HC Deb 09 February 1981 vol 998 cc695-712 10.13 pm
Mr. Denis Howell (Birmingham, Small Heath)

I beg to move, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Control of Pollution (Special Waste) Regulations 1980 (S.I., 1980, No. 1709), dated 30 October 1980, a copy of which was laid before this House on 17 November 1980 in the last Session of Parliament, be revoked.

Mr. Arthur Lewis (Newham, North-West)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Will you ask the mass meeting of speakers to leave the House so that we can hear what is happening? Perhaps they could hold their meeting outside.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Bryant Godman Irvine)

It would be convenient for those who want to hear the right hon. Gentleman if conversations could be continued elsewhere.

Mr. Howell

It is difficult to overstate the importance of this subject. For about 10 years there has been mounting concern about the dangers of toxic waste. Deaths have. occurred, communities have felt threatened and public anxiety has forced Government to act. As a result, Parliament has imposed a system of rigid controls, which have proved to be successful and in which the public have confidence.

Why is all that to be put at risk by the new regulations? Who is the genius who says "We have a system that is working well, so we shall change it"? The local authorities do not take that view. With almost unprecedented unanimity they have condemned the proposals as dangerous and unworkable—and they are the ones who have to try to work them.

It seems that the pressure has come from the CBI. I am sorry about that, because when I was the Minister responsible for these matters I worked closely with CBI advisers. However, the CBI has persuaded the Government that the new system will produce a saving in paper work and administration, although many in the trade and most local authorities do not agree with that. In my judgment, when dealing with poisonous wastes the last of all considerations should be savings in administration and paperwork.

Our assessment is that Environment Ministers have surrendered to Industry Ministers. They have abandoned their responsibility for care of the environment. They are proposing a system that is unworkable in practice. For example, staff of the highest qualifications will be necessary, and such persons are not available. The criteria imposed in these regulations by which danger is to be measured are so ludicrous as almost to bring the Government in contempt.

The history of these matters in recent years resulted in emergency legislation being rushed through the House with the agreement of both sides of the House. That resulted in the Deposit of Poisonous Waste Act 1972. That legislation followed the irresponsible behaviour of some cowboys in industry in dumping toxic waste without permission and without regard to public safety. On that occasion the House acted with commendable urgency. We recall the incidents that led to that decision, especially the problems at the Nuneaton tip, where dumping was taking place.

It is interesting to note that in 1972 the Royal Commission on pollution was consulted. It regarded the matter as so urgent that it advised the Government of the day that it was proposing to bring out its proposals in 1974 but felt that the issue was so urgent that it could not wait until 1974, and advised the Government to act. So indecent has been the speed with which the Government want to get the regulations on the statute book that on this occasion the Royal Commission has not been consulted.

Mr. Ted Graham (Edmonton)


Mr. Howell

That gives us a measure of the seriousness of the proposals that are under consideration. Under the 1972 Act the quantity or concentration of waste that might constitute a serious hazard to life, health or the environment was controlled. Waste disposal authorities had the power to decide whether such a hazard existed. It worked through a system of notification. First, there was notification to the authority where the waste arose. Secondly, there was notification to the waste and water authorities where the waste was disposed of. Thirdly, there was notification to those finally responsible within the trade for the disposing of the waste. All these notifications had to be made—that is still the requirement—in advance of any movement of waste from one area to another.

The Government are proposing to change that situation, which has given the public a degree of comfort and relief that toxic waste problems are now under control.

In 1974 it was my responsibility to pilot the Control of Pollution Act through the House. I regret to say that that Act has still not yet been fully implemented. Under section 2 waste disposal authorities are required to survey and draw up a plan for the disposal of toxic waste. I am sorry to say that those proposals are to be undermined by the Local Government Act 1980 and by the new regulations. Most local authorities have not completed their surveys for the disposal of toxic wastes. Indeed, some have not begun. The requirement to survey and produce a waste disposal plan is jeopardised by the present proposals.

Furthermore, the EEC attaches enormous importance to the matter. I shall return to that later, because, as the responsible Minister, I had to attend meeting after meeting in Brussels to reach agreement. There was unanimous agreement among member countries about the way in which toxic wastes should be disposed of and what rigid control there should be.

It is not surprising that local authorities that have been advising hon. Members about the regulations are totally and unitedly expressing grave concern about the effects of the proposals. First, they say that any savings on paperwork that the Government are seeking to achieve will be offset many times over by the costs of the toxicological expertise that will be required when the authorities have to dispose of wastes. Furthermore, quite apart from the costs of such experts, they tell us thaat the experts do not exist in sufficient numbers to advise local authorities of the seriousness of the proposals before them.

Local authorities also tell us that under the regulations the disposal authoritiy for an area where the waste is produced is given the responsibility to ensure that the new consignment note procedure operates correctly. But the local authority where the waste arises is no longer entitled to receive prior notificaton of the dispatch of waste from its own area to another area. How daft can such a procedure become, if that local authority has the responsibility without the knowledge with which to operate that responsibility?

Many examples have been given to Ministers and hon. Members about the risks that will be involved under the new procedures. Between 60 per cent. and 70 per cent. of the toxic wastes that are now rightly controlled will be excluded from specific control. That is the measure of the risk to which the country is being put by the regulations.

We have been given many examples. Mercury waste—which is responsible for causing a serious disease in Japan— will be outside the scope of the regulations. Sludges from the chlor-alkali industry, the nature of which can be changed, by the presence of bacteria, into methyl mercury, will also cease to be within the scope of the regulations. Bog ore, which emanates from old gas works and which deteriorates in rain, sterilising the ground around it and, even worse, producing acid leachate, which kills all known stream life, is another hazard that we face as a result of the regulations. A relatively dilute acid combined with a sulphide can produce a lethal chemical—hydrogen sulphide—which the House may recall was responsible for killing a tanker driver at an Essex pit.

Three months ago, when a Department of the Environment spokesman addressed a West Midlands business men's seminar, the West Midlands county council, the responsible authority, wished to attend, but was not invited to do so. The responsible chief officer of the authority still does not know whether some of the constituent elements about which he is worried are included or excluded.

