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Column 424phosphates by farmers. They are perfectly prepared to stop using them if the Government will compensate them for not doing so. The Minister said :
"I am afraid that MAFF cannot simply designate the Slapton area as a Nitrate Sensitive Area in our pilot scheme. The National Rivers Authority is responsible for selecting the 'candidate' areas, and they have recently notified us of areas which we are now looking at in depth before any Scheme is introduced. I am copying this correspondence to Michael Howard at the DoE, which is the Department with responsibility for sewage treatment".
How can the Minister duck an issue affecting one of the most treasured areas of this country? Why was he not more positive in his response to me? There is national concern that a site of special scientific interest is being killed off by lack of Government action. I hope that the Minister will realise that the directive has given us an opportunity to draw attention to the Government's failure to practise what they preach.
I should like to mention another problem that has arisen in south Devon and many other parts of the country--the taking of more and more water from the water system, particularly reservoirs, because of the unrestrained growth of house building. Water authorities are not telling the planning authorities that they cannot supply increasing quantities of water. They are pumping more water from the reservoirs and reducing the amount of water flowing down the old river course. Nitrates are flowing off farm land--I do not blame farmers for that--and poisoning the reduced levels of water.
I shall give as an example what is happening at the Avon dam in the Dartmoor national park, which is an area of outstanding natural beauty. When the Avon reservoir was built, 0.95cu m per second of water was diverted from the mains water supply down the old river course. That figure reduced to 0.68 in 1978 and from that to 0.026. In August 1989, South West Water applied to the Government to reduce the figure from 0.026 to 0.012. Experts said that if that had happened it would have taken three to five years to restore the river to health.
By reducing the amount of water flowing down the old river courses, we are allowing nitrates to have a powerful effect on aquatic life. We are reducing the amount of water to such an extent that nitrates are not being diluted. The reason for that is that the water authorities are not telling the planning authorities, "We cannot allow any more building until we have a greater water supply."
Instead of the water authorities refusing to allow more houses to be built until more water is available, they have allowed water to be used to such an extent that the rivers have become depleted and the poisons are not being sufficiently diluted.
Although the Minister will say that it is not his Department's responsibility but that of the Department of the Environment--they are both passing the buck--as a Government we should be committed to purifying rivers, to reducing pollution and to ensuring that more house
Column 425building is not allowed until the supply of water is adequate. We cannot continue destroying aquatic life in our rivers because we want more houses built.
It is regrettable that we are debating a matter in which Britain should be taking the lead only because the EC decided to produce a directive. However, because it has done so, we are obliged to ensure that we make fast progress in ensuring that our river life is not destroyed, that we stop building until we have enough water, and that we do not destroy our sites of special scientific interest.
Mr. Nicholas Baker (Dorset, North) : My hon. Friend is right, and what he is saying strikes a chord in all of us, especially those who represent rural areas. I think that my hon. Friend will find that his call is being responded to by our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, to judge from a speech that he made in Blackpool at a certain occasion not long ago. My hon. Friend is making the right noises, and I think that there is reason for optimism.
Mr. Steen : Because of the intervention of the hon. Member for Warrington, North (Mr. Hoyle), which took five minutes out of a speech that I had to make in 10 rather than 15, I think that it would be right for me to sit down and allow others to speak.
Mr. Allan Roberts (Bootle) : I am surprised that the hon. Member for Dorset, North (Mr. Baker) should say that Conservative Members are expecting a positive response from the Secretary of State for the Environment on this issue and the pollution of our rivers and seas. The Government are committed to a policy of sewage sludge-dumping at sea. They are committed to a policy of using long outfalls to dispose of raw sewage further out to sea--so it lands on different beaches. I hope, but doubt, that hon. Members who are now complaining about sewage damaging our rivers and seas voted for Labour's amendment to the Water Bill which would not have exempted private water companies from prosecution for such pollution.
I understand that the present Secretary of State for the Environment has not altered the policy of his predecessor. Private water companies are still to be exempted from prosecution for breaching discharge consent levels on sewage discharges into rivers and seas. The 12-year moratorium that applies at the moment, which we voted against, but which Conservative Members did not vote against, could be extended by the Secretary of State. It is agreed that water companies can produce proposals for expenditure and the possibility of dealing with the problem. There is no time scale. There is no expenditure--only proposals for expenditure.
