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Scotland’s secret environmental shame revealed

Freedom of Information uncovers breaches

By Rob Edwards, Environment Editor

The Scottish Executive is under investigation by the European Commission for 32 alleged breaches of laws on nature conservation, waste, fishing, sewage treatment, farming and environmental assessment.

Ministers stand accused of failing to protect endangered wildlife, failing to recycle enough waste and not controlling pollution. They are also charged with exceeding quotas for catching fish at sea, poor sewage treatment and breaking agricultural rules.

The revelations come in the first official account of the legal actions affecting Scotland that are being pursued by the commission. A list of all the European “infraction cases” was released to the Sunday Herald by the Scottish Executive last week in response to a request under the new Freedom of Information Act.

The Executive has never admitted to so many cases before. If they are not resolved, the commission has the power to impose daily fines amounting to millions of pounds.

Six of the cases have reached the final stage of being referred to the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg. In nine cases, final written warnings have been received, and in 17 cases there have been initial written warnings.

Of the 32 breaches, 31 are of environmental, agricultural or fishing directives. The exception is a breach of a directive laying down minimum standards for temporary protection in the event of a “mass influx” of asylum seekers.

There are five breaches of laws on nature conservation, five on waste and five on fishing. Urban waste water, agricultural and environmental assessment directives are each breached four times, with two breaches each on freshwater and plant legislation.

“I’m shocked at the sheer breadth of the alleged breaches of environmental law, ranging across almost the entire remit of the Scottish Executive’s environment and rural affairs department,” said the Green environment speaker, Mark Ruskell MSP.

He promised to pursue ministers about the breaches in the Scottish Parliament this week. “Protection of the environment is looking increasingly slack under the watch of a LibDem-controlled ministry in the Executive,” said Ruskell. “We should be aiming for the gold medal of environmental and human rights protection in Europe instead of unlawfully breaking the most basic standards of care.”

Although the Executive listed the laws that are the subject of the 32 infringement proceedings, it refused to disclose the substance of the European Commission’s allegations. That, it said, was outwith the scope of the Freedom of Information Act, and was the responsibility of the Cabinet Office in Whitehall.

Nevertheless, the Sunday Herald has pieced together most of the breaches, using information from the commission and other informed sources. The commission’s environment spokeswoman, Lone Mikkelsen, confirmed that there were “concerns” about the implementation of six directives.

There were problems over the protection offered to endangered species, including the capercaillie, the golden eagle and wild salmon, she said. And on waste, there are thought to be failures to properly define hazardous waste, to recycle sufficient waste oil and to bring in plans to recycle waste electronic equipment like computers.

On fish, failures include breaches of the quotas set for catches of individual species under the common fisheries policy. The UK has also been accused of not doing enough to enforce the rule on catches, leading to landings being misreported and under-recorded.

The urban waste water directive is being breached in at least two ways. Too few septic tanks have been replaced by proper sewage works, and no secondary sewage treatment has been introduced for residents in Lerwick, Shetland.

The environmental assessment directive is being infringed by the lack of any statutory requirement for the developers of Crown land to prepare proper impact assessments and consult the public. Neither is enough being done to protect freshwater fish from pollution, or to curb contamination of waterways by nitrates from fertilisers.

Several rules on foot-and-mouth disease, the movement of farm animals and the trade in plants are also being broken. The most bizarre breach is of a directive controlling trade in “semen of domestic animals of the bovine species”.

“The commission has raised concerns about a number of areas where more could be done by the UK authorities, including the Scottish authorities, in ensuring compliance with environmental law,” said Mikkelsen.

“In general it can be said that the Scottish authorities have adopted a pro-active and constructive approach in responding to concerns of the commission.”

Environmental groups, however, are less kind. “For the first time, thanks to the new freedom of information laws, we can see the full extent of the Scottish Executive’s problems in complying with European law on the environment,” said Dr Richard Dixon, head of policy with WWF-Scotland.

It was “highly embarrassing” for the environment minister, Ross Finnie, that 31 out of the 32 breaches fell within his portfolio, he argued. “Even without the full details, this appears to be a sorry catalogue of deadlines missed, failures to enforce the law and quibbling over interpretation.”

Dixon also criticised the Executive for withholding information on the substance of the breaches. “Civil servants are up to their old tricks, providing the minimum of information and pretending the rest lies elsewhere,” he claimed.

“ Would they refuse to tell ministers any details of these complaints on the grounds that some department in London was in charge?”

The Executive defended its refusal to give full descriptions of the 32 breaches. “These cases are part of a legal process between the two parties, therefore we cannot provide further detail at this time,” insisted an Executive spokeswoman.

“An inquiry by the commission into compliance with obligations does not mean that a member state has failed to meet its obligations under European law.

“The commission has recognised that our record of compliance with European law is favourable compared with other member states,” she added.

27 February 2005