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That there shall be deposited with the Bill a declaration signed by the Agents for the Bill, stating that the Bill is the same, in every respect, as the Bill at the last stage of its proceedings in this House in the present Session ;
That the Bill shall be laid upon the Table of the House by one of the Clerks in the Private Bill Office on the next meeting of the House after the day on which the Bill has been presented and, when so laid, shall be read the first and second
Column 414time (and shall be recorded in the Journal of this House as having been so read) and shall be ordered to be read the third time ; Ordered,
That no further Fees shall be charged in respect of any proceedings on the Bill in respect of which Fees have already been incurred during the present Session.
That these Orders be Standing Orders of the House.
Column 415Nitrate Pollution
That this House takes note of European Community Document No. 4136/89 and the Supplementary Explanatory Memorandum submitted by the Department of the Environment on 19th October 1989 relating to control of nitrate pollution ; and supports the Government's intention to ensure that Community action to control nitrate pollution takes sufficient account of the range of circumstances in each Member State.
Madam Deputy Speaker (Miss Betty Boothroyd) : I accept that point of order. Would hon. Members who are leaving the Chamber do so a little less noisily so that those who are interested in hearing what the Minister has to say about this important motion can do so?
Mr. Moynihan : The Scrutiny Committee, in its 14th report of this Session, recommended that the House should consider the proposals for a Council directive concerning the protection of fresh, coastal and marine waters against pollution caused by nitrate from diffused sources. The debate has been arranged as the result of that recommendation and I should like to emphasise the value that the Government place on hearing the opinion of the House on such proposals. I assure the House that the Government will carefully consider the points made by right hon. and hon. Members this evening.
Before describing the Commission's proposals and saying something about the Government's response to them, the House might find it helpful if I say a few words about the current stage of negotiations.
Right hon. and hon. Members will be pleased to hear that this debate is well timed. The first substantive consideration of the Commission's proposal by Environment Ministers will be at the Council in November, so my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will want to know the views of the House in advance of that discussion. However, we do not expect a final agreement on the detailed terms of the directive at this Council, rather that Ministers will give guidance for the coming negotiations.
The Commission's proposals for this directive were published in January. My hon. Friend the Minister for Health issued an explanatory memorandum on 22 February describing the proposal and, more recently, on 19 October, I issued an updating memorandum on proposed changes to the text, to which I shall refer later.
Lead responsibility for this proposal rests with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment in consultation with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. In view of the potential implications of the proposal for agriculture-- [Interruption.]
Mr. Moynihan : I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will reply to this debate. This is the first proposal from the Commission to introduce controls on diffuse sources of pollution, which arise from multiple localised small sources of pollution. That is a welcome extension of existing environmental control measures, but means that we are breaking new ground in these negotiations. The directive may come to be seen as a precedent.
In their original form, the proposals would require member states to designate as vulnerable zones areas of land which drain into the following waters : first, surface fresh waters which are intended for use for drinking water and could contain more than 50 mg of nitrate per litre if protective action is not taken ; secondly, groundwaters intended to be used for drinking water which contain more than 50 mg of nitrate per litre, or could contain more than this level if protective action is not taken ; and thirdly, water which may become eutrophic with nitrate as the limiting factor, if preventive action is not taken.
The latest Commission proposals have modified the details of these requirements, particularly as they relate to surface waters.
Mr. Teddy Taylor (Southend, East) : Would my hon. Friend answer a simple question? As he rightly said, this is a precedent, an order relating to the environment which has been produced since the publication of the Single European Act. Has he, or his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, or anyone in the Department of the Environment, asked the Commission how it can present this order when article 130R subsection 2 of the Single European Act makes it clear that any actions in the Community relating to the environment will include the principle that the polluter should pay? Since this measure makes it clear that the general taxpayer and not the polluter will pay, will the Minister explain why he is willing to consider an order which is in direct contravention of the Single European Act?