The Greater London Council has drawn attention to three dangers. Lithium batteries, which are small batteries, are excluded from control by the regulations. They will not be in the special waste category, but when water is applied to those batteries they can become a fire risk. One can imagine the hazards that will be created if such batteries are dumped.

Sodium street lamps have to be disposed of by many local authorities. They can be dangerous when smashed, unless disposal is well supervised. Yet they are also excluded. The GLC has also told us of its considerable concern about quantities of mixtures of oil and water.

It is no wonder that every professional organisation, including the Institute of Municipal Engineers, the Institue of Solid Waste Management and the National Association of Waste Disposal Contractors, and environmental organisations such as Friends of the Earth, either oppose or have strong reservations about the regulations. In addition, every local authority in the country opposes the regulations.

Mr. J. W. Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr)

The Minister is laughing.

Dr. Oonagh McDonald (Thurrock)

It is a disgrace.

Mr. Howell

It would be better if the regulations were withdrawn, so that the Government could have further consultations.

I received today a statement by the clerk of the Derbyshire county council about the effects of the regulations. He says: The likely result will be that poisonous or polluting waste will be illegally deposited at more sites within the county and site operators facing a lesser risk of prosecution. The House cannot possibly view that situation with equanimity.

One of the most respected waste disposal officers in the country, the officer of the West Midlands county council, has said that if the regulations are applied unamended: We shall all wait for the first disaster. If such a disaster occurs after years when we thought we had the situation under control, the Government will carry a heavy responsibility.

I turn to the care of the environment, which is a matter of great concern. Throughout my time as the responsible Minister in the Department of the Environment we had two priorities—protection of health and protection of the environment. The EEC regulation to which we are committed embodies them both. It says: the essential objective of all provisions relating to the disposal of toxic or dangerous waste must be the protection of human health and safeguarding the environment against harmful effects. Under the regulations all that has gone. It is not defined. Instead, there is a new test, with which I shall deal in a moment, about danger to life. That is a less onerous test and a less desirable objective than is contained in the EEC regulation.

Sixty per cent. of all the hazardous wastes no longer need to be notified. Regional water authorities do not have to be notified at all. The Government are relying upon a system not contained in the statute by which regional water authorities think that they will have sufficient information to carry out their duties. In the view of many of us, that is not adequate. Before waste arises at an industrial concern and is taken away by transporters, every local authority concerned and each regional water authority should be specifically notified. Through those means there should be a cast-iron guarantee to the public.

The EEC directive deals with toxic and dangerous wastes by reference to risk to health or to the environment. I signed that regulation on behalf of the House, without opposition, when reporting back on the negotiations, in the certainty that risk to health and risk to the environment should be equal in importance. I would go so far as to say that it is my belief that these regulations are not valid under European law.

I would like to hear from the Minister what action he feels will be taken by the Commission which was so jealous that the EEC regulation should be watertight and should safeguard the public. That is another ground on which the House should reject the regulations that we are discussing. If that does not happen, I hope that the Commission will take note of these proposals and apply to them the tests that it had in mind when framing its own regulations.

I turn to the question of special wastes. These fall into three categories. They are the centre-piece of the Government's proposals. They deal with wastes that are highly flammable. They deal with restricted medicines. They deal, most importantly, because it is a new definition, with wastes that are a danger to life. After 25 years' membership of the House I find in these regulations a definition and a proposal that are the most incredible I have seen used by any Government in legislation.

The definition of danger to life will be to show that a single dose of not more than five cubic centimetres would be likely to cause death or serious damage to tissue if ingested by a child of 20 kilograms' body weight or …exposure to it for fifteen minutes or less would be likely to cause serious damage to human tissue by inhalation, skin contact or eye contact. When I contemplate that definition in a statute or regulation to become law in this country, I ask "Have Ministers gone mad?" What other explanation can exist for such a ludicrous proposal? In case hon. Members need further elucidation of what this means, I refer to the remarks of the Earl of Avon, the Government spokesman in the House of Lords, who said that he wanted to simplify matters. He said: A standard body weight of 20 kilogrammes, equivalent to a four to five year old child, is prescribed simply to enable the conversion of published toxicity data normally expressed in terms of a weight of toxic substance per unit body weight to an actual weight of substance. He added, in case anyone was still befuddled: So this is something which when we produce our explanatory papers is meant to simplify things and not to complicate matters."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 19 January 1981; Vol. 416, c. 327.] Ministers have taken leave of their senses.

I do not know what the Minister for Local Government and Environmental Services is saying to his hon. Friend the Under-Secretary. I took the precaution of reading the Official Report of our debate in 1972, when the right hon. Gentleman made a most penetrating comment about the need to safeguard the country. How he, having made that comment, can produce these regulations defies all logical examination.

When some of us had responsibility a year or two ago, I cannot believe that if any of our officials had produced this sort of mumbo-jumbo he would have had time to sit in front of our desks before being shown the door. Such definitions not only defy logic; they are almost an insult to the intelligence of the House.

Are local authority inspectors, who have to decide the matter, to go round the country weighing sample children of the ages of 4 and 5? Are they expected to assess the likely effect of 5cm of toxic waste upon such children? Worse, having done so, are they expected to persuade a disturbed and anxious public that a child weighing 1 kg more, or swallowing only lcm of toxic waste less, is a reasonable risk compared with the definition of risk in the regulations?

I am pleased that the new Under-Secretary is to respond to the debate, because he is the only Minister in the Department who is not tainted by the regulations and has had no responsibility for drawing them up. Since he is an agreeable gentleman, one can hope that he at least will see the logic of the concern throughout the land and agree that the House should not support the regulations, and that they should be revised.

Mr. Rooker

My right hon. Friend has described the regulations as mumbo-jumbo. Do they not mean that somebody, under the direction of Ministers in the Department, has worked out the cost of a human life? This is all tied up with money; waste disposal is a profitable business. Somebody has worked out in terms of a 4-year-old or 5-year-old child what amount of a substance is required, so that someone can make a quick buck. That is what it is all about.