The Government are clever at saying one thing and doing another. They claim to be concerned about the environment and nitrate and nitrate pollution, yet they adopt policies that will ensure that action is not taken. The Times of Monday 14 August--when the House was in recess--reported :
"£3 million grant cut puts water nitrate and crop studies at risk. A cut of £3 million by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food".
The Ministry is the culprit. It is preventing wiser voices in the Department of the Environment from taking real action on nitrate and nitrite pollution because of the
Column 426National Farmers Union and the agriculture lobby. Whatever we say, the agriculture lobby is pernicious in this respect.
Such pollution derives directly from the common agricultural policy, the commitment of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food--one could call it the MAFFIA--intervention, and our membership of the EEC.
The Times said :
"A cut of £3 million by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food for horticultural research has jeopardised studies into nitrate levels in crops, the water supplies and the future of a bank of plant genes. The decision to withdraw Government support amounts to a 20 per cent. reduction in spending over the next two years for the Institute of Horticultural Research."
Mr. Lord : The hon. Gentleman is being rather rude about British farmers, but he obviously enjoys that. Would he like to explain how individual farmers are to blame for the common agricultural policy?
Mr. Roberts : I did not say that individual farmers are to blame for the common agricultural policey. I said that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, intervention and our membership of the Common Market, as long as the CAP is in operation, are responsible for nitrate and nitrite pollution and the overuse of fertilisers. We pay the richer farmers through the subsidy system for producing more food than we need.
I do not know whether the hon. Member for Suffolk, Central (Mr. Lord) was at the Conservative party conference. The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry was not, but the Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food was. The people who attend Conservative party conferences must not be very bright, because the right hon. Gentleman had a visual aid--"This is a butter mountain. This is a smaller butter mountain." He boasted about having reduced the butter mountain. The butter had been given to the Russians.
Mr. Roberts : It is Conservative policy to have visual aids showing butter mountains. There are butter mountains, beef mountains, wine lakes and so on. If we get harmonisation, they might mix the mustard with the wine--I do not know. As long as the common agricultural policy continues and farmers are subsidised, they will be reluctant to stop using nitrate fertilisers, and the pollution will continue. Something must be done.
We are being prosecuted under the provisions of an EEC drinking water directive on nitrates--80/778--because of the high nitrate levels in drinking water in East Anglia, Tower Hamlets and other places. Nitrite pollution is linked with the blue baby syndrome. It may also, although the research is not conclusive, cause stomach cancer. If we accept the Government's commitment to a declaration signed by North sea countries and adopt a precautionary approach, we should take action to ensure that nitrite and nitrate pollution does not occur in our drinking water. Cancelling research into the problem does not help.
This directive aims to reduce pollution of fresh, coastal and marine water caused by nitrates from diffuse sources--agriculture, fertilisers, animal manure and slurry. The Government could adopt a policy of giving farmers assistance, even grants, to provide facilities for the storage
Column 427of slurry. The designation of vulnerable zones is welcome. The Government's desire to designate those zones was welcomed even by Labour spokespeople in the other place. However, all the designations will be voluntary. Lord Crickhowell spoke in favour of the voluntary approach and criticised the EEC directive on the lines that the Government were doing something--meaning that no decisive or precise action will be taken.
When will the National Rivers Authority be seen to be independent of the Government? When will it have a chairperson who is not a Tory placeperson and former Cabinet Minister?
Mr. Malcolm Bruce : I accept the hon. Gentleman's point. Nevertheless, even the NRA has designated 24 lakes and rivers which suffer from the problem of eutrophication of algae, yet the Government continue to say that there is no problem.
