Official Report: Tuesday 09 February 2016

The Assembly met at 10:30 am (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes' silence.

Assembly Business

Plenary Business: 8 February 2016

Mr Speaker: As all the business in yesterday's Order Paper was considered, we will move on.

Executive Committee Business

That the Environmental Better Regulation Bill [NIA 55/11-16] do now pass.

I am delighted that the Environmental Better Regulation Bill has at last progressed to its Final Stage. The Bill is a very worthwhile and positive development and, as I said during the Second Stage debate, is to be welcomed by all Members. I am grateful that that has proved to be the case thus far.

First, I express my thanks to the Environment Committee for the broad support that it has given to the Bill following its detailed and thorough scrutiny of the clauses and for its further engagement with a wide range of key stakeholders. The Committee's constructive and helpful recommendations brought about some amendments at Consideration Stage that improved and strengthened what was already a very solid Bill. I also express my thanks to my Executive colleagues and to Members for their ongoing support for the Bill, right from the start of the process to its present Final Stage.

Aristotle is credited with saying:

"Even when laws have been written down, they ought not always to remain unaltered."

Currently, Northern Ireland environmental regulators operate under 230 pieces of environmental legislation, which has produced a complex and unwieldy legislative landscape that is difficult for the regulated to understand and for the regulators to enforce. It is clearly a system that should no longer remain unaltered. The Environmental Better Regulation Bill aims to harmonise and simplify aspects of that body of environmental legislation. Better environmental regulation will mean a cleaner, safer environment for all. It will also mean that businesses will benefit from the simplification and reduction of the legislative burden under which they operate, while the Department will benefit from a more cost-effective use of its resources.

The Bill is an important step in my Department's regulatory transformation programme, which will deliver an innovative and streamlined regulatory system that supports sustainable growth and increases compliance in the 21st century. The programme includes an ambitious and extensive programme of legislative reform, operational delivery and modernisation of supporting frameworks to create a more effective and intelligent regulatory system that is risk-based and outcome- and customer-focused. The overall agenda is to develop a framework for smarter, better regulation that works in partnership with businesses and contributes to a new strategic objective for the Department.

The Bill, as I have said previously, is primarily enabling legislation, and has already been thoroughly examined and spoken about in great detail during its passage to this point. I will therefore refer only briefly to its key provisions.

Part 1 and schedule 1 enable my Department to introduce an environmental permitting regime to replace the existing array of permits. This will reduce red tape for compliant operators and allow the Department to focus on higher-risk activities. Subordinate legislation, supporting measures and guidance will be developed to deliver the new regime. It is intended in particular that regulations made under the power will simplify and rationalise a wide range of existing measures relating to pollution prevention and control, waste management licensing, the water environment and radioactive substances. The aim is to move towards a single regulatory structure that will be significantly easier to use for both the Department and the businesses carrying on regulated activities.

Part 2 commits my Department to a review of all environmental powers of entry and associated powers to ensure that the powers are still justified and are used proportionally. During that review, my Department will also examine whether similar powers could be consolidated with a view to a more transparent and simplified regime for businesses and regulators. A report will be produced after the review, outlining findings and proposals on how my Department intends to reform powers of entry and associated powers, using the enabling powers outlined in the Bill. The report will be laid before the Assembly, and any enacting of the reforms outlined in the review through future legislation will be subject to consultation, as outlined in the Bill.

Part 2 also commits my Department to prepare a code of practice that authorised persons must have due regard to. The code, which will be laid in draft before the Assembly, will set out in detail the guidance and considerations that apply before, during and after powers of entry and associated powers are exercised. The purpose of the code is to ensure greater consistency in the exercise of powers of entry and provide greater clarity for those affected by them.

Part 3 contains amendments to the Clean Air Order 1981 that will provide for a new streamlined method for listing authorised fuels and exempted fireplaces for use in a smoke control area. The new arrangements will streamline the process for authorisation, with newly approved fuels and exempted fireplaces being authorised for use in smoke control areas each month, rather than the lengthy preparation of six-monthly regulations by my Department. It will also reduce the delay that manufacturers and consumers currently face when new fuels and fireplaces are brought onto the market.

Part 4 contains amendments to the Environment (NI) Order 2002, which are deregulatory measures to remove the requirement for a further assessment when an air quality management area has already been agreed. That will allow district councils to prepare and implement air quality action plans more quickly and avoid duplicating information already gathered, either in the earlier detailed assessment stage or in the preparation of the air quality plan. The change will have no impact on businesses and is in line with the view of local authorities in the rest of the UK, who see further assessments as an unnecessary burden that is an impediment to the speedy preparation and implementation of local air quality action plans.

