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Senator Pinochet

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Are you aware that this evening a statement has been issued by the Home Office in relation to the detention of General Pinochet, and that that statement says in terms that, in the circumstances--that is, the medical recommendations--the Secretary of State is minded, subject to any representations he may receive, to take the view that no purpose would be served by continuing the present extradition proceedings and that he should therefore decide not to extradite Senator Pinochet?

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Is it not a contempt of the House that such an announcement should be given to the press and no statement made to the House? You indicated to me earlier, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you had received no request to make a statement. May I ask you whether it is in the traditions of the House that the Home Secretary--wherever he may be--should make a statement to the House before briefing the press?

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. May I associate my colleagues and myself as strongly as possible with the request made through you that the usual convention of the House be observed and that Secretaries of State making the most controversial and most potentially provocative public statements on a matter that relates both to their parliamentary duties and to their judicial responsibilities do so first to those who have regularly raised it with them across the Floor of the House?

May I ask that everything be done to make sure that, at the earliest opportunity tomorrow, the Home Secretary comes to the House, apologises to the House, makes a statement to the House and explains what is this evidence that is so conclusive--and how we can have a guarantee in this case that there is not the sort of illness from which people recover very miraculously? In the past, such people have been allowed to escape from judicial process.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North): Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. You will know that during the 18 years of the previous Government there were many occasions when we protested because statements were not made in the House, so there is nothing unique about what has happened today.

Having said that, and bearing in mind that the Conservatives have said time and again that Pinochet should be sent home, those of us who believe that a statement should be made at some stage are very concerned indeed. We therefore want to put on the record the fact that someone we consider to be a murderous tyrant should face justice and not be sent back to Chile.

Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord): Order. I think I have heard enough now.

Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I call Mr. Howard.

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe): Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am sure that we all understand how preoccupied the Home Secretary is at present to press home his attacks on the aggressive behaviour of the people of England, but notwithstanding that, would it not be a mark of respect to the House if he were able to tear himself away from that preoccupation for just a few moments to explain to the House why he has come to this decision now and not many, many months ago? Given the presence on the Treasury Bench of at least one Home Office Minister among the legion of

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Ministers there, would it not be in order for that Minister to communicate to the Home Secretary the desirability of his--[Interruption.]

Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I have heard enough. Right hon. and hon. Members will be well aware that this is not a matter for the Chair. Whether or not ministerial statements are made, and the timing of such statements, are entirely matters for the Government, who will no doubt have heard the exchanges that have taken place here this evening.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) rose--

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) rose--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I will take no more points of order.

Mr. Garnier rose--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. We must now deal with the money motion.


Queen's recommendation having been signified--

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 52(1)(a),

(1) the payment out of money provided by Parliament of--
(a) any expenditure incurred by the Secretary of State for or in connection with the carrying out of his functions under the Act; and
(b) any increase attributable to the Act in the sums which are payable out of money so provided under any other Act; and
(2) the payment of sums into the Consolidated Fund.--[Mr. Allen.]

Question agreed to.

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Sewage and Water (North Thanet)

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

10.31 pm

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet): I am grateful for the opportunity to raise, briefly, a matter that is of considerable local importance to my constituents living in the Cliftonville area of North Thanet, and has wider implications--to which I shall return--for the whole coastline and water resources of the United Kingdom.

The provision of water to meet the domestic, industrial and agricultural needs of the 21st century and the disposal of sewage and waste water generated by homes, businesses and industries in growing volume is a vexed question that has taxed many good minds.

Tonight, I shall refer specifically to Southern Water's proposals for the expansion of a sewage treatment plant at Foreness Point, and for the discharge of the resulting millions of gallons of high quality effluent daily, through sea outfalls, into the Thames estuary. I shall seek to demonstrate that that waste of potentially recyclable effluent is something that neither Kent nor the United Kingdom can afford.

First, let me set the proposal in context. Since my election in 1983 I have had a good working relationship with Southern Water, which is responsible for the provision of water to two thirds of my constituency, and for the treatment and disposal of waste water throughout the area. In 1983, Southern Water began a process of planning and investment in a new sewage system for Herne Bay, removed the need to discharge sewage through a short Victorian outfall into the sea, dramatically improved the bathing waters, and reduced the risk of flooding in the town centre.

