|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
Lord Kilbracken: My Lords, perhaps I might rise for a moment to refer to the point made by my noble friend on the Front Bench regarding the Minister's boots. As I understand it, the regulations only apply to objects of archaeological interest. Though I feel sure that such boots may be objects of sentimental interest, particularly to the noble Baroness, can they truly be said to be of archaeological interest?
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I am obliged to my noble friend. In fact the order refers to articles not only of archaeological interest, but also of historical interest. It was the latter adjective upon which I was focusing my attention.
Baroness Denton of Wakefield: My Lords, first, I thank the House for its forgiveness for my lateness. I have just heard possibly the most political speech from the Front Bench opposite on the subject of Northern Ireland and I fully appreciate the spirit in which it was made. This Minister is very much a part of this Government.
I would add that Ireland is full of history. I can think of no other area in the world where the past plays such a great part in the present. In designing a brighter future for Northern Ireland we must be careful to protect the past and the tremendous culture that exists there. The aim is to ensure that we should not lose that by accident. The order therefore is written in rather wider terms than may appeal to a lawyer. But it is written to make sure that people take anything that they discover to the Ulster Museum to be examined, which may reveal that they are on the brink of discovering a significant new part of the history of Northern Ireland.
I should point out that, as the Scots say, I do not think that I shall be "outwith" my wellington boots; nor do I believe that, should I be on my second pair, the first pair would be of too much interest; and nor do I believe that it would be a possible case from which lawyers could earn money. I thank noble Lords for their support for the order and commend it to the House.
The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I shall speak to both Motions set down in my name on the Order Paper. The European Communities Committee C, of which I have the honour to be a member, examined the European Council's proposal in 1994 for a directive concerning the quality of bathing water, intended to supersede the current directive which was put in place in 1976.
The purpose of the directive is to ensure satisfactory common standards of health protection for bathers throughout the Community; to contribute to the solution of transboundary problems of water pollution; and to ensure that there is no distortion of competition in the tourist industry. The Commission argues for the replacement of the current directive to take account of scientific advances which may permit a reduction in the parameters to be tested. That is expected to reduce costs to member states while maintaining the level of health protection achieved. The committee considers the objective of the proposal to be admirable. However, it is concerned about its probable effectiveness and cost-effectiveness.
The committee now presents two reports for the consideration of the House, dealing with the issues raised. The firstBathing Waterpublished in 1994, deals with the directive generally. In that report we deplored the absence of a soundly based cost-effective analysis of the proposal and indicated that the committee would wish to report again to the House when we received Her Majesty's Government's own cost compliance assessment. It reached us in February of this year. Our second reportBathing Water Revisitedis based on the evidence we subsequently received on the implications of the cost compliance assessment for the UK. Hence we are presenting the two reports together for debate.
I should explain that I am speaking as an inadequate substitute for my chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Lewis of Newnham, for whose wise guidance we are much indebted; and the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton of Eggardon, who was to speak in his place. Unfortunately both are unable to take part in the debate this evening. But I am happy to be supported by three members of the committee and fortunate in that the noble Lord, Lord Butterfield, can offer the special expertise needed to deal with the many esoteric, medical and scientific aspects of our report, which I shall find it difficult to do. Thus I shall confine myself largely to the other issues arising from the directive.
Although it is clearly highly desirable that there should be legally binding minimum standards for bathing water throughout the Community, we have found the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of the Commission's new proposals to be controversial if not doubtful. In formulating those proposals the Commission did not carry out open consultation with the scientific community, which we would regard as essential. Its scientific
Lack of expert consultation and advice on the scientific issues was unfortunately accompanied by an equal failure to consult member states on cost benefit analysis. It is unacceptable that policy formulation could have reached the stage of formal proposals from the Commission for the revision of the existing directive without including a menu of individually accepted measures. In their response to our first report, HMG agreed the Commission's assertion that compliance with the proposal would not cost significantly more than compliance with the existing directive, which is "seriously flawed". They went on to agree that the Commission's misconception of the consequences of its proposal may have been due in large part to the lack of consultation with member states. The Government considered that the Commission should seek advice now and be prepared to amend the proposal accordingly. The committee is glad to learn that expert advice is now being sought by the Commission.
It is relevant that in order to comply with the requirement of Article 130R, a revised directive should make no charge which would either increase the net public cost of compliance without a proportionate increase in the level of public health protection, or reduce that level. Though there is a well-founded case against some aspects of the bathing water directive on grounds of subsidiarity, in our view it would probably be politically unrealistic to look for the repeal of a directive which has been in place since 1976 and is in principle desirable. However, we consider that only microbiological parameters, which are good indicators of public health risks, should have to be monitored within the directive.
A number of complex inter-related issues confront the Government in deciding how to proceed and we shall be glad to hear from the Minister tonight on how it is proposed to confront them. The first is the need for a common approach to legislation on water: the bathing waters directive; the urban waste water treatment directive; and a directive on drinking water that is due for revision. All of these have important health implications for the public. They also have very large cost implications on which the committee took extensive evidence from the water companies, the Government and interested agencies in the United Kingdom. In the United Kingdom alone, the full proposals of the Commission for bathing water would entail significant capital expenditure of the order of £1.6 billion and £4.2 billion in addition to that required to comply in full with the existing Bathing Water Directive 1976 and the urban waste water directive. That amounts to about £9.5 billion over the next 10 years. Those figures do not take account of what may be required for drinking water.
