Motion to Approve
My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of the All-Party Minerals Group. It is important that the whole House is aware of the concerns for the mineral industry expressed in Grand Committee over these regulations.
The Minister stated on 2 March that existing category A facilities must have a permit in place,
“by May 2012. This should allow sufficient time for operators to apply for their permits”.—[Official Report, 2/3/10; col. GC 381.]
In fact, operators of a category A facility will be required to submit applications by April 2011. No guidance has yet been published to indicate what information these operators must provide or how soon they will know the designation of their category. When will they have these answers?
It is still unclear exactly which sites will be category A, where a refusal of a permit would result in operations being forced to cease. Closure is a complex process, and closing such a facility prematurely and suddenly could pose greater risk to life, health and the environment than allowing time for proper engineering and other procedures. This would clearly run counter to the principal aims of the mining waste directive of protecting the environment and human health.
Ceasing operations could have a severe economic impact on the industry by disrupting the production and supply of minerals essential to the UK economy.
There are already very effective regulations and controls in place in this country. Interestingly, Germany and Sweden have decided that their existing controls are sufficient to comply with the new EU directive. Many believe that the UK could have taken this view. The UK minerals industry has an exemplary safety record and there have been no significant incidents since the 1964 Aberfan disaster.
The industry welcomes efforts to protect environmental and public health. Introducing a formal arbitration or mediation process between operators and the local authority emergency planning services would prevent unnecessary refusals and the resultant impact on the supply of essential minerals. This process could also help to ensure that permits were in place by May 2012, as required by the mining waste directive. I would be grateful if the Minister could explain when people will know which category they are in and what information they need to provide.
My Lords, I echo the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner. These regulations are on an area where there is a very strong obligation—a must—for the authorities to refuse a permit for ongoing mining where there is even a question that there might not be sufficient information to make a plan, even though that might not be in the control of the company concerned. Given the timescale, it is important that this is looked at again, and I too would very much appreciate the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Lords, who also spoke with great strength during the deliberations on the regulations in Committee. At that stage I undertook to write further on this issue, and it was quite clear that the response which I gave at the time was not entirely satisfactory to the noble Baroness or the noble Lord, nor indeed to the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, who also raised the issue in Committee. I had in process a draft of a letter to respond to all noble Lords who participated in the Committee; but when it became clear that the noble Baroness was going to raise this issue in the House on the regulations—an unusual initiative, but one which is perfectly proper—I looked again at the letter and felt that we needed more work on it in an area in which all noble Lords recognise is both very important and very difficult.
We have to balance the obvious rights of the industry with regard to how it complies with the regulation and the timetable. At the same time, we may be dealing with an emergency position in which the actual process is a threat to public health in some respects. Because of that difficulty there is a real issue, as far as the Government are concerned, in balancing these two points. I thought I had given, in Committee, the assurance that the Government were engaged upon substantial work in this area. I will write to the noble Baroness—I was going to say “almost immediately”, but the delay of just a few days that we have had is a reflection of the difficulty of the issue. I assure her and the noble Lord, Lord Teverson—and the House, of course—that this intervention today has merely emphasised the importance of that reply, and I will ensure that it is in the hands of noble Lords who participated in the Committee as quickly as I possibly can.