Mr. Moynihan : I know that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will be covering the important "polluter pays" principle. The 1986 nitrate co- ordination group report concluded that there were problems in applying the principle fairly to nitrate and individual producer levels. We agree with that, for several reasons.
Mr. Allan Roberts (Bootle) rose --
Mr. Moynihan : I appreciate the technical point that is being raised and I wish to assist my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor) by responding to it. First, current concentrations reflect agricultural activity and policy over decades, including the ploughing up of grassland. Secondly, different farmers following the same agricultural practice can produce significantly different nitrate leaching rates because of local circumstances.
Mr. Roberts : Will the Minister accept that his hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor) is quite right? These policies of declaring nitrate-free zones on a voluntary basis will not mean that the polluter pays but that the polluter is compensated. Compensation will actually be given to those who are polluting.
Mr. Michael Lord (Suffolk, Central) : Does the Minister agree that the two hon. Members who have just intervened are not correct because until recently what farmers have been doing has been regarded as best agricultural practice? Some sections of the community have now decided that it causes pollution. It will be hard on farmers if we start backdating in this way.
Mr. Moynihan : My hon. Friend makes a valid and important point. The latest Commission proposals have modified the details of the requirements that I have outlined, particularly as they relate to surface waters. Within those vulnerable zones, member states will be required to introduce controls on the application of chemical fertilisers and livestock manure. In the case of livestock manure, the original proposals were for limits on the amount that could be applied in terms of maximum livestock numbers per hectare of land. The Government would prefer to allow member states more discretion to adjust those limits to take account of local needs. The Commission is now suggesting an alternative limit of 170 kg per hectare. We shall need to consider whether either approach is satisfactory. Member states would also have to take further preventive measures where necessary. Those are set out in annex 3 of the proposal and could potentially be very far--reaching in their effect.
Although the Commission's proposal deals with the problem of nitrate- limited eutrophication, we do not believe that to be a significant problem in the United Kingdom, and I shall confine my remarks to the other aspects of the proposals. However, the House will be aware that other factors, such as phosphate, may also be limiting agents for eutrophication. We understand that the Commission is likely to bring forward separate proposals to control discharges of waste water, and those may involve controls on phosphate. The Government have welcomed the Commission's initiative in proposing a directive to control nitrate pollution. However, we see the need for a number of changes to be made to the detailed proposals. In particular, we consider that it is important that the proposals are sufficiently flexible to enable member states to tailor solutions to circumstances found in their particular areas. The development of Communitywide action to control nitrate is to be welcomed. Most member states have a nitrate problem, and need to take action to protect water. There are rising concentrations of nitrate in many groundwater sources in the United Kingdom. Therefore, independently of the progress of negotiations on this directive, we are taking action domestically to control nitrate reaching water sources. Other member states are also taking measures domestically and the new directive will help to ensure that all member states develop appropriate preventative measures.
The underlying problem confronting Governments in all member states in respect of nitrate, which the directive is intended to address, can be stated simply. It is the potential conflict between ensuring the long-term ready supply of wholesome drinking water, and the plentiful
Column 418supply of food. In developing policies to control nitrate, there must be recognition of both the environmental and agricultural implications of what is proposed, and a proper balance drawn between them.
The problem of controlling nitrate pollution of water sources is complex. Solutions are likely to depend on factors such as the rainfall and hydrogeology, and on the existing balance of land use in the area. However, as most nitrate found in water comes from agriculture, it is essential that agriculture contributes, where appropriate, to action to reduce high nitrate concentrations in water sources. Of course, farmers should follow good practice in respect of nitrate. But the problem goes deeper and some cases may require measures that go beyond good agricultural practice, including changes in land use.
