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Column 101is no way in which the Liberals could deliver on the energy philosophy they set out in the document I quoted and in others. It is fair to say that price, although important, is not enough. There have to be carrots as well as sticks. There are schemes in place which benefit some people. I commend the Energy Saving Trust, the home energy efficiency scheme and the Government's extension of that scheme.
However, the middle classes, who could well afford to cut their energy consumption, are complacent about it. Not one constituent who has written to me complaining about VAT who lives in a large house and comes from a well-heeled background has said anything about the environment or about doing anything to their home. Yet I know from what I have done to my home that one can save enormous quantities of electricity, gas or oil if one goes about it in the right way. I said that it was necessary to move people away from their total dependence on the motor car, so I welcome the increase above the rate of inflation in the tax on fuel. An effective measure that could accompany that is to get rid of the car tax and put the same amount on fuel tax.
That would save on the cost of administration of the car tax. It would deal once and for all with tax dodging. It would provide a powerful incentive to use less fuel. It would not harm pensioners, because on the whole they do much less than the average mileage. The measure would hit those who use cars to drive long distances every year. I catch the eye of my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Cleethorpes (Mr. Brown) at that point, but I know that he uses the train frequently.
Forestry was an important part of the Rio declaration. It is important internationally. We must remember that sustainability is the key. Nothing is more depressing than seeing so-called environmentalists campaigning for bans on imports of hardwoods. By doing so, they tell a country that what it has is of no value. If what a country has is of no value and it cannot make any money out of it, it will find something to do with the land which will generate an income. That is bound to be bad environmentally.
We must encourage those who have sustainable policies and discourage those who have not. For example, peninsular Malaysia has the British heritage of an excellent 50-year replanting cycle, although there have been problems on the island of Borneo. Other countries in west Africa and south-east Asia do not have sustainable policies. I strongly recommend taking a differential approach not only to countries but to plantations and companies within them. It is important that we do what we can, but we must do it in practical terms. I remember talking to a leading environmentalist in Brazil when I visited that country a few years ago with the Select Committee. Museo Goldi said that people in the west had to get away from talking about the environment at cocktail parties and start to help countries to do something about improving sustainability. He went on to say that the British had one of the best records that he had come across. The Overseas Development Administration was financing work through the Oxford Forestry Institute to help Brazil to improve its performance.
There is a lot to do. One has to remember that the greatest fire in the history of the world occurred in Brazil. It occurred because of the tax regime in Brazil. The cause of the fire was Volkswagen--a funny sort of company to
Column 102cause a fire in a forest. Apparently, it owned the land and needed to demonstrate that it was being developed, which was done by burning down the trees.
At home, I think that the Government's response to the report that we produced on forestry and the environment was a little disappointing. There are some positive signs ; I welcome the fact that the Government are considering the need for a national forestry strategy. Given our low tree cover ratio, I find it peculiar that the Government rejected our recommendation to establish one-stop shops to provide advice on forestry applications and grants. Landowners who have to go between the Countryside Commission, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, local authorities and other organisations become lost in a maze, and probably put off the idea. Equally important in the report was our recommendation that England, Scotland and Wales should be considered separately for the purpose of developing forestry strategy. The geography and geology in each of those countries are different, and, although they should be brought together in a national forestry strategy, what is right for Scotland is not necessarily right for England, and vice versa.
Mr. Dalyell : On the subject of Scotland, the hon. Gentleman knows the case of Mar lodge, and he knows Dr. Jim Ratter, the adviser on the Select Committee that went to Brazil. A number of us feel strongly--as does Dr. Ratter--that we must set an example. If we are to make suggestions to the Brazilians about what they should do with their Atlantic rain forests, we had better do something about the ancient forest of Caledon.
In many third-world countries, it has rightly been asked of me, "How can you lecture us about what to do with our forests when you have destroyed the vast majority of yours in the industrialisation process?" It is extremely important not to lecture, but to try to work in co-operation with others, which is why I praised the work of the Overseas Development Administration.
