HC Deb 11 December 1969 vol 793 cc638-45
The Prime Minister (Mr. Harold Wilson)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will now answer Question No. Q5.

With regard to the responsibilities of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Local Government and Regional Planning, I gave full information to the House on 13th October. The House will also recall that I asked my right hon. Friend to go urgently into the question of environmental pollution in all its forms and to make proposals to me on how the problem should be dealt with.

My right hon. Friend has now reported. He is setting up a permanent central unit, composed mainly of scientists on his own staff, to assist him in his coordinating rôle on environmental pollution. Through his staff he will maintain close relationships with the Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government and with the research councils and other institutions concerned with the problem.

Following my right hon. Friend's report to me, I have recommended, and Her Majesty the Queen has been pleased to approve, that a standing Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution should be set up with the following terms of reference: To advise on matters, both national and international, concerning the pollution of the environment; on the adequacy of research in this field; and the future possibilities of danger to the environment. It is intended that this shall be a standing Commission able to take up any problem relating to pollution so that the benefit of the best possible advice will be available to Government Departments responsible for executive action.

One aspect of this matter which has caused particular concern is the problem of noise. My right hon. Friend proposes to establish an Advisory Council to deal with this, on the lines of the Clean Air Council.

Concern has also been expressed in the House and outside about the use of pesticides. I should, therefore, inform the House that the agriculture Ministers are already engaged in consultations about the preparation of legislation to replace the existing voluntary system of control on the use of pesticides. Proposals will be brought before the House.

On the general question of environmental pollution, the Government intend to present to the House a White Paper next year. This will show how much has so far been achieved under the existing arrangements which our new proposals will greatly reinforce.

Mr. Lane

Is the Prime Minister aware that, on the principle of better late than never, there will be great relief that the Government have at last been stirred to do something about environmental pollution? In view of the public concern especially about pollution in the Irish Sea, will the right hon. Gentleman and the Secretary of State keep in mind that what the public want is not advice, consultation, or co-ordination, but action?

The Prime Minister

I will take from hon. Members on my own side, but not from hon. Members opposite, any suggestions that we have been dilatory in dealing with this matter. A great deal has been done and there have been reports to the House on the executive action taken by individual Departments in various fields of pollution.

What we are now to have is, first, a Minister charged with this responsibility and with the necessary scientific staff to carry it out, and, secondly, a standing Royal Commission to act as a watchdog on this problem and to ensure that the executive Departments—and, inevitably, different Departments are concerned—are brought into play as rapidly as possible to deal with any question which arises.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the problems in the Irish Sea. We have already had a number of reports on these questions. Some of them are very inconclusive about the cause, for example, of the recent deaths of a lot of baby seals.

Mr. Blenkinsop

Is my right hon. Friend aware that this country is regarded throughout the world as the leader in taking action on environmental questions? This is further proof of our leadership and of our concern about pollution. However, is my right hon. Friend satisfied that his proposal will avoid the danger of the overlap of responsibilities, which has been one of our anxieties in the past?

The Prime Minister

It is meant to cut through the overlapping of responsibilities. This country has been a leader in these matters. Within the last two or three years we have set up the Natural Environment Research Council which, as my hon. Friend knows, because he studies its work, has a great deal to do with providing finance for investigating the scientific causes, for example, of the mysterious deaths of sea birds and seals and the problem of diseased fish and things of that kind, about which there is great anxiety. We want a central body, a standing Commission, which has power to ensure that action is taken quickly and to draw these matters to the attention of all executive Departments, including local authorities.

Mr. Chataway

Are not these different, perhaps better, arrangements for tendering advice and financing research? Is it still the case that responsibility for action is left divided between at least half a dozen Departments and that the Secretary of State for Local Government and Regional Planning has no powers himself to deal with environmental pollution?

The Prime Minister

My right. hon. Friend will be in general charge of all Departments, which have their own duties. It is true that a number of Departments must be involved. It would not be right for my right hon. Friend, for example, to have his own staff to deal with pesticides, agricultural feed and fertilisers. That must be the job of the Ministry of Agriculture.

It will be my right hon. Friend's job, within the unit established and with the watchdog activities of the new standing Royal Commission, to ensure that any problem is rapidly dealt with and that there is machinery through my right hon. Friend to clear up obstruction or overlapping of functions.

Mr. Snow

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his announcement will be welcomed in many parts of the country? Will it be within the competence of the Royal Commission to examine the very serious problem which confronts the farming community in dealing with pollution due to sudden flooding which is experienced in the farming communities in the Trent Valley area, which is fed by tributaries to the Trent River and the highly developed area surrounding Birmingham, in view of the huge increase in impervious surfaces?

The Prime Minister

The Ministry of Housing and Local Government has been considering whether additional powers are needed to control the disposal of waste in order to give additional defence at times of flooding and other times against the pollution of what I understand is known in the trade as aquifers. This will come directly under my right hon. Friend, who is in charge of the supervision of the Ministry of Housing and Local Government and the Ministry of Transport.

Mr. Lubbock

Is the Prime Minister aware that his announcement will be widely welcomed not only on these benches, but throughout the country, where there has been great anxiety about the problem of pollution? Would he make clear what the relationship will be between the Royal Commission and the Natural Environment Research Council? In view of the rôle being given to the Commission to examine the adequacy of research, will it be able to override the decisions of the Natural Environment Research Council, and what is to be its relationship with the Council for Scientific Policy?

