§ Question again proposed.
It is, therefore, unnecessary for me to spend more time in dealing with the merits of controlling either drins or mercury. We all agree that these are dangerous substances that need to be controlled, although the danger in this country is extremely limited.
383 My attention was first drawn to the question of the parallel approach by my guardian angels in the Department of the Environment when I had ministerial responsibility and by representations from the Confederation of British Industry as long ago as 1975. The CBI wrote to my late colleague Anthony Crosland, who was Secretary of State at that time, and later made representations to my right hon. Friend the Member for Stepney and Poplar (Mr. Shore) when he was Secretary of State for the Environment.
The CBI's first letter referred to fixed emission standards and said that in 1975 that was the sole procedure on which the Commission relied. It was an untried and hypothetical system. It wasted resources, finance and material by requiring the installation and operation of artificial treatment plants in cases where it was not appropriate. It was also said that the procedure had no more relevance to the distortion of trading arrangements between member States than had other aspects of industrial production costs. I agree with those three points.
I would say one word about the question of the harmonisation of trade and competition. When we started out in 1975 we were in a minority and had to try to persuade our colleagues to agree with us. We were able to get a parallel approach only by saying that in no circumstances would we approve the directive unless a parallel approach was written into it. That attitude eventually gained general acceptance, and I hope that the Government will continue along those lines.
In those days I was constantly told that we must harmonise trading arrangements. I pointed out that the EEC was not trying to harmonise trading arrangements but trying to harmonise the facts of geography, and that is a very different matter. There are two seas in the Continent of Europe, the North Sea and the Mediterranean, which geographically behave differently. We used to explain to ministerial colleagues in the EEC that if titanium dioxide was put into the Mediterranean it accumulated and had a deleterious effect on the aquatic environment, whereas if it was put into the North Sea the action of the sea upon the titanium dioxide was such that immediately the problem was reduced. 384 Therefore, in the name of harmonisation, of trade, it was ludicrous to expect British manufacturers to accept such standards and considerable financial investment to deal with a non-problem as it affected the North Sea. I readily agree that the problem as it affected the Mediterranean Sea had to be dealt with.
I used to argue that if we were to start harmonising all the terms of trade, we should consider that geographically we are a bit out on a limb compared with the the rest of Europe. For example, our transportation costs are more considerable than those in other European countries. If this is what is meant by harmonisation and fair competition, the Community ought to consider how it can provide an input for British industry to allow it to trade on fair terms when one considers the transportation difference. That is the sort of argument we used to have and I have no doubt that the two Ministers who are present have to meet similar arguments today. However, we managed to obtain this parallel approach and this agreement. It was a hard-won victory, but at least we all came away thinking that it actually meant something.
That takes me on to my second point: do the directives faithfully carry out the intention of Ministers as agreed in 1975–1976? The directive does no such thing because it totally departs from that agreement—certainly the agreement for which I was responsible when I was negotiating on behalf of the Labour Government.
§ Mr. Dalyell
From his experience of negotiations, does my right hon. Friend think that it is fair to say that much of this was geared to the rather special problems of the Rhine and its tributaries as opposed to fast-flowing rivers? The analogy my right hon. Friend used as between the North Sea and the Mediterranean could be applied as between the Rhine and British rivers.
There is some truth in what my hon. Friend says. I do not think that it necessarily applies to these two substances, but it is true of other substances that we considered. If a country is on the receiving end of the Rhine, as some of the member States are, one can have a lot of sympathy for it because it receives half the pollution of Europe as the river reaches the sea. One has considerable sympathy for such countries. 385 At any rate, I did when I used to attend the meetings.
As the Minister has rightly told us, we are for the first time establishing the precedents that will govern the dual system. Therefore, it is essential that the House should get it right. I can pick out about four or five discrepancies, particularly those that were drawn to my attention by the National Water Council, about the disparate effect between sea water and drinking water in one instance and fish life in another. As I understand it, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food monitors regularly—I hope the Minister can assure us on this—the fish landed here that has been caught in such waters, and nothing has been found to suggest that there is cause for concern.
