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Session 2002 - 03
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Delegated Legislation Committee Debates

Nitrate Vulnerable Zones (Additional Designations) (England) (No.2) Regulations 2002

Seventh Standing Committee
on Delegated Legislation

Tuesday 26 November 2002

[Mr. Edward O'Hara in the Chair]

Nitrate Vulnerable Zones
(Additional Designations) (England) (No. 2)
Regulations 2002 (S.I. 2002, No. 2614)

4.30 pm

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the Nitrate Vulnerable Zones (Additional Designations) (England) (No. 2) Regulations 2002 (S.I. 2002, No. 2614).

I am delighted to serve under your stewardship, Mr. O'Hara, and to face the Minister once again. We were debating potatoes yesterday afternoon, and now we move seamlessly and gracefully to nitrate-vulnerable zones.

It is important to set the matter in context. It is of genuine concern. There is understandably an interest in nitrates within the industry—farmers and growers have a proper interest; but of course there are wider implications. A case has been made over many years about nitrates, particularly their increasing concentration in drinking water, which is obviously a cause for the concern that I have described. However, it is right to mention that there are doubts about the impact of nitrates.

Some scientists have challenged the claim that blue baby syndrome, for example, is a direct consequence of the concentration of nitrates in water. I make no pretence of being an expert on such subjects, but it is perhaps sufficient to say that there is a question about the cause and origin of blue baby syndrome. The World Health Organisation declared it, in 1989, to be extinct in western Europe, and there is not a massive incidence of blue baby syndrome in Lincolnshire or the rest of the United Kingdom.

Other claims are made about the concentration of nitrates causing different cancers, particularly childhood cancers, and I think questions arise about that—I put it no more strongly. There is a proper and legitimate scientific debate about the true dangers and implications of nitrates. However, one would not want to approach the relevant worries other than in a cautious, sensible and measured way.

The directive first saw the light of day in the early 1990s. It was implemented, and its effects were felt, in the mid-1990s. At that time, the directive affected only a small percentage of the land in the United Kingdom. The regulations being considered today will increase that percentage substantially. You will know, Mr. O'Hara, that the increase is of considerable concern to the industry. I shall come to that issue in a moment. You will also know of the European Court judgment in 2000 that said that the Government were not carrying out the directive with appropriate diligence. That was perhaps what stung the Minister and his

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colleagues into action—and, I suggest, something of an over-reaction.

My worry about the regulations is that we are both goldplating and copper-bottoming what came from Europe—if that is not tautological. The degree and extent of what is proposed seem likely to cause considerable difficulty to the industry, without necessarily having any basis in scientifically proven outcomes or predictions—that is, in empiricism; instead, the basis is a political reaction to an unfortunate judgment of the European Parliament that was deeply embarrassing to the Government.

I do not want to be too partisan, because the issues extend well beyond the normal political banter, but real concerns seem to arise about the degree to which the Government exaggerate the effects of the directive.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): Does my hon. Friend agree that it is particularly extraordinary that the Government are goldplating the directive? I suggest that they are doing that for fear of possible future legislation from the European Union over such matters, rather than present directives. Is that not particularly surprising, given that the Government themselves, in their action plan for farming, promised to

    ''avoid all gold-plating of the legislation'',

and to

    ''designate new NVZ areas only on the basis of sound science and the contribution of agriculture to the overall problem''?

The Government are in fact goldplating in response to the suggestions of lawyers, rather than on the basis of science or direct instruction from Brussels.

Mr. Hayes: My hon. Friend made several points in that pithy and apposite intervention. One of his points is that it is not only the proper use of fertilisers—in particular manure—that causes such problems; nitrogen is emitted by plants, particularly beans, peas and clover, which are significant causes of increased nitrogen. As my hon. Friend implied, the regulations could be the beginning of a legislative regime that will address many of the issues to do with nitrogen and nitrates. Rather than being the end of the story, they may be the beginning. One hates to think what the impact of that would be. If we were to start addressing the issue of crops that are major nitrogen producers, we would be into the business of regulating the production of peas, beans and a whole range of crops, which would increase overheads and be extremely damaging to the industry's competitiveness.

My hon. Friend makes a second point about the Government's willingness to introduce additional tiers of control: it may be indicative of a fundamental desire to direct—an autocratic tendency. There could be a psychological flaw in the Minister and his colleagues. I do not know, although he does not look as though he is responding positively. It may simply be, as I suggested, a desire to avoid further embarrassing judgments from Europe. One can understand a certain reticence not to gild the lily because of that damning judgment.

Michael Fabricant: My hon. Friend, who was in full flow and very articulate, may not have heard the

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Minister's sedentary remark, ''Very costly judgments''. Does that not indicate that DEFRA officials, for fear of costly judgments that as yet have not been made, are perhaps now putting down goldplated and copper-bottomed legislation that is not necessary? As my hon. Friend said, what might the Government do in future for fear of possible costly judgments?