Mr. Roberts : I agree. During the summer, lakes and reservoirs were closed because of the production of algae. Nitrates are a problem not only because they get into our drinking water through the use of fertilisers but because they get into natural fresh water lakes, estuaries and coastal waters, which become eutrophic. In simple terms, that means algae grows, becomes poisonous, and damages the environment. If no action is taken where high nitrate concentrations are identified, the algae continues to grow and to kill plant and animal life. That is a serious problem. It is in our drinking water, lakes and reservoirs. It also gets into our rivers and ground water and flows into the sea and around our coastal areas. It over- fertilises the photo-plankton and the seaweed around our coasts which flowers more than it should. That takes the oxygen out of the sea which means that fish and other life forms cannot survive. It is a major problem that needs to be addressed by the Government. Could pesticides and nitrates get into our food and cause problems in the products we buy in our supermarkets?
Mr. Steen : Does the hon. Gentleman agree that some farmers have to use fertilisers to make a living and that if they use fewer fertilisers and acids, they should receive compensation? The hon. Gentleman mentioned the algae but a unique condition was caused this summer by the drought. It is not right to conclude, as he has, that the problem occurs every year.
I am in favour of the declaration of zones within which nitrates and nitrites are not to be used. Action should be taken in vulnerable areas in which nitrates and nitrites may find their way into ground water and fresh water sources and into drinking water. However, I do not believe that the Government's solution, under which farmers would voluntarily declare and operate zones, will work. I saw a farmer interviewed on television and he said that if the farmer next door is not forced to stop using nitrates and nitrites, he would not stop, even if his area was declared a vulnerablezone.
Column 428The problem can be solved only by a mandatory approach. I do not object to help being given to farmers to deal with the problem. However, the long-term solution to the over-use of nitrate and nitrite fertilisers is to stop using them and to ensure that they are not necessary. To do that, there would need to be some changes to the common agricultural policy.
I am not against facilities to farmers as long as they are used wisely and the benefit is felt by the consumer and the farm worker. However, that is not what happens to many of the subsidies now. It is Labour party policy--
Mr. Keith Mans (Wyre) : The hon. Gentleman has made an interesting point. Am I right in saying that he has committed the Labour party to the huge increases in food prices that would result from the abolition of nitrate fertilisers?
Before I gave way I was about to say that the Labour party will assist the poorer hill farmer in a way that does not happen under the CAP. We will assist those who grow and develop programmes for producing crops organically. That will help the consumer considerably. We will not adopt the policies that the Government now seem to be embracing having commissioned the Pearce report. The report says that we should tax the polluter and polluting activity. That includes farmers. Therefore, if farmers use polluting fertilisers and pesticides they will be taxed. That will mean not that the polluter pays but that one pays to pollute. What is likely to happen is that farmers will continue to use nitrate fertilisers and will pass on the cost of the tax to the consumer.
Mr. Hardy : I ask my hon. Friend not to allow himself to be diverted by hon. Members who are trying to ensure that we start talking about the plight of the farmer. The hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart), as a farmer himself, would find that attractive. They are trying to ensure that my hon. Friend moves away from his scathing indictment of Government environmental policy, which should be at the heart of this debate.
Mr. Roberts : I could not agree more with my hon. Friend, but we must remember that one of the Government's answers to agricultural pollution through the use of nitrates and nitrites is to tax the farmer. The Pearce report recommended that and, generally, the Government have embraced the Pearce report. The Government's policy may be to tax the polluter, but in practice it will be a policy not that the polluter pays, but that one can pay to pollute and can pass on the cost to the consumer.
We are not surprised that the Government's policy means that the consumer will pay. The Government claim that they want to clean up our water environment, but they have made it clear that if there are any improvements in our water environment, the consumer will pay for them. The polluter will not pay and the private water companies discharging the sewage will not pay. All the cost will be borne by the water consumer. The Government's policy seems to be that the consumer pays.
Mr. Knapman : The hon. Gentleman has said that we produce too much food. In fact, we grow 85 per cent. of the temperate foodstuffs that we need. If nitrogen application is to be reduced in the way that the hon. Gentleman has described, what proportion of food will be home grown?
Mr. Roberts : Eighty-five per cent. Europe produces beef and butter mountains and Britain contributes to some food mountains. It is not advisable for the Government to continue policies that are polluting our drinking water, rivers and seas. They also pursue policies--which the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Knapman) supports--that produce beef and butter mountains, and wine lakes. We are opposed to that. We shall continue sane and rational policies, which will help poorer farmers, such as the hill farmers, and encourage organic products for the housewife and the househusband.