The time limit is an absolute giveaway. I know that the Commission did not like this parallel approach and fought it tooth and nail, month after month. We had to keep returning to Brussels to fight this battle. That the Commission never really accepted the result achieved by Ministers is to be found in the differential time limits. I will not repeat them because the Minister has already given them to us.
If we adopt these emission standards so that pollution is measured at the moment it is discharged, we can have until 1989 to put our house in order. But if we adopt our system of environmental standards the time limit is 1983. That seems an absolutely monstrous diversion of approach that none of us should support for one moment. I am sad to make these remarks because I am a strong supporter of the European Community.
That brings me to the third point that I want to make. Those of us who support the European ideal cannot believe that it is being advanced by the sort of chicanery that is going on in Brussels. The Commission is undermining its own credibility and that of the EEC by reaching a decision with one set of Ministers and, after an election and another set 386 of Ministers, going back to square one and totally disregarding the previous decision. It is not credible.
The National Water Council wrote to me recently and asked whether it was appropriate for decisions of this sort to be made by the Commission behind closed doors and without adequate consultation or accountability. It raises a matter of considerable principle. I do not doubt that the Ministers knew what they were doing in 1976; they knew how the agreement would be put into effect and how it would be carried along by Ministers representing other countries. Therefore, how can the Commission totally depart from that agreement?
This is a matter of principle and I hope that our Ministers will follow it up within the EEC. It is a weakness of the Common Market system that the Commission can initiate directives and legislation of this sort but that the system of rotating chairmanship means that no chairman presides for a sufficient period. During my period in office, we held the chairmanship for a while and we were beginning to get to grips with the matter when the chairmanship passed to another nation. The matter raises important constitutional questions. The behaviour of the Commission causes questions to be asked at the Dispatch Box tonight.
We recognise the dangers of list 1 substances. We also recognise the facts of geography. This country more than any other must insist that the tests applied to these substances are related to the problems of British industry and the geography of the British Isles. That is of vital importance.
I take it from the Minister's remarks that he has given the assurance that the Government intend to stand firm and that they will use the veto if necessary—as we were prepared to use it. I fully support that stand on behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends, and I assure the Minister that when he fights the battle in Brussels he will speak for the whole House.
§ Mr. Hugh Dykes (Harrow, East)
The House has benefited from two excellent presentations of what my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has called a bipartisan case on these directives.
We are grateful to the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Howell) for giving the immediate historical background to the documents. Yet again, that shows that the timetable of these documents both in Brussels and here—because of the slippage in our scrutiny procedure timetable and the local timetable of the House of Commons—has created a muddle on these papers. The House has benefited directly from the clear explanations of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary and the right hon. Member for Small Heath.
We were also extremely impressed by the reiteration of the right hon. Gentleman's belief in the fundamentals of the European ideal. That is always the greater background to these documents. That point must be reiterated quite frequently these days as the atmosphere has become considerably soured in the United Kingdom as regards membership of the Community. I pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman. Such an utterance demands a considerable amount of courage in the Labour Party. It is rare to hear that type of remark. It lent respectability to his later words concerning his anxieties and worries about the documents.
I agree with the remarks of my hon. Friend the Minister concerning the Government's misgivings about certain aspects of the directives. I shall intervene only briefly in order to add one or two slightly general but relevant points. The question of scrutiny procedure must be regularly and monotonously raised. These documents were available in their revised form last November. A debate could have been held at an earlier date. Perhaps I have misunderstood the timing of various meetings in Brussels, but it is a pity that we have been unable to consider the documents before mid-February. An earlier debate would have given the Government the authority to state that there are objections and misgivings about various aspects.
I particularly agree about the need for differential treatment. Pollution in the 388 middle of Western Europe is severe and intense. It is very different from the pollution that we encounter. We have had higher standards of control, although that may change in the future as the technology of other member States improves as regards water pollution control.
I wish to express an anxiety that has already been implied regarding the procedures on framework directives. These documents do not emanate directly from a specific article in the treaty. They emanate from a Council decision to issue a directive. That decision was not taken under the action programme for the environment that was drawn up by the Commission four years ago. It was a separate decision concerning water pollution. The advantage of a framework directive is that the Commission can construct fairly wide terms, conditions and clauses in a particular document. That will allow a reasonably pragmatic type of harmonisation in difficult technical circumstances. That applies particularly in circumstances where one does not want rigid or centralised criteria being applied to member States that have different backgrounds and technologies.
