worth developing. The service level agreements -
The Chairperson: It is something you could look at?
Mr Lamont: Absolutely. Service level agreements are not always appropriate in my estimation - they are between Government agencies rather than across district councils to us. I believe we have sufficient protection under the legislation dealing with the employment of public health inspectors.
Halcrow produced a very useful report. It was considered by the Department at the time, and it was agreed at the level of Under Secretary that it would not be implemented. We used it to inform our position and, instead of going for his monitoring network regime, we arrived at something that we thought more appropriate to Northern Ireland rivers.
I agree that much remains to be done, but we are making good progress. We are a vitally important organisation with a sense of vision, and the scrutiny we have gone through on this has informed our position, as you have heard from the Permanent Secretary.
Mr Delaney: I should make a point in relation to the Water Service's resources. The Water Service is the responsibility of the Minister for Regional Development, and he has signalled that very considerable long-term investment is required for it. When the Committee draws up its report, perhaps that aspect might be taken into consideration.
Mr Carrick: I should like Mr Quinn to comment on the present structures of responsibility and authority within which you must work. We know that the Water Service currently has responsibility under the Water and Sewerage Services (Northern Ireland) Order 1973 for, among other things, taking the contents of sewers to places of treatment. The EHS has responsibility under the Water (Northern Ireland) Act 1972, revised in 1999, to control pollution. The Rivers Agency has no responsibility for water - its business is drainage. There is the Fisheries Conservancy Board with responsibility under the Fisheries (Northern Ireland) Act 1966 to conserve fish stocks. It is an offence to kill fish illegally by pollution. The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development's fisheries division has responsibility for the food aspect of fish farms. The Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure has responsibility for fish health in fish farms. There is really no cohesive body. I wonder if you could comment on the effectiveness and efficiency of the current structures. Do you see any merit in rationalising or streamlining what are clearly substantially cross-cutting structures?
Mr Quinn: I can see how the existing structures would be an affront to someone with a tidy mind. They work quite well in practice, for the relationships are very good, particularly between our Department and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. I am somewhat constrained in what I say, since the structures were effectively endorsed by the Northern Ireland political parties in December 1998. I am not sure that it is appropriate for an official to offer a public critique. We shall have to give our Minister advice when it comes to the review of public administration. May I have a bit of elbow room on this, Mr Carrick? It would be inappropriate for me to go much further.
Mr Carrick: I appreciate the sensitivity from your point of view, Mr Quinn. However, if there clearly is unnecessary overlapping, duplication, falling between two stools, and inefficiency, it is quite unacceptable from a public purse point of view.
Mr Quinn: If we thought that were the case, we should draw attention to it through advice to our Minister. I should like to make one point about The Department of the Environment and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. The former gives the latter's environmental protection issues a great penetration into the farming community, something we might not achieve. The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development has a relationship with the agricultural sector that is unique and very intimate.
In many ways what they do complements us. We are glad that they have a Countryside Management Division and strategy. We are glad we have a consultative mechanism with them. What the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development does is very substantially complementary to, and supportive of, what the Department of Environment - and particularly the EHS - does. I should not rush to the conclusion that having two Departments with a shared policy interest is necessarily a bad thing.
The Chairperson: It is something we shall take up.
Ms Armitage: When I read the report, I got the impression that a fine of £400 or £500 was paid by polluters and that that was the end of the story. In your answer to Séamus Close's question, it appears that there is something called a "contract debt". You have given us table 11 in the report. Would it be possible to give us more information on the actual cost incurred by the polluter, and how the damage has been paid for? It would make it clearer. I thought that was all there was to it, so perhaps at some stage you could provide us with another table with further information. I know it would be useful to me, and perhaps to the other members.
Dr R Ramsay: Those details are on our website, and I should be delighted to offer them to the Committee.
The Chairperson: No other member has indicated a wish to ask any further questions. I refer you to a point made by Mr Beggs in relation to receipts. Are you saying that the regime has changed since devolution, in that you can now use receipts where previously you could not?