Mr. Howell

I would not go as far as my hon. Friend, but clearly some scientists, somewhere, must have done some experiments with animals—rats or rabbits—in order to reach conclusions that they then tried to translate in terms of the human physiology of children aged 4 or 5. That is an offensive concept to anyone who cares about the principles involved.

I have not found one inspector in any local authority anywhere in the country who is prepared to accept the responsibility imposed upon him by the regulations. The House would be doing its duty if it strangled the regulations tonight, not least because of the unacceptably restricted definition of "special waste" in part I of schedule 1. Under that schedule it is not sufficient for a waste to be "special". It also has to be "dangerous to life".

I cannot understand how any hon. Member can possibly vote for such a proposition. On what scientific evidence has it been produced? How many experiments, on what animals, have been conducted in order to reach those conclusions, and how have they been translated to human life?

These regulations are grossly offensive and highly dangerous. They remove safeguards that have worked remarkably well. They replace them with mumbo-jumbo and with a set of regulations that every local authority says cannot be enforced.[Interruption.] If Ministers do not agree, why have they not met the representatives of local authorities? All the local authority associations tell us that their members are wholly and unitedly with them in condemning these regulations. [HON. MEMBERS:"A minority."] No doubt the Minister will tell us which local authorities form the minority, and no doubt he will say why his right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and Environmental Services adopted one standard for the protection of the public when he was on the Back Benches and why now that he is the Minister responsible he is adopting a lesser standard.

These regulations cannot be enforced. They are contrary to the EEC directives, and in the interest of the nation I ask the House to join us in voting against them.

10.47 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Giles Shaw)

The House has listened with commendable patience to the tirade of the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Howell) on these regulations. He has the qualification to speak on these matters, not only as the Minister responsible when his party was in Government, but also as the Minister responsible for the Control of Pollution Act 1974. We are now considering the implementation of section 17 of that Act. I assume that the right hon. Gentleman will be glad that we have taken his Act to heart and that we are proposing to implement section 17 of it in the manner that he laid down as being suitable and sensible in relation to the control of toxic waste.

But the right hon. Gentleman, who I am sure is honourable in all things—is not right in all things. He suggested that the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution was not consulted. It was. He suggested that mercury was a substantial hazard, and he referred to the Japanese disaster. That is not so, because the mercury derivative here is not the same as that which caused the disaster in Japan. He suggested that there was no control over the transportation from the point of origin to the point of disposal when of course there is. The regulations ensure that. He suggested that no information could be given to the disposal authority in the area where the waste occurred. That can and has been done for a considerable time. There was not very much that the right hon. Gentleman could find in these regulations which provided him with enough solid fact, although much fiction was displayed.

The right hon. Gentleman has a point, which I concede immediately, in that any matter concerning the disposal of toxic waste should be taken extremely seriously. That is why there have been consultations over three years with those who are involved, not only in the manufacture of substances, but also in the disposal of substances. I deeply regret that in relation to the Association of County Councils and others there has not been complete agreement on the way in which the regulations are to be implemented.

However, some authorities have found them perfectly acceptable. The county of Suffolk, which has examined them in detail, found that it was easily able to define the 39 wastes which were required. The head of the planning department of the county of Leicestershire, the responsible department of that county, found them perfectly acceptable, and the county dissociated itself from what the Association of County Councils said. I accept that there is disagreement between members of the Association of County Councils, and certainly there is disagreement between the Government and the association about what we propose. But I shall indicate the extent to which consultations have taken place, including recent consultations, and the extent to which the Government will be prepared to meet the anxieties which the ACC has expressed.

Quite rightly, the question of where these regulations fit in has to be looked at in the context of the legislation of the period. The right hon. Gentleman will agree, I am sure, that his Control of Pollution Act 1974 was rightly a replacement for the measure in 1972 which was rushed through this House to deal with the deposit of poisonous wastes. That Act made it an offence to deposit poisonous, noxious or polluting waste on land in such a way as to cause an environmental hazard. In other words, the 1972 Act attempted to determine what would be a threat to public health, animals, vegetation or water. It also made it an offence not to notify local authorities and the water authorities of the intention to dispose of a notifiable waste. It defined notifiable wastes by listing those wastes which were not notifiable, subject to certain qualifications.

The 1972 Act had many grave omissions. For example, it did not provide controls over the disposal of notifiable wastes. By that I mean that it did not empower local authorities to prevent the waste from going into a site for disposal even if they did not wish it to go and even if they had been notified of the intention. They could seek to persuade the site operator not to accept it, but site operators did not have to take notice of what the local authorities said. The local authority could therefore mount the prosecution only in very exceptional cases, and it was extremely hard to prove liability under this system. In effect, authorities could not even shut the door after the horse had bolted. What they could do was punish the horse if they caught it. It is not surprising that in 1978, for example, there were only three prosecutions under the Act.

In addition, the Deposit of Poisonous Waste Act did not create an efficient administrative system. Quite the reverse was the case. There must be several hundreds of thousands of paper copies of notifications in circulation each year in England alone.

Thirdly, the Act did not control the transport of dangerous waste from the producer to the disposal site—a point which the right hon. Gentleman believed, I suspect, was controlled by the 1972 Act. In fact, it was not. What is more, the Act did not provide for a clear, accurate set of descriptions for each waste that was notified. Vague terms such as "petro-chemical processing waste", and so on, were used which were not good enough as an instrument of control.

Although there was a minimum period for advance notice of the intention to deposit, there was no maximum in the Act. Again, this was not sufficient for adequate control.

We have to conclude that the Deposit of Poisonous Waste Act was, as it was designed to be, a stop-gap measure, and it has now outlived its usefulness. This is now the time to replace, in this section of the Control of Pollution Act, for which the right hon. Gentleman rightly takes some credit, the Deposit of Poisonous Waste Act 1972 and issue new regulations which are more in keeping with it.