The Prime Minister

The Natural Environment Research Council, as the hon. Member knows, is, of course, a grant-awarding body but also does research into particular forms of pollution, and, indeed, many non-pollution questions, affecting environment. It will be the Commission's responsibility to draw together and co-ordinate the general research effort, going far beyond the research councils in this matter and, as I say, particularly to alert any research council or other bodies particularly when a new problem arises. One of the problems now about pollution, as we have seen more and more, and even during the past year, is that a sudden problem, be it effluent or anything else, causes sudden and great concern, with a lot of death around our coasts or elsewhere. Quick action is needed and the Royal Commission will be the means of providing that, with my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Driberg

Since this is largely an international problem, can my right hon. Friend say what machinery there will be for consultation with U.N.E.S.C.O. and other bodies concerned? Has he seen the somewhat disturbing report of the conference of American ecological scientists a fortnight ago, whose conclusions seemed to be that the prospects for the survival of the human race till the end of this century are rather slender?

The Prime Minister

Yes. We have, of course, had many exchanges with the United States on these questions. It is not only U.N.E.S.C.O. but a number of United Nations specialist agencies, particularly, of course, the World Health Organisation and the F.A.O., which are concerned with this. My hon. Friend, with his concern about international coordination, will, I know, be following with great care the work next week of the European conservation meeting which is to be held here in London and at which my right hon. Friend will be making a speech.

Sir D. Walker-Smith

With regard to noise, the right hon. Gentleman has announced the setting up of a council analogous with the Clean Air Council. Would he not agree that what is required is not so much research as action, since there are already a substantial number of recommendations in the Wilson Report not implemented? Can he and his right hon. Friend expedite action in this important field?

The Prime Minister

The right hon. and learned Gentleman will be aware that we did take action, within a few weeks of coming into office, on some of the most important recommendations of the Wilson Report, though, of course, right hon. Gentlemen opposite refused to do so when in power. It has made a difference, at rather high cost, to a large number of people. There are still, of course, these problems.

I think that the analogy with the Clean Air Council is right. It is not only a question of research, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman says. Before the Clean Air Council, which helped to get action, was set up, many of the facts were already known from the research which had been done. I hope that it will be the same with the council on noise.

Mr. Dalyell

On the question of noise, is my right hon. Friend aware that those of us on the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee who heard the Vice-Chancellor of Loughborough arguing in favour of an advisory council on this important subject welcome his announcement? Is my right hon. Friend further aware that the American Government have made a grant of 50 million dollars to firms such as Pratt and Whitney for research to reduce noise, and that it will be difficult for this country to sell aero engines if our competitors sell comparatively noiseless engines? Will he consider the proposal which has been put to the Ministry of Technology by Rolls-Royce?

The Prime Minister

There is a considerable amount of work going on by both the Board of Trade and the Ministry of Technology about aircraft noise. On the general question—and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for putting it—he will be aware that what I have announced goes beyond an advisory council. In addition to the Royal Commission, which is a standing Commission, we have the executive, co-ordinating function of my right hon. Friend and his scientific research unit.

Mr. Heath

Is the Prime Minister aware that what he has announced is a somewhat elaborate advisory system in connection with the Secretary of State's co-ordinating function, and that what he has not announced is a clear definition of Ministerial responsibility and method of taking action, particularly in urgent matters of crisis? This was recommended after the "Torrey Canyon" affair; it was demanded after the death of the sea birds; it was required after the dead seals episode. It is still lacking.

Will the Prime Minister, therefore, give attention to the need for a small action group, of scientists and others, which could be set up at comparatively small expense in order to deal quickly with these affairs? The reason he has not been able to gain information, for instance, about marine life, is that action is not taken soon enough after evidence becomes available.

The Prime Minister

I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman is correct. What he is suggesting is exactly what I have announced, a small group, an effective group, of scientists reporting directly to my right hon. Friend, and which can go straight into action when it finds a case such as, for example, diseased fish off Deal—go straight into action, and, through the responsible research committee or responsible Government Department, get cracking on it. It would be very silly to separate responsibility in this from, for instance, those responsible for fish at the Ministry of Agriculture, and their fishery research centres. But I agree that we need somebody to spark them off in some of these cases. There is now one Minister unequivocally responsible in this field, both in emergency and in long-term problems. We did not have that, I think, under the right hon. Gentleman's Government.

Mr. Heath

The Prime Minister, in his own statement, said that the staff of the Secretary of State is to assist him in the co-ordinating rôle. He did not say that they themselves are to take the action required. May we now be assured by the Prime Minister that the Secretary of State's own staff will, in fact, take action themselves—go to the scene, make the necessary inquiries—with great urgency?

The Prime Minister

I cannot think of anything more bureaucratic, more expensive, or more ineffective. If the right hon. Gentleman is suggesting that my right hon. Friend should have a staff capable of going straight to Deal to look at diseased cod, or to deal with every single problem there, he is suggesting what would be a very great waste of Government resources. We have got the scientists. We want to make sure that they are deployed quickly on new problems. This is the job of the Minister in charge. I am not suggesting that he should take over from my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture responsibility in fishery matters—

The Secretary of State for Local Government and Regional Planning (Mr. Anthony Crosland)

I would make a very good job of it.

The Prime Minister

—nor, I am sure, is the right hon. Gentleman—if we could get rid of this unholy alliance of representatives of fishing ports!

The right hon. Gentleman refers to lack of co-ordination in the "Torrey Canyon" affair. Of course, there were different problems. One was dealing with the oil slick itself. Another was mobilising the local authorities to deal with it. There was, third, the question of the oyster fisheries in Cornwall. These are things which must be done by Departments. All this was co-ordinated by my right hon. Friend the then Home Secretary as the Chairman of the Emergencies Committee.

Under this new arrangement my right hon. Friend has the duty, both of dealing with the emergency and of getting the research started quickly, and he has also the responsibility for seeing that adequate co-ordination on long-term research into these problems is done.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker