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Mr. David Lidington accordingly presented a Bill to provide for the transfer of certain records in the custody of the Registrar General to the Public Records Office : And the same was read the First time ; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 15 July 1994, and to be printed. [Bill 109.]
-- [ 1st part ]
Mr. Chris Smith (Islington, South and Finsbury) : I beg to move, That this House recognises that the environment cannot be properly protected by national endeavour alone ; acknowledges the importance of Europe-wide action to prevent pollution and improve environmental standards ; applauds the work of the European Union and especially of the European Parliament in helping to safeguard the environment here in Britain ; notes the lamentable record of Her Majesty's Government in failing to ensure that agreed standards for drinking water, bathing water, and air quality are achieved ; deplores the Government's consequent attempts to diminish those standards ; deprecates the inadequate implementation of provisions for access to environmental information, and of protection for wildlife habitats ; recognises the need for further radical improvement in Europe's environmental work, especially in relation to the Common Agricultural Policy ; and believes that Britain should be in the forefront of environmental progress in Europe, rather than lagging constantly behind its European partners.
The motion and the Government amendment at the very least appear to establish some common ground between the Government and the Labour party. We agree that the environment in Britain cannot be properly and fully protected "by national endeavour alone" ; we agree that pollution knows no national boundaries and that, therefore, "Europe-wide action" to combat pollution is necessary and worth while ; and we appear to agree that the single market must not be allowed to lead to the down-bidding of environmental standards between member countries. We also appear to agree-- although I must confess I was rather surprised to read this in the Government amendment--that we should applaud
"the work of the European Union".
I pause at this point to consider whether, in the current circumstances, all Conservative Members would endorse such a phrase. However, we appear to agree that we should applaud
"the work of the European Union and especially of the European Parliament in helping to safeguard the environment here in Britain". But what are we agreeing on ? What do the Government appear to be applauding ?
Mr. Tim Devlin (Stockton, South) : Before the hon. Gentleman presses on with what I am sure will be an excellent speech, will he tell the House whether all Labour Members will applaud the work of the European Union ?
The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. John Selwyn Gummer) : Does the hon. Gentleman believe that my predecessor, the right honMember for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore), will be as enthusiastic about the work of the European Union as I am ? And will the hon. Gentleman receive the same enthusiastic support from the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) ?
Mr. Smith : I am sure that I shall have their wholehearted support, and I shall be interested to see whether the Secretary of State has the wholehearted support of the hon. Members for Stafford (Mr. Cash) and for Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor).
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) : Just to put the record straight, I agree that many things in the world need to be done to improve the environment, especially in Bolsover. Some time ago, on at least 20 occasions, I called for a public inquiry into the dioxin-contaminated area around the Coalite works near Bolsover. The current Secretary of State for the Environment, then Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, refused to hold such an inquiry and he still refuses to do so. If the dioxin- contaminated soil were around Chequers or Buckingham palace, an inquiry would have been held.
Notwithstanding my opposition to the Common Market, which I believe has been an unmitigated disaster, if my hon. Friend can ensure that someone from one of the 12 member states comes to Bolsover, holds a public inquiry and forces the polluter to pay, he will have my support.
Mr. Smith : My hon. Friend makes his point strongly. He may be interested to see the proposals on contaminated land currently before the European Union, as they will be of considerable help in relation to the problems of dioxin pollution that he has so assiduously raised in the House.
The Government's amendment endorses some of the work of the EU, but exactly what aspects of that work do they mean ? Europe has demanded that we make mandatory the fitting of catalytic converters on new vehicles bought and sold right across the Community. That is absolutely right, so why was it the British Government who delayed the implementation of the directive ? Why did they seek a derogation for a year to lessen its impact ?
It is right that Europe should be laying down standards for drinking water and bathing water across the whole continent. Yet it is the British Government who are busy saying that the standards are far too stringent, and that it is all a matter for subsidiarity--that is, in their terms, a matter for national decision alone. Yet that is one of the items on which they appear to want to tell us that Europe should be applauded.
Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham) : While the hon. Gentleman is talking about drinking water and bathing water, does he accept that the Government have agreed the standards ? He has said that he wants us to comply with those standards within a much shorter period. Can he tell the House precisely what period ? By what date should the standards be achieved ? What would it cost consumers and the Government, precisely, in millions of pounds ? In the hypothetical case of a Labour Government being elected, has the hon. Gentleman the permission of the hon. Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown) to make that commitment ?
Mr. Smith : I shall come to some of those detailed points in a minute, but first I shall deal in some detail with the bathing water directive and the urban waste water directive. The Government that the hon. Gentleman supports are querying not just the pace at which standards are achieved in Europe, but the standards themselves, so he should get his own facts right first.
Do the Government applaud the European Union's wish
Column 334for an environmental impact assessment of the policy making process to be carried out ? They are currently blocking that proposal within the EU. Is part of what the Government want to see carried out at European level the decision of the Basle convention, made only last month, to prohibit the export of toxic waste to developing countries ? In their European manifesto five years ago the Government said that they wanted to implement that, but only now, reluctantly, have they implemented it, joining Denmark and other countries in doing so one month ago. Is that European action part of what they want to applaud ?
Mr. Llew Smith (Blaenau Gwent) : I am sure that my hon. Friend will applaud the European Union's move to ban the movement of toxic waste within EC countries. Does he support the call by many of us that the transfrontier movement of spent nuclear fuel between EC countries should also be banned ? I do not see how Europe can ban toxic waste yet at the same time refuse to ban spent nuclear fuel, which is a much more dangerous substance.
Mr. Smith : My hon. Friend makes a trenchant point. He will know that the arrangements for waste substitution arising from the reprocessing of other countries' spent nuclear fuel in the United Kingdom are as yet totally unclear. The Government have not yet agreed them. I have consistently argued that the Government were foolish to press ahead with the opening of new reprocessing facilities at a time when they have not decided what is to happen to the waste arising from that processing.
Are the Government in the business of applauding the European habitats directive ? They have proposed no primary legislation to implement it. We have no statutory protection of hedgerows in this country. The Government are making no provision for the protection of the wider countryside beyond special sites. It seems that the habitats directive will be implemented poorly, if at all, in this country.
Is the Government's applauding of action in Europe taken as far as the amendments considered in the European Parliament last Wednesday to improve the packaging directive ? One of those amendments would have set target bands for recycling of between 25 per cent. and 50 per cent. It was supported not only by the socialist group in the European Parliament, but by the European People's party, to which Conservative Members of the European Parliament are supposed to adhere. Yet the votes of Conservative Members against that amendment ensured that the amendment fell. I must ask the Government whether the Conservative Members of the European Parliament were operating in accordance with Government policy at that stage.
The Government may say that they believe in European action to tackle pollution and to protect our environment, but on one issue after another they delay or object to or block the work of Europe in that sector.
Mr. Richard Tracey (Surbiton) : On packaging, one of the key parts of the Government's amendment is the point about cost-effectiveness. Will the hon. Gentleman admit that the type of proposal that the Labour party would support on packaging would add £2,500 million to the bill of industry in this country ?
Mr. Smith : Perhaps the hon. Gentleman was not paying full attention to what I was saying. The amendment to which I was referring was an amendment which set target bands for recycling of between 25 per cent. and 50 per cent. The Government's own target is 25 per cent. Yet Conservative Members of the European Parliament--the hon. Gentleman's Conservative colleagues--were the people who ensured, by their votes last Wednesday in the European Parliament, that that amendment fell. So they were not voting against my policy ; they were voting against their own Government's policy. That, supposedly, is the progress that the Government wish to be made in Europe. The Conservative party naturally tries to claim to be a fully green party, especially in Europe.