Mr Quinn: We have an agreement with the Department of Finance and Personnel that receipts up to the value of £1·25 million per annum may be used to fund expenditure, particularly on employing staff on new regulatory responsibilities, and we have already started to make use of that facility.
We did not take up the full amount in the current year, partly because the people are needed, not just the money, and translating financial allocations into human resources takes time. That is a systemic change which took place after devolution. If direct rule had continued, it might not have been available to us under the old departmental running-cost regime. We should not assume absolutely that it would not have been available, but we do know that the flexibility became available after the change.
Mr Dillon: It is worth adding that it only applies to additional receipts from new regulatory activities. It does not apply to the general receipts base which we already have.
The Chairperson: That is very interesting. Mr Delaney, does this apply to all the other Departments?
Mr Delaney: I should not like to be drawn on that. It would be for another Committee and for the Assembly to decide how to handle the Northern Ireland block as a whole.
The Chairperson: That concludes the questioning. Thank you very much for coming. It seems clear that you have taken action to deal with a number of the issues raised in the report.
You would have to admit, however, that there are still many areas where progress has been slow. This report was published two and a half years ago, yet you are still not charging for industrial consents. Fewer than 50% of dischargers comply with the conditions of consent. The Water Service has not been fully regulated, and you have not yet started the consultation process to implement farm pollution control regulations. There is clearly much to be done, and as Mr Close pointed out, this Committee will keep a watching brief. We look forward to your responses. Once again, thank you.
Another matter relates to the first time you were here, and I hope you do not mind my asking this question. At that time, we asked about the new Road Safety Plan you intended to issue in early 2000. We were concerned about the delay and said in our report that this was unsatisfactory. What has happened to this plan? Has it now been published, and if so, what targets has it set? Is that a fair question to throw at you now?
Mr Quinn: The plan has not been published. The Department is now discussing the pre-draft plan with the Minister. I am not trying to be smart, but part of the reason why it has not moved on quickly is that the Department of the Environment was waiting for the Public Accounts Committee report to appear. The Minister of the Environment is considering the analysis from the Department alongside the Public Accounts Committee report. Obviously the Department is anxious to go ahead and publish it as soon as possible. However, the Committee's report raised some very challenging issues for us.
The Chairperson: I am glad to hear that.
Mr Quinn: That is not an excuse, particularly when you suggested to us that we should set a target that would narrow the gap with Great Britain. That raises all sorts of analytical and policy issues, not only for the Department of the Environment, as the co-ordinator for road safety, but also for the other key players, like the Department for Regional Development and particularly the RUC, as the principal enforcement mechanism. It has certainly required the Department of the Environment to take a little longer to try and make a way through these issues. However, the issues are being discussed with the Minister at the moment, and work is in progress.
The Chairperson: I hope you are not trying to blame us for the delay.
Thank you very much for coming. The meeting is now closed.
Letter issued on 19 October 2000 to Mr Stephen Quinn, Accounting Officer of the Department of the Environment seeking additional information for the hearing
Dear Mr Quinn
As you know, the Public Accounts Committee is to consider the Comptroller and Auditor General's report on River Pollution on Thursday, 23 November. In view of the fact that this report was published in April 1998, it will be necessary to have some of the information updated. In order to avoid the Committee having to ask for detailed information during the Hearing it would be helpful if you would provide the following information in advance. The paragraph references are those used in the C&AG's report.
1. The results of chemical and biological monitoring of rivers for 1996 to 1999 to update information in the tables in Appendix 4 of the C&AG's report.
2. How many trade consents are currently monitored by EHS and how is the total split between industrial operations and sewage operations? (paragraph 3.3).
3. The level of compliance with trade consents in 1990 and 2000 to date (paragraph 3.10).
4. The level of compliance with all existing Water Service discharge standards (paragraph 4.6).
5. The extent to which the target response time for pollution incidents has been achieved (all medium and high severity incidents within 4 hours) (paragraph 6.8).
