HC Deb 27 January 1972 vol 829 cc1726-50

8.45 p.m.

Mr. William Price (Rugby)

I am grateful for this opportunity to raise the question of the dumping of toxic materials. I promise not to take up any more of the time of the House than I would have done if the Adjournment had come on at such a time that we would have had only half an hour for this debate.

While I shall concentrate my argument on the Walston tip, near Rugby, it is clear that what has emerged is a scandal of national proportions and one which has caused widespread dismay. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that cyanide and other toxic materials are being dumped in large quantities indiscriminately on tips all over Britain.

It is astonishing that this practice is not illegal. It may involve criminal stupidity, a total lack of concern for future generations and whatever else one may care to allege, but it is not illegal. The position has been made clear by the Minister for Local Government and Development, who has said: I think everyone has been shocked over the past few days to find there is nothing other than the law of common nuisance or trespass to stop people tipping poisonous substances wherever they please. In my view, this represents a crazy situation. It is apparent that anyone can dump more or less anything he likes where he likes, whatever the risk to life, and no one can stop him, and that is what has been going on.

Nothing, or virtually nothing, has been done to stop this practice. As long ago as 1964 the Government of the day set up a technical committee under Dr. Kee to look into the dumping of toxic and other materials. Presumably there was sufficient concern at that time to justify that action.

For some curious reason it took six years for the committee to report, and two years ago it called for a watchdog authority to ensure that industry dealt properly with its waste, and it wanted supervision of industrial tips. As far as I can tell, nothing has been done by the Ministry.

We all went along quite happily until three weeks ago, when the Warwickshire Conservation Society alleged in public that hundreds of drums of cyanide had been dumped on tips in the West Midlands, and particularly on the Walston site in my constituency.

The society's information came from drivers who were, clearly, appalled by what they had been doing, and they decided to spill the beans. There is some suggestion that they fell out with their employers and were working off some old scores. Be that as it may, since they had the courage to come forward many more people have done the same in various parts of the country.

At a public meeting in Coventry recently one driver after another got up and explained what had been going on. The Coventry Evening Telegraph of 22nd January under the headline Poison trips 'too hot to handle '—Drivers tell why they owned up". ran a story which read: A lorry driver stood up in a Coventry hall and announced: 'Eight weeks ago I pumped 3,000 gallons of cyanide from a tanker on to Wolston Tip". He declined to be named—but another driver, 28-year-old Mr. David Carter, who lives in Coventry, and is among several men whose statements led to the poisons-dumping row, decided to reveal his identity. The drivers gave their 'evidence' to a packed 'Doomwatch' meeting at the Herbert Art Gallery lecture theatre last night. He said: Twice a week for quite a few months I brought cyanide waste from Kidderminster in an open skip to Wolston. Then things got too hot and I went to the society and told them everything.' I have since then received letters from all over the country from people who have been involved, they believe, in the dumping of cyanide and other potentially dangerous materials. It is not only the drivers who are coming forward. Those engaged in the running of waste disposal organisations have been equally forthcoming. In a report in the Birmingham Post of 13th January, Mr. John Deasington, of Effluent Disposal, Brownhills, said: It is a fact that some companies do dump without treatment. Obviously this whole thing was going to come to light and burst some time. The job can be done properly but it is very expensive and because we have to charge so much more than we would if we did not neutralise waste, we lose more orders than we get. It appals me. In the same newspaper, Mr. Malcolm Wood, Chairman of the West Midlands Waste Disposal Association, was quoted as saying: I believe that these toxic chemicals are being dumped. … I am very concerned that there is not tougher legislation to stamp it out. I could go on for two hours merely producing quotations from various sources since this row broke out. I would merely say to the Minister that I do not think it can be doubted any longer that the indiscriminate dumping of toxic materials has been widespread and long term. I think the real argument and concern are about what we do in the future and what possible harm may come from what has already taken place.

In allegation after allegation, one name continually crops up—that of the Purle Brothers organisation, by far the biggest waste disposal company in the country and one very much involved at the Wolston site. The Daily Mirror has been dealing with Mr. Tony Morgan, Chairman of Purle, and has put to him a number of specific questions—in some respects, serious allegations.

The first of these was that Purle arranged with a bulldozer operator to tip illegally on a council rubbish tip. The second was that, in the words of one Purle company report, drivers were … paid to lose and any control is impossible. I must confess that that phrase does not make sense to me but Mr. Morgan was kind enough in the same article to explain that if this was true it meant that employees were paid to dump and that no questions would be asked.

The third allegation was that planning laws have been flouted. The fourth was that farm water has been contaminated. When challenged about these allegations, Mr. Morgan replied: You are disclosing a hell of a lot to me … but the buck ends at this desk.…. In running Purle I feel very much like the master of a ship sailing uncharted seas. Mr. Morgan can say that again!