Part 5 contains amendments to the Water and Sewerage Services (NI) Order 2006, which will transfer responsibility for the regulation of drinking water quality for public supplies from DRD to DOE. DOE currently has responsibility for private drinking water supplies. That will result in a more streamlined, efficient and transparent administrative structure that is in line with the aims of the better regulation agenda. It will help businesses and consumers by removing the potential for confusion over which Department is responsible for the regulation of public and private supply. There will be no changes in regulatory impacts on businesses, as my Department’s Drinking Water Inspectorate’s regulatory functions will remain the same.

I commend the Environmental Better Regulation Bill to the House.

Ms Lo (The Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment): On behalf of the Environment Committee, I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Final Stage of the Environmental Better Regulation Bill.

The Bill was introduced to the Assembly in June 2015, and the Committee undertook its detailed scrutiny of it and reported to the Assembly in November. The Committee recognises that, as environmental regulation has developed over time, it has become complex, with different inspection regimes and different rules making it confusing for businesses. The Committee is aware that the Bill is one aspect of a wider regulatory transformation programme aimed at reducing the burden of regulation on business.

The Bill is in essence a skeleton Bill, meaning that the real operation of the Act would be made entirely by the regulations under it. The Committee recognises the merits of better regulation. However, it is important that, as the subordinate legislation programme is developed, standards are not lowered as a result of simplifying and streamlining environmental regulation. A balance must be struck between streamlining the regulatory regime and not compromising the Northern Ireland Environment Agency’s compliance and enforcement role.

The Bill has been improved and strengthened because of amendments that the Environment Committee persuaded the Department to accept in the following specific areas. As the Bill is an enabling Bill, the Committee ensured that the level of protection afforded to the Assembly in the scrutiny of the regulations was sufficient. The Committee sought an amendment to extend this scrutiny to the Department’s draft code of practice in relation to powers of entry and associated powers. The Committee expressed concern that the Bill gave the Department broad powers and that the definition of "environmental activities" in Part 1 of the Bill was wide-ranging and all-encompassing. Therefore, the Committee sought the removal of powers provided to the Department in schedule 1 to further define or modify the definition of "environmental activities" and to specify additional environmental activities. The Committee also ensured that the purpose of the Bill — streamlining and reducing the regulatory burden while protecting and improving the environment — was reflected in the Bill. I believe that the Committee’s detailed consideration of the Bill has ensured that there is sufficient scrutiny of the regulations and that the protection of the environment remains at the forefront of any regulatory programme.

10.45 am

I would like to conclude my comments by taking this opportunity to place on record my thanks to all those organisations and individuals who took the time to provide written and oral evidence to the Committee and the members of the Committee, past and present, for their contributions during Committee Stage. I also thank the Minister and his officials for their positive engagement with the Committee, during and after Committee Stage, and for taking the Committee’s amendments on board. Last but not least, I thank the Committee staff for their valuable assistance during the entire process of the passage of the Bill. On behalf of the Committee, I support the Bill.

Mrs Cameron: As a DUP member of the Environment Committee, I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Final Stage of the Environmental Better Regulation Bill.

While this is largely a technical Bill and many of the key points have been covered, not only today but in previous stages, I wish to voice my support for the Bill and the principles on which it is based. The core function of the Bill is to streamline environmental regulation while robustly protecting the environment and, in turn, ensuring that businesses are able to operate in a more efficient and cost-effective manner.

The Bill will amend the Clean Air (Northern Ireland) Order 1981, the Environment (Northern Ireland) Order 2002 and the Water and Sewerage Services (Northern Ireland) Order 2006 to provide a framework that is easier to regulate, understand and operate. Under the Bill, the existing separate regimes governing waste, pollution, water and radioactive substances will be brought together into a single piece of legislation ensuring greater uniformity and ease of use.

In passing through the various stages, the Committee has sought to ensure that those who comply with environmental regulations are free to continue their good practices unburdened by red tape, and that will, in turn, I hope, free up resources to pursue those who are failing in their environmental responsibilities. By freeing up those resources, serial offenders or those who seriously breach regulations will be dealt with severely and quickly. On the other hand, businesses that have breached the regulations through error or misinterpretation will receive support and guidance to help achieve compliance.

At Consideration Stage, I used the example of the disproportionately high levels of fish kills in my constituency of South Antrim and will mention it again, as it highlights the tangible difference that the Bill will make. During the last five years, 20 pollution incidents have occurred, decimating fish stocks and the associated delicate ecosystems of major tributaries of Lough Neagh. Yet only half of these have resulted in prosecution. Such incidents of environmental crime are happening right across Northern Ireland, and, as the culprits are continually going unpunished, they are free to carry on flouting the law. Passing the Bill will release much-needed capital to allow our statutory bodies to use additional resources to swiftly bring offenders to justice.

