HC Deb 06 May 1970 vol 801 cc541-50

Motion made, and Question proposed,, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Harper.]

10.14 p.m.

Mr. John Rankin (Glasgow, Govan)

I wish to draw the attention of the House to the subject of the pollution of Scottish waters. The whole issue springs from what is happening on the land in that on too much of our countryside local authorities are creating great refuse heaps. These eyesores disfigure lovely byways and help to poison the soil. In so doing, they affect deleteriously the food of our animal population as well as the content of our rivers.

It may be that cooking destroys some bacteria, but those engaged in preparing battery chickens, for example, for the table, are in many cases now suffering from dematitis derived from the birds they have cleaned for consumption. The former dainty has become the present danger as a result of pollution.

This is bound to affect all creatures on land nourished by polluted waters as much as it affects human beings, but into these streams and on to this earth now go, in addition to this danger, industrial acid, along with a wonderful array of plastics, which are indestructible except by burning, and large unwanted utilities like cars, lorries, refrigerators, bedding and furniture. They are still deposited on the countryside despite recent legislation though, admittedly, not to the same extent as was the case a few years ago. Therefore, we must have further legislation to deal with this menace of pollution.

The local authorities were compelled by Government to clear their streets of unwanted material, so the residents were driven to the countryside to dispose of their waste. Further Government legislation closed that outlet, also. The local authorities have now themselves become the delinquents, and over burdened, I assume in ever increasing quantities. In these mounting piles originates one of the sources of the pollution that is now destroying life in our countryside waters.

Why can this waste—and I put this point directly to my hon. Friend the Minister of State—not be burnt? It seems to be the only way left to deal with this tremendous menace. I know that this means the building of great incinerators, and legislation. Nevertheless, can I be told of any other way in which to deal with this waste and, if not, whether legislation to cure this menace is intended, and when? Or will my hon. Friend assure me this evening that this matter will have high priority in the Scottish legislative programme of the next Labour Government?

Today's issue of the Glasgow Heraldreports the proceedings at a four-day international seminar at Aviemore. Mr. James R. Simpson, a consulting engineer, warns "the irresponsible industrialist" and the "thoughtless do-it-yourself mechanic" that …not anything may go down a sewer ". Mr. D. Buchanan, of the Clyde River Purification Board, said: Oil pollution is as serious a problem in the West of Scotland as in any other part of the United Kingdom. There were demands at the seminar, which I am sure my hon. Friend noted, for tougher anti-pollution legislation. But he must also have paid attention to the warning from Mr. Price, of the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, who said that legislation would be useless unless there were safe facilities for the disposal of waste oil. He warned that if we deferred payment now in providing facilities we would have to pay with interest later.

Dr. Martin, Senior Industrial Officer of the Department of Health and Social Security, said: Probably the most serious aspect of oil pollution of rivers was the possibility of the contamination of drinking water supplies. I am glad to mention that important reference to water supplies in view of Dr. Martin's own Minister's determination to add sodium fluoride to our drinking water supplies to preserve children's teeth, despite van Nostrand's description of that chemical compound in his scientific encyclopaedia as a poison for destroying rats and roaches. Doubtless there are degrees of pollution, although I have not yet determined them.

The pollution of rivers has to be understood in order to be controlled and prevented. Therefore, river purification boards are essential. It may be, of course, that my hon. Friend will tell me of an alternative to the river purification boards, but so far as I know they are essential. There is one for the Clyde area, as I have said. Work previously carried out by the Scottish Development Department has been handed over now to that Board.

During the last five years, £150,000 has been spent in building up a knowledge of the River Clyde which is a necessary preliminary to dealing with pollution and other problems. I trust, however, that my hon. Friend will agree that £30,000 yearly is not over-spending or over-investing in this essential hydrological work. I hope that he will think in bigger terms than £150,000 over five years.

I trust that my hon. Friend will agree that, unlike the system of river authorities in England and Wales, the functions of river management in Scotland have grown up in a manner which is quite uncoordinated. Little attempt has been made to link up the different activities affecting the rivers such as, for instance, urban run off and flood warning. Yet the Clyde River Purification Board has a comprehensive network of gauging statistics with data being fed on to a punch tape for computer processing, and the more important stations are having equipment installed so that there is a direct signal of river level being made by G.P.O. line to any interested parties.

But, in the early part of this year, the part of Glasgow in which I live was completely cut off by river flooding over the whole of the south side of Glasgow because absolutely no attention was paid to the existence of this method of getting information about flooding being probably at hand due to rain. The consequences were almost disastrous.

