Previous Section Index Home Page

13 May 2009 : Column 274WH—continued

13 May 2009 : Column 275WH

One thing that has emerged from the debate is a forming consensus that we do not want development on the scale that is being discussed for the various constituencies that have been so well represented here this afternoon. We also want water to be used more stringently and recognised as a resource, and we want to encourage adaptation to climate change, which is one of the few remaining aspects of the climate change brief for which DEFRA is now responsible. We all want a reduction in water stress.

The Conservative view is that the water requirements of agriculture are extremely important and must be given some priority, although protection for human needs and the natural environment are important. We must also recognise that, over the next two decades, the population is expected to increase by 10 million, so there will be further housing development and continued pressure on supplies. With climate change having a significant impact on supply, we will need to prepare for long dry periods and droughts such as those in the summers of 2005 and 2006, and for potential problems with abstraction, particularly as rising temperatures reduce river flows, possibly by as much as 80 per cent. That is a real concern.

Mr. Heald: My constituency has a substantial farming interest, and I recognise the point that my hon. Friend made about farming. Does she agree, however, that it is possible, as the environmental stewardship scheme has shown, for farmers not to pollute rivers and to use water for farming in a thrifty way? Does she agree that advice, incentives and Government policy should be targeted at achieving that?

Miss McIntosh: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for flagging up two very worrying trends on which I hope the Minister will respond; I shall end with some questions on them. The stewardship scheme has, over a number of years, greatly advantaged rural constituencies—my own is no exception—but there is concern in the farming community about how DEFRA is seeking to amend the stewardship scheme, between the higher-level and entry-level schemes. He might also like to respond regarding flood-alleviation schemes, as the water at the riverbanks will expand naturally, as with the significant flooding in Yorkshire and Gloucestershire. I hope that he will see fit to use some European Union funds—some rural development funds—to allow farms to be compensated for taking excess water off riverbanks.

I shall conclude with a number of questions for the Minister. What does he understand by good ecological status? A number of consultations were carried out for the draft Flood and Water Management Bill—we warmly welcome that draft legislation—but the exact meaning of the water framework directive’s requirement to achieve ecological good status for all surface waters by 2015 is unclear and, either today or in writing, I would welcome the Minister providing a better definition.

What assessment has the Minister and his Department made of the obligations that the water framework directive will impose on local authorities, water companies, farmers and others? From meeting the Commission officials who drafted the directive, my understanding is that those obligations will be significant and are additional
13 May 2009 : Column 276WH
to what is already in the pipeline—if hon. Members will pardon the pun. What will the directive cost those bodies, and how will they be expected to raise the money? On the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire, when do the Government aim to introduce a plan for the water industry to hit water resource consumption in relation to the four new developments that are in the pipeline?

4.1 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Huw Irranca-Davies): Thank you, Mr. O’Hara, for your chairmanship. There are several styles in which I usually make these concluding remarks—sometimes I am slow and languorous, and at other times, I am like a machine gun. Today, the style will be like a machine gun, as I try to deal with the many points raised. I am happy to write to hon. Members or engage in further discussion and dialogue on the points that I do not address.

I congratulate the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) on securing this important debate and on how he put his points across. I also congratulate the hon. Members for Salisbury (Robert Key) and for St. Albans (Anne Main) and my hon. Friends the Members for Stroud (Mr. Drew) and for Reading, West (Martin Salter) on their contributions. I will turn to some of those contributions in a moment. I also congratulate the Front Benchers on their contributions—the hon. Members for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) and for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams).

Mr. Heald: I thank the Minister for his kind remarks. Will he and the Secretary of State come to see the Beane and the Mimram?

Huw Irranca-Davies: I am more than happy to accept that invitation—perhaps we can look at some other issues surrounding biodiversity and so on in the area at the same time. I shall ask my diary assistant to engage my people to get in touch with the hon. Gentleman’s people, and we will try to sort that out—perhaps during the summer. It will be delightful. We have indeed learned much about the River Mimram—for example, about its biodiversity, beauty and sometimes its fragility. We have also learned much from hon. Members’ contributions about other localities.