6. The number of Water Act prosecutions 1997 to 1999 to update information in Table 8 of the report.
7. The most recent information on the total cost of the consents process and the proposed annual charge and financial factor (paragraph 8.6).
8. Figures for the highest fine and average fines 1997 to 1999, to update Table 11 of the report.
9. The current timetable for implementation of new pollution related measures under the Water Order, particularly charging and pollution control regulations. Has a consultation paper been issued on this yet?
I should be grateful if you would let me have a response not later than 3 November.
Departmental Response To The letter of 19 October 2000 to Mr Stephen Quinn, Accounting Officer of the Department of the Environment seeking additional information for the hearing
Dear Mr Rickard,
Public Accounts Committee - NIAO Report on River Pollution in Northern Ireland.
I refer to your letter dated 19 October 2000 which contained nine requests for additional information in preparation for the above hearing due on 23 November 2000. For convenience I am attaching a schedule containing the Department's response alongside each of your points and the NIAO paragraph references.
I understand that your letter contains a typographical error
and that point number 3 should have read 1999 and not 1990 as stated. I can confirm
that my Department's response to that point has been supplied accordingly.
CHEMICAL CLASSIFICATION OF RIVERS (CQA)
BIOLOGICAL CLASSIFICATION OF RIVERS (GQA)
WASTE WATER TREATMENT WORKS (WWTWs) REGULATION
The register of Water Service discharge standards has been in operation since April 1997 and compliance information is available from January 1997. This report summarises the situation with compliance of those waste water treatment works currently on the register.
SUMMARY OF HIGH AND MEDIUM SEVERITY INCIDENTS INVESTIGATED WITHIN 4 HOURS BETWEEN 01/01/00-30/09/00
SUMMARY OF HIGH AND MEDIUM SEVERITY INCIDENTS INVESTIGATED WITHIN 4 HOURS BETWEEN 01/01/99-31/12/99
SUMMARY OF HIGH AND MEDIUM SEVERITY INCIDENTS INVESTIGATED WITHIN 4 HOURS BETWEEN 01/01/98 - 31/12/98
ENFORCEMENT ACTION - IN RESPECT OF POLLUTION INCIDENTS WHICH OCCURRED DURING 1997
ENFORCEMENT ACTION - IN RESPECT OF POLLUTION INCIDENTS WHICH OCCURRED DURING 1998
ENFORCEMENT ACTION - IN RESPECT OF POLLUTION INCIDENTS WHICH OCCURRED DURING 1999
The above tables are based on data extracted from the Prosecutions Database on 27 October 2000
FINES IMPOSED BY COURTS FOR RIVER POLLUTION INCIDENTS
The above table is based on data extracted from the Prosecutions Database on 2 November 2000
Letter Issued on 19 October 2000 To Mr Peter Small, Accounting Officer Of The Department Of Agriculture And Rural Development Seeking Additional Information For The Hearing
Dear Mr Small
As you know, the Public Accounts Committee is to consider the Comptroller and Auditor General's Report on River Pollution on Thursday, 23 November.
The Committee has asked me to obtain answers to the following questions in advance of the Hearing:
1. Paragraph 5.8 of the C&AG's Report gives details of expenditure by your Department on grants for anti-pollution measures between 1988-89 and 1996-97.
Could you please provide details of expenditure on an annual basis for 1997-98 to 1999-2000 inclusive? Similarly, could you provide details of expenditure on advisory and research and development work to update the figures in paragraphs 5.23 and 5.28 respectively?
2. We understand that in May this year your Department approved a draft Countryside Management Strategy to 2005 which included proposals for future anti-pollution measures.
What is the current status of the strategy, ie has funding approval been obtained for the expenditure proposals it contains and when will it be published?
3. The strategy document envisages the setting of clear targets against which achievement of proposed policy objectives would be measured and the establishment of a strategy implementation group to monitor and direct progress (paragraph 12.7).