However, it also gives the Commission too much temptation—as we have already seen—to deal elaborately with many areas. Perhaps it should not deal with those areas at all. However, that is a major question and constitutional changes might be considered in future. If the Commission deals with those issues, it should do so in the most limited and brief way. It should be done by domestic legislation and it should allow member States to get on with their work.
Perhaps the Minister will correct me, but I think that we can deal with these problems under our domestic legislation. Like the right hon. Member for Small Heath, I share an enthusiasm for the original ideas and fundamental arguments behind our membership of the Community. But we should advise the Commission not to attempt to do everything. It should resist that temptation. The Commission has a great amount of discretionary authority. It can choose whether to get involved in an issue. However, if that issue does not emanate from a specific written clause in the treaty or any of the addtions to the treaty, the Commission should resist the temptation.
389 All too often the temptation is for highly paid Commission officials, with their discretionary authority, and with the enthusiasm automatically generated by the framework directive procedure, particularly in environmental matters, to sit down and draw up an elaborate document. They will then more or less harry the Council of, for instance, water Ministers until they produce to the Commission's satisfaction an agreed document that Ministers from different countries may object to or worry about later, perhaps when it is too late—I believe that there have also been objections from other member States.
The Community is beset with severe problems, mainly economic and social. It would be better if the Commission was more selective in the areas in which it need not be too ambitious or elaborate.
There is a third important reason, which the House should remember and constantly recall, as should other institutions in the Community. The members of the Scrutiny Committee are worried about the accumulation of items for debate. I believe that the Chairman would agree. In the past week or two the situation has been eased marginally by some items being set down for debate. The delay until that point was all too uncomfortable for the Committee and the House.
In Strasbourg, which may now be the single seat of the European Parliament, there is also a most disconcerting and overwhelming accumulation of separate items coming from the Commission, through the Council of Ministers, to the Parliament for consultation and opinion and a more powerful form of decision making in respect of certain financial documents now being re-presented for discussion. The list of items piling up is enormous. I believe that most representatives of member States will admit that the European Parliament is incapable of dealing with those documents without changing internal procedures. That is a terrible situation for that body unwittingly to find itself in for reasons beyond its control.
That is a wider perspective, but it also applies to these documents and the original thoughts in the Commission that produced them. There is value in what is laid down in the directives. It can be 390 worked on and improved. However, it is a further example of where the Commission could possibly be more usefully employed on another matter. I believe that that was the prevailing inference in the remarks of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary and the right hon. Member for Small Heath.
§ Mr. Tam Dalyell (West Lothian)
Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Howell), I am an unreconstructed and unapologetic pro-Marketeer. Having said that, I should like to deal with the remarks of the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes). He said that it was a pity that all these items were piling up in the Parliament in Strasbourg. Some of us think that that is the fault of that Parliament. From the accounts of the debates in the press, it appears that that Parliament is spending an inordinate amount of time on subjects that should not be its first concern.
The European Parliament should not take a view on everything from Afghanistan to Central America. One can see how it is tempted to become involved in many issues. We all have individual opinions. However, the amount of time spent in Strasbourg dealing with subjects which are of global significance but which, nevertheless, remain the business of national Parliaments is Strasbourg's own fault. That Parliament must take responsibility for gumming up and snarling up matters that it should be concerned with.
I strongly support my right hon. Friend's view that, as with previous directives that we have discussed, part of the problem is musical chairs. As a former member of that Parliament's budget committee, I recall that we had endlessly to nag Ministers who came before us on whether it was sensible to have a six-month period. Count Lambsdorff was extremely scathing about the system.
It is not the fault of the Commission but the responsibility of national Governments. For the one hundred and nineteenth time I ask the British Government, for goodness sake, to accept that, when it comes to these relatively technical Ministries, the game of musical chairs with chairmen is a ludicrous procedure. It takes three or four months to settle in. 391 And what is he doing? Like every other Minister, he is handing over to the next occupant and the next incumbent. That is bad enough with nine members of the Community. If the Community is to be enlarged to 12 or 13 members, Community institutions must be examined.