Mr. Smith : No, I have dealt with the hon. Gentleman's point. As recently as a few weeks ago, the Conservative party issued a handsome but thoroughly bogus document entitled, "Europe's Environment--Conserving our Future." Let us consider some of the myths and untruths that are peddled in that document. On page 2
Mr. Smith : I will not give way to the hon. Gentleman. I have already given way to him once. I have taken a substantial number of interventions and I wish to make progress. [Interruption.] I have told the hon. Gentleman that he will receive an answer to the points that he raised in due course when I discuss that subject. The first point made in the document, "Conserving our Future," is that John Major has been at the forefront of the international campaign to protect our environment. The idea of John Major at the forefront of anything at the moment is a little difficult to grasp. How does the hon. Member for Surbiton (Mr. Tracey) explain that Britain is the only country in the European Union to have refused to set carbon dioxide reduction targets beyond the year 2000 ? How does he square his claim with the fact that the Government's programme, even to reach the target that they have set for the year 2000, is already in tatters ? One third of it relies on the work of the Energy Saving Trust, which currently has no programme and no funding. The Government's repeated grand claims about how much progress they are making towards achieving their own carbon dioxide target are therefore completely bogus.
Mr. Gummer : So that the House may not be misled, I should point out that two countries--Germany and Denmark--have fixed their targets beyond the year 2000. The hon. Gentleman suggests that we are the only one not to have done so, but according to my mathematics the United Kingdom is one of 10 such countries.
Mr. Smith : I think the Secretary of State will find that other countries have done so. He is certainly aware of the fact that we have not. If he looks at the commitments made by other countries in Europe, such as Holland and Denmark, he will find that there are targets in place.
On page 4 of the document to which I referred is the following astonishing statement :
"the private ownership of industry tends to raise environmental standards."
I wonder if the Government would like to put that claim to
Column 336the customers of the privatised water companies. Were the customers of Severn Trent well served by the fact that its filtration systems were inadequate to the task of picking up a level of pollution which 150,000 people in Worcester and elsewhere were able to detect by looking at and smelling the water coming out of their taps ? Are the customers of Severn Trent aware that in 1990 there were 780 km of poor or bad river and canal water in their area--12 per cent. of the total for which the company is responsible ? Do Conservative Members know that Severn Trent customers faced 1,222 supply disconnections in 1992-93 ? I do not regard that as a raising of environmental standards.
Several hon. Members rose
Mr. Smith : Conservative Members should reflect on the fact that, in 1992-93, the chief executive of Severn Trent had a salary of £195, 000 --an increase of 37 per cent. on the previous year--and that, in addition, he has made £238,000 on his share options. Before claiming that private ownership of industry tends to raise environmental standards, Conservative Members ought to reflect on the fact that it tends to raise the salaries and perks of the people working for the privatised companies but does not necessarily raise the environmental standards of the work that they do.
Several hon. Members rose
"Open access to information on the state of the environment is imperative."
That is absolutely true if we are to have proper environmental protection, so why are the environmental information regulations that the Government tabled and took through the House in December 1992 so tightly and restrictively drawn ? Why are there wide exemptions, especially in relation to supposed commercial confidentiality ? Why is there no definition of what constitutes a public authority for the purposes of the regulations ?
For instance, are the privatised water companies excluded from the provisions of the regulations as a result ? Why is there no appeal system if an authority decides not to release information ? Why, unbelievably, is information presented to a local or national public inquiry excluded from the freedom of information provisions in the environmental sector ? When the Government say that access to information is imperative, they are not implementing what they say they believe in.
Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth) : If the Government are seriously concerned about environmental matters, does my hon. Friend agree that they would not have allowed consideration of the Coal Industry Bill to reach an advanced stage while those in the coalfield areas still have grave anxieties about the consequences of mine drainage and abandoned mines ?
Mr. Smith : My hon. Friend is absolutely right. If the Government were seriously concerned about the impact of coal and coal mining on the environment they would have done two simple things : first, they would have accepted a Labour amendment which was tabled in Committee to ensure that pumping of flood water continued even after a mine was abandoned so that the flood water did not leach
Column 337out and pollute surrounding water courses and rivers ; secondly, they would have included far tougher provisions than they have yet set out in their draft planning guidance for opencast coal mining to insist on a presumption against new opencast applications being agreed. Opencast operations are enormously detrimental to the environment and they help to finish off the deep-mined coal industry, which the Government have been so anxious to see put in its grave. On page 7 of "Europe's Environment--Conserving our Future" we are told :
"We need to get right the relationship between international trade and environmental protection."