Much sewerage work has also been carried out in the isle of Thanet. I was proud to see the completion at Foreness Point of the then state-of-the-art marine treatment works, and, on 28 April 1989, formally to declare it open. The construction of that plant had generated dirt and dust, and had caused disruption and inconvenience. My constituents bore the inconvenience with fortitude, in the belief that what was being installed would serve the needs of the area for many years to come, and the construction of an inland treatment plant--inaugurated by His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales--consolidated that view. To my constituents' horror, however, fresh demands presented by European directives and regulation have rendered the "new" facility at Foreness obsolete within 10 years.

By June 1994, Southern Water was already examining options for further developments to meet the new requirements. In the summer of 1997, it sought waste water works approval, saying that

Giving formal notice of its intentions, Southern Water stated that the alternative of an inland treatment plant at Weatherlees would be "massively more expensive" than Foreness. Notwithstanding the Department's campaign to

    "regard water as a valuable resource"

and insistence on conservation, everything that has taken place since has been driven not by environmental concerns, or by our water requirements, but by short-term financial expedience.

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It quickly became clear that there was massive public objection to the Foreness plan on two grounds--the potential desecration of an area of natural beauty and scientific interest; and, perhaps more significant, proposals to pump millions of gallons of what we are told will be

daily into the sea, when it should be recycled for domestic and industrial use.

The Foreness Point environmental action group, with more than 2,700 members, was formed. Public meetings followed. On 2 October 1997, the Environment Agency (Kent) wrote to the county planning control officer to say:

That is the crux of the argument. It has national as well as local implications for every coastal site around the country. Is it right, I shall ask again and again, to waste millions of gallons of water that, inland, would certainly be recycled and re-used?

On behalf of Thanet district council, its planning officer wrote on 25 November 1997:

However, Southern Water's assessment of the two sites, while giving a "very good" and "good" rating to Weatherlees on planning, environmental and land issues, as against only "average" at Foreness, had given a "very good" financial rating to Foreness and a "very poor" financial rating to Weatherlees. In short, it had become clear that finance was overriding all other considerations.

The then Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford), wrote on 6 January 1998 that

In July 1998, I wrote to the Minister for the Environment, the right hon. Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher), asking him to receive a small delegation from the Foreness Point environmental action group. He responded swiftly and courteously, met us and listened sympathetically to our concerns. He made it plain that he, at least, was personally concerned by the environmental issue and the prospects for the conservation and re-use of water--issues that we had raised.

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Southern Water's first Foreness plan required land purchase from Thanet district council. True to the position expressed by its planning officer, the council announced on 2 October 1998 its objection to the compulsory purchase by Southern Water of

The then leader of the council, Councillor Coppock, said on that day:

    "This has little to do with the sale of land and more to do with finding the right solutions for the 21st Century. Only this week it was reported that the Environment Minister, Michael Meacher, had named Thanet as an area of concern for discharge for sewage. This is clearly not an appropriate place for this development and the land is not up for grabs".

I next wrote to the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions on behalf of my constituents lodging formal objection to the proposed compulsory purchase order. On 5 November, I was gratified to receive a response from my friend the then Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale), informing me that

    "it has been decided that a local public inquiry will be held to consider Southern Water's application and the objections to it".

As the Minister may imagine, my constituents were elated to learn that, at long last, this issue of vital national as well as local importance was to be fully and properly examined. It was plain, however, that Southern Water wished to avoid exposing the paucity and the venal nature of their arguments to public scrutiny. Southern Water wrote to me, saying:

    "As you may be aware additional treatment is now necessary . . . we will therefore be re-visiting our plans to incorporate the necessary treatment processes in line with Environment Agency guidelines and as a result our current compulsory purchase order at Foreness Point is no longer appropriate and we have notified the Department that we will not longer proceed with this".

Therefore, the long-awaited public inquiry fell through. However, by that time, concerns over the future of water provision for domestic, industrial and agricultural use were increasing throughout east Kent and beyond.