We now come to the general pursuit of the directives. It is legitimate to ask Ministers to pass on to the Lord Privy Seal or to the Prime Minister, or whoever handles such matters, the fact that certain questions should be asked about the various candidates for the presidency of the Commission. Do the Presidents of the Commission believe that it is the business of the Community to be regurgitating all sorts of directives? I agree with the hon. Member for Harrow, East on that point. My experience is that two-thirds of the higher civil servants in the Berlaymont work extremely hard, and they are overworked. Another six, or possibly more, work averagely hard. There are comparatively few who have less to do. A small number are looking around for jobs that the Community might be doing, and it is they who inflict the number of superfluous directives upon us. This directive is perhaps one.
§ Mr. Dalyell
I agree. But I think that the various candidates Gaston Thorn, Commissioner Gundelach or whoever—should be asked at an early stage, before the British Government come to any decision, what is their philosophy on directives. What kind of directives should be issued? The number of directives issued is ridiculous.
The Minister has said that it is absurd to cater for the Mediterranean and the North Sea in the same directive, and for fast-flowing rivers such as the Spey and slow-moving rivers such as the Rhine and the Po. The conditions are completely different. What, therefore, is the purpose of a blanket directive?
There is a good deal of reference in documents to ground water. I gather that 392 the ground water conditions are wholly different in the United Kingdom from those in Italy and Sicily. What is right for Sicily and southern Italy and parts of France in relation to ground water is completely inappropriate for my area or the area represented by the hon. Member for Aberdeenshire, West (Mr. Fairgrieve).
§ Mr. Tom Ellis (Wrexham)
My hon. Friend talks about the absurdity of the same sort of legislation covering all types of river, whether fast flowing or slow flowing. Does he agree that our indigenous legislation suffers from precisely that? The standards for the fast-flowing Dee in my constituency are the same as those for the slow-flowing lower reaches of the Thames.
§ Mr. Dalyell
There is something in that.
What causes these directives? It is the sort of television programme such as that about Minamata Bay. This is a dramatic affair that has gone completely wrong. Now everyone says that a Minamata Bay must be stopped in Europe. There are only three or four places in Europe where this kind of situation has arisen. It is an instant reaction—I will not say panic reaction—to dramatic events somewhere in the world to draw blanket conclusions. These conclusions can often be exceedingly expensive.
In his opening speech, the Minister referred to the incurring of quite substantial costs. If we are to change the whole criteria of distinction by use, we have to face substantial costs. I wonder what figures the Government have in mind. One's guess is that enormous sums are involved if anything meaningful is to be done.
A raging row is taking place about the saving of small sums of money by closing down the effluent plant at Coldstream. I expect that the effluent plant at Coldstream is written on the heart of the Under-Secretary responsible for health matters in Scotland. This fairly new plant is to be closed down for the sake of some tens of thousands of pounds. According to argument, the Tweed will be polluted or will come near to being polluted.
The contrast between the trivial sums that may be saved by risking—I put it no higher—putting sewage into the Tweed 393 and the enormous sums that would be involved in outlay if this kind of directive came into operation should be argued in Brussels.
Mr. Michael Crylls (Surrey, North-West)
I should like to pursue the reference by the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) to the Minamata Bay drama and horror in Japan. As a result of that case, there was a panic about mercury in many parts of the world. I recall reading a learned paper in Canada. Samples of sea water were taken from around the Canadian shore to discover the mercury level. The level of mercury was compared with that revealed by tests on prehistoric bones in Canadian museums. It was a surprise, considering the level of industry in Canada, to discover that the level of mercury in the prehistoric bones was exactly that found in the sea.
The hon. Member for West Lothian is right to draw the attention of the House to the ease with which panic might occur. That is not to say, of course, that action should not be taken to prevent a similar horror occurring again.
I wish to support the approach that the Government—like the previous Government—have taken. It is a sensible and distinctive approach. As the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Howell) remarked, some people in Brussels might have a geography lesson. The geography of Britain is distinguished from the rest of Europe. We are surrounded, for most of the year, by raging seas.