The Commission's proposals are wholly concerned with preventative measures to control nitrate pollution. However, it is important to select solutions, or combinations of solutions, that are appropriate to local conditions. In some cases, blending before supply of water of higher nitrate content with water from another source low in nitrate, or treatment of the water to remove nitrate, could be the most effective option. Such water engineering solutions are used already--
Mr. Elliot Morley (Glanford and Scunthorpe) : Will the Minister clarify the issue of blending? Blending has so far been used to try to get within the limits laid down by the EC. Is the Minister saying that the blending will be used to continue to ensure that the water supply meets EC standards as well as the protection zones that will have to go with that, or is he suggesting that blending can be used as an alternative to the protection zones to reduce nitrate pollution in the longer term?
Mr. Moynihan : The hon. Gentleman will know that the objective is to reach the desired standard. My point is that we need to be flexible according to local conditions to make sure that that is achieved at the best possible price in the best interests of the water consumer. To that extent it is not possible simply to draw a general principle, as the hon. Gentleman would seek to establish, but where, for example, in high season there are high levels of nitrates compared with low season, blending with appropriate waters can be the right mechanism. Such water engineering solutions are used already, and will ensure that water supplies contain no more than the permitted level of nitrate.
For the Commission's proposals to be acceptable, it is important that the requirements of the directive are clear. It would be quite wrong for the United Kingdom to agree to a Community directive without being fully aware of the responsibilities it places on the United Kingdom, and the steps necessary to implement the proposal. The Commission proposals could have a major effect over wide areas of the country, but the requirements in the initial draft were obscure. We are pressing in the negotiations to remove ambiguities from the text of the directive. That is particularly important in relation to the circumstances in which land use measures should be introduced. It is also important to establish our responsibilities under the transboundary pollution provisions in respect of the North sea. The directive must also strike an appropriate balance between the environmental benefits of measures to protect sources and the economic effect of the measures on the
Column 419area in question. The treaty of Rome requires all environmental proposals to take account of the economic effect of proposed measures. This approach must apply in this case, for example, on the circumstances governing the introduction of land use measures. We are concerned that that point was not addressed in the Commission's proposals, and we are suggesting ways in which it could be incorporated.
The effect of the directive will, to a large extent, depend on the areas of the country that will be designated as "vulnerable zones" under the proposals. The size of the zones will depend on the way in which any numerical limits in the criteria are interpreted. As I have said, the initial proposal from the Commission for vulnerable zones to protect surface water was for these to be required whenever the nitrate concentration of water in a river exceeded 50 mg per litre. That is a very strict test, particularly in view of the natural variability of nitrate in river water to which I have just alluded. It would require that river water be maintained at the same quality as drinking water at all times, regardless of whether a water undertaker intends to use that river source. The Government have said that they would prefer an average level of 50 mg per litre to be used for designation of a surface water source, rather than an absolute level. We have represented to the Commission that the effect of an absolute level would be disproportionate, provided that drinking water is maintained at the appropriate quality. I believe that the Commission accepts our arguments on that point. They have proposed an alternative and rather technical approach, which is set out in the updating memorandum. We are still studying the Commission's new proposals.
The control of nitrate is a difficult and complex problem and the Community directive makes a contribution to finding solutions. We recognise that the directive as drafted would have a very extensive effect and we shall need to be sure that it allows us to strike the appropriate balance between land use for agriculture and the use of the land for water catchments. It is also essential that the directive should provide us with sufficient flexibility to match measures to United Kingdom conditions. The Government will take note of the points raised here this evening, and we shall also make sure that the European Commission is aware of the views expressed. I commend the motion to the House.
Mr. Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) : I listened with care to the Minister, who did no more than read his brief. The Government have tried persistently to belittle the problems related to nitrates and algae blooms caused by sewage discharges. The Minister gave no sign that the Government recognise that the problems need to be addressed with a little more urgency and willingness to accept the facts. Hon. Members who represent rural constituencies are well aware of the conflict of interest between those who consume water and those who farm the land. I should be surprised if any hon. Members representing rural constituencies had not received representations from people concerned about polluted water supplies and
Column 420farmers concerned about the implications of farming in a way that did not lead to nitrates getting into small and private water supplies in particular.
