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

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Norman Baker (Lewes): I begin by expressing disappointment that the Minister has not yet presented his case. In the statutory instruments Committees on which I have served in the past five years, I have always heard the Minister putting his case first. The Minister is a fine fellow and we would welcome the opportunity to hear him, but in his stead I shall join the sparring match with the Opposition, put the best case that I can and express my concerns about the proposal.

My colleagues and I are fully in favour of the EU directive. Before some Committee members slag off Europe and say that it has done no good, let us remember that in the 1970s and 1980s, when the then Government did little to defend the environment, the only advantages enjoyed by the environmental protection world came as a consequence of EU directives. In my former capacity as an environmental campaigner, I campaigned for this directive, along with many others. We were very pleased when the EU introduced it in 1991.

It is legitimate to question whether 50 mg per litre is the right level; even though we are some years into the life of the directive, the jury is still out. It could be said that we were looking forward to offering broad support to the Minister, had we heard his case. However, we have a number of concerns about the way in which the proposal has been introduced, some of which have been mentioned by the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes). The

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Minister must give them serious attention. In particular, he must clarify why particular figures have been used in determining what percentage of the country should be designated a nitrate-vulnerable zone. We started with 8 per cent., then had consultations on 80 per cent. and 100 per cent. and now we seem to have reached 55 per cent. That seems haphazard to say the least. People in the areas that will be subject to the EU directive at the coalface—a terribly mixed metaphor—need to understand why they are there and to accept that that is an appropriate way to proceed, for them as well as for the Government.

The first principle on which the legislation must proceed is that the polluter pays. We must therefore be sure which people are polluting so that those who are not doing so do not become involved. The second principle is good science. I have not seen a proper analysis from the Government of what led them to their conclusions. The third principle is proportionality. I say that as an environmentalist as well as someone who represents a rural constituency. I want to ensure that environmental measures that are introduced are fully supported and fully justified so that I can sell them to my farmers and to others in the local community. I do not want to be asked to persuade people to accept as a good environmental measure something for which there is no justification and about which we are asked simply to take the Government's word.

In my experience, explanatory notes do not explain much; they just change jargonese to something less jargonistic. The so-called explanatory notes for this measure do not explain what the costs will be to farmers, what grants are available and therefore what the economic impact will be, or how the environment will benefit. There will be one trade-off involving protecting the environment and another about which costs are to be borne by the polluters—not just farmers, but the water industry and others—and which by the Government, local authorities and English Nature. We must, therefore, have widely drawn definitions. I am not happy to be asked to give my assent to legislation without knowing such details, without being given the justification for it and without the facts necessary to enable me to sell the measure to either farmers or environmentalists.

Our approach to statutory instruments is too casual on occasion. Some are uncontroversial and everyone can agree on them. In such cases we can proceed quickly and the system must allow for that. Others are more controversial and require more explanation and more debate. This measure is one of those, but we do not have the information to enable us to make any judgment. It is a pity that my suggestion in the Chamber earlier this afternoon that statutory instruments should be amendable was not agreed to. In this case, we have inadequate information but are obliged to say yes or no to the legislation. I should like to test the measure, to debate it further and to reach a conclusion on which all agree, but the system does not allow for that.

I reiterate the point made by the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings about the element

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relating to the catchment area. I imagine that other hon. Members have also received the letter from the National Farmers Union, which I shall read out for the record. The letter says:

    ''Previously, the catchment of the part of the river upstream of the monitoring point so far as the next monitoring (if any) which passes was designated. Now the Government is designating the entire catchment upstream of a single monitoring which fails, regardless of the results from other monitoring points. This means that large areas of hill and moorland where nitrate levels are very low are facing designation for the first time.''

If that is true, it simply cannot be right to proceed on that basis. I want to clamp down on nitrate pollution as much as the Minister does, perhaps even more so, but I do not want to clamp down on areas where there is nothing to clamp down on. The areas must be tightly drawn so that we catch the right areas, as well as the people who are causing the pollution, but we are not doing that. Heaven knows what happens if rivers cross into Scotland or Wales, but perhaps I should leave that for another time. However, it is clear that far more justification is required before we can support the regulations.