The EEC approach is, perhaps, not so much a sledgehammer to crack a nut but the wrong tool for the job. I was struck that the right hon. Gentleman had been heartened, encouraged and reinforced by the bipartisan approach in the House of Commons over this practical matter. I am sure that it is helpful to the present Ministers, when they go to Brussels, to be able to speak with one voice. We cannot too often point out that our seas and our rivers are different from those of Europe. Our geography is different. It is, therefore, sensible to look at the matter in a different way.
One has only to gaze at the sluggish, dirty and polluted Rhine and compare 394 it with the sea outside the city of Newcastle. A lot of effluent can be put in the sea and it will be washed away in a short time. That could not happen in the Rhine.
There is a danger that the directive applies only to a small sector of British industry. If we are not careful and firm as a Government and House it may prove to be the thin edge of the wedge. There may be other silly directives that could damage British interests. It cannot be said too often that the environmental quality directive is environmentally sound and, above all, a cost-effective approach, as was mentioned by the hon. Member for West Lothian. It is most important. It is pragmatic rather than theoretical.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes) said, it is sometimes apparent that those in Brussels run around thinking about theories rather than practices. Parliaments and assemblies of elected representatives should consider the practical approach, in terms of how it would effect our constituents, their jobs, and the manner in which they work. It is not sensible to follow the EEC on this matter.
The hon. Member for West Lothian was right to say that it will be a crazy time. We should say loud and clear that to impose extra and unnecessary costs on British industry at a time when we are finding it difficult to compete would be the wrong approach. Britain is in a difficult geographical position. We have to send our goods overseas to European markets. It would be intolerable to be forced to accept extra capital and revenue costs in industry at this time of all times.
We should consider each effluent discharge in the light of local circumstances and of the river into which the effluent will be discharged—I quoted earlier the case of the Rhine and the waters outside Newcastle—and decide what sort of effluent can be discharged into those rivers or waters.
We should remind our European friends that in Britain extensive use is made of scientific and technical knowledge, and the financial implications are carefully considered. Surely that is a better and more flexible approach than having a set limit, as has been proposed in Europe. The consultations that take place between the water authorities and 395 the industries as to what effluent should be allowed into a river or into part of the British seas form a more sensible and flexible approach.
I arrived a few minutes late and did not hear the first part of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary's speech. I do not think that he mentioned the European Parliament. The directive is to be sent to it, and I hope that hon. Members will influence those whom they know in the European Parliament to add a sensible and practical approach to the directive. The European Parliament could return the directive to Brussels and give it a flea in its ear, and say that it is not good enough for Britain. I hope that our European colleagues will take an active interest in the matter.
I commend my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary's speech, and the strength of the Government's stand. I am pleased that it is a bipartisan approach. A sensible and pragmatic approach from Britain should be the one that wins the day for British interests. I am an enthusiast for Europe—like other hon. Members who have spoken in the debate—and because of that I do not like seeing the EEC fall fiat on its face by putting forward a rather silly and inflexible directive.
I support the Government enthusiastically on the matter. I hope that it will be helpful to them, when they return to Brussels for further negotiations, to know that they have the House behind them. That knowledge will strengthen them in their resolve to pursue a practical and sensible approach to this potentially damaging problem.
§ Mr. Tom Ellis (Wrexham)
I agree with a great deal of what has been said by hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber. I shall not seek substantially to alter or to disagree with the contributions that have been made. However, I am rather concerned about what may be described as a euphoric celebration of British practicality and common sense. I shall express a brief note of caution. We are constantly saying how wise and sensible we are and how silly are the bureaucrats on the Continent. We claim that there is a great difference between us and them.
396 I accept that there are differences know that our waters flow faster—that is something to do with gravity, or possibly the phases of the moon. Over the past 20 years there has been considerable controversy in my area about the discharge of raw effluent into the seas around North Wales. Even by British standards, that is fairly stormy water. The Irish Sea is quite stormy. We have periodically had to alter our arrangements. We are being slightly overenthusiastic in our praise for the British method.