These costs are very significant. They might be justified if they demonstrably brought gains in public health greater than those that could be achieved at smaller cost through other actions. They demonstrate that the responsible Commission directorate, DGXI, in formulating proposals and claiming cost neutrality, has not carried out adequate research and consultation with member states, or that it has understood the microbiology and engineering involved in sewage treatment.
The committee recognises that there are important political implications in the proposals. The need for the best possible measures to protect the health of the public must be balanced against the cost, which will fall largely upon the consumer. The committee also recognises that the bathing water directive can, with advantage, be updated in the light of modern scientific knowledge and methodologies. However, we consider the following points to be essential. First, the proposal must be viewed as part of the whole future strategy of water. Secondly, the importance of timing must be recognised. All of the engineering work should be integrated so that the water companies can operate from a stable base in planning and investing if the risk of unnecessary and wasteful expenditure is to be avoided. Thirdly, the Government must at once ensure that the Council and Commission get on with the necessary further consultation and make possible the adoption of a strategic approach to improve the quality of urban waste water and bathing water and take account of economic, public health and environmental issues, though in practice it may not be possible to include drinking water if that means significantly more delay. Not least, it is for national parliaments and the European Parliament to ensure that the data on costs and health risks are publicly available and debated. The Government can make a valuable and early contribution.
One of the biggest problems encountered by the committee was the lack of transparency that appeared to be a feature of the operations of the Council and Commission. For instance, Council negotiations normally lack openness on the scientific basis for directives that have been formulated. We have also found that the Government have been unable to answer our questions on the cost of compliance with existing directives by other states. They have sought that information but it has proved difficult to obtain. Fortunately, we understand that an early opportunity to start strategic thinking will be provided by a European Parliament seminar to be held in June of this year to look at water legislation in the round. The committee hopes to be represented at that seminar.
We strongly recommend that no detailed planning for the proposed bathing water directive takes place until a strategic overview has been carried out. We hope that this will be done without undue delay and agreed, but, as the Government have said, decisions need to be taken in the light of comparable information on health and cost implications from a representative number of member states. The Government have also said in their response to the Second Report that the future heavy investment under the urban waste water directive reinforces the need to ensure that a revised bathing water directive forms part of a coherent Community policy, and that the investment implications are properly understood. In the committee's view, that makes it all the more essential for the public to be fully consulted and informed.
Other members of the committee will address other important aspects of the two reports. It only remains for me to thank on behalf of the committee the two admirable specialist advisers: Professor David Kay (whose qualities have also led the Commission to seek his views) and Dr. Gareth Rees. I also wish to thank all those who gave evidence before the committee, not least Ministers and
Lord Monkswell: My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth, for the admirable and concise way in which she introduced the debate. I intend to highlight some elements of the report and suggest possible action. Before doing so, I should declare a vested interest. I take great delight in swimming in the sea and in lakes and rivers throughout the United Kingdom. At some point or other I have swum in almost every coastal water around the British Isles. I also have children who swim.
Having read the reports and considered the subject in the past, I sometimes wonder how many of those involved in the drawing up of such reports are themselves swimmers who take delight in swimming in our bathing waters. I suspect that there are very few, given some of the things that can be read in these reports.
The matters to which I speak are referred to in the Bathing Water Revisited Report, which also includes a summary of the original report. The first matter I wish to highlight arises at the bottom of page 7:
I suggest that that encapsulates one of the problems of the current regulatory regime of public utilities. The regulator has to work within a framework that is set effectively by the Government. Matters have to be examined within that framework. In the real world, if we think of ourselves as politicians we have to consider far wider implications than just the precise matters that the regulator is empowered to consider. That creates a real problem in trying to deal with the actions of public utilities.
I shall not quote all the evidence in the report but the evidence from Surfers Against Sewage is quite interesting. It made the point that people can now spend far longer in the water because of the cheapness and availability of wetsuits. As a child I used to spend hours in the water. We may think of today's children being less hardy than we were as children but I am sure there are occasions nowadays when children spend hours playing in the water.
We must also take into account the fact that people go bathing all the year round and not just at particular times of the year. I was shocked to hear that the sampling is carried out only at particular times of the bathing season. Because the sampling is not done outside that season the water companies feel they have carte blanche to shovel almost anything into the water. That is a sad reflection on the water companies in terms of the responsibilities they should have but apparently do not have.
I have highlighted a number of areas in the report which I consider to be of concern. I should like now to talk about suggested actions. I am glad to echo the comment of the noble Baroness, Lady Park, that we need a rigorous scientific basis for the consideration of action. We are gradually getting there but we have not got there yet. We need to engage in more scientific research, monitoring and analysis of the results. From that, it is to be hoped, we can determine what are sensible limits.
I mentioned the discrepancy between the limit of risk of 40 per 100 millilitres and the directive figure of 400. We need to set sensible limits that will prevent risks to health. It is not acceptable to say that we can accept a certain degree of risk to health. We need to recognise that when people go swimming they are entitled to think of that as being a healthy activity and not something that subjects them to increased risk.
