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Overseas Development and Co-operation

Question agreed to.



11.36 pm

Mr. Norman Baker (Lewes): I am pleased to present a petition on behalf of Uncaged Campaigns, an organisation that is based in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) and that opposes xenotransplantation--the use of animal organs for transplantation to humans.

The petition comprises more than 100,000 signatures, which I hasten to say are not with me tonight, but which have been deposited at Downing street. The petition states:

I am pleased to present the petition accordingly.

To lie upon the Table.

31 Mar 1998 : Column 1167

Sewage Treatment (South Coast)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Jane Kennedy.]

11.37 pm

Dr. Desmond Turner (Brighton, Kemptown): I raise a subject that is close to many people's hearts. I will try to avoid the obvious jokes; I will leave those to sedentary colleagues.

In the early part of the 19th century, we used to have open sewers running down the streets of our cities. We have moved on a little since then, but, to a regrettable extent, we still treat our coastal waters as open sewers, so we have not got that far. Eleven per cent. of our population still have their sewage discharged from outfalls into the sea after nothing more than preliminary treatment, which, in practical terms, means that water companies pump out what could be described as thick coliform soup, but with odd bits in it, so it is a bit like minestrone.

That is not a very sanitary practice. It is not very nice at all, and it constitutes a great public health risk. It is no pleasure to stand on the cliff at Portobello in my constituency and look out to sea. One can see the end of the outfall. If there is a gentle onshore breeze, the smell is not very nice.

Mr. Norman Baker (Lewes): It is the same in Newhaven.

Dr. Turner: Yes, I am sure it is.

As we approach the millennium, it is appalling that we still have the most primitive, unsanitary practices, which expose us to health hazards that would have been recognised by the Victorians. The irony is that we have the means to stop it. That is the important thing. We have the means, but we need the dedicated will.

What are we to do? What is the next step? The European Union has made its contribution with the urban waste water treatment directive. If that were applied literally, it would mean that all our coastal sewage would be given at least secondary treatment. It would mean that my dearly beloved local water company, Southern Water, would have to meet the terms of that directive by 2000.

That water company has submitted proposals to build a new plant at Portobello, and has promised secondary treatment. The chairman and managing director came to see me and my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Lepper), and assured us that, at the very least, the company would put in secondary treatment. What we were not told was that, at the same time, it was trying to take advantage of a loophole in the directive, which is to seek derogation on the ground that sewage is being discharged into a high natural dispersion area. If that application is accepted and endorsed by the United Kingdom Government, only primary treatment will be needed.

The designation of a high natural dispersion area is exclusive in the European Union to Portugal and the United Kingdom. One cannot compare the seas around Portugal with those around the UK. The seas around Portugal are genuine high natural dispersion areas because they are very deep. Our seas are very shallow. To describe the North sea and the English channel as high natural

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dispersion areas is foolish. When one examines the concentration of heavy metals in the North sea, it is clear that whatever goes into the North sea or the channel just stays there and gets washed around. The idea of dispersion is demonstrable nonsense.

Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test): Is my hon. Friend aware that the recent report on sewage treatment by the Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs made the clear statement that the category of a high natural dispersion area should be abandoned immediately? It made that recommendation for the reasons mentioned by my hon. Friend. It also referred to the evidence of the Shellfish Association of Great Britain which mentioned, among other things, the Solent, which is in my part of the world.

That association said that much of what was allegedly sent out to sea in a high natural dispersion area came back over the shellfish and made them difficult to market without rewashing. I strongly support my hon. Friend's suggestion that an area of high natural dispersion is not appropriate for Great Britain.

Dr. Turner: I thank my hon. Friend for his timely intervention, with which I concur totally. I had planned on dealing with that Select Committee report in a moment, and I shall.

The European Union has also produced a bathing water directive, which is slightly defective, as its mandatory guidelines are commonly breached in our bathing waters. Even the blue flag guideline figures--which, if met, allow a blue flag to be flown--are no guarantee that water is safe. The commonly monitored marker organisms are very misleading and do not provide an accurate picture of the public health hazard. The real, much more useful, marker is faecal streptococci, which is rarely measured. Attention has centred on the coliforms. Therefore, work has yet to be done on the bathing water directive itself.

There is a new bathing water directive--unfortunately, it is not yet in force--which will make some progress on the problem, but not enough.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) observed, the Environment, Transport and the Regional Affairs Select Committee has just produced a report on sewage treatment and disposal. I congratulate the Select Committee on its very thorough report, and totally concur with its conclusions and recommendations. Although I take seriously all the report's conclusions and recommendations on how to deal with problems--each of which is worthy of a separate debate--two conclusions and recommendations are more relevant than the others to this debate.

First, the report clearly recommends that, by 2002, tertiary treatment should be applied to sewage at all times and in all places. That target is entirely reasonable, physically obtainable and economically feasible.

The report's second immediately pertinent recommendation, as my hon. Friend the Member for Test has already said, is that the category of high natural dispersion area should no longer be recognised in the United Kingdom.

I hope that the Government will take very seriously those two clear recommendations.

Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North): Does my hon. Friend agree that water companies are making vast profits

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and paying out huge dividends, and that they could well afford to foot the bill to deal with the issue themselves? Does he also agree that--according to Water Watch, a consumer organisation--in the Anglian region, £46 of everyone's water bill is being paid to shareholders? Does he also agree that research commissioned by Surfers Against Sewage shows that, in the first five years since privatisation, the Office of Water Services, the regulator, has allowed the water industry to out-perform the FTSE 100 by 35 per cent.?

Dr. Turner: I most certainly agree with my hon. Friend. The water industry's financial record is enviable, if one is a water company shareholder. Since privatisation--in the years 1990-97--water companies have tucked away £2 billion in dividends alone. In that period, on average, they have been registering a 35 per cent. pre-tax profit, which is a massive profit margin. They are distributing 24 per cent. of their turnover in dividends. Therefore, 24 per cent. of everyone's water bill goes in dividends to shareholders.

I find that quite objectionable. It far outstrips the performance of most companies. The privatised utilities are best described as a licence to print money. They do not face massive commercial risk. They are faced with the need for investment, but they have the turnover to be able to afford it without soaking the customer.

Mr. David Lepper (Brighton, Pavilion): Does my hon. Friend agree that, in towns such as Brighton, which he and I represent, where tourism is a vital part of the local economy, it is essential that residents and visitors should have every confidence that sea water is of the highest quality that modern technology can provide? In view of the figures that he and my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) have mentioned, does he agree that our local water company, Southern Water, has a responsibility to help build that confidence for residents and tourists by investing now in the latest technology for water treatment, rather than waiting until forced to do so by directives from either the Government or the European Union?

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