I will not waste time by reiterating what a valuable resource water is. On the comments about Arcadia made by the hon. Member for Salisbury, this is a complex area. We are considering the beauty of the environment and our rivers; the water quality; the biodiversity and the habitat; and the water supply and demand. We are also considering abstraction for canals, which everyone loves, and abstraction for farms, which everybody treasures, and how to square that circle. On top of that, we have the issue of home building and the necessity of providing affordable homes for rental and purchase for all our constituents across the country. How do we square that circle? There is also the necessity of providing good water supply for businesses, recreation, anglers and canoeists, and the massive challenges that we face in relation to climate change. In addition, we have to consider the water framework directive, to which I will return in a moment, and the importance of local
13 May 2009 : Column 277WH
engagement. All those issues mean that this is one of the most challenging subjects. There are no simple magic bullets, but I shall mention some of the issues and the way forward in a moment.

I commend the opening comments of the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire and the work that he has done. I also commend the engagement of the Environment Agency with the friends of the River Mimram, the Beane restoration association, the Ver Valley Society, the Chiltern Society and others. The Environment Agency is committed to continuing engagement with those organisations and to finding workable solutions on the ground—however difficult and challenging it is.

On the hon. Gentleman’s comments about metering and tariffs, he will know that Anna Walker has been commissioned to bring forward a piece of work on that issue. We look forward to her reporting imminently. We hope to have another debate on that matter to consider what solutions can be brought forward.

As others have done, I commend the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West on environmental issues and angling. I note that there is often a significant overlap between conservation and angling. Among other things, I commend his chairmanship of the “Blueprint for Water” campaign and his work on the Marine and Coastal Access Bill—we attended a meeting on the Bill together earlier today. He pointed out—this is a crucial theme—the importance of partnerships on the ground and how they can deliver benefits through river catchment management plans. He will be a great loss to the House, and I urge him to reconsider and stand again as a Member of Parliament. I will try to assist him in any way I can, but I urge him not to go—for goodness’ sake!

The hon. Member for Salisbury commented on the fact that I was reasonable. I hope that the Government Whips were not listening when that compliment was made, because it could be the end of my career. I thank him for his comments. He talked about his intimate relationship with rivers and having fallen in and been pulled out by no less a person than a bishop. He did well to talk about the very long and complex history of the issue, and he talked about the necessity for correspondingly complex solutions. I hope that those are not long solutions—they might be long term, but I hope that they do not take a long time to put in place.

On the aspects of river restoration that the hon. Gentleman talked about, we need to focus our work on balancing the ecological, chemical and biological status of rivers and driving forward. Work is being done, and I will talk about it in a moment. We have to deal with this matter—not least to comply with the water framework directive.

The hon. Member for St. Albans rightly talked about biodiversity and the richness that she wants to protect. However, in trying to square the circle, there is also the challenge of providing the affordable homes that her constituents want. It is difficult, but we have to make sure that engagement is done in a top-down way and that it takes place genuinely across the board.

Anne Main: St. Albans fully accepts that it needs a certain number of homes; it is the number that is in dispute. That is where the sensitivity lies, and that is the balance that needs to be struck. I hope that the Minister listens to the representations on that.

13 May 2009 : Column 278WH

Huw Irranca-Davies: Indeed. That is where the balance must be struck. On the Bow Bridge aquifer, I will ask the Environment Agency to contact the hon. Lady and discuss that and other issues further. She did a good job of reminding us how important the birds and the bees are, as well as the butterflies.

The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire talked about intelligent approaches to abstraction. I absolutely agree—that is the direction of travel in which we are going. It is also important to balance supply and demand. On the importance of agriculture, yes, it is a major component of diffuse pollution, but there are many other aspects, too. We must also move forward on those issues.