In the almost 11 years that I have been in the House, I have never been involved in a debate with such a long-term impact on the future of not just this country but the world. It is sad that so little seems to have been achieved in the intervening period since the Rio summit. But our Government have done a great deal more than others, for which I commend them.
Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey) : The partisan comments of the hon. Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones) spoilt his argument and were as invalid as the similar part of the speech of the Secretary of State for the Environment. However, his non-partisan comments contained many sensible suggestions, which I hope that the Government will take up. He also made some mild criticisms of several Government policies, which I hope that the Government will read, hear and act on.
Today's debate is the first since the Energy Conservation Bill passed through the House on Friday. Passing legislation and doing things will also be far more effective than talking--that was the message of Rio. I welcome the fact that the Energy Conservation Bill has not
Column 103yet been blocked by the Government, and I hope that they do not seek to water it down in Committee--one of the first practical tests of whether we are serious about sustainability.
It is ironic that we are having the debate today--the very day that the Government are defending their position on wanting to start up THORP, the thermal oxide reprocessing plant. They are also trying to defend their unwillingness to have a public inquiry. To many of us, and to huge numbers of people up and down the country, that is one of the most unsustainable of the Government's recent commitments. I hope that the court will be able to provide an effective backstop and order the Government to have a public inquiry.
Today's debate is welcome. I welcome the Minister for the Environment and Countryside to his relatively new responsibilities. I am glad to see him here and look forward to working with him. The debate should have occurred in the summer. It was scheduled to occur in the last week of term before the summer holiday, but it was hijacked by the Maastricht shenanigans and was lost. That is a reflection of the failure of the system, to which I shall return. Producing documents and then debating policy, as opposed to debating policy and then producing documents, is a funny system and a funny way to govern and consult. It is all too indicative of the way in which we have behaved so far and I am ever hopeful that the system will improve. We should have had the debate here and in the other place well before now so that it could have influenced the content of the Government's documents when they came to produce them. My premise, to which the hon. Member for Hertfordshire, West alluded, is that the Government should set an example. Whatever the standards of other Governments in following up the Rio summit, we should set an example. Even if others' standards fall short, we should seek to have the higher standards. On that premise, the Government are about to submit their document--a little belatedly, as they committed themselves to producing it by the end of September--to the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development, which was set up at the Rio conference.
We ought to note that the debate, as evidenced by the current consultations between the Whips on the Front Bench, is far too short for the subject. To fit in a debate which will last for no more than two and a half hours and the last of the substantive business after a private Member's motion again indicates a lack of commitment to take the issue as seriously as it merits. It is not that the country is not committed. One of the interesting--and, if we are not careful, misleading--facts displayed in the opinion polls is that people still think environmental issues are less serious. That is not true. Most people have adopted the environmental agenda and have recognised the importance of it. It may not be at the top of their list : if they are out of work, they may have other things to think about. With 3 million people unemployed, it is not surprising that employment or the state of the economy is at the top of the list. But most of the environmental pressures and movements of the 1980s have produced a residual strong commitment and we should not be deluded either by the apparent lack of interest or by the apparent shortness of the
Column 104debate. We want to take part in the debate, we want to influence the Government and what I shall say will be aimed at trying to get the Government to be stronger, better, quicker, faster and tougher. They have taken some steps, but many of us believe that they have not yet gone far or fast enough.
The fundamental issues have been alluded to and addressed either specifically or indirectly in the documents that the Government produced at their £20,000 jamboree down the road at the Banqueting house during the past month. We are talking about the sort of growth that we achieve and the quality of life that we want and can get. We are also discussing the right level of consumption and not just accepting that there is a demand for more and more consumption. The debate is not only about inter- generational equity, as it is called, but about equity in Britain and equity around the world. These are all big issues.