Part I of the Control of Pollution Act was enacted in 1974. In 1976 came the regulations under it which introduced the site licensing system. That system, as I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will agree, has a very important part to play. Frequently, the right hon. Gentleman laid stress on transportation or on the point of origin. But the control of the licensing of sites is fundamental to a policy which attempts to control the disposal of toxic or noxious wastes for the benefit of humanity and the environment.

The system introduced in the Control of Pollution Act provided proper, positive—and not negative—controls over disposal. It was a preventive measure of the kind that was needed. Commercial, industrial or domestic wastes—called controlled wastes under this Act—whether notifiable or not, can now be disposed of only at a site which is licensed for the purpose, and in accordance with the conditions of the licence. Before a licence application can be considered, planning permission must be obtained. Hon. Members should note that at both stages the water authorities are consulted.

This is the right sort of control—it covers the disposal of all wastes. It enables local authorities to specify precise and stringent conditions for the disposal of all hazardous wastes or to ban them from a site. As would be expected, therefore, most of the licences for sites which take "notifiable" wastes—the terminology under the Deposit of Poisonous Waste Act—specify the individual wastes which may be taken at the site. All licences or conditions for local authorities' sites cover the manner of disposal, site operation and supervision.

Mr. Peter Hardy (Rother Valley)

The Minister is right to suggest the importance of registration and supervision of sites. Is it not clear that under the Government's proposals local authorities will be unable properly to monitor and control those sites unless theres is 24-hour supervision? No local authority can provide such supervision at the moment.

Mr. Shaw

I disagree with the hon. Gentleman. The main control that local authorities should apply is on licensing sites and on making sure that licensed sites are properly run and effectively managed.

One of the problems with the Control of Pollution Act and with its predecessor, the Deposit of Poisonous Waste Act, is that too much local authority time has been involved in administration and too little in site inspection, at the place where wastes are disposed of, where it really matters. I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that under the regulations proposed there will be more rather than less time available for local authorities to control and inspect sites. Therefore, that is part of the reason why we are making a significant improvement in offering the regulations for approval by the House.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

If the Minister is so concerned about trying to keep up to date with the various toxic wastes that are coming on stream, and since he wants to streamline the procedures, does he think it wise to extend the powers of consultation as far down as parish councils? By and large, in many rural areas the people who live in the parishes have to suffer from the waste deposited. Since he is so concerned about trying to keep up with these, what is his opinion on the following matter? In 1968, deadly dioxin was dumped secretly at a parish near one of the parishes in my Bolsover constituency as a result of an explosion at the Bolsover Coalite factory. Should not permission be given to ensure that it is put in a much safer place? If the Minister is so concerned about improving things, why does he not include that? Amongst the planning authorities that the Minister did not mention was the Tory-controlled Derbyshire county council, which sent me a letter saying that the benefits of that proposal would be that the waste disposal industry would have its paper work reduced.

Mr. Shaw

I am a believer in answering a question that is put to me, if I can.

Therefore, I inform the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) that we are improving local authority control over disposal sites. When we consider the question of the 1968 dioxin waste which was buried at Morton in Derbyshire, I accept that that was a problem. Local rumour has it that the material was buried at an open cast site at Morton. The pollution incident at an adjacent toxic disposal site some years later reawakened local fears. The hon. Gentleman was active in trying to find out more about that incident. He would know—and I trust that he accepts —that the Severn-Trent water authority has advised in the past that neither the deposits of contaminated material nor the continued operation of the Morton site presents any threat of pollution to water sites in the area. The Derbyshire county council has been told in confidence by the company where that site is. I also understand that a local councillor has recently made public the location.

I return to the major matter under discussion. The new system is designed to repair some of the deficiencies in the present system, the main deficiency of which is the lack of proper control over the carriage of hazardous waste. The right hon. Member for Small Heath was wrong when he suggested that under the present system we have proper control over such carriage. The wastes are carefully controlled at the producers' premises by the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act. Disposal is covered by that Act and by site licensing. But there is currently no system to pin the responsibility for misuse of the really dangerous wastes in transit, or for heedless disposal into the environment at each stage of its journey from producer to disposer.

The Government fully accept the grave risk which can and, I assume, must be run in relation to "cowboy" disposers—those who seek to evade all possible regulations, who go out in the middle of the night with a load of toxic substances and dump them at an unknown place. These are the cowboys of the night whom the right hon. Gentleman and we equally seek to catch. But with this system of control in transit of really dangerous wastes from the point of production to the point of disposal, we have gone a long way to trying to prevent illicit distribution. The consignment note system will provide that control.

The new regulations also require proper registers of consignments. Most important also is the requirement that a record of the location of the disposal of special waste is kept—and kept in perpetuity. Hon. Members can rest assured that sites will be registered and that that register will be kept up to date. That is essential, so that sites can be properly and swiftly reclaimed and put to appropriate use later.

The Secretary of State will have some emergency powers. They are likely to be rarely used and include a provision for prior consultation.

The regulations will also complete compliance with the EEC directive on toxic and dangerous wastes. The right hon. Gentleman suggested that the regulations would be completely anathema to the European directive. That is not the case. They are complementary and comply with it.

What do we lose with the repeal of the Deposit of Poisonous Waste Act? We dispense, certainly, with the requirement that notifications about the less troublesome wastes, which do not cause the bother, should go to local authorities. I have explained that they will be undertaken at a site licensed for the purpose and with conditions approprate to the circumstances. Because the definition of "notifiable waste" disappears with the Act, it is to be replaced with criteria which will specify which wastes really are a hazard. It is those wastes which need the consignment note system to cover their transit.

The criteria for the new control, which the right hon. Gentleman and others criticised for their complex appearance, follow a logical progression. I shall not give the House a lecture in toxicology, as the right hon. Gentleman tried to do, but they set out a series of tests which are easily applied one by one. If a waste fails any of these tests—for example, if it is flammable at 21 degrees Centigrade—it simply becomes a special waste, and the regulations will apply.