Mr. Hayes: My hon. Friend's vigour and zeal in these matters are renowned. I simply attempt to emulate those qualities when in his presence, albeit to a much more limited degree. He is right to point to the danger of goldplating the legislation.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Elliot Morley): I want to reassure the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant), who seems to have got the wrong end of the stick. I hope that he is not suggesting that the Government ignore European directives, which are clear. If we ignore European directives, we will end up in the European Court, we will be fined, and that will be very costly. Is that the Conservative party's policy?

Mr. Hayes: I am in the fortunate position of being able to reassure the Minister that, despite the many qualities that I identified, my hon. Friend does not make Conservative party policy. However, his intelligent and well-informed contributions feed into the process that does.

I tell the Minister that, in wanting to be absolutely sure—doubly sure—that we are within the remit of the directive, there is a danger of putting something in place that will be extremely difficult to absorb. I mentioned the fact that we were adding 47 per cent. of land area in England to the 8 per cent. already covered. That seems a dramatic increase in itself, but we should also consider the implications in terms of definitions of watercourses and rivers deemed affected by nitrate concentration. I leave aside whether that concentration is scientifically valid; there are arguments about whether the 50 mg per litre level is appropriate to be judged nitrate excessive, but I make no judgment for the moment. However, it seems controversial for the Government to suggest, as they do in the regulations, that once nitrates have been found in a river in tests, everything upstream of that point, to the source of the river, is deemed nitrate vulnerable.

That is not the current situation. Currently, a test is repeated along the watercourse, and only the area upstream between where the positive result and the next negative result were found is deemed vulnerable. The new regulations suggest that the whole course upstream to the source falls within the nitrate-vulnerable zone. That has profound implications. It is why there is such a dramatic increase in the land area percentage. The definition of vulnerability is fundamentally very different. That lies at the nub of the issue and is its most controversial aspect.

Beyond that is the effect on the industry in terms of movement and storage. If I were to mention funding, the Minister would immediately jump to his feet to say that 40 per cent. grants are available to fund storage. However, that means that the industry has to find the

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other 60 per cent. Many growers would find it extremely difficult to fund the extra storage facilities required to comply with the directive. To find the extra capital to invest in the necessary plant will not be easy, even on a 60:40 basis. It is not easy to reinvest when the industry is at a low point, as hon. Members will know.

There are no grants for movement, and there will be increased movement as a result of the regulations. Ironically, CO2 emissions will also be increased. In a sense, we are addressing one environmental problem at the risk of increasing another, however marginally. That is one of the ironic aspects of the regulations. We need firm assurances from the Minister on the support that the industry will be given so that it can comply. That support should be above and beyond 40 per cent. We need to take some exceptional steps to support the industry in that respect. I hope that the Minister can enlighten us about what he intends along those lines.

We ought also to talk about consistency across the United Kingdom. The Scottish Executive seems to be taking a rather different view on such matters. I want an assurance from the Minister that we shall not be in that unhappy situation, especially given that many watercourses will cross the border—water does not know Scottish and English boundaries. It will be important to know that there is consistent application of the regulations. I would also like to know why the Scottish Executive have come to a different view, in terms of deciding river catchments and changing the established method of defining whether an area is nitrate vulnerable.

In addition, the interpretation that all water contains nitrate—it is certainly true, and means that nowhere can be excluded from consideration—needs justification from the Minister. Has adequate consideration been given to the fact that upland areas typically have higher levels of rainfall and run-off? The assertion has been widely made, by sensible and measured people, that nitrates are likely to be diluted more easily and the problem will be less profound. Such topographical issues have an impact on the effect of a concentration of nitrate. Although nitrate may be measured on a standard basis, because of dilution, the volume of water falling in rain and the level of run-off, its effects deserve proper examination and explanation by the Department.

I am extremely concerned about the proposals, because there is a kernel of truth in the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield. I am always sceptical—Eurosceptical, I might say—about these matters. Especially when there is a history of dispute between us and the rest of the European Union, there is an understandable but regrettable tendency to goldplate directives of this sort, just to prevent further criticism. That is not the perspective that I want to take. My perspective leans strongly towards the industry.

Will the Minister give the industry some notional costs? In his wisdom, he and his officials must have done some calculations about the likely costs and the short and medium-term implications for the industry. Will he tell us about the time scale in which the measures will be put into effect, given that capital

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investment and changes in procedural process will be required? Has he made a judgment about how the directive will be enforced and policed? The European Union covers such a massive land area, and fertiliser is spread over such a wide area, that a large number of farmers and growers will be affected. In practical terms, how can that be policed? One hopes that it will be a self-regulating system, as one would not like to depart from that principle.

How will the measure be policed, explained and advertised? How will people be incentivised to implement it? How will they know whether what they are doing is right or wrong and whether it falls within the directive or not? That will be a serious issue for many farmers and growers. Will the Minister also give us some projection, in real and practical terms, of when we will be able to meet the requirements of the regulations? We cannot switch that sort of thing on or off like a tap—I apologise for what some people might think was an inappropriate metaphor.

Unless we receive satisfactory answers to those questions, we will take a robust view of the matter. Without firm assurances, we would not want to be party to something that will cause great difficulty to a large number of people, especially given that this European directive is based on science that has been questioned by serious academics, who have given a counter-opinion. The measure may add to the overheads and burdens of already hard-pressed farmers and growers.

4.48 pm


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