In this context it may be that we need to start driving the European Union rather than appear to be driven by it. Perhaps, in Britain, we should set sensible limits that will protect our swimmers and bathers from risk of ill health and then take them to the European Union and say that we want those limits to be applied throughout Europe. We should start leading rather than allow ourselves to be led in the wrong direction.
Information should be available to the public. There is some talk in the report about the possible closure of beaches. I would not go down that road. However, it is important that we should make available information about the risks of bathing in particular waters. Then, to a certain extent, it becomes a matter for individual judgment as to whether someone is likely to engage in those risks.
My final point concerns the action that needs to be taken. There is general agreement about the need for a large amount of capital investment. It is unfair and wrong that capital investment should be sought on the short-term money markets and that the premium which that demands must be paid by current consumers. This is a classic case of long-term public investment being required. The only way to achieve that is by the Government and perhaps the European Union borrowing the money on a long-term basis at low rates of interestthere would be virtually no risk attached to the borrowingand making it available to the water authorities to invest in cleaning up the effluents from the sewage works which seem to be the primary problem. Until we are prepared to do that, we will not achieve the results which I am sure we all want.
Lord Butterfield: My Lords, I am delighted to participate in this debate and I shall do my best to fulfil the trust that the noble Baroness, Lady Park, has placed in me to deal with the medical side. Like the noble Baroness, I am sorry that our chairman could not dazzle the House this afternoon with his own erudition in the whole range of these matters. I strongly support the noble Baroness's remarks about our Clerk, John Goddard. As an aside, it remains a deep mystery to me that no constituency has seen in him a possible candidate for membership of the European Parliament. His grasp of Europe seems to me to be exactly what might be wanted. I echo, too, the thanks that we all owe to David Kay and Gareth Rees. It was a most agreeable committee on which to serve.
Perhaps I may say how splendidly the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, reminded us all that this House has had an interest in bathing since the days of Lord Byron, who smiles on us while we have our lunch. As a young man he bathed at Southwell and he went to Brighton when it was very much the place and swam far out to sea, as the noble Lord does.
I wish to make two points clear. First, the question of water is far-reaching and complex. It goes all the way from the tap into the sink, down the drains, through the sewers, and, sadly in this country, very often out to sea. There is also the point, as the noble Lord showed so well, that we have a new state of affairs which was not the case when I was doing my national service or serving in Australia for a time. I refer to the arrival of the suits which allow people to swim for a long time and at great depth. Wet suits have changed the picture. The directive we have been wrestling with and the proposed new directive will not, I fear, please the noble Lord because to date there has been concern for the bathers and not the surfers, dinghy sailers and people swimming far out to sea. Much more concern has been shown for beach bathing.
I give personal support to the remarks made by the noble Baroness, which derive from the committee's activities, and by the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, about the need for some standards for the quality of the water in which we bathe. I know a young man who survived after bathing on a beach associated with a very splendid hotel in Norway. I was called to see him one morning because he had a splitting headache. He was covered with a rashthe rose spots which, in the old days, was the dreaded typhoid. Thank God he had been injected against typhoid, but he did have a very bad attack of para-typhoid fever. That was in Norway and we may draw what conclusions we like from that. It reminded me how important it is to check up on the quality of the bathing water in which my children, for example, submerge themselves.
As an aside, perhaps I may tell noble Lords that in North America on Cape Cod, at a place called Wellfleet, there is a splendid, large pondas the Americans call it, but which we would call a lakelarge enough for rowing and other activities. It is called, rightly, Gull Pond. I do not know what the right word is to describe gulls at rest in the evening. Do they roost? Anyway, they all alight on Gull Pond and spend the night talking to each other having a fine old time and, I fear, contaminating the water because occasionally Gull Pond is closed to our use. Certainly, my children have got sore throats from bathing in it and trouble with their eyes.
Personally, I go along with the committee of which I was a member, believing that we do need standards. Some of us have recently been in eastern Europe where there may not be much bathing in the sea, but there is inland bathing. I suspect that those countries are going to join us and so we would be wise to have some good regulations in preparation and in line.
Speaking as an elderly medical student, the problems as regards the quality of water are not new to the medical profession. At about the time I was doing National Service there were a great number of complaints. Many years ago there was great concern about something called "traveller's diarrhoea". The Royal Army Medical Corps and the Department of Health at the time did a lot of studies to try to find out where and why, when young men were sent abroad, they had diarrhoea. In many cases they could not find an explanation. There was a general feeling that people get nervous and nerves can upset the bowel and therefore a lot of the diarrohea was probably of nervous origin.
Again, in 1959, there was a great report from the Public Health Laboratory Service. It studied bathing water at about 40 beaches throughout the country. What it said essentially was, "Well, our bathing beaches may be a bit of a mess so far as the bacteriology is concerned, but if we search the records we do not find any cases of poliomyelitis which can be attributed to our bathing beaches. We find only two or three cases where gastroenteritis is really a classifiable disease". That continues the sort of spartan attitude about bathers which the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, himself supported. They are tough, hardy people and do not suffer many serious diseases that lead them to hospital. I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Park, will nod when I say that we
That is understandable. There have been so many important changes about bathing since 1959 and I should like to touch on a few of them. Without doubt, one of the wonderful things about the health service is that people are now more conscious of ill health than they were. They are more conscious of symptoms. So the threshold has moved from having cholera to having diarrhoea lasting four days, which is the kind of thing we have been studying in the committee and some of the reports we have received.