It is not acceptable that after 14 years of Conservative government the gap between the rich and poor in the country has widened ; nor is it justified by the fact that the same has happened in most other countries. It is certainly unacceptable that the gap between the richest 20 per cent. and the poorest 80 per cent. has widened. Those issues were all on the Agenda 21 part of the debates at the Rio summit. This debate addresses that entire range of subjects, including population, housing and quality of life the world over.
Ministers are clearly increasingly nervous about the Liberal Democrats ; otherwise, they would not have a go at us so often. They must be nervous if they continually have to quote the draft before the final draft before the final document as policy and never allude to the final policy document itself. If they are nervous because we are chasing them, I am happy about that, too.
Dr. Spink rose--
The responses to the White Paper suggested a general
disappointment. It contained many coulds, ifs and maybes rather than whys, whats and whens. The Government need not accept my word--the National Society for Clean Air called it
"A Small Step for Sustainability"
and Friends of the Earth said that it had been
"disappointed by the limited extent to which any new approach to marrying the twin objectives of sound economic development and protecting the environment has emerged."
In the days following the Whitehall launch down the road, many newspaper headlines reflected the general disappointment.
Mr. Hughes : I can deal with taxes if the hon. Gentleman wants me to, but I am trying to keep to the central issue. I shall end my remarks by saying yes, we all have to pay. We should be quite straightforward about that.
Column 105The day after the launch many newspaper editorials reflected the general disappointment. One stated that the gloomy environmental picture posed "hard questions" and would need
"not just a searching scrutiny of the lifestyle of the Great Car Economy but a challenge to familiar assumptions about growth and change"
and suggested that the Secretary of State's reference to Cardinal Newman was not very useful. The Financial Times, hardly a partisan newspaper, judged the White Paper to be "a pale green blockbuster". The Independent said :
"Major gives green light to nuclear industry growth."
Those comments represent incompatible views, but there were also adverse comments from those whom one would expect to be critical, which included :
"Our green hopes, their empty words".
Andrew Marr wrote an interesting commentary in which he made it clear that the documents did, however, highlight some difficult choices.
Let us accept that the Government had generally high expectations. No one thought that they were doing terribly well and the documents told us little new. Indeed, I think that it was Madam Speaker who said that it was not a new policy, which was why there was no statement in the House. Some of us knew already that it contained nothing new.
Let me suggest why we were disappointed and how the Government should respond. First, the White Paper contained an inadequate set of responses. It contains inadequate targets, timetables and proposals for monitoring. I and many others believe that unless we have clear targets and timetables and an objective method of monitoring our attainment of those targets and timetables we shall be partisan and merely whistling in the dark.
We need economic indicators. Many people have worked on indicators that would serve our purpose. We need valid projections, statistics, facts and figures to assess objectively how well the Government are doing. By definition, they are not those produced by the Government in their own defence to justify themselves when, like any Government, they fall short of their objectives.
Secondly, the whole process needs to be much less inadequate. It is not sufficient to have a series of Green and White Papers which regularly fall short of the targets that they themselves set. There can be no doubt that that is what is happening at the moment. We have a process whereby the Government consult, disappoint those whom they have consulted by appearing not to have listened, produce documents and then propose inadequate mechanisms for carrying forward the debate anticipated at Rio. A panel, or round table, on sustainable development and a citizens environment initiative are no substitute for a series of rigorous governmental processes to test the validity of what is and what is not a sustainable policy.
We should establish an entirely free-standing body which is regularly the proactive generator of proposals--a body like a royal commission. Local and central thinking should be integrated into that body. Any draft governmental proposal should be rigorously scrutinised by Select Committees of both Houses before it is concluded and, so far as possible, a consensus should be sought. I am not arguing that my view alone should prevail ; I want the best common agreement. I believe that I can persuade the Government of the merit of my case, but I shall not have
Column 106the opportunity to do so if there is no debate before they produce their documents or if they do not read or take account of people's submissions.