Those allegations have not been satisfactorily answered, and the conclusion must be that Mr. Morgan is either a fool and incompetent or knew perfectly well all along what was taking place. My evidence is that whatever else Mr. Morgan may be he is not a fool.

This is big business. Huge fortunes have been made and are being made by some doubtful people who are running organisations of a somewhat dubious nature. There has been no concern for the future safety of our people. Why not? It is easy to answer that question. Money is involved. Again according to the Daily Mirror, which has done a first-class job in bringing these matters to light, chemicals can be buried for as little as £3 per 1,000 gallons. Burning them apparently costs at least £6 per 1,000 gallons, and the most dangerous and difficult chemicals can cost as much as £20 per 1,000 gallons. If the Daily Mirror is right, and I have no reason to believe otherwise, it is clear that there is a very real financial incentive to dump at any available tip and hope for the best. I think that that is what has been going on.

What is the attitude of those firms in the West Midlands and other parts of the country that have used cyanide and then want it done away with? Are they paying the £20 per 1,000 gallons in the expectation of proper treatment and then getting only £3-worth of value? According to some of the drivers, that is precisely what is happening. A number of them have alleged that they were paid bonuses for keeping their mouths shut.

Again I quote from the Coventry Evening Telegraph of 15th January. It is a rather longer quotation, but it is worth detailing because it assesses in the words of one person precisely what we say has been going on all over the place. Under the headline How I dumped drums of poison at tip the report says A former lorry driver with a waste disposal firm said today that he had collected drums marked cyanide from a Leamington factory and dumped them into the Wolston death tip'.… The man who described the clumping said he drove a 32 cubic yard skip lorry until about three years ago. 'I used to call quite regularly at Automotive Products, Leamington, where they would load three to four tons of waste, in half-hundredweight drums, into the skip with a forklift truck while I waited,' he said. 'The drums were blue, marked cyanide and were full of crystals.' He tipped the load into the Wolston pit. 'Some drums burst open as they were tipped. I did not like doing this but it was the only job I could get at the time. If you refused you were back at the Labour Exchange. 'At the tip I did not have to say what I was carrying, just signed for approval to tip one 32-cubic-yard skip. 'There were no questions asked as to what you were carrying ', he said. He claimed that the management of the disposal firm told the drivers never to discuss what they were carrying. On another occasion he collected chemical waste from the Old Church Road factory of Courtaulds in Coventry. This was taken to what he believed was a household refuse tip, near Northampton. The drivers' employers gave them £5 to give to the bulldozer driver. He dug a special hole, into which they emptied the waste and then he filled it up. 'If any of the stuff got on to the plants the leaves went brown and fell off within a few minutes,' he said. 'We had to wear a gas mask to handle it. The fumes would knock you out.' My argument is that Wolston is only the tip of an iceberg of cyanide, and with that and other toxic materials we are building up for future generations a series of tragedies which would appal even those who have made a fortune out of waste disposal. It has been estimated that 500,000 tons of solid toxic wastes are produced each year. Most firms have little or no control over the material once it leaves their premises, and many have no idea where it is going.

What concerns me most, if the allegations about Wolston are true, on a tip which has been well run and supervised, is what is going on at hundreds of tips on which anyone can go at any time of the day or night. How much fly tipping is being carried out, even at Wolston? How many loads are being incorrectly described on delivery notes? Just how much fiddling has been going on? Nobody knows.

What is clear is the urgent need for Government action. It is perhaps a pity that the rules of debate do not permit me to ask for legislation. I am satisfied that Ministers are now showing the concern which we should have seen years ago. I am, for the moment, happy to accept assurances that appropriate action will be taken. I urge the Minister to ensure that it is sooner rather than later.

The Minister and his Department have been criticised recently for lack of action over dumping, both inland and at sea. I speak as I find. The Minister may be relieved to know that he has at least one friend in the House. Since the row broke out at Wolston I have been gratified by the interest he has shown and by the prompt action of his officials. They have done much to investigate as quickly as possible the allegations that were made and to offer some reassurance to hundreds of my constituents who believe, as I believe, that they have a large dump of cyanide at the bottom of the garden. I hope the Minister is not unduly embarrassed by those remarks.

This matter is the responsibility of each one of us. Over the years pollution has not received a fraction of the time of this House that it deserves, and we must all take our share of the blame for that. If good has come out of this argument it is that people are beginning to wake up to the dangers of pollution, local authorities are getting more and more involved and politicians are taking an interest. I believe that the Minister and his right hon. Friend will do whatever is necessary.

9.3 p.m.

Mr. Christopher Brocklebank-Fowler (King's Lynn)

I am sure the whole House will be grateful to the hon. Member for Rugby (Mr. William Price) for the initiative he has shown in raising in the House this matter of supreme national importance. My concern about this matter is perhaps more recent than his. It started in June last year when I was made aware of the tipping practices at Jacob's Pit at Docking, in my constituency. The matter was brought to my attention by the Environment Protection Society. Since then I have received letters from hosts of people, including county councillors, rural district councillors, justices of the peace, the Council for the Preservation of Rural England and many other bodies which are concerned about the practice which was alleged to be taking place at that tip.