We also have to remember that four or five days out of a holiday is quite expensive for someone taking the family to Europe. We have to bear in mind that the European beaches, which seem to be so wonderfulto my mind, they very often areare drenched with ultraviolet light from the sun and do not have the problem of tides. Very often they are protected by the kind of septic tanks which go with villas beside the sea all over the world.
Lastly, we have to bear in mindthanks be to successive governments in this country and elsewherethat more and more people are affluent enough to have beach holidays. It is the mode to bathe. The noble Lord is a leader of fashion and much to be respected for that. But there is increasing evidence since 1959 that there is an association between counts of organisms in bathing water and the amount of ill health created.
Important surveys have been carried out on beaches and on cohorts of people in resorts over the past few years. We are very fortunate that while we were sitting our specialist adviser, Professor Kay, reported a very interesting study that he had conducted from his headquarters in Leeds. It was published in that very reputable journal, The Lancet. He showed a continuous drift in the number of symptoms created against the count of bacteria in the water.
So we have a rather awkward situation which I point out to all noble Lords. We cannot say, "The water is definitely safe on any beach that we know of as yet". There is always likely to be an organism that will give something. So it is healthy but, like crossing the road, there are always risks. There is this continuous relationship between bathing risks and the levels of indicators.
In future, the United Kingdom hopes to reduce the risks, not least by having more treatment of waste water. The waste water which goes into our sewage farms so often passes out as sewage into the sea. If we can improve the quality of treatment of our waste water we shall be taking a step. The noble Baroness, Lady Park, made a very important point which I am sure other Members will be referring to; that is to say, all these things are inter-digitated and integrated. One cannot worry about
The committee, on which I was proud to sit, accepts the opinions that have arisen about the need for indicators. It has set out in the report the kinds of values it is concerned with. Like the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, it is concerned about the high values that seem to be in the present directive and the much lower ones which are expected to arise from what we hope will appear in future.
Basically, what we want to see in future is much more consultation by the law-givers, not only with the people who actually swim, but with the bacteriologists who actually know. Those are the people we have to encourage to come together. I was going to read some short sections from the new report but I shall not bore your Lordships with them because those are the messages.
There are problems for the scientist in future which I shall just touch on. We know that when they are consulted they are going to be asked awkward questions about the regulations. Where should the sampling be done? We believe that it should be about a foot below the surface; a metre high or chest height for a fully grown adultperhaps one should say, a fully grown man. Where, and how often, should the sampling be done? At the moment it is done every fortnight. Those are snapshots. We do not know what happens when there is a storm which brings water out of the meadows where there may be farm animals feeding bacteria into the river, which go into the bathing water down in the estuary.
We must ensure much greater reliability of the tests that are introduced. That is one of the things about which I feel most strongly. It is very much my hope that the European Environment Agency will take close to its heart the question of the reliability of the bacteriological tests and the differences between techniques used in different countries and try to ensure that we have uniformity of quality.
The way it is done is that the equivalent of 100 millilitres of water is taken and passed through a filter paper. The filter paper is then turned over. It is grown in a medium which produces the growth of the germs, so that individual germs are not looked for, which would be tedious to do down any microscope. The germs are allowed to grow into little cultures so that the number of cultures can be counted. I am sure that your Lordships can see that there are great possibilities for differences in the culture medium between, let us say, the French and the Germans and so on. We must try to get those things sorted out. They run for a time at 37 degrees and then they are switched up to 44 degrees to pep up the growth so that it is more recognisable. Are those the right temperatures?
We shall undoubtedly be looking at the possibility of the application of the wonderful new sciencemolecular biologyto bathing water problems. Your Lordships should know that there are things called bacteriophages which are viruses which infect bacteria. Those are the bacterial invasions which allow our sewage farms to work. It is hoped that eventually such indicators will be possible, although when we talked to our expert he said that it would take seven to 10 years. However, that is down the line, and we must ensure that our friends in Brussels keep their eyes open to what is in the future.
I have no doubt that we must ensure that the public are properly informed and educated about these problems in water. We want further information. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell noble Lords tonight that the Government will fund further research and analysis to provide, soon I trust, a well-founded new bathing water directive.
Viscount Bridgeman: My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lady Park for introducing the debate and pay tribute to our Clerk and two specialist advisers who were of such invaluable help to the committee. As a member of the sub-committee, I was interviewed on Westcountry Television and asked what my reaction would be if, when bathing, I found solids passing me by. That was not an easy question to answer, but it illustrates the public perception of water purity. It has nothing to do with either of the two directives. Filtration of course is the responsibility of any sewerage authority. It is not even primary treatment; it is pre-primary treatment.