There is much good practice. The Dutch are very good and the Canadians are very good, for example, and the Government know that. It has been suggested to me, and I agree, that if the Government did what the Canadians did last year--passed an Act of Parliament setting up the mechanism for a round table and so on--we would do better. Will the Minister consider the Canadian model and the Dutch model--the American model is not far behind-- and provide us with an evaluation of whether we could use those models here?
My third proposal is about inadequate integration. For me, the test of whether we have sustainable development is whether we marry sustainable economic policy into our sustainable environmental policy. For me, that means that the Treasury is central. In Holland, much taxation never passes into law until it is co-signed not only by the Chancellor or the Finance Minister but by the Environment Minister. Unless we debate the sustainable benefit of taxation A compared with taxation B, we shall not bring about that marriage. The reason why the Government got into such a muddle in connection with VAT on fuel, and the reason why the Liberal Democrats backed off the idea, was that it did not add up as the best way of taxing for green purposes. If the Government had consulted widely about it instead of the Chancellor pulling it out of his red box and saying, "Wow! Here is a good money-raising wheeze and it is also environmentally sound", the Government would not have been in so much hot water and they might not have lost two by-elections to the Liberal Democrats during this Parliament.
There are many ways in which one can test sustainable policies and we each might have our pet test. I can only list some of the ways in which one can test them.
One can test them by considering energy policy. I would argue that one needs a sustainable, coherent energy policy ; one cannot have the nuclear review one day, the renewables review the next and decide the future of the coal industry the day after that. We have to ensure that we do what we say we will do. It is no good saying that we will reduce energy consumption if Government buildings then consume more energy. It is no good setting Energy Saving Trust Ltd. a task and then giving it a minimal amount of what it needs to carry it out. Alternatively, one can use transport as the test. The hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) gave obvious comparable examples. One has to ask oneself whether the motorway widening scheme is acceptable on present tests. Is it acceptable that we lose more than 50 per cent. of our sites of special scientific interest as a result of about half of our motorway schemes? The answer that I and others would give to that is definitely no.
One can use agriculture, planning and the countryside as the test, whether one considers hedgerows or sites of special scientific interest--only five years ago, 3 per cent. of those remaining sites had been destroyed, but now 5 per cent. have been destroyed. I welcome what has been said about planning and out-of-town superstores, and so on, but that was a policy for which some of us argued 15 or 20 years ago and it is now a bit late. The hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury said from a sedentary position earlier that it is a bit like shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. We have built all the blessed
Column 107superstores out of town now ; the country has been ploughed up ; people have to drive to the stores and they are not near railway stations. It is a bit late now, but I hope that we have learnt the lesson.
We could have had sustainable targets for air pollution as the test. The Government eventually signed up in Rio to a target for carbon dioxide emissions, but with no legal commitment. That is not good enough. There are already serious doubts about whether even the target that the Government set is sustainable and achievable on the basis of their present performance. We have to do better in terms of domestic, vehicular and industrial pollution if we are to achieve even the Government's target for the year 2000.
We can use water pollution as the test. To use a crude test, six of our eight premier bathing resorts still discharge raw sewage. If that is where we have arrived after 14 years of Conservative government, the priorities are wrong.
There are many tests. Those are some of the obvious ones. Population is another one. Trade is one. Aid is one--and in Malaysia recently there have been examples showing the inadequacies of our aid programme.
I was asked the question that we are all asked : are we speaking about hypocrisy or reality? The answer is that we have to speak about reality, and reality requires difficult nettles to be grasped. It requires us to work out how we pay the price. The question about how we pay the price has an answer. We pay the price by making the most worthwhile investment and we make the most worthwhile investment by ensuring that we hand on the same amount of capital in the bank, if not more.