Why was there no mention in the GATT negotiations of the needs of the environment ? Why are the Government, through the European Community, not adopting our proposals for reform of the world trading organisation to ensure that the environment becomes a fundamental part of its remit ?
When we reach page 9 of "Conserving our Future" the Government compeletely lose touch with reality. They claim, first, that Labour has at some stage in the past proposed the imposition of value added tax on domestic fuel when we have not. At no stage have we done that. I will come to the question of a carbon tax in a moment. For the Conservatives to say that the Labour party has at any stage advocated the imposition of VAT on domestic fuel is an untruth, and they know it. Secondly, the Government state that we favour a Europe-wide carbon tax. We do not. For the Conservative party to say so is to perpetuate a further untruth.
Thirdly, the Government say that we wish in some sense to abandon the national veto. Again, we do not. We welcomed the provisions in the Maastricht treaty relating to environmental matters--at least to the majority of such matters--and qualified majority voting. Indeed, the Government supported qualified majority voting on most environmental matters. However, the Labour party does not wish to abandon the national veto on matters of taxation, for example, and the Government should know that that is our position.
Mr. Peter Ainsworth (Surrey, East) : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I understand that he was quoted about a year ago in Green Magazine to the effect that the Labour party would consider imposing VAT on environmentally unfriendly products. The hon. Gentleman must accept, and I urge him to do so today, that fuel consumption conflicts with environmental objectives. Will he please clarify his party's policy on that in the light of statements that he has made about increasing VAT ?
Mr. Smith : The hon. Gentleman is reading his Conservative party briefing rather than the article or the document on which the article was based. If he had read those, and if he had also listened to the reply that I gave to an identical point several months ago in the House, he would know that what we proposed in the past was a raising of VAT on some small items, such as heavy metal batteries and items containing chlorofluorocarbons, and a corresponding reduction in VAT on items such as insulation materials. If the hon. Gentleman cannot tell the difference between a heavy metal battery and someone's quarterly gas bill, he is somewhat dimmer than I took him to be.
Mr. Hughes : I intervene only because it is important and because the Government are under pressure--and no doubt will continue to be under pressure. Will the hon. Gentleman tell us the Labour party's current policy on energy taxation and environmental taxation ?
Mr. Smith : As I said a moment ago, we do not accept the proposal from the European Commission for a carbon energy tax, for two reasons. First, it has a potentially severe social impact in exactly the same way as VAT on domestic fuel has had. Secondly, even if it is a 50 : 50 proposal between carbon and energy content, the carbon element discriminates unfairly in favour of some sources of power, such as nuclear, as opposed to other sources of power. We therefore do not accept the proposal currently coming out of Europe. I wish to deal with two particular issues. The first relates to the bathing water directive and the point in which the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold) may be interested. At present, one in five of all beaches in this country fails to meet the mandatory quality standards for water quality and two out of three of all our beaches fail to meet the guideline standards for water quality. Evidence from recent surveys, including the Reader's Digest survey, shows that we are getting worse rather than better in Britain.
The Government's response is to try to get the standards lowered. They have circulated a memorandum throughout the Community saying that, with the French Government, they want to see the bathing water directive withdrawn, amended or repealed. The Prime Minister came back from the December Council of Ministers meeting saying that our restrictive water quality requirements were to be eased as a result of a deal that he had done. When it transpired that, in fact, water and the water directive were not even mentioned at the December Council meeting, and that the rest of Europe were absolutely firm in saying that standards should not be in any way reduced, the Government none the less seemed to be persisting in saying that water quality standards in the bathing water directive--the standard of water at our seaside resorts--ought to be diminished rather than strengthened.