In the few minutes remaining, I shall turn to some of the issues that the hon. Member for Vale of York mentioned. She spoke comprehensively on many matters—not only agriculture, but the wider issues surrounding the water framework directive. We all share the same aspirations: to have a sustainable, affordable and secure supply of clean, good quality water and a healthy environment. I think that everyone recognises that achieving that is no easy feat. The two biggest challenges ahead of us in the water sector are the increasing demand for water and our changing climate. The population is growing and the pattern of hotter summers, wetter winters and extreme weather will continue. We also still need to tackle ongoing issues, such as pollution. None of those problems have quick fixes; we must take a long-term view. That is the basis of the future water strategy, which outlines how we intend to deliver our vision right through to 2030.

We are taking a long-term approach, but we will achieve our aims only by working together. Homeowners, businesses, water companies, environmentalists and everyone else need to work with us. In many areas, we are already reaping the rewards. We have made great progress. No one today has remarked on the progress that we have made in cleaning up our rivers across the UK. We have considered issues in highly stressed areas today, but across the UK—as the title of the debate implies—we have made progress in cleaning up our bathing waters, beaches and rivers. We have addressed some of the most acute sources of pollution, such as sewage treatment works and overflows.

Fifty years ago, the River Thames outside our doors here was so polluted that it was declared biologically dead, but it now supports more than 120 fish species. Otters and kingfishers have returned to stretches of river from which they were absent for many years. We have been used to figures reported under the general quality assessment, which has shown a consistent improvement in the quality of our rivers since it was introduced in 1990. Let us remind ourselves where we are. Some 72 per cent. of rivers were of good biological quality in 2007, compared with 55 per cent. in 1990. However, we need to go further.

The water framework directive sets exciting—I have to use these often over-used words—and extremely challenging new targets for the quality of our rivers, and it brings with it a more stringent set of requirements for measuring their quality. We are now looking at the ecological health of our rivers—not just simple indicators of water quality—and, indeed, other water bodies including lakes and coastal regions.

13 May 2009 : Column 279WH

The headline figures look far worse than those reported under GQA, because we monitor many more quality indicators under the directive than under the GQA and because the worst-rated element determines the overall class, yet the quality of our rivers continues to improve. Working with others on the ground—industry sectors, local stakeholders and local partners including, I am sure, some of those who are listening to the debate—the Environment Agency has developed many draft river basin management plans. Some people believe that such measures do not go far enough, and I agree. We want them to be more ambitious, but they have to be more ambitious without resting on one individual or one organisation. Across the board, we must all play our part. We are currently exploring ways flexibly to manage areas where water quality standards are falling, and water protection zones are one possibility there.

Agriculture has a huge impact on such pollution, but we have been supporting farmers in their efforts to reduce a range of pollutants, including nitrates. Through the England catchment sensitive farming delivery initiative, farmers have received advice as well as capital grants in priority areas. Such measures will help.

Water companies have a vital role to play, and I am keen to see more initiatives like SCAMP—the United Utilities sustainable catchment management programme—and South West Water’s Exmoor mire restoration projects. Ofwat is undertaking its periodic review of water price limits for 2010 to 2015. I am glad to say that there are now more than 100 management schemes in water companies’ final business plans—more than double what originally appeared in their draft plans. Misconnections and bringing people together are other issues.

We have much more work to do, but our rivers are continuing to improve. Now more than ever, through the river basin management plans, we have the chance to plan and manage sustainable, long-term improvements in the quality of our rivers. We are all striving to square the circle, deal with all the difficult and challenging issues and bring back the Arcadia that the hon. Member for Salisbury described, and the more that we can engage with that actively—on the ground, not just in Whitehall—the more chance we have of success.

13 May 2009 : Column 280WH

Helios Airways Flight ZU 522

4.12 pm

Nadine Dorries (Mid-Bedfordshire) (Con): This debate is about Alan Irwin, who is one of my constituents. I am afraid that I shall read from notes because it is important that I get every aspect of this case into the debate. I shall probably speak rather quickly because there is a great deal for me to get into the time I have been allocated.

Mr. Edward O'Hara (in the Chair): Order. We are simply running 12 minutes late.

Nadine Dorries: I am sorry, Mr. O’Hara. I meant that there is a great deal to say within the time allocated for the debate.