Parts 1 and 2 of the Bill will make businesses more aware of what is required of them and make it easier for the Department to assess and implement compliance. It will also include parts of EU legislation that have previously been excluded and simplify the rules for powers of entry. During scrutiny of the Bill, I am pleased that we were able to add some much-needed clarity to Parts 1 and 2 to allow for greater understanding of the purpose and objectives of the Bill. It also better outlines the basis of what will be enforced in the future.

Parts 3, 4 and 5 provide streamlined methods for listing authorised fuels and exempted fireplaces for use in smoke-free zones, which will mean that businesses will have to wait for only one month before they are passed for use, instead of the current six. These Parts also transfer the regulation of drinking water quality from DRD to DOE, and I believe that to be a pragmatic and sensible approach given the Department's expertise in dealing with water quality matters. Given the amalgamation of the Departments of Environment and Agriculture in the next mandate, I also feel that this is a practical move to reduce red tape.

This Bill is to be welcomed for the environment and for businesses in Northern Ireland. Whilst I fully appreciate that over- and, indeed, under-regulation can only result in poor outcomes, this Bill strikes an appropriate balance and takes a user-friendly approach to environmental regulation. I would like to reiterate that the Bill is not intended in any way to dilute the importance of environmental regulation. Its sole purpose is to reduce bureaucracy and make it easier for businesses to fulfil their environmental obligations. That is to be welcomed.

I am assured that it will be of vast benefit to our environment through quicker, more streamlined action for those who fail to comply with regulation and that less cumbersome legislation can only provide better results for Northern Ireland businesses. I support the Bill.

Mr Boylan: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom labhairt i bhfabhar an Bhille. I will speak in favour of the Bill at its Final Stage. I start by putting on record my thanks to the Chair for the way in which she conducted business on the Bill and for all her work as Chair of the Committee. I know that she is leaving at the end of the mandate, and I thank her for her contribution. I take this opportunity to thank Mr Alban Maginness, who has made a valuable contribution to the Environment Committee over the last number of years. I also thank the departmental officials and the Minister for the way that they worked with the Committee.

The Minister outlined that the Bill will bring about a simplified regime and harmonise all environmental regulations, especially EU regulations and regulations on environmental practices. This is good legislation, but, as the Chair said, it is a skeleton Bill. The devil will be in the detail of the way in which the regulations are rolled out, and maybe the Minister will touch on that. We are going into a new and bigger Department, and I want to ensure that what we legislate for today will not be lost in the bigger Department. How the legislation and the regulations roll out will be telling.

On the face of it, what we are trying to do will mean that there is less of a burden on businesses. It is vital that, when we bring forward further regulations, we talk to and engage with businesses. Through the scrutiny process in Committee, we suggested amendments at Consideration Stage. Those were then brought forward by the Minister, and that is to be welcomed. If we are to get this right, we must continue to work with businesses. We have struck a balance in what we are trying to do with the Bill: some of the regulations and the subordinate legislation will strike a balance between helping and supporting the industry and improving our environment. I welcome the Final Stage of the Bill.

Mr A Maginness: I support the Bill — no surprise there. This is another example of good work and cooperation between the Environment Committee, the Department and the Minister, Mr Durkan. It is fashionable to be very critical of this institution — the Assembly — and say that we are all wasters, we are doing nothing, we are bringing politics into disrepute and so on. That is the view expressed by the commentators who populate television, radio and the press, but, in fact, lots of valuable work is done by the Assembly. I congratulate everybody in the Assembly who contributes to that work, particularly on Committees. This is a good example of the Committee working very well to bring about good legislation in cooperation with the Minister and under the very able chairmanship of Anna Lo. I pay tribute to her work on the Committee over a number of years. In the period that I have been on the Committee, I found that she gave considerable and significant leadership. She brings a particular passion to the whole issue of the environment. As Committee members, it is right and proper that we acknowledge that, as, indeed, Mr Boylan mentioned.

The two Members who spoke before me referred to the Bill as a skeleton. Flesh will be put on the bones. That flesh will be the regulations as they come through. You need this basic piece of law to build on in order to bring about what the Minister quite properly said is his objective: to get the right balance, to simplify the burden of regulation for those involved with the environment, to remove a level and burden of cost on individual businesses and individuals, and to streamline the regulatory framework and make it innovative. The Minister is right that this will establish a more intelligent framework and context in which we address the issue of the environment. That must be the strategic objective for the Department of the Environment. Mr Boylan quite properly said that the Department of the Environment will be subsumed and divided, like Gaul, into three parts. However, it will continue to exist in successor Departments. It is very important that, in dealing with the environment, we set the proper regulatory and legal basis for it to continue its good work. I hope that the successor Departments will take that challenge seriously. I know that the Minister has taken it seriously; Minister Durkan has proven to be a very able, effective and innovative Minister. I hope that that position will remain with whomever takes over from Mr Durkan in the near future.