Labour Members insist that standards must be maintained. We want to meet the mandatory standards for bathing water quality and to see the investment in place to ensure that that happens. If the water companies were sensible about it--if they were looking not to their own profits and their directors' salaries, but to the way in which they spread their borrowing, where it comes from, to what they devote it and what their investment programme is--they would be able to meet the standards, and to do so a jolly sight sooner than they are currently doing, without imposing additional costs on the water customer.
However, the Government appear to think that it is perfectly all right for our children to go to the seaside and paddle or swim in sewage-contaminated water. We do not believe that that is right, and we want our bathing waters to be cleaned up. If the Government were sensible about environmental protection, instead of trying to diminish standards they would be trying to ensure that that protection was put in place.
Column 339The other point that I promised the hon. Member for Gravesham that I would consider is the urban waste water treatment directive. That directive relates to the treatment of sewage from our urban areas. The fact that the city of Hull discharges all its sewage untreated into the Humber estuary is of obvious concern to many people. However, the Government--and the Conservative party echoes this point in its document--say, "Ah, but we didn't realise how much all this was going to cost." The Conservative party document states :
"The cost of implementing the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive . . . is far higher than was first thought."
By saying that the figures are far higher than they first thought, the Government are ignoring the fact that they were told very clearly when the urban waste water treatment directive was under discussion, and before the Government signed up to it, what the cost implications were going to be.
In clear evidence to the House of Lords Select Committee in 1991
Mr. Devlin : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Would you consider, with Madam Speaker, whether it is satisfactory for a debate to be held on a motion in the name of six right hon. and hon. Members, of whom only two are present in the Chamber, when the average attendance on the Opposition Benches has been 13 ? Would it not be better if we introduced a rule stating that 50 right hon. and hon. Members had to call for a motion to be tabled on the Order Paper
Before the Government signed up to the urban waste water treatment directive, they were told what the likely cost would be. The Water Services Association and the Fellowship of Engineering gave evidence to that effect to the House of Lords Select Committee, which determined that the estimates indicated expenditure of more than £8 billion. For the Government to say, "Oh, but no one told us
Column 340at the time," means either that they do not read Select Committee reports as they should or that they are displaying even greater incompetence than I expected. On all the issues--bathing water, drinking water, sewage treatment, access to environmental information, protection of habitats and air quality monitoring--Europe is far ahead of us. The progress that we have made in this country has been led by the European Community and the European Parliament. I commend especially the work of the Environment Committee of the European Parliament and its chairman, Ken Collins. The lead has certainly not come from either Marsham street or Downing street.
Of course, there are things that Europe could, and should, be doing better. Agriculture is an obvious case. There is a need to move away from highly intensive methods of agriculture towards less intensive agricultural methods. The new procedures of set-aside may in some cases compound the problem and encourage even more intensive use of land that is not set aside. No serious thought appears to have been given to how set-aside land could be used ecologically.
Improvement in the use of the structural funds may also be worth while. Regulations now refer to sustainable development and the need for environmental safeguards in the use of structural funds. I wish at times that the same principles could be applied to the trans-European road network.
In Britain, as always, we lag behind. Britain has made some bids for structural funds without separate environmental assessments. English Nature and the Countryside Commission in England have not been formally involved in drawing up plans for submissions for structural funds although, interestingly, Scottish Natural Heritage has been involved in that process. When will the Government start to ensure that the environmental aspects of applications for structural funding from Europe are included as Europe expects them to be ? The case is clear. Europe has a good record on the environment--much of it proposed, nurtured and campaigned for by Labour Members of the European Parliament. Of course there is room for improvement in what Europe does, but the present British Government have an outstandingly poor record on the environment. From the complacency of the post-Rio documents to the paucity of the "Third Update on Common Inheritance" which was published yesterday, and the content and tone of the Government's amendment today, there is precious little prospect of any improvement forthcoming in what the Government do in relation to our environment or in their contribution to the positive progress that Europe is, and should be, making in preserving and protecting our environment in Britain.