Maurice Strong, the secretary general to UNCED, said ;
"We have to make sure that the road from Rio is a fast track, if we are to realise our hope that the United Nations Earth Summit really was a quantum leap forward on that road to sustainable development." Nobody could call the British road from Rio a fast track. We have started on the road, but unless we go much further, much faster and much more effectively, it will not be we who pay the price, but those who come after. We shall have spoilt their chances of inheriting from us a sustainable world.
Dr. Robert Spink (Castle Point) : The climate change convention commits developed countries to taking measures aimed at reducing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2000. The Government have accepted that commitment and they will meet that commitment. They might even better it. That is real action, not just words. We have already heard tonight that we need real action, not more words, to protect the environment.
A real and positive contribution can be made by nuclear electricity generation to reduce the United Kingdom's emission targets for the year 2000. We currently generate about 22 per cent. of our electrical power through nuclear energy. If we replaced that by gas or coal-burn generation, the UK's emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases would be dramatically increased. The Secretary of State said that there would then be an increase of 6 million to 15 million tonnes of carbon a year.
We must ensure that we retain a balanced energy strategy which allows for the replacement of the old Magnox reactors as they go off stream before the year
Column 1082000. We need new nuclear stations and new nuclear capacity to come on stream to replace the Magnox stations. I am as anxious as other hon. Members to bring forward the energy debate when we can review the position of nuclear power within our strategy. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to press his right hon. Friends to bring forward that review. I accept what the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) said about the need for a co-ordinated and comprehensive strategy which would embrace issues such as waste management. However, I believe that we should bring forward the nuclear review at the earliest possible moment so that we can plan rationally and responsibly how to protect and enhance the environment and to meet our Rio commitments. If we are to meet our Rio commitments, we need a stable nuclear component within a balanced energy strategy. I hope that the Opposition will now accept that fact.
Labour has consistently called for the adoption of more stringent targets than those included in the convention to deal with the problem of climate change. After the Rio summit, the then Labour environment spokesman attacked the Government for dragging their feet. Labour claimed in June 1992 that more could have been achieved and that British Ministers could have played a more positive role, especially in respect of global warming. How could they have done? Where is Labour's policy for achieving more? How could the Labour party achieve more, without imposing taxes on energy, when it wants to destroy the nuclear component of power generation? Will the Minister explain that to me, because I fail to see how it could be achieved?
The Liberal party has also shown a certain amount of inconsistency. It opposes the Government's decision to levy VAT on domestic fuel and power. My hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones) quoted from its 1991 policy document entitled "Costing the Earth", in which it showed itself to be even more hypocritical than the Labour party. Page 31 of the Liberal party's 1992 general election manifesto made a commitment to introducing a Community-wide energy tax on all energy sources.
The Liberal Democrat party reaffirmed that commitment on page three of its Green Paper, "Taxing Pollution, Not People", which was published in September 1992 and stated that it supported
"The European Community proposals for an energy/carbon tax and would press for its immediate implementation at a national level". I am pleased to see the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey nodding in agreement with that statement.
That document accepted that such a tax would lead to increases of 58 per cent. in the price of coal, of 14 per cent. in the price of gas and of 13 per cent. in the price of domestic electricity. Page nine states that the proposals are
"too timid rather than too radical".
The Liberal Democrat party's support for the EC carbon tax showed its uncritical enthusiasm for all things European. Will the Minister explain that inconsistent element in its policy which I do not understand?
Mr. Alan W. Williams (Carmarthen) : I am grateful to have the opportunity to make a few brief comments in the debate and I thank the hon. Member for Castle Point (Dr. Spink) for curtailing his remarks.
Column 109I am as cynical about the Government's record on the environment as I am about their record on so many other matters. The two main themes at Rio were the developing countries and the global environment. We restated our commitment to the developing countries to reach the United Nations aid target of 0.7 per cent. of GDP, but the Goverment have cut our aid budget from 0.52 to 0.27 per cent. over the past 14 years. Recently, it has been revealed that aid of £254 million for the Pergau dam in Malaysia was partly used for arms. That was a corrupt, improper use of the aid budget. It makes one feel cynical about the Government's aid policy.