The Institute of Solid Waste Management, whose membership includes many of the waste disposal officers, the National Association of Waste Disposal Contractors and industrial firms are among those who have seen the bulk of the Department's guidance and tested the approach. They are satisfied that it is workable and in the main they are keen to get the system into operation and iron out any difficulties in practice.

One county council—Suffolk—as I said, told the Department that it applied the approach to 40 different kinds of waste that it encountered and 39 of them represented no problem. But if experience shows that the definition needs altering, we shall alter it. I am confident that, as it stands, it does not increase risk in any significant area.

This has been an important development so far. The pattern of co-operation is one on which we shall continue to build. There is an invaluable pool of experience—it is time to capitalise on it—between waste producers, waste disposal authorities and the local authorities at either end of the chain. If there is any doubt about the status of the waste, it should be treated as a special waste until that doubt is removed.

What is the sum of the loss for these gains? Certainly, many paper notifications which are of no practical use will go. That will save authorities and industry time and money. Despite what the right hon. Gentleman said, those controls do not improve one whit the powers of waste disposal authorities over the carriage or transport of waste or over its disposal. They have operated reasonably well because of co-operation among all involved. That cooperation will remain.

I turn to the question of the Association of County Councils, and our consultations with it. As I have indicated, consultation has been extensive for a long period. The local authority associations were involved in that, as were the industrial interests—industry generally through the CBI, major generators of special wastes through the Chemical Industries Association, the waste disposal industry itself, and many others. All are agreed on the objectives. Although we have not been able to meet every point made, we have not proceeded in isolation. We have struck a good balance between the views. The test of practice is needed now.

Several of my hon. Friends have written to me about the issues raised by the ACC. I am in no doubt about the strength of its concern. I have replied, I think, to most hon. Members and explained that I have given assurances and undertakings on two of the three points the ACC has itself identified as crucial. I have discussed them informally with the ACC. I have not been able to meet its points completely, and it has felt unable to modify its position. Contact will, of course, continue. But I must make it clear to the House now that the Government cannot agree that points which cannot be properly resolved without the benefit of operating experience should be allowed to delay the introduction of the important improvements these regulations will bring.

Mr. Kenneth Marks (Manchester, Gorton)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In your role as the protector of Back Bench rights, I ask you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to see what can be done about the ridiculous state of affairs in this debate. We are debating regulations that are lengthier than many Bills. They are highly important, and concern every person in the country. At least 13 Back Bench Members are waiting to speak, with 29 minutes of the debate remaining. May I urge you to use your power or influence to persuade the Government to withdraw the regulations, especially as the implementation date is only a month ahead, until adequate time can be arranged to debate the issue? More hon. Members wish to speak in this debate than is usual on the Second Readings of major Bills.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Richard Crawshaw)

The House will have noticed that this is a motion to revoke regulations, not to annul them, because the time for doing so has expired. The only reason why the House is able to discuss the matter tonight is that the business motion lays down that the matter may be proceeded with until 11.30 pm. The Chair has no discretion in that matter. If nothing has been moved by 11.30 pm, the motion lapses. If, before 11.30 pm, anyone moves that the Question be put, I shall put the Question. I cannot extend any time for discussion because the business motion permits discussion only until 11.30 pm.

Mr. Shaw

In deference to the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Marks), I shall seek to draw my remarks to a speedy conclusion. I want to stress that the discussions with the ACC are of crucial importance to hon. Members on both sides of the House.

The local authorities put three crucial points to me. They want the Department to provide expert witnesses in court when they mount a prosecution. I said that if such experts were not available elsewhere, the Department would provide them, or put them in touch with an appropriate source. They asked that the regulations should specify that the burden of proof that a waste was not special was on the producer. The initial responsibility for complying with the regulations and deciding whether a consignment note is needed is indeed on the producer. If there is a problem—and we shall discover that during the course of the regulations—I shall be willing to consider any proposal that the local authority associatons wish to put to me for an alternative method to regulate that point. They asked for prenotification—advance warning—for authorities for the area where the waste is produced on a par with authorities for the area where the waste is to be disposed of. The authorities won a substantial concession against the views of industry on the latter point early on in the consultation process. I have taken what I believe is the fairest approach on that point. Interests conflict, and I am not persuaded that additional prenotification is required. But again if, after a period, it can be shown that the regulations are deficient on that point, I shall be happy to amend them. I also pledged a formal review after 12 months of operation. That will be the correct time for it to be evaluated, and all concerned will have had their minds concentrated on that review from day one.

That is the way in which I have sought to meet the opposition of the ACC. I deeply regret that I have not been able to satisfy it, but it is certainly not for want of trying. It offers an opportunity to review the regulations in action, which is the only satisfactory way to eliminate not points of principle or major disagreements about what the regulations are intended to do, but significant disagreements on some practical aspects of the chain of command from waste producer to waste disposer. There is no major difference on the principle of what these regulations seek to do. They seek to implement section 17 of the Control of Pollution Act, which replaces the previous Deposit of Poisonous Waste Act 1972. By moving in this direction, we move not for less control but for more. We move not for more hazard but for less. I confidently recommend these regulations to the House.

11.5 pm

Mr. Kenneth Marks (Manchester, Gorton)

My advice to the new Minister—whom I welcome to his post, having undertaken a number of late-night debates in the same capacity—is to take these regulations back, and certainly to get rid of the date of 16 March, which is there only because it happens to be the anniversary of the passing of the EEC directive. In the meantime, he should go to places such as Pitsea, in Essex, or to Greater Manchester, or the West Midlands and the other areas concerned and look at the subject for himself.

At the weekend I talked to the Greater Manchester official who has responsibility for this matter. Greater Manchester had not received any correspondence direct from the Minister. I know that the Minister will say that we must deal with this prayer first, but the regulations have been made and authorities ought to have received a direct communication from the Department. They have had none. There are no stocks of the consignment notes, and so on, which will have to be ordered within the next few weeks. The register of toxic effects of chemical substances is only just available, and the local authorities do not have it. It will be their Bible in dealing with these matters.