Early in October I referred this matter to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. As a result steps were taken by the Department to seek the co-operation of those who were dumping in the Docking pit to cut out the dangerous materials which it was suspected were being dumped there from time to time. Since then I have been in correspondence with my right hon. Friend again pressing him to look at the inadequancy of the existing controls and I have been extremely impressed by his prompt consideration of the problem as I have put it before him.

It has been suggested that it would be appropriate if action were to wait until after the local government reorganisation takes place, but I feel I speak for many people in saying that that would be too far ahead. Undoubtedly there is growing evidence throughout the country that this practice is very widespread and that there is need for better control of the practice of tipping.

I emphasise to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary the urgency for a review of current practice. As a result of recent discussions I became more alarmed by practices as Jacobs Pit and I was informed formally in a letter from the Docking Rural District Council on the 14th of this month that … the Council's senior public health inspector has recently received indisputable evidence that diluted cyanide (fortunately at the present time in small quantities) is being deposited there by discharge from tankers and not in drums as was the case with the Warwickshire tip about which the Government has shown so much concern. Here again is concrete and irrefutable evidence of the dumping of cyanide in a tip already the subject of investigation by the river authority and by the local authority to see what is the effect of dumping in the sub-strata which exist below the tip. It is intolerable that tipping can continue while an investigation is taking place, which clearly shows that we do not know what the effect of dumping may be. There must at least be an outside chance that damage can be done to water deep under the subsoil which may affect the supply of water in the future. I draw my hon. Friend's attention to the growing and widespread concerned about this matter and press him on the urgency of the situation in the hope that he will make suggestions about how it might be more adequately dealt within the near future.

9.08 p.m.

Mr. Terry Davis (Bromsgrove)

I am glad to have an opportunity to take part in this debate because my own constituency has been affected by recent allegations about dumping of possible dangerous chemicals. In my case the Minister has been aware of these allegations and investigations are now taking place. I have a number of outstanding Parliamentary Questions on this matter, and I understand from the Minister that answers will be given to those Questions very shortly. I shall this evening be raising some matters referred to in those Questions, and I hope the Minister may anticipate his answers.

I, like my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mr. William Price), wish to congratulate the Minister on his action since these allegations became public and since I contacted him about them last week. Nevertheless, I must express some concern about what happened before that time.

I wish to give the two illustrations in my constituency which concern me most and of which the Department was already aware. I refer to tipping at Barnt Green and the tip at Shirley Quarry. In the case of Barnt Green, allegations were made to a representative of the Department of the Environment at a meeting on 21st December. The meeting was arranged between representatives of the Conservation Society in Warwickshire and the Department of the Environment to discuss allegations about the Wolston tip which was referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby. I understand that at the meeting allegations were also made about other places, including Barnt Green, Bromsgrove.

I am concerned that this information was not communicated to the Bromsgrove Urban District Council and that nothing was passed by the Department of the Environment to the local council until the Press revealed these allegations three weeks later. It seems that if the Press had not revealed these allegations we might not yet know about them, and my constituents would not know that there is a threat—I put it no higher—of dangerous chemicals percolating from the Barnt Green tip. If those chemicals percolate through the sandstone from that quarry, there is a risk that the Bromsgrove water supply could be affected. I realise that the waterworks board would take immediate action and that people would not be poisoned. Nevertheless, hon. Members will appreciate the concern felt by the public. I emphasise that the Department of the Environment knew about this for three weeks and that the information was not given to the local council until the Press had printed leaks.

My second example is the Shirley quarry. In this instance, a local resident wrote to the Secretary of State for the Environment on 17th April, 1971. It was a long letter which listed a number of complaints about activities at the Shirley quarry. In one paragraph the local resident alleged that drums of cyanide had been dumped at the quarry.

The letter was acknowledged by the Department, but nothing more happened. There was subsequent correspondence, in the course of which my constituent drew the attention of the Department to the fact that a number of his allegations and complaints had not been dealt with. However, the Department concentrated on only one of his complaints, which was about an alleged unauthorised use of the quarry for a transport business. That complaint is the subject of a planning appeal. It was the only letter to which the Department referred in its correspondence. Eventually, my constituent gave up what he regarded as the hopeless battle of trying to bring to the attention of the Department not merely the complaint about the drums of cyanide but many other matters.

When the publicity about the Wolston and Barnt Green tips occurred, my constituent came to see me and showed me this correspondence. Again, I pay tribute to the action which the Minister took when I showed him that correspondence 10 days ago. But nearly 11 months have elapsed since that information came into the possession of the Department.