Mr. Roberts : No. I said that I had given way for the last time. [ Hon. Members :-- "Frit."] It is not a matter of being frit ; it is a matter of time. I shall receive complaints if my hon. Friends and other hon. Members are cut out of the debate because I speak for too long.
The Government's response to the directive is acceptable, but inadequate because it does not go far enough. The Government are damning with faint praise and assenting with civil leer, as they usually do. They claim to accept the main thrust of the directive, although they deny the principle behind it, which is a requirement for more direct action by Government to deal with the nitrate and nitrite pollution problems. Nine advisory areas, on a voluntary basis, and pilot schemes are not acceptable at this stage when one considers the problems caused by this pollution.
The Government should take stronger action and intervene in the market to assist farmers who are prepared to adopt environmentally acceptable methods of farming which do not involve the use of damaging fertilisers and pesticides. They should intervene in the market through legislation to have more powers over what is happening. The Secretary of State for the Environment should tell the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food that he does not accept the views that are being pushed on him by his colleague and that concern for the environment is as important as concern for the farmers and agriculture--which is important--and the common agricultural policy.
Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks) : I shall contribute only briefly to the debate and shall not take up the majority of the arguments of the hon. Member for Bootle (Mr. Roberts), who spoke from the Opposition Front Bench. Many of my constituents will be interested to hear, however, about the new policy of the Labour party to phase out the use of nitrogen- based fertilisers at the earliest possible moment. The effect of that on food production and food prices would be dramatic.
I wish to emphasise the extent of the concern in my constituency and, I believe, in the country generally. The efforts of the European Commission are obviously well intentioned and all the contributions to the debate have been well intentioned, but the content of the directive and its presentation are not good advertisements for the work
Column 430of the Commission. It has produced an inflexible scheme, the potential cost of which is enormous, without proper evaluation of the options.
The scheme is highly unpredictable in its consequences. The Select Committee in another place estimated that a reduction of one third in arable crop output could result from a strict interpretation of the directive's proposals. Perhaps that is an outside estimate. I have no doubt that it is possible to exaggerate, but it is a large enough number to merit considerable concern. That will or could be the result of a directive for which the Commission has published no scientific evidence. It has never been able to clarify where the limit of 50 mg per litre comes from. We all agree that there has to be a limit and that the problem must be tackled, but the Commission should be able to produce more scientific evidence than it has presented.
No doubt the Commission would say that a limit of 50 mg per litre would be on the safe side. It is a good thing to be on the safe side, and that is the side on which we all want to be because the hazards of excessive nitrate pollution accumulating in future are great, but we want to be on the safe side in the most practical, sensible and cost-effective way. It is not clear that the most cost-effective way is to endanger the productive capacity of vast tracts of agricultural land.
The United Kingdom is unusual in the European Community in the proportion of its drinking water that originates on the surface rather than under the ground. Our circumstances are different from those in many parts of the continent. Such factors must be allowed for in any agreement that is reached in the European Community. Nor is it clear that it is sensible to introduce a limit which has to be broken only once for compulsory restrictions, as set out in the directive, to come into force, especially when it is likely to be broken occasionally in some areas because of unusual weather conditions or the onset of winter. There will be dilution subsequently in any event as the polluted water flows into large bodies of water. It has not done the Commission any good to produce such a proposal. I can presume only that it did not have the research capability and background to enable it to evaluate the consequences. I support the Government's effort to allow greater national variation. The extent of the problem varies widely according to local rock formation and local agriculture practice. If the Government accede to a compulsory scheme--and hon. Members who have referred to the unwillingness of farmers to adopt a voluntary scheme should remember the success of the voluntary environmentally sensitive area scheme, for example--the problems of deciding on fair compensation for farmers will be immense. How will we decide how to compensate the farmer who has invested heavily in the drainage or irrigation of his land and the farmer who has not? The problems will be enormous. I hope that Ministers will approach the forthcoming negotiations with their customary resolve. I hope also that they will take the message from the House that it would have been better if the Commission had concentrated on laying down common standards, subject to sensible interpretation for different conditions, rather than troubling itself to seek to introduce inflexible rules and compulsory restrictions, the consequences of which it has shown little evidence of recognising.