There have been no meetings of officials of the authorities to discuss how they will implement the regulations, and yet they must come into effect on 16 March. The Deposit of Poisonous Waste Act, whether or not it was rushed through, has dealt with this problem adequately, but it will cease to have effect as from 16 March.

The Government are making a serious mistake. They have not thought about the practical proposition. They talk about field work. What will happen in practice is that local authorities will be expected to get rid of highly qualified people and leave the matter to people on site who do not have the right qualifications. All that the Government are concerned about is complying with the wishes of the Community and cutting local authority costs. I am afraid that what will happen, whether or not the Minister likes it, is that the cowboys will have a field day.

There is no mention of the problem in the metropolitan areas in particular, where the disposal authorities are not the same as the collection authorities. There can be significant problems about that, as there have been already.

There are provisions in the Deposit of Poisonous Waste Act which are not covered in these regulations. Some have been taken out. There is the question of hazardous waste transferred from one authority to another. The authority in whose area the waste arises is responsible for the supervision, but some of the waste is transferred from Manchester, for instance, to Essex. Hon. Members from Essex do not think much of that idea, but this happens. How will Greater Manchester supervise this? There needs to be provision for the receiving local authority to let that local authority know that it has had that waste and that it has been disposed of. Much firmer direction is needed.

As for the definition, the matter of the 5 cc has already been raised. What happens if that 5 cc is in a waste of another kind? That frequently happens. Waste is not always segregated. Does it have to be segregated?

The real need—this is where the Government are defeating their own objective—is for adequate local authority staffing. By their policies the Government are destroying the adequate staffing that exists in many cases.

Dr. McDonald

Does my hon. Friend agree that in the case of my own constituency, where there are five pits for the disposal of toxic waste—for Thurrock takes in, together with the Pitsea pit, 100 per cent. of the toxic waste from South-East England—supervision of the site, to take an example of which the Minister made great play, would have to consist of 24-hour supervision of five sites, and supervision of transit to the sixth site on the borders of my constituency? Does he agree that the Government should put their money where their mouth is and make the money available for the kind of inspectorate that would be required to supervise both transport and the deposit of such waste?

Mr. Marks

My hon. Friend has taken the words out of my mouth, but I shall still say the words. The Government's policy of a 6 per cent. pay increase when pay inflation is running at 15 per cent. will make the regulations almost impossible to work.

Let us consider a metropolitan council with a possible 6.per cent. pay rise. The firemen, rightly, have been granted an 18.8 per cent. rise. The other employees include the police, administrators and waste disposal staff. Firemen and waste disposal employees form the major part of such staffs. Highly qualified people will be poached from the local authorities by industry.

The Government's policy on local authority cuts, staff and pay will make nonsense of what they are trying to do. The Government have already abolished the waste management committee and the anti-waste campaign. The order is another example of the Government's ineptitude and lack of care for the country's environment.

11.11 pm
Mr. Peter Griffiths (Portsmouth, North)

I shall be as brief as possible. I am no expert on toxicology and I should not have intervened in such a debate as this except to give a general welcome to developments in the modernisation of the disposal of waste, particularly of dangerous waste. I took the precaution of speaking to one of our premier authorities, the public analyst and scientific adviser to the Hampshire county council. He has an international reputation. I asked him why there was such criticism of the regulations, not only from the county councils but from the municipal authorities and the GLC.

I shall confine myself to a narrow range of points, which that gentleman explained to me. He said that he would welcome a harmonisation of our regulations with EEC regulations. Yet he said that the odd test of toxicity related to a 20 kg child had nothing to do with European regulations. It is not recognised in the EEC, and it takes us away from the expertise in the EEC and this country which is related to danger to health and to the environment. The analyst said that under the regulations the task of supervision would be so complicated that it would not be possible for the local authorities to maintain the necessary number of toxicologists, because of the limited supply, which is not always available to local authorities.

He said that local authorities could not turn to tables of toxicity for particular chemicals in relation to a child weighing 20 kg. As he said, the information about humans has been gathered over a period. Only some of it relates to children. One cannot assume that toxicity is related directly to body weight. It is not proportionate to body weight. One cannot simply look at information for a human being of a different size and divide by the weight.

It is also pointed out that a great deal depends on the state of health and physical condition of the child, and on the way in which the substance and the child are brought together. I could list many criticisms, but time does not permit me to do so. It is not recognised that children and others will not be faced with the toxicity of only one dangerous waste product. In most disposal sites there will be more than one item of waste, each of which may be dangerous. A combination may reduce the danger, but, on the other hand, two substances that are not toxic to the levels mentioned in these regulations may, in combination, easily become so.

The number of possible combinations of toxic wastes is almost infinite. I make a straightforward statement to the Minister. It is impossible for the scientific adviser to the Hampshire county council to say that he can carry out these regulations in a way that is safe. He asked me to use the word "alarm". When a scientist uses such a word we should take the greatest notice of what he has to say. I am extremely worried about that part of the regulations. I trust that the Minister will recognise that this strength of feeling is experienced not merely by politicians, but by the scientific community.

11.16 pm
Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)

We look forward to seeing the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Griffiths) in the Lobby with us tonight. To many of us, the Government's response to this issue is a touchstone of their attitude to the environment in general. Given what we have heard tonight, and other actions, such as the abolition of the Waste Management Advisory Council, it is hardly surprising that the Government have had such a bad press in environmental circles.

The Minister began on a bad point. The hon. Gentleman said that two local authorities—Leicester and Suffolk—were in favour of the proposals. That is complacent. He knows that there has been almost universal condemnation of the proposals by those that have been asked to enforce them. He said that further consultation with authorities could take place, but he knows that such a statement is hardly meaningful. The Government have a self-imposed timetable. How meaningful can such consultations be if they are to take place between now and 16 March?

The Minister claims that he has met the Association of County Councils on a number of points. However, if he looks through its briefings—which I largely adopt—he will see that there are at least nine key points at the end that the Minister has failed to satisfy. Given the time, I shall adopt a fairly narrow approach and mention only three points that are of particular concern to Wales. They have been underlined by Baroness White in the other place.