What targets have been set for implementing the anti-pollution proposals included in Section 12.5 of the CMS and what impact indicators are in place for monitoring progress and to ensure its effective and efficient delivery, as recommended in paragraph 5.36 of the C&AG's report?
4. Paragraph 5.31 of the C&AG's report recommended that your strategy should be consistent with DOE's Water Quality Management Plans.
What arrangements have you put in place to ensure the strategy's consistency with DOE plans?
Following receipt of your answers to the above questions, the Committee will decide whether it will be necessary for you to attend the Hearing on 23 November.
I should be grateful for a reply by 27 October.
Departmental Response to the letter of 19 October 2000 to Mr Peter Small, Accounting Officer of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development seeking additional information for the hearing
Dear Mr Rickard,
Thank you for your letter of 19 October setting out a number of questions from the Public Accounts Committee about aspects of the Department's actions on river pollution. The position in respect of each of the questions is set out below.
Q1. The relevant information is as follows:
The Committee may wish to note that since 1995 there has been no general scheme available to farmers to apply for capital grants for anti-pollution works. Also in the 1997/98 year the staff resource devoted to anti-pollution advisory work was reduced due to higher priority being given to the implementation of the Farm and Countryside Enhancement Scheme as part of the Special Programme for Peace and Reconciliation. This scheme contained a component which provided for some grant support for environmental measures including repair of waste handling and storage facilities.
Q2. The Department's Countryside Management Strategy (CMS) was the subject of a formal policy review completed earlier this year. The report on the outcome of the review was forwarded to the Department of Finance and Personnel, in accordance with required procedures, and DFP agreement to that report was confirmed last month. Work to develop a new CMS for the period to 2005 is in progress but it is not yet at a stage where Ministerial or Assembly Committee agreement has been sought. It is envisaged that, subject to consultation with the Assembly Agriculture and Rural Development Committee and approval by the Minister, the new Countryside Management Strategy will be published early in 2001.
Following the CMS review report the Department's view is that pollution directly caused by a specific agricultural incident should be addressed through a combination of regulation and well targeted advice reinforced, if resources can be made available, with targeted capital grant support for waste management and storage. It also recommended that diffuse farm source nutrient enrichment should be tackled through targeted advice and appropriate assistance with the development and delivery of nutrient management planning at farm level. The report also saw an important and enhanced role in relevant training for farmers.
As part of the Northern Ireland Rural Development Plan 2000-2006 (NIRDP), recently approved by the EU Commission, there will be a greater emphasis that farmers participating in agri-environment schemes or receiving LFA allowances do not cause pollution or otherwise harm the environment. All such farmers will have to follow a Code of Good Farming Practice, which requires them to ensure that they do not breach environmental legislation or specified verifiable standards, one of which relates to pollution, otherwise proportionate penalties will be incurred. The NIRDP also provides for the training of farmers in environmental competences including the avoidance of pollution. In addition, the Minister will be continuing to seek funds for a farm waste capital grant scheme and to assist in the development of nutrient management planning.
Q3. It is intended that the future Countryside Management Strategy will include specific targets on both the extent and the impact of the Department's activities to reduce pollution from farms. Among the targets being considered are the following:
The main impact indicator is likely to be an objective measure of the water quality in priority catchment areas - though of course agriculture will be only one of the factors contributing to water quality. A further indicator will be a reduction in the number of pollution incidents related to agriculture as recorded by DOE.
Q4. There is close liaison between the Department and DOE, including the Environment and Heritage Service (EHS), on various aspects of our anti-pollution work on both a formal and informal basis. There is a joint DARD/DOE Scientific Liaison Committee, the remit of which is to co-ordinate, review and instigate scientific activities relevant to the two Departments, including areas such as water quality and pollution. There are sub-committees, which deal with fresh water and marine science issues respectively. The Department also participates in the DOE-led Water Quality Management Committee which co-ordinates the activities of all relevant Government Agencies in respect of river quality. There is also regular bilateral and informal contact. For example, DOE is involved with the Department in selecting the priority river catchments for targeted advisory action. Following the NIAO Report, this Department established a joint Government/Industry group to consider means of reducing the overuse of phosphates by the agriculture industry. This group involves DOE officials.