I accept that my constituent could, and possibly should, have written to the district council about these allegations. He had had correspondence with the district council about a number of his complaints, but he had not mentioned the complaint about the cyanide. The Department did not communicate it to the local council. I believe that it should have done, and I hope that the Minister will explain why it did not.

I should like to know whether the Department welcomes this kind of information. I know from correspondence with the Minister that he suggests that his Department should not act as a post office for complaints from members of the public. Nevertheless, people will write to the Government about such matters in the way that they write to Members of Parliament about complaints which are nothing to do with the House of Commons. I hope that the Minister will tell us that in future the Department of the Environment will pass on such information to local district councils whenever and however it comes into its possession.

From the information which has come to me this week, it would seem that my constituent's allegation about drums of cyanide being tipped on that quarry was true. Indeed, I understand from the people who have been operating the tip in recent months that they removed drums of cyanide when they took over the tip.

This raises another worrying point. We have a situation where not only on tips in my constituency but on tips all over the country people may have dumped things in the past which we would criticise and condemn and not expect them to dump in future now that we know so much more about the tipping of toxic waste. I am concerned about what may have happened in the past. But we shall never establish the truth. We shall never know what has been tipped at these quarries and on these dumps.

We are very concerned about the past as well as the future. It may well be that toxic wastes have been nut into quarries in my constituency, in Worcestershire, in the West Midlands and in the country as a whole, and that these toxic wastes will percolate through the sandstone and affect water supplies. They could have all sorts of harmful effects on the environment. What will the Government recommend to local authorities about this possible threat?

I agree with the remarks of the hon. Member for King's Lynn (Mr. Brocklebank-Fowler) when he said that we cannot wait for the reform of local government before we take action. I hope that the Minister will say that at least he will recommend that councils do something now and not wait until 1974 for the local government reorganisation.

9.15 p.m.

Mr. John Farr (Harborough)

I rise briefly to support the hon. Member for Rugby (Mr. William Price) and to congratulate him on his initiative in securing a debate on this very topical and important problem.

I was especially interested in what the hon. Member said because his constituency has the good fortune to be adjacent to mine in Leicestershire. In the northeastern part of his constituency he has another tip, which is controlled by the Rugby council, which for some years has been the subject of correspondence between myself and the clerk of Rugby council. For his endeavour on my behalf to secure the abatement of the nuisance caused to my constituents by dumping and uncontrolled tipping on this tip, I pay tribute to the effectiveness of the clerk. He has been very diligent in his correspondence with me and has tried his utmost to secure the alleviation of this nuisance.

Only last week the clerk wrote a lengthy letter to me and gave a final conclusion which I can summarise. He concluded that there was no legislation on the Statute Book which enabled him to control tipping on the tip. He has brought into use a number of byelaws. He even tried to introduce another selection of byelaws by means of a Private Bill, some of which were eliminated by the Department of the Environment because it was thought that they went too far in the controlling of tipping. The clerk was kind enough to send me a sample of the Bill he had sent to the Department and he showed me the returned Bill, which had had two Clauses expunged. Those Clauses would have given some effective control on tipping in the Rugby district.

I wrote to my right hon. Friend about this matter last week—I did not expect a reply yet—and asked him to consider whether we could not put on the Statute Book, and quickly an effective Act to control dumping of this sort. No doubt the answer that my hon. Friend will give tonight will be that with the Common Market legislation approaching, and so on, there simply will not be time for a Bill of this type, however much we all want it. But I believe it is possible, given Government support, that an hon. Member such as the hon. Member for Rugby could, with all-party support, introduce a two-Clause Bill which would at least give local authorities some assistance in controlling this immense—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I am willing to be very tolerant, but the hon. Member for Flarborough (Mr. Farr) must not go too far in referring to legislation.

Mr. Farr

I apologise, Mr. Speaker.

My final point is that chemical waste is generated in all industrial countries, but it is the responsibility of good government to see that effective methods are devised for its disposal.

9.20 p.m.

Mr. Neil Carmichael (Glasgow, Woodside)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mr. William Price) for initiating this debate and providing hon. Members with an opportunity to raise a number of points.

I am not sure whether the Under-Secretary is concerned with the subject that I propose to raise although it is concerned with pollution. Hon. Members who have contributed to the debate so far have spoken from close experience of dumping in pits. I am concerned with a slightly wider subject. I do not expect immediate answers to my questions from the hon. Gentleman. I speak only because the subject of pollution has suddenly become a matter about which the country is deeply conscious. When legislation comes it will have to be far-reaching. Ultimately it will mean a great deal of control in our lives and changes in methods of manufacture, possibly with the complete prohibition of the manufacture of certain commodities.