Pfizers, the major pharmaceutical company based at Sandwich, had raised the issue, with other structural matters, with Thanet district council in relation to its future investment plans. Farmers were reporting a shortage of water to wash potatoes for delivery to supermarkets. The spectre of a massive house-building programme was raising its head, and serious environmental concerns were being expressed about the salination of the River Stour, as decreasing water flows led to salt water encroaching higher upstream at high tide.

On 3 September 1999, Southern Water's new plan for an even larger scheme at Foreness became clear. In a letter, it stated:

At a public exhibition held at Foreness Point, on 14 October 1999, it became clear that a second chamber--as large again as the existing one--would be required; that the site would cover 10 acres; that the task would entail massive earthworks, excavation and disruption over a number of years; that millions of gallons of high-quality effluent would still be wasted daily; and that Southern Water still intended to pump raw sewage, during summer bathing season storms and winter storms, through a 300 m outfall into the sea.

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There was, fleetingly, some sign that Southern Water's management was beginning to listen. In response to questions, Southern's project manager said:

However, on 25 October, Southern backtracked, saying in response to my inquires:

    "Developing Weatherlees was reconsidered when research indicated that there was some spare physical capacity which would allow the site to provide the full treatment required for Margate and Broadstairs flows. We made an informal approach to the EA"--

the Environment Agency--

    "and the response was so firmly negative that we concluded it would be pointless to pursue the matter particularly"--

and here we go again--

    "since it would involve an economic premium over the Foreness Point option".

The Environment Agency, charged with the protection of the environment and its resources, has to its eternal shame once again failed thoroughly to investigate a situation and is instead now sheltering behind the argument that

    "we have no discharge licence application from Southern Water to respond to".

Southern Water's own publication, "Working Together to save Water", states:

    "We are now using more water than ever before. Compared to only a decade ago more homes are using washing machines and dishwashers and gardening as a hobby is far more popular. These factors are compounded by a steady increase in population.

    Added to these man-made challenges are the natural ones. Most scientists are now predicting that the climate change will increase the chance of long hot summers and shorter, warmer winters in the South East. It is generally believed that there will be more exceptionally dry summers like 1995.

    If we do not reduce the growth in demand for water pressure on the environment will increase as we need to take more from underground sources and rivers or build more reservoirs.

    We at Southern Water take a long-term view and believe that everyone should have enough water for their essential needs for the future.

    The development of new sources of supply is often costly in both environmental and economic terms and, therefore, it makes sense to make best use of existing resources before developing new ones".

One of those existing resources is the potential for recycling effluent.

How can it be right, in this day and age, to continue to pump millions of gallons of water into the sea all around the coast of the United Kingdom in the face of the warning that I have just read from Southern Water? Is this to be a long-term or a short-term view?

I began by saying that in 1989 I opened the futuristic treatment plant at Foreness. Since that time Governments and the European Union have changed the rules several times. How long will it be before the EU, recognising that we can no longer go on wasting water, bans sea outfalls entirely?

Will the new proposals themselves be obsolete in a few years and after yet more disruption, leaving us to look inland again and say "I told you so"?

I believe that the Minister is sympathetic to this cause. I believe that, in the national interest, the time is right to hold a full public inquiry into the science, the technology

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and the long-term environmental impact of the continued use of sea outfalls matched against the opportunity for the recycling of effluent.

It is not a local matter. We have the opportunity to reach a benchmark decision and take a quantum jump into a future for which our children and our grandchildren will bless us as the climate changes.

I believe that Southern Water, and indeed all water companies serving coastal areas, that have enjoyed a proud record of innovation in the past, should abandon what is essentially a 19th century system of outfalls and blaze a trail for tomorrow's technology.

It is clear that Kent county council, while not seeking to shirk its planning responsibilities, has come to recognise that this is not just a local issue, but a national one and would welcome a decision based upon a thorough examination of the facts.

I urge the Minister to call in this application swiftly and equally swiftly to instigate an inquiry so that we can get on with the real job of protecting our environment and providing enough water for the needs of the future that Southern Water and I agree that "everyone should have".

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