We have two directives, one which works broadly well and upon which there has been considerable expenditure, and another which is seriously flawed on two counts. The first is that of cost. My noble friend Lady Park referred to that. The Commission has given its opinion that the directive is cost-neutral. That has not been backed up with a detailed cost analysis by the Commission and, in the words of the sub-committee's report, it does not survive scrutiny. Our estimate is that the cost of compliance with the directive and the waste water directive could be up to £9 billion. I shall have more to say about that expenditure later. It may be a ballpark figure, but it is considerably more than cost-neutral. It has also to be said that the Government advise us that they have had difficulty finding comparable data from other member states. The cost of implementation would fall unevenly over the country, with places like the West Country being affected particularly badly. That is in addition to the rise in water charges, to which I shall speak in a moment.
Possibly no less serious, since it strikes at the whole plausibility of the directive, are our worries that the Commission has not engaged the scientific community in open discussion. The noble Lord, Lord Butterfield, referred to that point in some detail, as did my noble friend Lady Park. There has been a lack of transparency in the Community's deliberations in this respect. Having on the committee my noble friend Lady Park, the noble Lord, Lord Butterfield, and, as chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Lewis, your Lordships will appreciate that the committee speaks with some authority.
We have a report which has not been sufficiently technically researched and which would involve expenditure of, quite frankly, massive proportions. But at the end of the day it is a case of, "You gets what you pays for". More contamination means higher risk of illness. Less contamination means higher expenditure on sewage disposal.
The noble Lord, Lord Butterfield, referred to worries about diarrhoea, whereas in the past the worries would have been about much more serious illnesses. The present directive is no doubt in need of updating in the light of scientific progress, but there is no evidence to suggest
Perhaps I may return to the subject of costs. We have this potentially massive cost in addition to the costs already incurred which have resulted in such large rises in water charges. Sewage works are expensive engineering projects which have to be planned and built over a period of years before improved water quality is achieved.
Changes in policy on water quality standards need to be taken well in advance if wasted expenditure is to be avoided. In 1990 the UK Government's sharp change in policy on sewage treatment had a major impact on costs incurred by water companies and, therefore, on water charges borne by consumers. This causes real concern, particularly to holiday areas in the South West.
In 1990 the Government announced policy changes which effectively increased the capital investment required over a 10-year period from £1.4 billion to £2 billion. We must bear that in mind in relation to the £9 billion cost of the proposed directive. Water bills in the South West had to increase not, as had been planned, by the 6.5 per cent. above the rate of inflation but by 11.5 per cent. above the rate of inflation.
The committee is concerned that there should not be money wasted by another sharp shift in policy, causing expensive new engineering works to be undertaken and making unnecessary some works already completed and in the process of being built.
We are therefore concerned that engineering decisions by the water companies should be able to be taken against the background of a stable policy for water quality. The committee sees a need for decisions on the water quality standards in any new bathing water directive to be taken with all speed so that the water companies can take a strategic approach to the treatment of urban waste water and to the quality of bathing water. If decisions on the mandatory standards of bathing water quality and on the engineering and treatment programmes they require are delayed, there must be a risk of considerable wasted expenditure. We hope the Government will press the Commission and the Council for the necessary speedy decisions.
Lord Dixon-Smith: My Lords, I, too, echo the tribute paid to our chairman on his handling of what has been an extremely difficult investigation. I compliment the noble Baroness, Lady Park, the noble Lord, Lord Butterfield, and the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, who dealt adequately with the technical, financial, medical, and policy issues contained in the report.
It is interesting to note that as the committee was studying the possible new bathing water directive from the European Commission two newspaper reports threw a sharp light on the problems of our maritime location. First, much was made of some intrepid plastic ducks which, if my memory is correct, had been frozen into the Arctic in the Baring Straits as a result of a sea disaster and were washed ashore in the United Kingdom some four or five years later. The second was a survey which revealed that a surprising proportion of the flotsam washed ashore on our westerly coasts originates in North America.
The oceans are restless. Ocean currents flow round the British Isles in a generally clockwise direction. The North Sea is a large eddy with the Gulf Stream feeding in from the north and an outflow through the Dover Straits. Pity the poor water companies which have responsibility for bathing water quality and which know that, with few local exceptions, every time they test, the water that they are testing is travelling steadily down the coast. Unless everyone applies the same meticulously high standards, their task is impossible.
The second problem involved in dealing with bathing water quality is historical in its origin. When sewage systems were first constructed for seaside towns in the 19th century it was not at all unusual for them to use short sea-outfalls for disposal rather than install the expensive filtration and treatment plants which were necessary inland. Smaller populations, fewer visitors and an absence of some of the modern materials that are now in regular household use meant that coastal communities could dispose of their sewage quickly and cheaply. Now a century later we see the consequence of such a past.
In paragraph 11 of the second report, Bathing Water Revisited, we see that South West Water believes that the cost of compliance with the proposed new directive in their region was disproportionately high because the region has almost one-third of the designated beaches in the United Kingdom while having only 3 per cent. of the population.
The cost of compliance is not exclusively a factor of the number of designated beaches in a region; it is also due to the number of communities which have had the advantageif advantage it beof disposing of their sewage directly into the sea. Of course, that problem is exacerbated by high seasonal numbers of tourists who, while contributing to the problem, at the same time expectand rightly, in my viewthat beaches should be clean and hygienic.