My interest in disposal arises from dumping not on land but in the sea and in close proximity to our shores. I was in Strasbourg about a year ago attending a special discussion on seabed exploration and pollution. Delegates were greatly impressed by a paper on dumping in the sea which was presented by Professor Piccard. I was staggered by the way that someone of his eminence discussing the sea was able to put over to his audience how diluted quantities of certain modern chemicals could produce extremely toxic substances. Those who were present came quickly to realise how small the sea is in volume, and Professor Piccard terrified many by what he said.

In Glasgow we have two universities. As a result I meet many scientific people. Recently a marine biologist told me about the effect of dumping materials in the Irish Sea. I do not know the firms which are doing it but it is dumping on a fairly large scale. Ships, some of them owned by disposal companies and others on charter, are going out from Liverpool and dumping into holes in the Continental Shelf off the Coast of Lancashire and Cumberland. They find a hole in the Continental Shelf and they dump almost anything in it. No study has been made of the effect. Obviously, I do not blame the Minister. I am concerned with the irresponsibility of it and that there is no control on this kind of dumping.

Marine biologists tell me that fishermen have noticed a marked increase in the number of fish that they have to put back into the sea in the Solway and off the Lancashire coast. Over the centuries, in cycles of three, four and six years, there have been outbreaks of certain fish diseases and, as a result, catches have been reduced. But fishermen now claim that they find themselves throwing back more and more fish, and it happens with different species of fish in the same year in a way that did not occur before.

I hope that, at his leisure, the Minister will look into the dangers of dumping in the sea. I gather that it is very big business. It may not be as immediately dangerous as the dumping of cyanide to which my hon. Friend has referred but obviously it is a matter which ultimately will affect the health of people and, as I say, we do not really know what is happening. I understand that insufficient charts are available to enable people to trace what is happening. Everyone is becoming more aware that we are burning up our resources and disposing of the remains in a way that we do not really understand.

9.25 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Eldon Griffiths)

The fact that an Adjournment debate taking place on a Thursday evening has attracted five hon. Members is an eloquent demonstration of the rising concern in the House and in the country for problems of pollution. I join with others in congratulating the hon. Member for Rugby (Mr. William Price) for rightly drawing our attention to the subject of the disposal of toxic waste.

Recent events, in his constituency and elsewhere, involving allegations that certain kinds of waste have been dumped indiscriminately on tips, into drains or ditches and the reactions to this dumping have only served to underline the need for a new appreciation of—and further action to deal with—the problems of waste disposal. At the outset, I want to emphasise that, far from resenting public clamour, the Government welcome the vigilance of the public and the Press in drawing attention to cases where unlawful and possibly dangerous dumping may be taking place. My Department regards public concern for the protection of the environment as an asset and an ally in its work to combat pollution. Events have brought home to the public that they have a part to play, not only in criticising those who mishandle dangerous wastes or do not react sufficiently rapidly, but also in condemning the litter bug, the dumper of bulky rubbish and anyone else for that matter who creates, condones or connives at dirtying the air, fouling the water or despoiling the land.

In harnessing the public's capacity for vigilance, I believe it is necessary to establish that the results of that vigilance should be made known in the first instance to the appropriate local and river authorities. Local government is best equipped to take immediate steps to bring together all the agencies which may have a part to play in assessing the risk and responding to it. The central government is totally concerned with the well-being of all the people, but Whitehall Departments do not have the resources to become involved in investigating public health risks everywhere and anywhere and should do so only if special expertise is required to supplement local authority resources.

Let me here answer a point raised by the hon. Member and an hon. Friend; namely, the suggestion that at present there are no powers to control the dumping of toxic wastes. I accept at once that the available powers are inadequate, and I shall come to that again towards the end of my speech, but I should remind the House first of all that there are the planning powers which control to some extent at least the location of tips, and, of course, conditions can be placed upon them when there is planning consent. There is the Public Health Act, 1936, which allows local authorities to serve abatement notices wherever a nuisance is found to occur. There is also the Water Act, 1945, which makes it an offence to pollute, or even to take action which would be likely to pollute, springs, wells adits or boreholes. There are in addition the Rivers (Prevention of Pollution) Acts and the Water Resources Acts which in addition bring some powers to bear on the problem. But I repeat that the whole complex of powers is inadequate, and I accept what has been said tonight, that there is a need to take further action to deal with the problem.

Let me deal briefly with some of the various points that have been made by hon. Gentlemen in the debate and then come to the main speech of the hon. Member for Rugby later.

I am happy to be able to give the hon. Member for Glasgow, Woodside (Mr. Carmichael) some immediate hope. Shortly there will be signed a treaty of all the riparian nations interested in the North-East Atlantic and the Atlantic Shelf surrounding this island to control the dumping of toxic materials into the sea. This North-East Atlantic Convention, in which the British Government have taken a leading part, will place limits on the dumping of a whole range of materials, proscribing completely the more dangerous of them, requiring a specific certificate from the home Government in respect of those materials which are not positively poisonous but, nevertheless, must be carefully controlled, and requiring a general consent to be given by the home Government in respect of all other noxious matter. I am glad to be able to tell the hon. Gentleman that this convention, which we hope to sign before very long—of course, the House will eventually have to ratify it—will make an improvement in controlling tipping and dumping of toxic matter in the sea surrounding these islands.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) spoke of his correspondence with my Department and the ideas of the clerk to his authoirity about particular byelaws. I hope he will allow me tonight simply to say that I have seen his letter and that we are giving the most careful consideration to it. I hope I shall be able to meet some of his general points towards the end of my speech.