First, Wales has its own problems. For administrative reasons, the ACC represents 39 large shire counties in England, but responsibility for waste disposal in Wales rests with 37 district authorities that are smaller and that have few resources in terms of manpower and finance. None of those authorities employs toxicologists. They firmly said that they could not, under these regulations, control waste in a safe, effective or economical manner.

Secondly, the Government and Whitehall appear not to have considered the peculiar topographical problems of areas such as Wales, where there is greater danger of leaching into aquifers. A quarry in my area of Cwmrhydceirw is used for dumping. Today, my environmental health officer told me that they do not know where the standing water drains to. The poisonous waste that might emerge could be dangerous.

Thirdly, my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Howell) has mentioned the narrow definition of toxicity and the possible danger to the life of a 20 kg child. Scientists are very uncertain about this definition. It ignores the cumulative effect of small doses and has particular relevance to the older industrial areas, where toxic material may have accumulated over a period of time. For example, in the lower Swansea valley—the classic area for waste zinc and copper—where surveys have been sponsored by the Nuffield Foundation, it is clear that local children are already at risk from a variety of sources. These regulations can only add to the danger.

It is an uncertain area—an area of unknowns. I commend to the Minister the book that was published as a result of the conference last May, sponsored by the Nuffield project, on this older industrial area, because it shows the uncertain state of scientific knowledge in this sphere. For example, there is uncertainty on the question of how long poisonous substances remain in the soil, and the difficulties of separating dangerous substances from the new topsoil.

Finally, and more important in terms of the expenditure of time on money, there is the need for the Government, on a United Kingdom basis, to investigate methods of disposal of waste substances and not to go for the cheapest means of dumping in holes in the ground. For example, my local authority is now proposing to dump waste on a site alongside a site of special scientific interest.

Until we have clearer scientific evidence, and until there is a greater basis of consensus with those who have to enforce these regulations, I believe that the Government should continue with the present legislation, ignore their self-imposed timetable, take these regulations back, and think again.

11.21 pm
Mr. Charles Morrison (Devizes)

I cannot help but comment that if the Opposition Front Bench spokesman takes 29 minutes to make his speech it is not surprising that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State should take 23 minutes to make his speech. Even so, it is extraordinary that, in a debate which can last for only 77 minutes, 52 minutes should be taken by the Front Bench spokesmen. One wonders what anybody thinks the House of Commons exists for.

This is a debate between theorists and practitioners. In considering these regulations, there are three questions to be borne in mind.

First, do the regulations reduce the level of control of pollution by toxic waste and the acceptable standards? The Government say that they do not; the local authorities say that they do.

Secondly, does it matter? In my view, it does matter. Those who dispose of toxic waste are being put on their honour. There is no worry about responsible people. But what about those who are not responsible people? This is the point that worries the local authorities.

Thirdly, do the regulations reduce the costs for local government? Regarding the bureaucracy, as the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Howell) pointed out, the answer is "Yes". But, so far as staff generally in local government are concerned, the answer is "No". What is more, in all likelihood, it will be difficult for local authorities to obtain the necessary staff that they will have to employ as a result of these new regulations. In effect, the regulations are creating nonsense in that respect.

What should be done? The best answer would be for the Government to withdraw the regulations. At least, they should withdraw the regulations until the House of Lords Select Committee has had a chance to report. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] I am delighted to hear the cheers by Opposition Members in praise of the other place, which normally they wish to get rid of completely. But the other place could do a very useful job on these regulations. It might even be that it would come out in support of the Government, but I suspect that it might easily not. What would happen if it did not? It would make much more sense before introducing the regulations to await the outcome of the Select Committee in another place, which I have no doubt is filled with those who really know what they are talking about.

Finally, and sadly, it seems that the regulations are yet another example of the man in Whitehall thinking that he knows best. That is not often so, and on this occasion there is a strong case for a degree of humility as it is not the man in Whitehall who puts the regulations into practice or who carries the can if something goes wrong. I can imagine the departmental self-righteousness when something goes wrong, as assuredly it will.

It is remarkable that there is such unanimity of thinking on the part of the local authority associations, which are not best known for their ability to agree about anything. The Government must think again about this matter.

11.26 pm
Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Edge Hill)

I shall briefly reiterate the remarks that have been made from all parts of the Chamber against the regulations. Having listened to the hon. Members for Devizes (Mr. Morrison) and for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Griffiths), as well as to Labour Members, I hope that the Minister will reconsider these inadequate proposals. They are highly misguided and could be damaging in the control of pollution.

I remind the House of the debate that took place in another place on 19 January, when Baroness Birk said: Finally … this action is absolutely devastatingly, and, I would say, disgracefully immature, because the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology is looking into the whole subject of the organisation of method of hazardous waste disposal."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 19Jannuary 1981; Vol. 416, c. 312.] Surely it would have been prudent to await the outcome of the Select Committee's findings before deciding on these regulations. Surely it would have been prudent to listen to the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, the Association of County Councils and district and county councils throughout the country.

I refer briefly to a letter which was sent to my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) by the secretary and solicitor of his council, which points to the hazards that could be caused in that constituency if the regulations are enacted.

We must decide what sort of community we want to live in. Do we want to live in a country that is a green and poisoned land or one that is a green and pleasant land? That is the issue on which we shall be voting. Regulations that reduce in any way the control over pollution are misguided and misconceived and the House should vote against them.

11.28 pm
Sir Bernard Braine (Essex, South-East)

In common with all those who have participated in the debate, I am deeply uneasy about the regulations. There seems to be some dispute about the attitude of the local authority associations. However, the Conservative-controlled Essex county council is utterly opposed to the regulations. Why is that? The reason is that Essex has suffered more than any other county from the uncontrolled deposit of waste, and toxic waste at that. The county council is most perturbed at the possibility of a weakening of control over the disposal of material of this nature that is at present notifiable but will escape notification if the regulations are enforced.

The Association of County Councils tells me that two-thirds of the toxic wastes notifiable under the present system will cease to be notifiable from 16 March. Toxic wastes that are not likely to cause death but are dangerous to health and the environment will no longer be notifiable. The definition of toxicity has been dealt with adequately by my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Griffiths).