We have the parallel arrangement, and I welcome it. We are different. The Mediterranean is a closed sea and the North Sea is not. We can get financial benefits from it. I am the last person to decry ally financial or commercial benefits that may accrue to British industry from our good fortune. It is only right that we should derive that benefit. However, we should consider the principles that are involved even if the practical politics behind the principles have not emerged clearly before us.
§ Mr. Denis Howell
When I was negotiating these matters in Brussels I was always struck by how far advanced we are in Britain in environmental legislation and practice compared with our European partners. That applies especially to the cleaning of our rivers. We have done so spectacularly well that in a misguided moment I once offered to catch a salmon from the Terrace of the House by 1980. I am glad that no one has called on me to do it. We have made spectacular progress with clean air legislation. The same applies to noise pollution. Our partners are far behind us in general environmental legislation. I think that, on reflection, my hon. Friend will accept that in this respect we have something to teach our European partners.
§ Mr. Ellis
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for reminding me and the House of how far ahead we are. I am pleased to acknowledge that fact. I am anxious that we remain equally far ahead over the years to come and that we do not rest on our laurels. We should not allow those who are a long way behind to catch us up. That would be a great mistake. As I take that point of view, it is possible that I am more critical than my right hon. Friend.
397 If we leave aside commerce and deal merely with what is called bio-accumulable pollution—that is a form of pollution different from organic pollution whereby an effluent that is toxic can over a period become increasingly more of an irritant and more strongly present in whatever body, whether a mollusc or a fish—it is surely better to limit the toxic content of the effluent to a certain level than to wait to see what happens when an effluent is affecting the whole environment in a large stretch of water. It seems that the Community approach is the right one in those circumstances.
I accept that often in politics what is right in theory and principle is not necessarily the best practical political course to take. I am happy that my right hon. Friend managed to arrive at the parallel approach. We must use it to our advantage as much as we can in future. At the same time, we must never forget that a poison such as mercury is cumulative in its effect. It may be that there are bones in Canada that go back to prehistoric times that have the same amount of mercury in them as bones in a river in Britain. However, in a highly industrialised country that has industries that consistently discharge into rivers toxic effluents that are bio-accumulable, the rivers will become polluted over a period. My right hon. Friend has admitted that he cannot catch a salmon from the terrace of the House of Commons. That is a fact and from that fact alone it seems that, no matter how far ahead we are of our friends on the Continent, we should not be complacent.
It has been said that the actions of the Commission are undermining the credibility of the Community. We do of course have enthusiastic bureaucrats just as we have enthusiastic politicians but it seems to me to be far-fetched to suggest that the Commission can use the 1976 framework directive for some malevolent and perverse purpose. am not a lawyer and I am not an authority on the 1976 framework directive, but a directive is a directive and one assumes that it has to be applied strictly in a legalistic sense to achieve its objectives, no more no less.
If the Commission is getting away with something it should not be allowed to do so. It is not necessarily a question of the Commission doing something behind closed doors. I am one of the first to criticise the legislative processes of the 398 Community and I have said all along that the system in the Community for passing legislation produces legislation by ministerial fiat.
That is one of the reasons I have been so anxious to see the European Parliament develop in authority and influence. That is the one institution that can introduce democratic accountability into the legislative process in the Community. We cannot do it here. If we were to attempt to do it, eight other legislatures would have to try as well. The obvious place to do it is in the European Parliament. We should be bending our energies here to devising changes in the Community constitution so that the European Parliament really does increasingly gain in power and influence.
The point made about the vast volume of legislation facing the European Parliament is valid. The same would apply to our Parliament if we were to scrutinise each and every piece of legislation passed here. I do not think that in principle there is anything much wrong with the present position. In relation to much of the technical work we are discussing the place to introduce democratic scrutiny is the European Parliament.
§ Mr. Fox
By leave of the House I shall quickly try to answer a few of the points that have been made.
It has been a useful debate and I assure the House that I have taken note of the various points made by hon. Members. I am particularly grateful to the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Howell). His clear recollection of the agreement that he made as a Minister in 1975 on the parent directive certainly accords with the position of the Government. I assure him that we welcome what he has said, that we can certainly continue to negotiate for the whole House and that we have every intention of standing firm on the matters on which we all so obviously agree.