My hon. Friend the Member for King's Lynn (Mr. Brocklebank-Fowler) spoke, quite rightly, of Jacob's Pit at Docking in Norfolk. I am advised that this site which has given me as well as him some concern, is a disused gravel pit for which planning permissiaon was granted as long ago as 1954 "for the deposit of refuse." It appears to be getting a good deal more than simple refuse. I am advised that the rural district council estimated in the summer that some 30,000 gallons of liquid waste is put on the tip every week. When the council met officials of my Department in November, this figure had risen to no less than 300,000 gallons per week. The council, to its credit, rejected in September last year an application by the owners for an expansion of the tip, and the council has also begun taking copies of the delivery notes brought by drivers delivering waste to the tip to ascertain as far as possible the nature of the substances being dumped there.

Meanwhile, I can tell my hon. Friend that the Great Ouse River Authority is carrying out test bores to a depth of 100 feet. Tests so far have shown a concentration of polluting matter down to 60 feet, but the authority tells me that this is to be expected, and that nothing so far has been found to cause alarm. Nevertheless, my Department is keeping in close touch with the local authority and the river authorities, and I am confident that those bodies, too, are keeping the situation, as indeed they should, under close review. I hope that it may be possible to obtain from the companies whose wastes are disposed of at the tip precise information on the nature of the substances involved. That is the key to the problem.

The hon. Member for Rugby, who is one of the most diligent of constituency Members, has done his constituents a service in bringing this matter before the House. I thank him for his kind and deserved remarks about my Department. I did not agree with his choice of language in saying that the Wolston tip is "the tip of an iceberg of cyanide." I am not sure that it will be proved in the end that the volumes of cyanide to be found at that spot are quite so large as he suggests, but this is for the future.

Mr. William Price

I am talking of an iceberg which covers the whole of the West Midlands, not just on that tip.

Mr. Griffiths

I surmised that the hon. Gentleman would want to correct that point and I thought it wise to give him an opportunity to do so. But I give this reassurance to his constituents and those of the hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Mr. Terry Davis), where further allegations had been made.

The hon. Member for Rugby attended a meeting at the Rugby district council offices on 14th January. He will know that a team of senior officials from my Department, consisting of administrators, a chemist, an engineer and a geologist, inspected the site at Wolston and discussed the problems with the local authorities and the river authorities. The hon. Gentleman himself joined constructively in the discussion.

Some evidence was obtained of the approximate location on the tip of drums said to contain cyanide. Evidence of the precise dates when the dumping took place was not available, but it was suggested that the drums were about 30 feet deep. The tip operators thought that substantial excavation would have been necessary to place anything 30 feet below the present level as recently as 18 months ago, but, despite the lack of precise information, it was decided that the frequency of checks by the Severn River Authority on the purity of surface water and the water in wells in the area should be intensified. More samples have been taken in the vicinity of those areas of the tip where drums were alleged to have been dumped. A full report of the results of these tests will be made as soon as possible.

I will now venture into the fields of geology. The original quarry was excavated in superficial glacial sands and gravels which rest on a solid keuper marl formation, which is between 300 and 400 feet thick, and this underlying marl, which provides a floor under the quarry beneath the entire Wolston area, is regarded as impermeable. There is, therefore, no apparent danger of pollutant seeping into the underlying formations at depth. In any case, there are no public supply pumping stations within three miles of the site, so there is some assurance in this geological formation.

Nevertheless, the overlying glacial sands and gravels are permeable and quarrying and the subsequent infilling of tipped materials is likely to have modified the natural pattern of the sub-surface drainage, so that movement of any toxic matter is a matter of concern. As soon as the report of the Hydrogeological Department of the Institute of Geological Sciences is available, I am told that the Severn River Authority will take such decisions as may be needed on further arrangements for monitoring. I am again seeking to give the hon. Gentleman's constituents an assurance that the authorities which are charged statutorily with looking after this problem are doing their duty and are on top of the problem.

The nature of the cyanide waste in drums alleged to have been deposited at Wolston is, frankly, not known. Until we find the drums we will not know what is in them. Indeed, we shall not know for certain if they are there unless we find them.

However, to venture from geology into chemistry—I make no apology for doing this; the House must get used to the fact that pollution is a technical subject requiring technical exposition—I will comment on cyanide as a problem.