Interestingly, the next directive in the field (91/271/EEC), relating to urban waste water treatment and dated 21st May 1991, does not mention public health as a motive but contains the following statement:
The second committee report that we are considering, Bathing Water Revisited, establishes at Table 1 on page 6 the different costs of meeting the various standards that might be set over and above the £9.5 billion, which appears in paragraph 7, required to comply with the urban waste water directive. In trying to calculate whether those costs are justifiable, your Lordships' committee has a problem. The public health cost of sickness as a result of sea bathing is quite small. There is a very small number of acute cases where the consequence of a dip in the sea is tragic for the individual concerned. Beyond that, diarrhoea and nausea are the main problems and they soon pass. That is as may be, but I have never heard or believed that savings in public health costs were the sole determinant for cleaning up our sewerage and industrial waste disposal problems. If that had been the case, many of the rivers in industrial areas which used to be so offensive would never have been tackled. In those cases, the public health cost was marginal because no sensible person would go anywhere near them, still less would anyone use them as a source of water supply.
The issue of trying to cost environmental benefits or disbenefits presents an even greater problem. I intend to approach that aspect in a different way by reverting to the problems faced by South West Water. In that part of the country the tourist industry succeeds because of a belief in clean sea bathing, clean rivers and clean countryside. Can the West Country afford to put that industry, which is vital to its economy, at risk by allowing the reduction of one of the assurances of environmental quality? I suggest not. Mr. Byatt of Ofwat may be right to be concerned about the impact of high costs on water customers. But unless the communities in the South West are prepared to put the tourist industry in jeopardy in their region they have little option but to shoulder their share of what is a much wider problem. Perhaps some form of tourist levy can be considered to assist in financing but that runs the risk of persuading people to go elsewhere, possibly abroad.
There are no easy answers. These problems are not exclusively national; they are international. One has only to consider the problems of the Baltic or the northern Adriatic to appreciate the need for the establishment of a common, acceptable standard and its enforcement. What is certain is that the privatisation of the water industry has helped. Examination of the water companies' capital construction programmes reveals that since privatisation there has been a great expansion of expenditure on capital
Lord Beaumont of Whitley: My Lords, as always, we are immensely indebted to noble Lords and others who have given their efforts to producing these reports; to noble Lords who have taken part in the debate so far; to the noble Baroness for filling in at rather short notice; and to the noble Lord, Lord Butterfield, for an extremely interesting and illuminating speech on the health situation.
In particular, I wish to follow the speeches of the noble Lords, Lord Monkswell and Lord Dixon-Smith. In spite of our gratitude to the people who have produced the report, I believe that there is a general unease in relation to the results. There was a time when bathing water was not a problem. Apart from anything else, our climate saw to that. But if for no other reason than the use of wetsuits for various water sports, as has been mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, the number of bathers and other people using the sea has increased dramatically. And so it is a problem that so many of our beaches and much of our bathing water are frankly disgusting. They are a major turn-off for tourists and a source of crippling disease, although I accept not for great numbers of people, and cause a great deal of discomfort and unease.
We spend a great deal of money on the problem, the costs of which seem to fall rather inequitablyor at least the people of the South West seem to think so. We should probably look again at the whole problem of financing what needs to be done.
We accept that Brussels has not done its homework properly on this matter and that should be rectified. But that is no reason for us not to take such precautions as we can. Paragraph 58 of the report states that:
I am informed that it is extremely unusual for a Select Committee to report even initial disagreements in that way. I conclude that that paragraph masks a considerable unease on the part of at least some members of the committee.
I would argue that end-of-pipe solutions are the best way forward for public health. Certainly there are plenty of examples of the inadequacy of long sea outfalls. The Eastleigh pipes blew within seven months of installation and the Worthing ones all failed. Yorkshire Water spent £32 million on a system which produced water of an appalling quality and now will have to spend another £35 million to meet the urban waste water directive requirements. That is £67 million spent on long sea outfalls, whereas an effective end-of-pipe solution would have cost only £45 million.
This is not a very pleasant subject, made more unpleasant by what has been referred to as the "Jaws" syndrome, to which the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, referred. Your Lordships will remember that in "Jaws" people continued to be eaten by sharks because the local authority was afraid that, if it admitted that anyone had been even sniffed at by a shark, tourists would not come and the local resorts would be ruined. Likewise, inhabitants and authorities in resorts are afraid to mention the problem that we are discussing this evening, and the fact that they do not like, do not want and are afraid of mentioning it militates against its solution.
With others of your Lordships, I am reaching the end of the sittings of your Lordships' Select Committee on sustainable development. Therefore, I am well apprised of the necessity of value for money and not using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. I have heard all those arguments and I accept them. Nevertheless, I accept that the problem at which we are looking today must be tackled radically or it will both continue and cost much more in the long run.
Today, we are making both "Jaws" and "The Return of Jaws". In spite of all the work undertaken, I am no more happy with the results than I was with the original work of Brussels. Unless we take a truly radical approach in the next few years, however expensive that may be, in a few years time we shall be here in this Chamber debating "Jaws III".
Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, like all noble Lords who have spoken in this debate who are not members of the Select Committee, I begin by echoing their thoughts that this has been a work of considerable diligence and skill. I commend also the noble Baroness who opened the debate on doing that with characteristic thoroughness.
I support a great deal of what is in the report but I should also like to make some criticisms of it. I shall not go quite as far as the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, who preceded me. There must be some anxiety about costs. A balance must be drawn. One has also to apply a cost benefit analysis to this form of legislation. However, I am not so sure that that is as easy to apply as has been suggested by some of your Lordships in this debate.
The background to our considerations starts with the bathing water directive of 1976. Perhaps I may add the thought that that was adopted by unanimity. It was adopted because there was a considerable fear that polluted bathing waters, especially those polluted as a result of sewage, represented a serious health hazard. Of course, it provided also a very generous period for compliance.
In this report, the extent and seriousness of such hazards is questioned to a considerable degree. Certainly during the period for which I was responsible for environmental affairs in the European Commission a good deal of thought was given, even in those daysup to the beginning of 1989to a revision of that bathing water directive, the drinking water directive and, indeed, to endorsing that which the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, asserted; namely, that this should be seen in the context of a water policy as a whole. There is much to
I have browsed through the report but I believe that, unless I am mistaken, the Select Committee did not consider in relation to the 1976 bathing water directiveand I confess that I only knew yesterday that I was to speak in the debatethe dilemma which confronts the Commission in relation to the enforcement of any law. The Commission is the guardian of the treaty. Even though there were strong arguments to suggest, even in 1985, that the bathing water directive had some serious defects attaching to it, that did not remove from the Commission and the Commissioner responsible the duty to ensure that the law was properly enforced. There appears to be no mention of that in the report.
The fact that the background to the whole matter had been that the original draft directivewhich, presumably, had been negotiated over a period of two or three yearshad been subjected to all the scrutiny of the Council of Permanent Representatives before it reached the Council of Ministers, must have given governments the opportunity (and at that time it was a Labour Government) to investigate any doubts before the directive became law.
Howeverand I am being a little anecdotal herewhen I came to study such matters and the way in which the question of identifying bathing waters was being applied (which was a requisite under the draft directive) I found that a number of governments were seriously deficient in their recognition of fulfilling obligations which fell upon them and that they failed to recognise the duty of the Commission in enforcing the law. In my judgment, the United Kingdom Government sought to sabotage the directive; indeed, there is some reference to that in the first report that we are considering today. The Government took an attitude which, essentially, was, "We don't like this directive and we hope that it will go away"; and they did nothing about it.
As is pointed out in the report, in carrying out the duty of identifying bathing waters, I believealthough I am speaking now from memorythat France identified something like 1,100, Italy about 1,000 and then, in lovely little landlocked Luxembourg, 39 were identified. But the United Kingdom, which has the longest coastline of all, identified only 27. I believe that that shows a scant regard for carrying out their duties in that respect. That caused the Select Committee to say that there had been a sluggish British response.
It was for that reason that I authorised the commencement of infraction proceedings. The Government failed to recognise that Blackpool, Southport, Bournemouth and Great Yarmouth actually had beaches. But, happily, there was a subsequent U-turn; or, at least, a partial U-turn. In 1987-88 the compliance rate improved. Then there was another U-turn represented by the adoption of the urban waste water directive which is designed to stop the dumping of sewage sludge at sea by the end of 1998. All towns with a population of more than 10,000 will have to apply secondary treatment before discharge. I believe that that is unquestionably an advance. Whatever one may say about the efficacy of the Commission in producing those proposals, there has,
Doubtless the latter will involve very substantial capital investment in the future. One of the problems has been a great deal of not duplicity but certainly misinformation about the costing of the programmes. An enormous estimate was given by the Treasury and a different estimate given by the Department of the Environment. That hardly leads to a recognition of the credibility of the Government. I entirely endorse the views of the Select Committee in saying that it is important that we should have a proper assessment of the capital cost involved. In relation to the draft directive proposed, it is right to say that there should be a better assessment, if at all possible, of the cost involved.
In relation to the latter, I saw that Mr. Henningsen of DGXI said in evidence to the Select Committee that there was considerable difficulty in building such assessments into a draft directive. He said that,
The burden of his argument was that that information is sometimes difficult to procure and, at other times, unreliable. If, as a country, we are to play a more important role than we have done in the past in producing a meaningful policy in that regard, I believe that we should look at some of our own warts while being ready to criticise the work of the Commission. But is there anything in the argument of Mr. Henningsen? Has the Select Committee properly addressed those points?
Doubt has been cast on the environmental credentials of the Government over a long period of time. Indeed, it is interesting that the Minister for Agriculture said only recently that he regretted the posture of the Government in earlier days when he had been a junior Minister because it had not helped Britain's reputation in the field. Of course, I am only offering a resume of what he said. I respect Mr. Waldegrave who played a notable part in the discussions that we had, although he did not always seem to have the backing of his colleagues. I believe that the arguments about nooks and crannies, the arguments that took place in Edinburgh, the assertions that environmental policy was always going too far, and even the suggestion that it ought to be repatriated, hardly led to an enhancement of the Government's credibility.