Often we hear the Government say one thing but do another. We have a carbon dioxide problem and too little forestation. A major effort should be made to tackle that. With the surplus in agricultural production under the set- aside policy, it is eminently sensible to increase forest cover. The Government have a target to double forest cover by 2050, yet we still face the possibility of privatisation and the danger that forests will be cut down to make a quick profit. In the documents, the Government talk about promoting the use of public transport, but what have they done? They have privatised the railways, which will hardly help. In the past year, the coal industry in particular has suffered from the dash for gas. I said earlier that I liked the Secretary of State's redefinition of sustainable development--that it would not cheat our children. What else are we doing with the exploitation of North sea oil and gas?
The dash for gas could have been halted and slowed down by imposing combined heat and power regulations on new gas power stations and by insisting that they use their energy efficiently. That would have transformed electricity generation over a 10-year period, with power generated at 80 per cent. efficiency instead of the present 40 per cent. The national rivers survey by the National Rivers Authority in 1990 showed for the first time ever that there has been a net deterioration in the quality of British rivers. What do the Government do? They cut the NRA's budget by 30 per cent. over three years. In a recent European summit, the Government backtracked on EC water quality directives.
Deregulation is threatening environmental protection, and we are still waiting for the environmental protection agency which was promised four or five years ago by the Government. All that we have been promised for this Session is a paving Bill. I feel let down, as do the people of this country, by the Government's record. It is short-sighted in terms of the environmental technology industry and it puts us at the back of a queue behind Japan, Germany and the United States in that tremendous growth market.
I finish by referring to a recent newspaper article by Professor David Pearce, a professor of economics at London university. He said that there was little in the policy papers to suggest that the Government understand the meaning or implications of sustainable development. That comes from an insider who knows more about the Government's policy than any hon. Member in the House this evening. It is sad. The debate concerns taking Rio forward, but I am afraid that the Government just do not have the political commitment to what was discussed in Rio.
Column 110time? The point of order will concern the fact that there are a number of hon. Members on both sides of the House who were trying to be called.
Mr. Dalyell : I make no complaint about those hon. Members who were called. Could it be registered that my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke- on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) and for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) and other hon. Members would have liked to take part in the debate? Those hon. Members will take it ill to be berated by sections of the press and to be told that there is no interest in Rio and in the environment--far from it.
Madam Speaker : There is a great deal of interest in the matter. Between them, the two Front Benches will, by 10 o'clock, have taken one hour and 40 minutes in a short debate. I would also point out to the hon. Gentleman that two orders were quite properly divided on. Those took 25 minutes, during which time other hon. Members could have been called.
Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North) : It is only fair to point out that the Secretary of State took 52 of those minutes on his own account. The right hon. Gentleman's responses to interventions were often somewhat longer than the interventions.
This has been a good debate, and it is unfortunate that more of my hon. Friends were unable to catch your eye, Madam Speaker, because of the time restraints. I should like to draw the attention of the House to a couple of remarks made by hon. Members. It was significant that the hon. Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones), who is respected on both sides of the House for his views on the matter, could not manage to get through his speech without making some minor criticisms of the Government.
My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) made a good critique of the documents and of their effectiveness or otherwise. My hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen (Mr. Williams) as usual made a knowledgeable speech, and brought the benefit of his great expertise on the subject to the House. The Secretary of State made great play in his opening speech of a piece of work by Gerard Manley Hopkins. I thought that it would be appropriate to look for a response in the form of poetry. [Interruption.] The Minister now may be reticent to get involved in this literary side of the debate. I thought that the words of Wordsworth might be appropriate :
"Blest statesman he, whose mind's unselfish will leaves him at ease among grand thoughts."