Column 43111.24 pm
Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth) : I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague). I well understand his caution before he embraced the criticism that is justly levelled at the Government. The hon. Gentleman has not been long in the House, but he will be aware that I have been concerned for a long time about environmental matters. He knows that in our home area--I think that it is still his home area--we have some of the foulest rivers in Europe. In 1971 when I had been in the House a short time, I
campaigned--which is the word that I think the Yorkshire Post used--for clean rivers. I was promised that the dirty, foul sewers of South Yorkshire would reach class 2 or recreational standard by the middle 1980s. We were advised in the mid-1980s that our dirty, open sewers might reach recreational standard by the early 21st century. Far from making progress we appear to be slipping back. The hon. Gentleman will understand that I am rather more impatient than his speech suggested that he was, although he recognised that if the case were proved, action would have to be rather more urgent.
I am not prepared to accept that we should refer to yet another body for scientific research so that we can determine that our rivers are dangerous, unhealthy and foul. They are. Next month I shall take the chair at a conference in Paris to discuss the North sea. Although some of our European neighbours are a little holier than thou at times, we in the United Kingdom cannot hold up our heads with any sense of pride.
It is a pity that we have to have a dry summer before we recognise the evils or errors of our ways. Because of the dry summer, untreated sewage bacteria is falling on the heads of a substantial proportion of the population in the eastern part of my county. That is the result of taking untreated sewage water into the cooling towers at power stations. I heard a Conservative party Member say that that was because of the miners, because of having to burn coal at power stations.
Some of us have been arguing that we have not been cleaning our rivers for anything like as long as we should have been. Our rivers are foul. When I raised the matter in 1971 I was concerned about the industrial rivers of South Yorkshire. In those days the Ure, the Swale and the Nidd, all the rivers in our county, some of which water the constituencies of the hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks, were clean.
Those of us interested in these matters have discovered that in recent years the rural rivers of Yorkshire are deteriorating faster than ours. For example, we discovered a couple of years ago that the number of offences committed by people in the rural areas of Yorkshire in our own water authority area had risen enormously. I was extremely critical of our water authority because the number of prosecutions was falling and had reached a pathetically low level. Then I acquitted the Yorkshire water authority because it can only operate within the law of the land. When it took out prosecutions it found that some people were making a fortune out of poisoning our water. Having been brought to justice, the commercial undertakings responsible for that poisoning were fined a mere £200 or £300. It was scarcely worth the effort of the authority. It brought the law into disrepute and encouraged criminal action.
Column 432It is not only corrupt private businesses which are polluting our rivers ; some farmers are also doing so. I recognise that many farmers do not wish to pollute the environment and that many of them have taken a great deal of trouble to avoid doing so. However, excessive use of nitrates is damaging our rivers and streams and the health of our country.
When people talk about the greenhouse effect and global warming they associate that with coal-fired power stations. I am not a scientist and I am not qualified to give an expert analysis of the facts, but I hope that the Minister will confirm that emissions from fertilisers make a significant contribution to the pollution of the atmosphere. The hon. Member for Wyre (Mr. Mans) will recall that in the Committee considering the Electricity Bill I forecast the number of low-lying constituencies that would be inundated as a result of the greenhouse effect. The political benefit to the Opposition, prior to the election, would be enormous. In a party-political sense my attitude is relatively unbiased, however, as we must accept that the emission of greenhouse gases should be limited. We must ensure that the interests of man do not supersede those of the world climate. The Government should be spurred into action.
Perhaps there is some justified criticism of the Commission for prosecuting the British Government when it may not have had adequate information. Those of us concerned with nature conservation do not, however, require any more information to make us believe that the Government are guilty of negligence, incompetence or worse. The hon. Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) spoke about his site of special scientific interest. Last Saturday I addressed the annual meeting of the Yorkshire wildlife trust. As evidence for the thesis that I advanced I took a document entitled "Losing Ground", recently published by the Royal Society for Nature Conservation. In February a noble Lord in the other place, answering questions on behalf of the Department of the Environment, suggested that he could not find one example of damage to a SSSI. In June a ministerial colleague confirmed in a parliamentary answer that in the past 12 months 228 SSSIs had been damaged. As the Nature Conservancy Council does not have the resources that it should, one cannot be sure that that list of damaged SSSIs is complete.