No protection is given against the danger of chronic ill-health from exposure or against chronic ill-health caused by the escape of low-concentration pollutants—

Mr. Walter Harrison (Wakefield)rose in his place and claimed to move, That the Question be now put.

Question, That the Question be now put, put and agreed to.

Main Question put accordingly:—

The House divided: Ayes 81, Noes 117.

Division No.66] [11.30 pm
Alton, David Duffy, A. E. P.
Anderson, Donald Eastham, Ken
Archer, Rt Hon Peter Ellis, R.(NE D'bysh're)
Ashton, Joe English, Michael
Beith, A. J. Evans, John (Newton)
Bennett, Andrew(St'kp'tN) Foster, Derek
Brotherton, Michael Foulkes, George
Callaghan, Jim(Midd'tn&P) Garrett, W. E.(Wallsend)
Campbell-Savours, Dale Graham,Ted
Cocks, Rt Hon M. (B'stolS) Grant, George(Morpeth)
Colvin, Michael Grant, John (Islington C)
Concannon, Rt Hon J. D. Hamilton, James(Bothwell)
Cowans, Harry Hardy, Peter
Cunliffe, Lawrence Harrison, Rt Hon Walter
Dalyell,Tam Hawksley, Warren
Davis, T. (B'ham, Stechf'd) Haynes, Frank
Deakins, Eric Holland, S.(L'b'th, Vauxh'll)
Dean, Joseph (Leeds West) Hooley, Frank
Dixon, Donald Howell, Rt Hon D.
Dormand, Jack Hudson Davies, Gwilym E.
Douglas, Dick Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)
Douglas-Mann, Bruce Hughes, Roy (Newport)
Dubs, Alfred Jones, Rt Hon Alec (Rh'dda)
Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald Penhaligon, David
Lamond, James Powell, Raymond(Ogmore)
Leighton, Ronald Prescott, John
Lewis, Arthur (N'ham NW) Roberts, Ernest (Hackney N)
McCartney, Hugh Rooker, J.W.
McDonald, Dr Oonagh Ross, Stephen (Isle of Wight)
McKay, Allen (Penistone) Rowlands, Ted
McWilliam, John Skinner, Dennis
Magee, Bryan Smith, Cyril (Rochdale)
Marks, Kenneth Steel, Rt Hon David
Marshall, Dr Edmund'(Goole) Stoddart, David
Maxton, John Wainwright, E. (Dearne V)
Millan, Rt Hon Bruce Welsh, Michael
Mitchell, R.C. (Soton Itchen) Whitehead, Phillip
Morris, Rt Hon A. (W'shawe) Young, David (Bolton E)
Oakes, Rt Hon Gordon
Ogden, Eric Tellers for the Ayes:
Park, George Mr. George Morton and
Parry, Robert Mr. James Tinn.
Alexander, Richard Heddle, John
Ancram, Michael Henderson, Barry
Baker, Nicholas (N Dorset) Hogg, Hon Douglas(Gr'th'm)
Beaumont-Dark, Anthony Holland, Philip (Carlton)
Berry, Hon Anthony Hooson, Tom
Best, Keith Hurd, Hon Douglas
Bevan, David Gilroy Jopling, Rt Hon Michael
Biggs-Davison, John Kershaw, Anthony
Blackburn, John King, Rt Hon Tom
Boscawen, Hon Robert Le Marchant, Spencer
Bright, Graham Lester Jim(Beeston)
Brinton, Tim Luce, Richard
Brittan, Leon Lyell, Nicholas
Bruce-Gardyne, John Macfarlane, Neil
Bryan, Sir Paul MacGregor, John
Buck, Antony Macmillan, Rt Hon M.
Butcher, John Madel, David
Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln) Major, John
Clark, Hon A. (Plym'th, S'n) Marlow, Tony
Cope, John Mates, Michael
Cranborne, Viscount Mawhinney, Dr Brian
Crouch, David Mayhew, Patrick
Dorrell, Stephen Mellor, David
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord J. Meyer, Sir Anthony
Dover, Denshore Moate, Roger
Dunn, Robert (Dartford) Monro, Hector
Dykes, Hugh Morgan, Geraint
Eggar, Tim Morrison, Hon P. (Chester)
Elliott, Sir William Murphy, Christopher
Faith, Mrs Sheila Needham, Richard
Fenner, Mrs Peggy Nelson, Anthony
Fisher, Sir Nigel Neubert, Michael
Garel-Jones, Tristan Newton, Tony
Goodlad, Alastair Page, John (Harrow, West)
Gorst, John Page, Rt Hon Sir G. (Crosby)
Griffiths, Peter Portsm'thN) Page, Richard (SW Herts)
Gummer, John Selwyn Pattie, Geoffrey
Haselhurst, Alan Pollock, Alexander
Hawkins, Paul Porter, Barry
Price, Sir David (Eastleigh) Thompson, Donald
Raison, Timothy Townend, John (Bridlington)
Rathbone, Tim Viggers, Peter
Renton, Tim Waddington, David
Rhodes James, Robert Wakeham, John
Rhys Williams, Sir Brandon Waller, Gary
Roberts, M. (Cardiff NW) Ward, John
Rossi, Hugh Warren, Kenneth
Sainsbury, Hon Timothy Watson, John
Shaw, Giles (Pudsey) Wells, Bowen
Silvester, Fred Wheeler, John
Sims, Roger Wickenden, Keith
Skeet, T. H. H. Wilkinson, John
Speller, Tony Williams, D.(Montgomery)
Spicer, Jim (West Dorset) Winterton, Nicholas
Sproat, Iain Wolfson, Mark
Squire, Robin Young, Sir George (Acton)
Stanbrook, Ivor
Stevens, Martin Tellers for the Noes:
Stradling Thomas, J. Mr. Carol Mather and
Tebbit, Norman Mr. Peter Brooke.
Temple-Morris, Peter

Question accordingly negatived.