I also reassure the right hon. Gentleman that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food regularly monitors the water he talked about. I am told that in Liverpool Bay there are fish with the highest content of mercury, Even so, there is no danger to anyone. But, though we accept that position, we are looking to improve it.
399 The hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) asked whether metal mercury was a big problem. The answer is that it is no real problem in the United Kingdom in so far as discharges are concerned. My information is that that is of no consequence. The danger, of course, is from mercury found in fish, which is probably what the hon. Gentleman is thinking about. That is why the United Kingdom is proposing standards that are adequate to protect the health of people who eat fish in considerable quantities.
The hon. Gentleman is probably being misled with regard to groundwater. That was mentioned in the parent directive, but the two directives that we are discussing tonight are not concerned with that subject, as the hon. Gentleman well knows. That is a separate and agreed directive, and tonight would not be the occasion to go into that any further.
I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman has had to remind the House on 119 occasions that many of these directives are too technical for words. I take note of many of the sensible things that he has said. It is hard to believe that a United Kingdom representative has been the president of an important committee for six months, but I had better be careful about what I say in that respect. We share the hon. Gentleman's concern, and we are very mindful of the financial implications of all these directives. It is true to say that this consideration is very high on our list when we look at any of them.
That brings me to my hon. Friend and Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes).
§ Mr. Dalyell
It is not just a question of having a president for six months, because as we all know, Minsters may change. However, in Europe it is much more serious than that, because not only are there revolving Ministers, there are also revolving groups of civil servants around those Ministers. There is not the permanent Civil Service which makes things tolerable in a nation State.
§ Mr. Fox
The hon. Gentleman is right. We had an instance tonight whereby because of our system of continuity, the civil servants dealing with the matter have been able to keep a tight control of it, 400 even though there has been a change of Government. It was suggested that there were instances of chicanery. That may be too strong a word, but we have the continuity to ensure that when negotiations start there are people to follow them through to the end. I accept what the hon. Gentleman says.
We well understand the close involvement in Europe of my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East, and his service in the European Parliament as well as on the Scrutiny Committee. He suggested that the Commission should not try to do everything, which would seem to be a fair summary. Despite what he has said, negotiations at this stage are only in draft form. That is why tonight's debate is so important. My hon. Friend asked whether domestic legislation already in existence would deal with certain matters. The answer is "Yes", and I can assure him that nothing extra will be needed.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey, North-West (Mr. Grylls) for his support. He was right to point out that in these matters the extra costs on industry at present represent a most important factor which the Government will not lose sight of. I reassure him also that these directives are only in draft form. It is right that tonight we should make our views known as forcibly as possible.
To the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East—
§ Mr. Fox
I beg the hon. Gentleman's pardon. I apologise. My copy of "Dod's" is obviously out of date. I was about to talk about effluent discharges from North Wales to the sea. It would be difficult to see that coming from north-east Derbyshire. I understand the concern of the hon. Member for Wrexham (Mr. Ellis). We are not complacent about the matter. However, although we may not yet be perfect, the point is that we think that our approach is the most pragmatic and cost-effective way of achieving the improvements that we all seek.
§ Mr. Dalyell
I asked specifically about any estimate of costs. That may be a difficult question, but all these things ought to have some kind of a rough price tag. No one in his right mind would try to tie down a Government Minister to an exact sum, because that would be absurd 401 But we ought to have some vague idea of the sums involved.
§ Mr. Fox
The hon. Gentleman is right, in that I have no figures that I can give to him. However, if he will bear with me I shall write to him at the earliest possible opportunity.
I think that right hon. and hon. Members will be pleased to notice that alongside me for most of the debate has been my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and Environmental Services, who is more involved than I am, in that he attends the Commission regularly. That fact that he has been present to listen to most of the debate shows that we consider this to be a most important matter. I ask the House to support me.
§ Question put and agreed to.
That this House takes note of European Community documents 6995/79 and 7735/79 concerned with draft EEC Directives on water pollution by aldrin, dieldrin and endrin and by mercury, and the Department of the Environment's supplementary explanatory memorandum; and supports the Government's intention to seek satisfactory quality objectives according to the purpose for which the water is to be used.