I turn now to the argument that the Commission had not consulted the scientific community. If the Commission has failed in that regard, it is a serious fault on its part. But before a draft directive reaches the Council of Ministers and while it is being considered by the Council of Permanent Representatives, are not those points vigorously argued by the Government? So what did the Government say in that respect? Did they take the view that the scientific community was not consulted and did they not say, as they ought to have said, "Well it's not too late to do it now"? I think that it is uncharacteristic of the Commission. In my experience of the Commission, its members did consult very widely and as best they could. I find it surprising, but it may well be a correct assessment of the position.
I turn now to the question of subsidiarity. I believe that the case has very clearly been made out for action in the sphere of bathing; and, indeed, as regards bathing water. It is important to establish common standards for the protection of bathers' health throughout the European Union and, at the same time, to recognise the trans-boundary dimension of water pollution. It is right that the Select Committee should have drawn attention to the effects on tourism.
I believe that my noble friend Lord Monkswell made some very pertinent points regarding the interests of ordinary people who are, perhaps, not quite so knowledgeable of the complex scientific arguments involved in the presentation of the report. They are entitled to have clean water when they bathe; they are entitled not to have to confront faeces even if treated; and they are entitled to expect higher standards than they have been getting hitherto. Whether, of course, that justifies the enormous amount of expenditure involved is a matter of balance and requires a further assessment.
I must say I find that a somewhat extraordinary proposition to advance. It virtually means that one accepts ultimately the total bona fides of the water companies in carrying out their consultations with the local people concerned. I have found in dealing in the past, not only with water companies but also with governmental organisations, that there is a great deal of special pleading involved in the public relations exercises that they undertake. I am not totally convinced that they are prepared, because of the special position they are in, to provide that totally balanced and objective view as a result of consultations. Are they able to carry out the consultations anyway? What would be the nature of the consultations that they would be prepared to carry out? How reliable would it all be?
I have mentioned a few of the criticisms that I have but that does not in any sense mean that I do not believe this report is other than an excellent one. It has been well presented and it is coherent. I will not say that it is without complexity. When I was reading it last night I found some of it rather difficult to absorb and it did not manage to keep me awake. But having said that, I commend all those who participated in this extremely difficult work.
The Earl of Lindsay: My Lords, I ought first to declare what is perhaps an historical interest, having had the opportunity to participate as a member of the sub-committee in the deliberations leading to its first report on bathing waters. But setting aside my own earlier involvement, I wish on behalf of the Government to
Your Lordships invariably bring great expertise and insight to discussion of proposed Community legislation both in the Committee Corridor and here in the Chamber. The noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, is an example of the experience and expertise that are available to this House in debates on European affairs. I should at the same time express the Government's wish that it had been possible to reply earlier to the committee's second report, Bathing Water Revisited, to give more time for the response to be considered before this debate.
The existing bathing water directive was adopted as long ago as 1975. Many would say that it has had a chequered history in the UKthe noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, pointed this outand this has contributed to the comparatively high level of public interest in its revision. I shall not dwell on the past, which perhaps continues to influence public perception of the quality of our bathing waters. But in looking to the future and the proposed revision we would be wise not to forget the lessons that can be gleaned from the history of the existing directive.
It is clear to me from your Lordships' reports that these lessons have not been forgotten. This scrutiny and debate have identified weaknesses in the proposed revision that require a positive response from the European Commission. I want to put on record that the Government consider that the need for revision is unquestionable and that there is merit in some of the Commission's proposals. However, we share the committee's concerns on some important aspects. Revision is the opportunity for thorough updating and correction of the shortcomings of the current directive. It is not the time to replace one set of shortcomings with another.
I understand that your Lordships' reports have been studied in Brussels and that the conclusions and recommendations, together with criticism from other quarters, have caused the Commission to re-examine its proposal. The result is not yet known, but it may become clearer before long, when the Commission explains its proposals for water legislation to the Environment Committee of the European Parliament and to a wider audience. I hope that the results of your Lordships' deliberations will be influential. I say this because the Select Committee has carried out a thorough and independent scrutiny of the proposal. This scrutiny deserves a proper response. It is, of course, reassuring to us that so many of the committee's views accord with those of the Government. Our response to the first report, Bathing Water, shows the extent of the agreement. There is a similar convergence of views in our recent response to Bathing Water Revisited.
A dominant theme of both reports (and indeed of the debate today) is the need for greater openness and wider public debate on bathing water standards. There can be little doubt that a better exchange of information and views during the formulation of the Commission's proposal would have helped to improve its quality and may have saved time in the long run. I believe that, although the committee's criticism of lack of consultation has been taken to heart, there is still a lack of information in the public domain on the implications of the proposal for other member states. The Commission itself has only recently started a study to collect basic information about levels of faecal streptococci, which is a parameter with greatly enhanced significance in the proposed revision.
In the UK the Government have commissioned extensive research, and published the results, to shed light on the complex issues of water quality and health. Many noble Lords today have pointed out just how complex issues of water quality and public health are. We have also carefully assessed likely compliance costs. We have made this information widely available
Back to Table of Contents
Lords Hansard Home Page