The problem of nitrates has to be tackled. There is a clear difference, which the Minister acknowledges, between the Commission's proposal that 50 mg should be the maximum and the Government's approach, which was first to argue for 75 mg and then to accept 50 mg as an average, which presumably means that they may allow even more than 75 mg in some cases. In a sense, the Government are seizing the Commission's initiative as an opportunity to put forward an even weaker proposal than the one that they had been prepared to negotiate. That is a genuine concern about the Government's attitude.
It is a pity that the Government are in no position to appear credible on the problem of eutrophication. The problem of polluted water, sewage effluent and sewage discharge is absolutely central to the cost of water privatisation and will have to be confronted by those who invest in the industry. It is inevitable that the Government should say that there is no problem, yet evidence from others, notably our continental neighbours, suggests that it is a serious problem and that blooms are occurring around the coast of the British Isles--which the Government will not acknowledge, but of which others are aware.
It is hardly surprising that the Government do not wish to acknowledge the problem. If they did, they would also have to accept that the cost of putting the problem right could be up to £3.5 billion. If that sum had to be absorbed, it would not make privatisation of the water industry attractive. Although the Minister has tried to present the debate as centring around a technical response to a technical initiative from the Community, it represents a much more fundamental problem that the Government have tried to duck for years. Not only have they not implemented the previous directives on nitrates ; they have actually sought to delay them. It is only in the last month that the European Commissioner has finally said that he will take the Government to court. When my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber (Sir R. Johnston) met him, the Commissioner made it clear that that was the only way that the Government would respond, given their commitment to water privatisation and their unwillingness to face the full implications of the proposals.
Unlike the hon. Member for Bootle (Mr. Roberts), I share the Government's concern about the impact of the regulations on farming and farmers. Labour Members forget that working people live and work on the land. They need their livelihood--
Mr. Allan Roberts : Is the hon. Gentleman justifying pollution and the destruction of the environment, as do some Conservative Members, on the basis that it is agricultural pollution rather than industrial pollution?
Mr. Bruce : I am not in favour of agricultural pollution, and I am in favour of the Commission's proposals. I understand that they cannot be imposed overnight. Farmers must be given a reasonable opportunity to respond, especially in current circumstances when many are facing financial difficulties. The difference between my party and the Labour party is that we are concerned about workers, whether they are in industry or in any other sector of the economy, whereas the Labour party chooses to represent only those workers who will vote Labour in certain areas.
Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth) : The hon. Gentleman and I have participated together in many debates and I have often heard him refer to the rural position. Unfortunately, when other members of his party address audiences in more urban areas they are as willing to castigate the rural areas as he is to castigate members of my party. There seems to be a difference between his hon. Friends who represent Scottish rural constituencies and his hon. Friend the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes), who takes a quite different approach to urban affairs.
Mr. Bruce : On a point of information, my seat is not rural. It is a mix of a substantial rural area and a substantial urban area. The record will show that the hon. Member for Bootle intervened in the Minister's speech and said that he was not interested in farmers. I am, and I think that the Government are, too.
My conclusion--which I hope that the Minister will address--is that we should not delay for the sake of agreement about getting the facts straight. We should ensure that there is proper time to adjust, but the Minister should acknowledge that it is not good enough to go on pretending that there is no problem, particularly in regard to eutrophication. Clearly there is a problem. The Government should accept that, one way or another, the problem must be addressed and money must be invested--not least in ensuring that we do not discharge raw sewage into the seas around our coast. We must set ourselves a timetable to eliminte that process.