Cyanide is, of course, a highly emotive word and the public are rightly worried about it. I am advised that cyanide is as much a necessity to our modern way of life as are, say, foam rubber and nylon. The real problem is not of outlawing cyanide—it is far too useful for that—but of making sure that when it comes to be disposed of, it is either sufficiently diluted or, to put it in layman's language, is sufficiently de-natured as not to cause a danger to public health when it is eventually got rid of.

I am advised that the cyanide wastes at Wolston, if they are finally discovered to be in the tip, are most probably what is known as complex cyanide. This is not as toxic as ordinary cyanide. Moreover, it is known that in the bacteriological purification processes of sewage purification, oxidation of cyanide occurs and this reduces or even eliminates the toxicity in the cyanide. It is to be expected that a similar process may occur on industrial tips. I am also advised that at most industrial tips cyanides are complexed; that is, they are chemically made into relatively less toxic substances and are thereafter precipitated as insoluble compounds.

All this means that a refuse tip curiously has some capacity itself for detoxifying and, therefore, treating the cyanide wastes that are placed on it. In controlled quantities and under controlled conditions, disposal to land need not be regarded as an unsuitable method of getting rid of waste.

I believe, however, that there is a need for more research into the behaviour of certain wastes when they are disposed of to land and that a great deal more needs to be known about the techniques of managing tips so as to use them as detoxifying entities.

I will deal briefly with the Shirley Quarry, to which reference has been made. I hope the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not venture into chapter and verse on the correspondence between his constituents and my Department, save to say that I accept at once that Mr. Jones's letters could have been more courteously dealt with. In so far as there was any oversight on the part of my Department, I am perfectly willing to say now that we owe Mr. Jones an apology and I gladly offer it to him through his Member of Parliament.

I should at the same time point out that a letter of apology was sent to Mr. Jones as long ago as 12th July. One of the difficulties in this whole matter is that the tip in question is the subject of general planning considerations and I understand that there is to be a local public inquiry, so that I am inhibited from saying more on the subject.

Mr. Terry Davis

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that handsome apology, which I will communicate to my constituent. I understand there was a reply to the letter of 12th July, and I do not think that that was dealt with. The complaint about tipping was separate from the complaint about alleged unauthorised use of the quarry for a haulage business, which is the subject of a planning appeal. There was a series of complaints, and the tipping complaint was separate.

Mr. Griffiths

I note what the hon. Gentleman says and perhaps he will allow me now to pass on to Barnt Green, for which he also has some representational responsibility. On 22nd January four senior officials of my Department visited Bromsgrove to inspect sites in the area and have talks with the local authorities. May I say in passing that, what with these officials going to Bromsgrove and to Rugby, and what with swamping Cornwall with chemists and engineers, we at the Department find it difficult some times to get highly technical advice here in Whitehall. This demonstrates the dangers of spreading our resources too thinly if we are asked to react to every single difficulty.

In any event, last Saturday these four senior officials visited Bromsgrove, inspected the sites and had long discussions with the local authorities. The hon. Gentleman was present. At the Barnt Green site, evidence was obtained from a driver that he had dumped two 1,500 gallon tanker loads of a material which he had been told contained cyanide. Because the layout of the tip had changed considerably since the event—probably more than a year ago—the driver had some difficulty, quite understandably, in specifying the precise location of the waste.

My Department has made a good deal of inquiry into this and our conclusions are that it was sludge from a neutralisation-cum-settling tank or from a plating bath that was disposed of to the Barnt Green tip. It was probably put into or near a standing pool of water. In the waste before dumping and in the standing pool of water there almost certainly, I am advised, were sufficient heavy metals to precipitate the cyanide as insoluble complex cyanide, which, as I have explained, is, relatively speaking, safe. I am advised that there is almost certainly no cyanide in the water of the aquifer under that tip.

Nevertheless, in view of the relationship of the site to water sources, it was decided that a trial borehole should be sunk on the tip site to enable a programme of sampling to be undertaken. I understand that the quality of the groundwater pumped from Burcot is being continuously monitored and, for the benefit of the hon. Gentleman's constituents, I should remind the House that the East Worcestershire Water Company has stated that no contamination has been detected.

I come now to Shut Mill, Romsley, about which there is also concern in the Midlands. The same team of senior officials of the Department visited the site of Shut Mill, known as Sling Common, where separate allegations have been made about the dumping of cyanide wastes. I understand that the local authority was hoping to get clearer evidence today from the person making the allegations as to when the tipping took place, where precisely on the tip it happened and also an indication of where the waste material in the first instance came from. It is only in this way—by pinpointing the problem precisely—that any opinion can be formed as to the likely effects of the dumping.