It is envisaged that, in addition to these existing mechanisms, DOE will be represented on the group which it is proposed to set up to oversee the implementation of the future Countryside Management Strategy. In these ways we should ensure the consistency of the DARD approach on anti-pollution action with DOE's water quality management planning.
I trust that the above information will meet the needs of the Committee. I am sending a copy of this letter to the Minister here, to the Accounting Officer in DOE and to the Treasury Officer of Accounts.
Letter issued on 5 December 2000 to Mr Stephen Quinn, Accounting Officer of the Department of the Environment seeking additional information following the hearing
Dear Mr Quinn
During the Hearing on River Pollution, you undertook to supply the Committee with the following information:
1. An update on the current level of compliance achieved by the 12 non-compliant dischargers in Table 9, page 73 of the C&AG's report.
2. Information on the Water Service Works Programme - the list of Works for which environmental improvements are planned, the current status of the planned Works and a list of the 36 troublesome Works.
3. Details of fines and costs paid by convicted polluters in the years since the C&AG's report was published. In addition, details of clean-up costs paid as contract debts to the Environment and Heritage Service in the same period.
In addition, I should be grateful if you would supply copies of the Service Level Agreements you now have in place with the Fisheries Bodies and copies of the work programmes and management regimes for local government employees.
I would appreciate if this additional information could be provided by 5th January 2001.
Departmental response to the letter of 5 December 2000 to Mr Stephen Quinn, Accounting Officer of the Department of the Environment seeking additional information following the hearing
Dear Mr Rickard
Public Accounts Committee - NIAO Report on River Pollution in Northern Ireland
1. At the hearing on 23 November 2000, the Department undertook to supply five additional items by way of an update to the Committee. Your letter of 5 December 2000 also refers. The following items are attached:
(1) A table providing an update on Table 9 (page 73 of NIAO Report), which listed 12 non-compliant consented industries; [Annex 6A]
(2) A schedule showing the current position in relation to the 36 priority Waste Water Treatment Works (an update of page 50 of the NIAO Report); [Annex 6B]
(3) (i) Tables (C) detailing the costs awarded by the Courts in addition to fines imposed for pollution in respect of 1998 and 1999 incidents; [Annex 6C] and
(ii) Table (D) detailing clean-up costs paid to the Department in respect of incidents which occurred during 1998 and 1999 [Annex 6D].
(4) Annual Work Programme relating to the provision of Water Quality Unit field services by the two Fisheries Bodies, and local government employees (Environmental Health (Rivers) Officers and Water Quality Inspectors); [Forwarded to Committee Clerk] and
(5) Executive summaries of the Foyle, Erne and Lagan proposals for Water Quality Management Strategies [Forwarded to Committee Clerk].
2. Some further explanation is offered in relation to (4) and (5) above:
3. In relation to the EHRO/WQI work programme, the actual sample lists which are referred in the test are not, as in the case of the Loughs Agency and FCB, issued with the work programme. For a number of practical reasons, including policy on doing business electronically where possible, these are e-mailed to the field staff. The 'master' list which covers all the sample and site visits which WQU requires the field staff to undertake in the coming year is common to both the Fisheries Bodies and the EHRO/WQI programmes. A copy has been attached as an annex to the EHRO/WQI work programme. However, the programme itself refers to various lists of, for example, sewage works and industrial premises, and these are also sent to field staff in the form of various electronic files which are large documents, running to a total of over 130 pages. These detailed lists of sample sites have not been attached but can be made available to the Committee if required.
4. The sample programme reflects the requirements of a number of sections within the Water Quality Unit. Once the programme has been agreed and sent out to field staff, it is the responsibility of individual section heads within the Unit to ensure that the samples which have been requested have actually been taken and delivered to the laboratory for analysis.
