"Keep up the good work", MPs tell HMIP

The Department of the Environment (DoE) has got off lightly from a parliamentary inquiry into its sponsorship of HM Inspectorate of Pollution (HMIP). A report by the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee is critical of the DoE's past failures to ensure that HMIP was adequately resourced and efficiently managed, but commends HMIP itself for improving its management systems and introducing a more dynamic approach to the regulation of industrial pollution.1

The Committee's inquiry followed a review of HMIP by the National Audit Office (NAO). This highlighted slippages in HMIP's enforcement programme and shortcomings in its record-keeping and management arrangements as it strove to get to grips with the workload created by the introduction of integrated pollution control (IPC) against a background of staff shortages and frictions created by the merger of four inspectorates (ENDS Report 199, pp 4-5).

Senior DoE officials were subjected to hostile questioning by the Committee when it took evidence on the NAO's report last November (ENDS Report 202, pp 28-9). But in the event the Committee's report applies only a gentle rap to the DoE's knuckles.

It was "unsatisfactory, in this key area of environmental protection, that it took four years to start to introduce effective systems for management information and performance measurement" within HMIP, the report says. The Inspectorate lacked a "systematic procedure or clear policy or priority for a firm programme to review and update site registrations and authorisations," and the reduced level of inspections in the late 1980s "posed risks to effective pollution control."

But MPs were reassured by HMIP's Director, Dr David Slater, about the efforts now in hand to set clear objectives and targets linked with systems for measuring achievements. HMIP is also looking to assure the quality of its activities by seeking accreditation under BS5750, the British Standard on management systems.

However, HMIP has been put on notice that it will be expected to maintain its progress. The Committee says it may carry out another scrutiny of HMIP "in due course," and has made several detailed recommendations on its policies and practices. These include:

  • Reporting: Publication in its annual reports of "key information" on its objectives, targets and performance.

  • Review: Monitoring of the effects of IPC on small businesses, with a stock-taking exercise after two years.

  • Public registers: "The availability of comprehensive public registers, properly compiled and kept up to date, will make a significant contribution to improved pollution control and to public confidence," the Committee says. It urges HMIP to review the success of the register system, taking into account users' views, within two years.

  • Prosecution: In recent months, HMIP has been resorting more frequently to legal action, and the Committee backs this approach. Prosecution should not be regarded by HMIP as an admission of failure on its part, it says.

  • Charges: Industry has complained loudly about the higher charges imposed by HMIP for 1992/3 to cover its costs in processing applications for, and monitoring compliance with, authorisations (see pp 33-34 ). However, the Committee's comments highlight the extent to which HMIP's hands are tied in this area. It notes that HMIP is obliged by law to recover the costs of its regulatory work, and says it should compensate for any under-recovery last year during 1992/3.

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