That background of administrative incompetence led the Prime Minister, on 16 January, to call for our wetlands, woods, moors, marshes, fields, ponds, rivers and hedgerows to be protected. She said that we are merely trustees and that no generation has a freehold on our island. My hon. Friends will remember that I responded to that call by tabling a Bill that very day to protect hedgerows. The Government blocked that Bill despite the fact that many Conservative Members, including some who occupy the Treasury Bench, wanted that Bill to succeed. I wrote two letters to the Prime Minister in which I criticised that decision, but she suggested that other things, as well as conservation, matter. The Prime Minister takes such an attitude when she is considering legislation, but on other occasions, for example when she spoke at the Royal Society of Arts, she is prepared to be as green as the hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) and his colleagues.
We should develop a bipartisan policy to such matters because we are talking about not simply the conservation of rare species, but the survival of mankind. Some of the
Column 433conditions that develop from the eutrophication of water and the fact that our generation has been careless with the liberal doses of toxic material with which we have laced the environment have led us to recognise that we have gone too far.
I do not suppose that many hon. Members have had a similar experience to the one I have faced since August when I discovered that tonnes and tonnes of toxic waste was being kept one mile from my home. Immediately I found out I came to see the Minister on duty at the Department of the Environment. He was courteous, saw me immediately and gave immediate instructions that the toxic waste should be put into secure containers. It took about six weeks before the containers were obtained, and nearly two months--certainly eight or nine weeks--before the task was completed. The result is that I have hundreds of tonnes of toxic waste in my constituency, one mile from my home, in an area of Britain which is, more than most, crying out for regeneration and environmental enhancement. No one, not even the highest paid officials in public agencies or Ministers in the Treasury Department, knows what we are going to do with it. The waste came improperly, if not unlawfully, from the United States of America. I had hoped that by now we would have made effective representations to the American Administration to get it shifted. However, we have 2,700 drums of toxic waste less than 1 km from my home, which has caused enormous anxiety. From the occasional visits which he has made to our area, the hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks will be aware of the problem. Despite all that, the drums are still there and I do not know when they will be moved. It is about time that I did.
This is a classic illustration, not merely of the historically low priority that these matters have enjoyed, but of the gross inadequacy of law and regulation which I hope will be put right in the green Bill because little measures of this sort will not suffice to meet the environmental challenge. The green Bill must do so, and I hope that when it comes before the House it will be of such character and content that it can be accepted on the bipartisan basis which I mentioned.
Mr. Michael Lord (Suffolk, Central) : I shall bring the House back to the topic which we are supposed to be debating : nitrates and the Community directive. I respect the knowledge of the hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) and his concern about the environment, but he has given us a quick canter around the environment and that is not what we are here to talk about tonight.
I shall devote my remarks as quickly as I can--because I know time is short --to three items : first, how these matters impact on the nation's health ; secondly, the role and image of the Community ; and thirdly, our farmers' welfare. The Government's proposals in relation to nitrate levels and the time scale for improvements are reasonable. They have recognised the problem, and it is being tackled. I shall turn to the question of the nation's health and what we are trying to protect the nation from. It is important on any environmental issue to get the facts right, otherwise we do ourselves and the issue no service. We are talking of the possibility of nitrates causing the blue baby syndrome and cancer. The House of Lords report said of the blue baby syndrome that it was
"now virtually non-existent in Western Europe".
Column 434There have been
"14 cases in the United Kingdom in the past 35 years, the last of which was in 1972 the only recorded death was in 1950 when the nitrate level was found to be 885 mg/l".
That is not a good case for identifying a desperate need to do something about nitrates in relation to blue baby syndrome. The House of Lords report said about cancer :
"Studies of fertiliser workers exposed to very high doses of nitrate have not shown any increased level of cancer and the overall trend in the United Kingdom has been a fall in the incidence of stomach cancer whilst nitrate levels in water have risen. Indeed, the incidence of stomach cancer is lowest in Eastern England where nitrate concentrations in water are highest Most witnesses discounted the importance of nitrate in drinking water as a factor contributing to cancer development The Institute of Cancer Research considered the evidence to be very weak' the Medical Research Council said that nitrates in water at levels of 50--100mg per litre do not present any hazard with respect to gastric cancer'." Without wanting to disregard those matters, that puts the situation into perspective.