I am advised in this case that, due to the thickness of the unsaturated zone beneath the tip site, the risk of extensive pollution to the Bunter aquifer is very slight. Samples taken yesterday by the local public health inspector revealed small traces of cyanide but he has informed my Department that the quantities are so small that there is no cause for concern. On the figure the public health inspector has given us—0.05 milli-grammes per litre—I think that we would agree with his view. The quality of the nearby streams will be kept under close observation. I should add, merely for the interest of the House, that when visiting the site officials of my Department noted a drum marked "cyanide" and recovered it but on inspection the drum, which was not easily reached, was found to have had one end removed and it contained cardboard boxes.

Perhaps I can return now to the generality of the debate and the suggestions that have been rightly made for further action. I am inhibited by the proper convention of the House that calls for legislation are not normally the subject of Adjournment debates.

To summarise, the Government take the problem of toxic waste disposal with the utmost seriousness. We are determined to prevent careless and uncontrolled tipping from endangering water supplies and hazarding public health. Already there is a network of controls and codes of practice which, if they were scrupulously observed and enforced, would provide most of the necessary safeguards. My right hon. Friend accepts, however, that the present arrangements are not good enough. There are gaps which need to be filled and more needs to be done. My Department is therefore concerting a series of measures, some of them new, some of them extensions of our previous tried practice, which together will go far towards overcoming this worrying problem.

Specifically we are acting, or intend to act, along the following main lines. First, responsibility. In the Local Government Bill we have proposed that the main responsibility for local authority refuse disposal services should be allocated to the new county councils. It is on these new authorities, with their vastly greater resources of money and technical manpower, that we intend to place additional statutory responsibilities for authorising the disposal of industrial waste. In discharging these responsibilities they will be required to have regard to the amount and nature of the waste and the suitability of the site to receive it.

This will go some way towards improving the situation but it will require the recruitment of suitable staff, not only for administration but also staff with the technical expertise to make sensible judgments about the composition of the wastes and the best and safest method of disposing of them. So the first step is to place responsibility on the new county authorities.

Second, we have already publicised in circular 26/71 detailed advice on the operation of tips receiving toxic wastes. The Confederation of British Industry, the National Association of Waste Disposal Contractors and, of course, the local authorities have been made fully aware of these codes of practice; indeed, they were associated in one way or another in their preparation. The N.A.W.D.C. and the Institution of Chemical Engineers are now working on a further code of conduct for adoption by industries producing wastes, contractors moving them and the tip operators, whether these are private or public. My Department is joining forces with them in their work. I have also asked the N.A.W.D.C. to scrutinise the tipping and checking procedures in use by its members in the light of the allegations which have been made. I have no doubt that the development of a strong national trade association can lead to better machinery whereby the trade itself can respond to criticism and, where appropriate, can take the necessary action against its own defaulting members.

Third, a national review. My hon. Friend the Member for King's Lynn advocated precisely that. As suggested by my right hon. Friend, local authorities all over the country are being asked to re-examine all the tips in their areas. River authorities and industry have been associated with the local authorities and my Department in preparing the very detailed questionnaires which will be needed for this very detailed and comprehensive review. The review, which I hope will begin in the early spring, will provide all local authorities with the opportunity to examine tipping operations in every nook and cranny of the country. It will also enable the Institute of Geological Sciences and river authorities to make an assessment as to the suitability of the sites for waste disposal from the point of view of safeguarding water supplies.

Fourth, early warning systems. With the increasing sophistication and complexity of modern industry, more and more new products—and with them new types of wastes—are being created and they need to be safely got rid of. A comprehensive early warning system providing advance notice of the introduction of new chemicals into industry is now being considered by my Department in conjunction with the C.B.I. This is no easy matter but I am hoping to make speedy progress.

Fifth, transport. Recent incidents in Cornwall and in Ipswich have revealed the need for more effective controls and better notification procedures, covering the carriage of chemicals, including toxic wastes, whether at sea or on the land. In both these fields, we are in close touch with other Departments of Government and, as appropriate, with domestic industry and, in the case of the sea, overseas countries with a view to improving what my right hon. Friend and I accept is an unsatisfactory position.

Finally, there is the question of statutory powers. I am inhibited from discussing legislation. Whilst all the measures to which I have referred will help in the end and before long, we shall need some additional statutory powers, perhaps interim ones, pending the comprehensive Bill which my right hon. Friend has said he intends to introduce to cover the whole range of pollution.

Mr. John E. B. Hill (Norfolk, South)

I understand that there is to be a review of the procedure whereby firms dump toxic wastes on authorised tips. In his review, will my hon. Friend consider the possible danger of deflecting some tipping on to private land? Will he include in the review consideration of the possible dangers, and the procedures and sanctions for tipping builders' waste or toxic materials on private land?

Mr. Griffiths

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning that point. I assure him that the review will cover all tips, both on private land and in public places within the jurisdiction of the local authority. I see his point about the danger of deflection, and I will certainly bear it in mind in the preparation of the questionnaire which my Department is now working on.

My right hon. Friend accepts the need for further powers, and he is urgently considering ways and means of bringing proposals before the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute to Ten o'clock.