I congratulate everybody involved — the officials, the Department and the Committee. I reiterate that the Committee has undertaken good work in relation to the Bill. I hope that the House will be unanimous in supporting it.

Mr Speaker: As this is Mr Alastair Patterson's first opportunity to speak as a private Member, I remind the House that it is the convention that a maiden speech is made without interruption.

Mr Patterson: I very much welcome the opportunity to make my first contribution to the House. Before I make a few wider comments, as the Ulster Unionist Party's new spokesperson for the environment, I will say that I am glad to see the Bill completing its legislative process. I was also pleased to see that, when the Assembly previously debated the Bill, it resulted in several further amendments being made. It was Sandra Overend who sat on the Committee. I know, from talking to her, that it was maybe not the most typical of Bills, even to someone completely new to the House. The Bill sounds well-meaning, but it is, undoubtedly, light on detail in new policy direction. Having read the Committee report, I realise that the Bill is what is considered to be enabling legislation. Therefore, I wish the new Department well in its efforts to reform and modernise our new regulatory framework through regulations. However, I urge the next Minister to realise the importance of genuine consultation with not only the Committee but the industries that will need to comply with the new framework.

I am deeply humbled and honoured at my recent selection by the constituency association of Fermanagh and South Tyrone to carry on the mandate and excellent work of the elected Member Tom Elliott MP, who was an outstanding representative for Fermanagh and South Tyrone in the House since his first election here in 2003.

Tom has been a tireless worker for the people of his constituency and for all the people of Northern Ireland. Following his success in the election of May 2015, he proudly represents our constituency and the Ulster Unionist Party in our mother Parliament at Westminster.

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I also pay tribute to my predecessor Mr Neil Somerville, who sadly resigned due to ill health. I am pleased to inform the House that, at a recent handover meeting, Neil informed me that his health is improving and that he is doing much better. I am sure that the entire House would like to join me today in wishing Neil continued, improving and good health in the days, weeks, months and years that lie ahead. Neil made the brave decision to resign from the House, and I want to put on record my thanks to him for all that he has done for Fermanagh and South Tyrone. I wish him, his wife and his family God's richest blessing going into the future.

Representation of the people of Fermanagh and South Tyrone has been passed to me. I certainly look forward to the challenges that lie ahead over the next few busy weeks in the House as the term comes to an end. I want to build on the legacy of my predecessors and provide strong representation. I promise to work tirelessly for all the people of my amazing and picturesque constituency, which has so much to offer.

I want to bring my 20 years of successful business experience in the construction industry to the House and work towards building a better future for all our people, regardless of religion, political stance, race or gender. I want to build a Northern Ireland that we can all be proud of and that people from all over the world want to visit.

Representing Fermanagh and South Tyrone, an area of outstanding natural beauty where tourism is extremely important, I pledge myself to working with all Members to promote, whenever and wherever we can, what Northern Ireland has to offer, especially in this year of food and drink. We must ensure that we promote hospitality to all. I confess to having a vested interest in the area of hospitality, as my wife, Olga, is chair of Hospitality Ulster. Trust me, Mr Speaker, going home does not even bring about quietness, as I am often lobbied there on the needs of our hospitality industry and its request to reform Northern Ireland's outdated licensing laws.

Health will be one of my priorities in the House. On behalf of our people, I will be pressing our Health Minister on the need for more resources, in particular for the South West Acute Hospital, which sadly does not even have full-time doctor cover at weekends. That is extremely sad. It seems that you are not allowed to be sick at weekends. Another issue that has shocked me already is the sheer length of time that patients are forced to wait for diagnostic tests and treatment. In particular, it is extremely unacceptable that the number of people forced to wait longer than the maximum 18 weeks for an appointment with a consultant in the South Tyrone has jumped from 16 three years ago to a massive 1,414 at the end of last year. There was a similar upsurge at the South West Acute Hospital from 38 to 1,566. Keeping so many people waiting for so long, all of whom are experiencing a great deal of anxiety and many of whom are in pain, is simply unacceptable.

Education will be another priority —

Mr Speaker: I am obliged to remind you that we are discussing an environment Bill. I would be very happy if you would contain your remarks to the subject matter in front of us.

Mr Patterson: I will be seeking clarification from the Education Minister about why, after 10 years, the pupils of Devenish College still do not have the new school that they were promised. The cramped conditions of their existing, outdated school campus certainly are not helping their education.

On this day, I make it clear that it is my priority to represent all the people of my constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone. I make it clear to all Members that I will extend the hand of friendship to them all to work for the benefit of all the people. I was brought up in a very traditional home, and I was taught by my mother and my late father to show respect to all. I want to build an approach to al