Mr. Hayes: The hon. Gentleman seems to be making an extremely cogent argument for the need to justify the regulations, but has he made any assessment of the extent to which nitrate pollution results from the activities of the industry? I mentioned the fact that various plants take nitrate from the air, and that that nitrate ends up in water, but there are other sources of nitrates, such as car exhausts and power generation. Has he—or have the Government—carried out any assessment of what impact the regulations are likely to have on the overall problem?

Norman Baker: That is a fair question, which needs to be addressed. If one believes in the principle that the polluter pays, as I do, one must first identify the polluter, but that is not always done. To digress briefly, I recently met representatives of my water company who were incandescent with anger that the company was being required to pay money to clear up pollutants in its water supply, such as pesticide residues, which the company did not put there. We must identify the polluters in each case and ensure that they are held financially responsible for the problem.

I do not wish to underestimate the potential environmental problems. The OECD report, which was published yesterday, and which was referred to today in The Guardian, among other newspapers, points out that Britain uses 70 per cent. more fertiliser than other OECD countries. That is a staggering figure, so there are issues surrounding farming practices that need to be addressed in the interests of farmers. The NFU in my constituency is willing to address those issues and is keen to work with Parliament and the environmental movement to try to improve matters, bearing in mind the fact that farmers are not always the culprits responsible for the pollution that is produced, as the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings said.

In conclusion, I came to the Committee with a view to supporting the Government in principle, because it is right that we should enact EU directives, particularly those aimed at protecting the

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environment. However, these regulations are so clouded in mystery and the Government have put forward so little justification for them that I cannot support them. I hope that the Minister will go away and return to the Committee with something a little more substantial.

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Paddy Tipping (Sherwood): This is an important set of regulations, which goes to the heart of the interaction between farming, the landscape and the environment—an important issue for discussion. As other hon. Members have said, the regulations spring directly from European directives, so we should examine them carefully and set them in the European context because a great deal of our environmental legislation springs directly from Europe, and there is more to come. We need to be fully involved in those European debates early on because they shape policy. A range of environmental legislation has yet to come on refrigerators and electrical goods, and unless Ministers and the Government are involved at an early stage in those debates, I fear that we could lose out.

In the context of European legislation, it is important when the framework directives are being agreed that a good deal of work is devoted to considering their impact. In the case of fridges, and especially in relation to the regulations, we should remember that judgements made 10 years ago that were actively implemented have had far-reaching and unexpected consequences. It is important that we are involved in those European debates; we should be full partners. Our Ministers and officials are highly regarded by the Commission for trying to do that in a positive way, but I suspect that we are not involved early enough and that we do not think carefully enough about the consequences.

As the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings said, the regulations will affect farmers, and central to our debate is the way in which we pay them and the capital allowances that are available. In a sense, the directive will help us to improve water and river quality. The end-of-pipe stuff is easy; to a large extent, it has been done and water quality is improving. However, diffuse pollution caused by farm owners and landowners is a real problem. Even if capital grants are available, we need to consider how we support farmers. The wider debate is about the payments that we need to make to farmers to lift the landscape and enhance the environment.

The directive—we need to police its implementation—gives us some indication of what needs to be done. We clearly need to move away from production subsidies for high-intensity activities, which involve making real payments to farmers, and consider ways of making payments not for farm production but for what farmers produce for the public good—for landscape that we can appreciate and for an environment that will survive into the future.

One of the interesting issues that has been mentioned this afternoon is how we should audit such arrangements. I suspect that the day is not far off

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when we will have to sit down with landowners and farm managers and talk about an audit system that brings together the various regulatory bodies, to help people deal with the various pressures that they face. It will not be easy, but the notion of a whole farm approach—of a light touch approach for basic environmental payments, and a pyramid of payments on top for meeting more demanding targets—is probably the way forward. It certainly is if we are to make sense of environmental regulations of the sort being debated today.

My message to the Minister—I know that he is well aware of it and that he puts it into practice—is that we need to be involved early on in the making of European legislation so that we are clear about the impact of directives and regulations. We also need to have a transitional period so that people can take the necessary steps to make changes. However, payments to farmers should be more clearly linked to the public values that we want—the reasons why we visit the countryside—which are better water courses, more woodland and a landscape and an environment that we can leave to our children. That is the importance of the discussion that we are having today—it must engage farm and land managers more actively. At the moment, people who farm see regulations such as these as a threat and a chattel. We all want a better landscape and an enhanced environment and we will have to pursue measures like this in a more sensible way to achieve that.

5.5 pm

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