5. Management of the work programmes is undertaken through quarterly meetings with the appropriate representatives of the service providers. In the case of the Fisheries Boards, meetings are held with Chief Executives and in the case of the Group Public Health Committees with the Group Chief Environmental Health Officer. In the case of Belfast City Council representation is at Deputy Chief Environmental Health Officer level. The current practice is that the Principal Scientific Officer (responsible for pollution prevention and control) and the Emergency Pollution Officer from WQU meet the Group Chief Environmental Health Officers individually twice per year, and as a group twice per year. Where possible, the meetings are phased to coincide with quarterly returns from the service providers. The returns, which are required by WQU as part of the work programme, include detailed time sheets and financial returns. The information obtained from these returns, along with other relevant management information, is collated by WQU staff for discussion at the quarterly meetings.
Water Quality Management Strategies
6. At the hearing on 23 November 2000, it was stated by the Department that Proposals for Water Quality Management Strategies for the three catchments had been published during 1997 and 1998 and that a contract had been let to a consultant to revisit the Erne and Foyle documents. The purpose of this contract is, inter alia, to establish to what extent the proposals have been effected or adopted by the various agencies and sectors which have responsibility for their implementation. There has been substantial progress in some of the key areas for which recommendations were made, such as the implementation of a eutrophication strategy. Key players such as Water Service have undertaken work to assess the implications of the recommendations for their area of responsibility and in a number of areas the documents have been used as a reference point in EHS dealings with other Agencies.
7. I hope that this additional information is useful to the Committee. Please do not hesitate to contact me if you require clarification of any of the items enclosed.
UPDATE ON CASES LISTED IN TABLE 9., PAGE 73 OF NIAO REPORT ON "CONTROL OF RIVER POLLUTION IN NORTHERN IRELAND"
36 Priority Waste Water Treatment Works
COSTS AND FINES IMPOSED UNDER THE WATER ACT (NORTHERN IRELAND) 1972 FOR POLLUTION INCIDENTS DATED 01/01/98 - 31/12/98
COSTS AND FINES IMPOSED UNDER THE WATER ACT (NORTHERN IRELAND) 1972 FOR POLLUTION INCIDENTS DATED 01/01/99 - 31/12/99
Clean Up Costs
Letter issued on 9 January 2001 to Mr Stephen Quinn, Accounting Officer of the Department of the Environment informing him of amendments to draft Hansard
Dear Mr Quinn
Control of River Pollution in Northern Ireland - Minutes of Evidence
Thank you for your letter of 5 December 2000 detailing your proposed changes to the draft PAC Minutes of Evidence from the Session held on 23rd November.
As per my telephone conversation yesterday with Mr Dillon, I wish to confirm that all the proposed amendments have been made except for one proposed on Page 78 of the minutes.
In this section, you recommended that "We have service level agreements with the fisheries bodies." should be changed to "We have a service level agreement with IRTU". However, in our review of the video evidence Mr Lamont clearly used the term "fisheries bodies". Since this answer had a significant impact on the questions following this, we cannot implement your recommendation.
However, if you issue a letter explaining that an error had inadvertently been made in the evidence given, this will be taken on board in the drafting and publication of the PAC Report.
I am grateful for your co-operation in this matter.
Departmental Response to the letter issued on 9 January 2001 concerning amendments to draft Hansard
Control of River Pollution in Northern Ireland - Minutes of Evidence
I am replying to your letter of 9 January in the absence of the Permanent Secretary on annual leave.
In relation to Mr Lamont's evidence, it is fully accepted that the term "fisheries bodies" was used. This was, however, a genuine mistake as Mr Lamont is fully aware that neither the Fisheries Bodies nor the District Councils have Service Level Agreements (SLAs) with the Department. In relation to its agents the Environment and Heritage Service has an SLA only with the Industrial Research and Technology Unit for the provision of laboratory services.
The Department regrets if this slip caused any confusion for Committee members in their subsequent questioning or deliberations.
I would be grateful therefore if allowance could be made for this inadvertent error in the drafting and publication of the PAC Report.
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