Alan Irwin is a licensed aircraft engineer who is facing criminal prosecution in Greece for manslaughter as a consequence of a fatal air accident in summer 2005. In that accident, 121 people died. It would be difficult for any of us to understand or imagine the impact that it has had on his family, and on him and his health, or the consequences of having to live with and deal with such an event hanging over someone. That is why I asked for this debate. I gave the Minister notice of it, and I hope that we can get some good, conclusive answers.

At 9.7 am on 14 August 2005, Helios Airways Flight 522 left Larnaca for Athens on the first leg of a flight to Prague. The aircraft only partially pressurised and both pilots succumbed to hypoxia, which is caused by oxygen deprivation. Their performance deteriorated rapidly, and they soon lapsed into unrecoverable unconsciousness. With no further input from the pilots, the aircraft continued on its pre-programmed flight to Athens.

The flight was on autopilot for about three hours. It ran out of fuel and crashed at Grammatiko, north-west of Athens, at 12.3 pm. All 121 people on board lost their lives. The accident received worldwide media attention —indeed, I remember it well—but particularly in Cyprus, Greece and the United Kingdom.

The Greek Air Accident Investigation and Aviation Safety Board investigated the accident, and the final report was published on 10 October 2006. It is highly contested on several issues, one of which is the unsupported assumption that Mr. Irwin left the pressurisation mode selector in manual after a pre-flight maintenance task. The report makes it clear that the accident was caused by the crew not identifying the aircraft’s failure to pressurise, due in part to the use by the Boeing Company of a misleading warning horn. The United States Federal Aviation Administration recently said that the system creates an unsafe condition in this widely used aircraft. In layman’s language, the same sound and tone of horn is emitted for two completely different faults. The pilot and aircrew misinterpreted the sound of the horn as indicating a different fault.

The report found that both pilots were licensed and qualified in accordance with international standards, and that they were adequately rested and medically fit to conduct the flight. The aircraft also conformed to international standards and had no recorded defects. The Cypriot company, Helios Airways, was found to be in compliance with the European joint aviation requirements
13 May 2009 : Column 281WH
known as JAR-OPS 1. The last audit of the company, in July 2005, was conducted by UK Civil Aviation Authority inspectors who were contracted to the Cypriot authority.

Mr. Irwin was working on a short-term contract with Helios Airways for the summer of 2005. It was the second season that he had worked for Helios Airways in Cyprus. He is now facing criminal charges in Greece for manslaughter with potential intent, which carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. There is also the emotional impact of knowing that 121 people died on the flight. Although there is only one charge of manslaughter, Mr. Irwin is facing criminal charges for 121 deaths, not one.

Mr. Irwin was not insured for the prohibitive cost of defending himself, and his continued defence is now in jeopardy because of the lack of financial support available to him. Helios Airways did not carry legal expenses insurance, which would have indemnified him in respect of the defence costs he now faces.

At 4.25 am on 14 August, the aircraft arrived at Larnaca from London Heathrow. The cabin crew reported freezing around the rear service door seal at cruise altitude, and loud bangs during the flight. The captain consequently requested a full inspection of the door. With two other engineers, Mr. Irwin carried out an inspection of the rear service door of the aircraft. They found no fault when they inspected the door on the ground, so Mr. Irwin pressurised the aircraft to reproduce conditions similar to those experienced in flight. This is a normal procedure for a flight engineer. Again, the engineers found no fault with the door, so the aircraft was depressurised. During the test pressurisation, the aircraft pressurised as normal, and as it would have done at altitude in flight.

Mr. Irwin entered the details of his actions in the aircraft technical log and recorded that no fault had been found with the rear service door. At 6.15 am, he signed off the maintenance procedure. That was about two hours before the flight crew arrived to start their pre-flight preparations.

The accident report maintains that Mr. Irwin left the pressurisation mode selector in the manual, as opposed to the automatic, position after depressurising the aircraft. He has stated that he left the selector in the automatic position—the normal position for flight—as was his usual practice over, I believe, 20 years.

The final accident report states that

Next Section Index Home Page