All rivers, it is usual to say, flow to the seas, sometimes with disastrous consequences, for they carry their pollution to swell the discharge of both oil and rubbish from ships. Discharge of rubbish may be witnessed from time to time on our own Channel ships. The oil pollution, despite its illegality, is proved by the state of the shores of almost any part of Britain. It is difficult to identify the offending ship with pollution at sea, but it is only fair to say that ship owners are now anxious to deal with this nuisance and have insured their liability to the extent of 124 million gross registered tons out of the world's 185 million tons of shipping. But there is much uncertainty about liability. The "Torrey Canyon" case contributed to this, and as a result there is a move for a new international conference.

Meanwhile, the tanker owners themselves are considering action and have put forward a scheme for voluntary agreement concerning liability for oil pollution. Perhaps my hon. Friend will be able to say something about that effort. This is particularly important for us in Scotland, because, according to my latest information, 53 million gallons of untreated sewage now flow into the River Forth; and that cannot be healthy for the salmon in the river, nor for holiday makers on the East Coast of Scotland. The 30,000 dead seagulls picked up on the West Coast of Scotland last year, after examination of various carcases, were shown to be victims of pollution. That cannot be good for the fish in our rivers, nor the people who eat them, nor for the ships entering polluted waters, because of the dangers of corrosion to their structures.

If Loch Lomond becomes a source of supply of drinking water to the increasing population of the West of Scotland, it may not be good for them, because the River Leven, which flows from the loch into the Clyde, which is polluted, is tidal and will share the Clyde's pollution, unless we seriously face this menace.

10.29 p.m.

The Minister of State, Scottish Office (Dr. J. Dickson Mahon)

My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Rankin) has touched on a number of important matters about which the Government are greatly concerned. This matter goes wider than simply the responsibility of the Scottish Office. The Secretary of State for Local Government and Regional Planning has been enjoined by the Prime Minister to concern himself with pollution in its widest sense, and we now have the country's first standing Royal Commission, which is concerned with all the problems, not only of pollution of the air, sea and land, but with pollution in its widest sense, including noise.

This Standing Royal Commission serviced by the central unit of the Ministry for which the Secretary of State for Local Government and Regional Planning has responsibility is reporting to him and to the commission on ways and means of dealing with the general problem. My hon. Friend has rightly touched on a large number of points with which I shall deal as best I can. I do not think that he or I would pretend that 30 minutes is sufficient for such an extensive subject, and to deal with the nature of pollution in Scottish waters and its possible effects. We are all agreed that in a heavily industrialised country like Britain with important fisheries and a long coastline the problem of pollution of the sea demands our serious attention. There are many potential sources of pollution and although the sea's capacity to absorb extraneous matters is large the problem is that some pollutants are extremely persistent.

Even apparently insignificant changes in the patterns of animal and plant life may be the first indications of more serious and lasting damage. The principal effects of marine pollution are to give rise to hazards to human health, damage to our living resources and to hinder maritime activities and for that matter reduce amenities. The sea is increasingly becoming a depository for a great variety of wastes and other materials but the most important and potentially the most harmful is probably sewage. I am glad my hon. Friend referred to that. There is also crude oil, petro-chemicals, organic wastes, pesticides, heavy metals and in this century, radio-active materials. The principal sources of these wastes are the local authority disposal systems and we have passed a Sewerage Act in this House dealing with Scotland—an Act which embraces industrial outflows and the deliberate and accidental dumping or discharging from ships. Estuaries and shallow coastal waters are more seriously affected since dispersion is very slow; certain persistent wastes such as pesticides and radioactive materials do affect large areas of the oceans. Wastes reaching the sea may affect it in many ways depending on the nature of the pollutants and the conditions in the receiving area. Fish may be poisoned and driven away by adverse biological conditions. We have seen this with salmon.

Shellfish may accumulate trace metals or even be contaminated by sewage and made unsafe to eat. A wide variety of marine organisms may pick up pesticide residues and these may accumulate and possibly reduce breeding among fish-eating birds. Oil, sewage, and solid industrial wastes make the beaches unfit for recreational purposes. Our marine scientists in the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries for Scotland have been carrying out a broad survey of pollution in Scottish waters and its sources. The areas affected have been described in maps within our Department.

The disposition of industry and population has produced the situation in which roughly half of Scotland's effluents are discharged into the Firth of Clyde, about a quarter into the Firth of Forth, and the remainder is relatively widespread. We have pollution on the West Coast from iron and steel manufacture, from coal, sewage sludge, paper pulp, paper production, sugar refining, from power station wastes and from the dumping, sometimes of explosives and sometimes of by-products formed during the manufacture of explosives. My hon. Friend who has a close connection with the Isle of Arran knows to what I am referring.