Column 42210.45 pm
Mr. Anthony Steen (South Hams) : I should like briefly to tell the House something about the south Devon coastline, which is part of my constituency. Those 88 miles of coastline have more designated areas than any other coastline in the country : it is an area of outstanding natural beauty, and is called "the heritage coastline" and "an area of great landscape value". It contains a good number of conservation areas, a national park is close by it, and it has many sites of special scientific interest. Yet at Thurlestone--
At Thurlestone there is a sewage outfall which is at 300 times the Common Market beach pollution level. I am afraid that, in the summer, a swimmer contacted hepatitis A as a result of contact with sewage flowing into the sea there. At Street, some way along the coastline, raw sewage flows out to sea : it goes over the cliff through a broken pipe, having been carried through agricultural land. All the sewage of Dartmouth, together with sewage from 50 other outlets, flows into the River Dart untreated.
Mr. Steen : It is clear that Opposition Members are not taking the matter seriously ; they just want to make fun. My hon. Friends believe that this is an extremely serious debate, which will have serious consequences.
Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. The hon. Member for Warrington, North knows that he must not persistently intervene from a sedentary position. This is a serious matter, and I very much hope that the House will take it seriously.
Mr. Lord : Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for Opposition Members, simply because they dined quite well, to disrupt a very important debate? I should be grateful if you would give some thought to dealing with the hon. Member for Warrington, North (Mr. Hoyle) if he continues to carry on in this way.
Mr. Hoyle rose--
Mr. Hoyle : I am sorry, Mr. Deputy Speaker--[ Hon. Members :-- "Name him."] We cannot allow aspersions to be cast on Opposition Members who take a deep interest in debates, at whatever time they may be held. We cannot allow someone to come along and say, just because it is 10.49 pm, that certain people may or may not have dined well--and that usually applies to Conservative Members.
Mr. Steen : I have referred to the enormous amount of sewage that flows into the rivers and then into the sea along the south Devon coastline. The Government need to be more robust and active than merely taking note of a European Council directive.
On the south Devon coast there is a natural freshwater lagoon, Slapton Ley. It is a site of special scientific interest. The freshwater lagoon is separated from the sea by a few yards. It was recognised as one of the finest fish and bird sanctuaries in the country. During the last 20 years, however, the fish population has declined by 70 per cent. and the lagoon is attracting fewer and fewer birds.
A few months ago I was asked to open a bird hide for the handicapped. When I pushed the first old lady in her wheelchair into it we found that there was not a bird to be seen. The reason is simple : the rivers are polluting the lagoon. Apart form the acids pouring into the ley, South West Water is pumping sewage into it. About a year ago I started a campaign to draw the Government's attention to the fact that this site of special scientific interest in an area of great landscape value and outstanding natural beauty is being destroyed by pollution.
On 25 August 1989 a Totnes newspaper reported that I launched a campaign to clean up Slapton Ley. I explained what I thought ought to be done--that there ought to be
"a pilot scheme designed to safeguard this environmentally sensitive area."
So far, however, I have singularly failed to persuade the Government that they should take any interest in the matter. I pointed out :
"Toxic materials washed off surrounding farmland and treated sewage effluent have upset the ley's natural balance and have resulted in a serious decline in fish and bird populations".
I explained :
"The reserve, a site of special scientific interest, is being clogged by an unnatural growth of algae which blocks out sunlight and starves the water of oxygen. There is a clause in the Water Privatisation Act for wildlife havens like Slapton to be designated nitrate sensitive areas."
I received the Minister's response yesterday. I hope that I shall not embarrass him, but it shows our Government's commitment to green issues and to doing something about preserving one of the most important sites of special scientific interest. He said : "I was very sorry to hear that this nature reserve, and SSSI, appears to be deteriorating in quality and wildlife interest. Our Regional staff are of course aware of the problem and have" had meetings with various people. He continued :
"It is one of our oldest and best known SSSIS and I am sure everyone will wish that it can be quickly restored."
He then went on to say that, broadly, the problem had been identified as both nitrate and phosphate run-off from agricultural land but that there was no evidence that local farmers had not been observing good agricultural practice.
The evidence is overwhelming that the damage to fish and bird life has been caused by sewage, pumped into the ley by South West Water, and the use of nitrates and