The issue at stake during this taking Rio forward debate is whether the Secretary of State has dealt with the grand issues, and, indeed, how at ease he is with them. That seems to be the crucial test. The Secretary of State made a few interesting points tonight. Over the past few months, I have studied him and I accept that he has a genuine set of green intentions. He feels strongly about some issues, about which he sometimes rants in the Chamber. [Interruption.] Perish the thought that the Secretary of State should ever rant. There appears to be a black hole, however, between what the right hon. Gentleman believes he is doing and what the proposals in the Government's documents are likely to
Column 111achieve. A good example of that, which the right hon. Gentleman mentioned, is the link between green issues and environmental policy and economic growth and economic policy in general. That is at the core of sustainable development.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury said, the global market in environmental technologies is worth $300 billion according to the OECD and $600 billion according to other estimates. Either way, it is a massive market, far bigger than the global market for the aerospace industry. I hope that we can agree that that is the case.
We need a sound domestic base on which to develop that market, especially if we are to maximise the export potential that is offered. A survey of 300 United Kingdom businesses, recently carried out by environmental consultants, revealed that, although the global market is growing exponentially, Britain is at the bottom of the league. According to a study conducted by the German Government, Germany has 21 per cent. of the market, while the United States and Japan have taken, respectively, 16 and 13 per cent. of it. The United Kingdom's share is so low, unfortunately, that it does not even figure in the survey. Those consultants concluded :
"The British technology industry is not a world player." The Government's obsession with privatisation is also threatening the future of our forests. I hope that the Minister will take the initiative tonight, because it is about time that the Government said that they would not pursue that privatisation. I hope that the hon. Gentleman can offer hon. Members that assurance.
I have the honour to represent part of the north-west, but I regret to say that 67 per cent. of the bathing beaches in that region have failed the bathing water directive. The Wirral, on Merseyside, has some of the best beaches, but some are not even recommended for people to use. At the same time as the statistics are published, the Minister dodges his way around Europe trying to get Britain out of that directive. If people use our beaches at all, they are forced to stand alongside raw sewage, sanitary products and other equally appalling objects.
The recent accident at Ellesmere Port reveals that the petro-chemical industry is not safe and has a huge potential for inflicting environmental damage. I support the call of my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) for a public inquiry into that accident. It is time that we learnt from such disasters about how mistakes are made. We should try to learn how to avoid similar environmental damage in the future.
On all those issues, the Government behave dirty at home, while their record abroad is one of missed opportunities to lead. The British people have lost confidence in the Government's environmental policy, as they have in so many of their other policies. The time is coming when the Government will no longer be trusted to protect our environment, because they are obviously failing to do so now. 9.48 pm
The Minister for the Environment and Countryside (Mr. Robert Atkins) : I have been fascinated by this debate. In a former incarnation, I was responsible for matters in Northern Ireland and I was immensely
Column 112impressed by the quality of the briefing that I received from officials in my Department, as well as by my Secretary of State and other Ministers who have told me about the success story of this country's environmental policy.
I was particularly fascinated by a survey carried out on people's attitudes to environmental problems. It showed that although 85 to 90 per cent. of those canvassed were concerned about matters relating to the ozone layer, greenhouse gases, and so on, the same percentage were entirely opposed to actions to remedy those problems if they involved cost.
We are arguing about a climate of change in public opinion, which means that we must get it across to people that dealing with those concerns will cost money or affect individuals' way of life. Unless we create that climate of change, we shall be unable to fulfil the requirements and targets set out in these immensely important documents.
In Northern Ireland, I was Minister responsible for the Department of Economic Development and the Department of the Environment. Those two Departments were indivisible. The hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) said that this area of environmental activity is an opportunity, not a burden. I could not agree with him more. As a result of my experience in Northern Ireland, we produced a document called "Growing a Green Economy", which dealt with economic growth and environmental protection. That is why I was refreshed and heartened to realise, on taking this new job, that we were trying to do the same thing here.