It is important that the Community should not act in an arbitrary way. Our eyes are upon it and my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor) has some strong feelings about it. If the Community is to maintain its credibility, it is important that it should not act in too arbitrary a way.
The Government invited the Commission to suggest any practicable ways in which work on these matters could be speeded up, but it was unable to come up with a single idea. That is how helpful it was. When it was trying to make us go faster, it could not come up with any ideas itself.
The farming community has been unfairly and harshly treated by the Opposition tonight, and I want to say a few words about farmers in general and about my Suffolk farmers in particular. We are talking not just about farmers, but about all the other industries that depend upon them in our rural communities, from the merchants and the fertiliser manufacturers, right down to the village shop and the local pub. All depend on a thriving agriculture.
It is worth reminding the hon. Member for Bootle (Mr. Roberts), and perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East that it is one thing to have too much food, but let us hope that we never see the day when we do not have enough food.
Suffolk has some of the best cereal farmers in the world, but they are feeling increasingly beleaguered. They are unfairly accused of surpluses when they were doing only what they were asked to do. They are also unfairly accused of damaging the environment when those who understand such things know that they have been good custodians of the environment. Anyone who cares to come to East Anglia will see that the countryside has never looked better.
Until recently the use of nitrates was regarded as good agricultural practice. Suddenly it is not, but it is unfair to start talking of pollution and to expect farmers to change their ways immediately.
My farmers are extremely fearful of Europe, 1992 and unfairness. One and a half pages of the directive relate to the United Kingdom and how we should tackle our nitrate problem, compared with only four lines to describe the problem in Spain and two lines for Portugal. That shows how we are giving chapter and verse while others are not.
Column 435That is an important point. Farming is a long-term business and farmers must be given time to adjust, with adequate compensation during that period.
Our farmers have served us well. We take them for granted at our peril. They deserve our fullest concern and support, and I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to assure us that he will provide just that.
The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. David Maclean) : This has been an interestinif wide- ranging debate, which often did not stick too closely to the exact terms of the directive.
The hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) may have misunderstood the Government's position. Let there be no mistake that the Government are committed to the 50 mg level in drinking water as it comes out of our tap. However, we want some flexibility on the water in the river, not at the point of abstraction or when it comes out of the tap. An averaging system would be perfectly acceptable there, and that is what we have been urging on the Commission.
Let me give a simple example in relation to blending. The Commission's original proposals were so inflexible that if river A had 20 mg and river B had 60 mg and they merged into river C which then averaged 40 mg, that, at the point of abstraction would be acceptable under the directive, but we would be forced to take a panoply of measures in order to deal with river B at source which was technically over the 50 mg limit even though no one was drinking it. We see no point in that response. That is why we have been negotiating with the Commission and making good progress. It is true that some coastal regions in the North sea appear to be at risk of eutrophication. The algae blooms along the coasts of Denmark and Germany are an example. The ministerial declaration of the second North sea conference in November 1987 required states to take effective national steps to reduce nutrient inputs into areas where they are likely directly or indirectly to cause pollution. We would not consider possible eutrophication due to nitrate in parts of the North sea not adjacent to the United Kingdom as legitimate grounds for designating vulnerable zones in the United Kingdom. The hon. Member for Gordon also said that we need time to adjust. I agree entirely. One of the reasons we are going ahead with our candidate nitrate-sensitive areas is so that we can have a voluntary system up and running and so that we can assess the measure and its effectiveness before the EC directive becomes fully functional in four years' time.
Turning to the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen), I must tell him that I and my hon. Friend are not trying to duck the issues. Much of what my hon. Friend the Member for South Hams said is important but not within the terms of the directive. I shall try to give him a fair response.
The Government are engaged in a £1 billion programme to deal with the problem of sewage going directly into the sea. Part of the reason for privatising the water companies was to generate capital investment from