recognises that the environment cannot be properly protected by national endeavour alone ; acknowledges the importance of Europe-wide action to prevent pollution and improve environmental standards ; applauds the work of the European Union and especially of the European Parliament in helping to safeguard the environment here in Britain ; welcomes the lead taken by Her Majesty's Government in ensuring that the European Union plays an effective part in global environmental matters and implements the principle of sustainable development
Column 341in all its activities ; insists that Britain should continue to press for sensible and cost-effective environmental decisions on those matters which are properly the concern of the European Union ; welcomes the progressive policies of the United Kingdom in all those other areas where national measures are appropriate ; is saddened by the failure of Her Majesty's Opposition and of the Liberal Democrat Party to support the necessary fiscal measures to reduce energy consumption ; highlights their failure to evolve effective policy towards the environment and their desire to remove the United Kingdom's influence in the European Union by their insistence on majority voting and the abolition of the veto ; and regrets the way in which they fail to support the Government's insistence that in internal matters it is for the United Kingdom Parliament to decide upon the most appropriate ways of reaching sustainable development goals.'.
The House may have been rather surprised by the speech that we have just heard. At the end of it, the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) said that much of what was good in Europe had been proposed, nurtured and campaigned for by the Labour party. Yet it is extremely difficult to understand what the Labour party stands for on any of the issues that he raised.
The hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes)--with whom I do not always agree and have sometimes been sharp--asked what the Labour party's policy was. He received a clear answer : it was what the Labour party's policy was not. It is not Labour party policy to support a carbon tax, although 11 out of 12 countries do support it. I have a picture--to which I will not refer, Mr. Deputy Speaker--of the leader of the Labour party signing a statement in the manifesto of the European socialists for the European elections. He has signed up to the principle that majority voting will be the rule in the Council.When this fact was put to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott)--he used to be the Opposition spokesman for transport, but I am not sure what he speaks on now --he said that we were quoting from the French edition of the document. I do not know how the hon. Gentleman could have known that in any case, but we were actually quoting from the English edition which was signed by the Labour party.
How will the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury square this fact ? He says that we have to support all that comes from the European Community. Indeed, the burden of his speech was that on every occasion when the British Government had even questioned something that had been agreed in Europe, we were wrong and they were right. The hon. Gentleman went on to say that although 11 countries want the carbon tax, he and the Labour party do not want it. But he did not explain how the Labour party would deliver the reductions in carbon levels which can be delivered only by the sort of taxation system which we have put forward and to which he is substantially opposed.
We could not meet our targets without that taxation system. The hon. Gentleman would not go along with the alternative of a carbon tax, which he rightly said was disadvantageous to the United Kingdom ; that is why I have opposed it continually. If the hon. Gentleman cannot accept either proposal, he is admitting that, far from having a policy of reducing carbon levels after 2000, he does not even have a policy for reducing them before 2000.
The hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury had his facts wrong all along. He was challenged about his general statement that we are the only country in Europe which has not signed a policy for the reduction in carbon levels after the year 2000. But we are in the majority. We are one of 10 countries which have not signed a policy ;
Column 342only two countries have such a policy. Even if we were not in the majority, this country believes in the European Union and therefore we believe that countries should set those targets together. That is the only way of ensuring that the whole of Europe signs policies which matter to the whole of Europe.
The real problem with the motion before us is that, although it pays lip service to the Opposition's support for Europe, it betrays the Opposition's history with regard to Europe. The Labour party has had six changes of mind about Europe. It has been against Europe for far longer than it has been in favour of Europe. The only distinguished former Labour Secretary of State for the Environment hates the European Union and everything to do with it. He opposes it on every ground and if he votes for the motion this evening it will be with his eyes closed to the first half of the motion.
The speech by the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury was sad not just because it was inaccurate or unacceptably vague about Labour party policy, but because it did not seek to establish a consensus with regard to the environment. Consensus is essential if we in this country and other nations in the European Union and beyond are to create the sustainable development on which the future of the globe depends.