We are very much aware of the dangers of uncontrolled dumping at sea and that is why we are concerned in the Government with this review of all forms of pollution. The White Paper which the Prime Minister has promised when the Royal Commission on Pollution was announced may lead to controls in areas where there is an obvious problem. My hon. Friend was good enough to refer to the work of the river purification boards. He will remember how our late friend Hector McNeil when he was Secretary of State introduced the Rivers (Prevention of Pollution) (Scotland) Act, 1951. It was my privilege in 1965 to introduce the current Act, which is now the consolidating Act, which deals with that.

We have, of course, a number of purification boards. I think that in his considerable investigations, my hon. Friend has overlooked the fact that the figure which he mentioned as being the expenditure over five years is the figure for one year and not five years.

Mr. Rankin

The £150,000?

Dr. Mabon

Yes; it is for one year. While, then, my hon. Friend has multiplied his concern five times, I give him the point that still there may be more work to do. What I have said implies that we must pay great attention to this.

We have 10 boards in Scotland. In view of what I have said, the Clyde board is obviously the most significant in terms of the work that it has to do, but on the West Coast of Scotland as such—my hon. Friend has referred to the birds which die, and a number of which died in September last year—are the boards covering the Solway, the Ayrshire board, the Clyde board and, of course, the boards working in association with the County Councils of Argyll, Inverness, Ross and Cromarty and Sutherland. The Clyde board takes in part of Argyll. In the North-West, there have been no complaints that the county councils concerned are failing to carry out their purification responsibilities satisfactorily. There is certainly no evidence to suggest that pollution of coastal waters there is affecting fishing interests or amenity.

Since my hon. Friend raised this matter in the House, I have tried hard to find out what he meant when he stated that the only purification officer known to him had recently been appointed by Glasgow Corporation. The Clyde Purification Board is particularly well off for technical staff. It is better staffed than any other board in Scotland. Under the control of a director and river inspector, there are 15 principal professional and technical staff, comprising an inspectorate, two senior assistants and five assistant inspectors, a chemical laboratory staff of a chief and a senior chemist, a biological staff of one biologist and two assistants, an estuarial hydrographic surveyor dealing with the estuarial survey and one hydrologist as such and an assistant. The revenue expediture is £135,000 for one year.

Mr. Rankin

What I meant was that Mr. Waddington was the only one I knew.

Dr. Mabon

Mr. Waddington is a lucky man, knowing my hon. Friend, but I suggest to my hon. Friend that he should introduce himself to the others.

Thre is no doubt that the Clyde board, well staffed as it is, is a model board for many other boards. While my hon. Friend's reference to the other functions relating to river flooding, estuarial flooding, and so on, is allied to this, I think that it would require substantial legislation for us to recast both purification functions and flooding functions and all the other matters concerned with the ecology of a river.

The English legislation is substantially different from ours. Whether we are right or they are right, or whether, perhaps, a synthesis of both is right, remains to be seen. Certainly, in the Government we are conscious that all the legislation dealing with sewerage and pollution in all its forms is ripe for review and needs to be looked at comprehensively in a Great Britain context and not just a Scottish context.

I know that both my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Regional Planning and Local Government will be very interested to read closely my hon. Friend's speech, his references and his suggestions, and we will refer these to the appropriate bodies so that we will get a proper report and be able to follow it out as best we can.

Mr. George Lawson (Motherwell)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the Clyde Purification Board is quite dissatisfied with the powers which it has. Can he tell us just a little more about the differences that exist between him and the board?

Dr. Mabon

There are no differences between us. I am perfectly friendly with the Clyde Board. It is important that any statutory board which is enjoined by Parliament to do any work and which does it enthusiastically should be anxious to point out to Ministers where it is short of powers. We can then, in bringing forward new Bills, take into account all these representations.

This Adjournment debate is not dealing just with matters of importance to an individual or a community. It is concerned with a gigantic problem which affects the British Isles and the whole world. We in Great Britain are proud of the fact that we are looking at this subject very closely. There is already on the Statute Book legislation going back to the Alkali Inspectorate, and legislation dealing with clean air, and we have recently been concerned with noise abatement. We have all this behind us. Yet, despite the good record of legislation, even in this Parliament, we are still looking to the standing Royal Commission to deal with many matters which have been raised by my hon. Friend, and he would not pretend to have raised tonight all that could be raised under this heading.

We will pay attention to what my hon. Friend has said. I hope that when the White Paper is published he will feel satisfaction that what he has done tonight will be useful, and that he will have something further to say—for he is irrepressible—when the White Paper reaches Parliament.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nineteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.