HC Deb 12 March 1984 vol 56 cc107-16 9.52 pm
Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland)

I welcome the opportunity to debate the 10th report of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution relatively shortly after its publication. The title of the report is "Tackling Pollution—Experience and Prospects" and it shows that it is a review of the Government's performance in promoting environmental protection, and particularly their response to the recommendations of the Royal Commission's previous report. It also gives us a perspective for the future, as the Royal Commission has taken the opportunity to air some of the current environmental issues which are of considerable public interest.

I am sure that an expression of appreciation for the Royal Commission during the 13 years since its inception will be shared by many hon. Members. Royal Commissions are often thought of as bodies to which matters are referred by the Executive when they want to shelve the issue. That can hardly be said of this Royal Commission which has, in its 13 years, undertaken a complex and prodigious work load. Many of its reports are refreshing inasmuch as they do not appear to show the hidebound, establishment approach but often come up with the Commission's own independent line on critical matters.

In reviewing the Government's performance in response to the report, it would be right to award bouquets and brickbats. One should give credit when it is due. For example, the Government responded speedily to the recommendations in the sixth report to set up the Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee.

The present Administration's response to the ninth report, "Lead in the Environment", was examplary for the speed with which they reacted. However, at the other end of the scale, the Government took almost seven years to respond to the fifth report on air pollution control. Even then, it was thought appropriate that talks should take place on some matters, which could more positively have been commenced some seven years earlier. It was four years until there was a response to the seventh report and two years until there was a response to the eighth report.

The Royal Commission expressed some of its frustration in the third chapter, paragraph 53, where it accepted that, like any other advisory body, it had to accept the fact that not all of its recommendations would be implemented. It stated that it is reasonable for Royal Commissions to expect that the reports will be dealt with as expeditiously as the complexity of the subject matter permits. Unfortunately in our case these expectations have not always been met. I think that the Government will be much more prompt and positive in their response to this report.

Therefore, it would be unfair to condemn the Government out of hand for neglect of the environment, but it would not be so unfair to criticise them for sluggishness not only in their response to the report but particularly with regard to international initiatives, such as in the EEC, in taking action to deal with polluting hazards.

The report goes into some detailed philosophical argument on the different approaches of the United Kingdom and the continent and attributes some of the causes to the difference between a common law and a civil law approach. It seems to ignore the fact that in part of this kingdom the legal system is based on a civil law approach. The commission believes that Britain has overplayed its philosophy, sometimes to the extent of farce — it illustrates our reaction to the 1975 EEC directive on the sulphur content of gas oil — and sometimes to the detriment of commerce. The report suggests that, if this country were to take a more positive leadership role in initiating environmental protection measures rather than being a sluggard, that could have beneficial commercial spin-offs.

Perhaps the most important conclusion in the report with regard to the approach that should be adopted is the recommendation about the adoption of the best practicable environmental option. That approach was first mooted in the fifth report on air pollution control. It acknowledges that pollution is not always — perhaps seldom — containable within one medium. One example is that the good idea of bottle banks to prevent the pollution caused by litter has, in its train, produced complaints about the noise that they produce. That is a simple example.

It is clear that a pollution problem is not necessarily solved by shifting it elsewhere. I call upon the Government to introduce a co-ordinated approach to pollution in all its aspects. A pollution inspectorate is essential. In their belated response to the fifth report on environmental pollution, the Government admittedly gave a nod in the direction of the best practicable environmental option. However, in this debate it would be useful if the Minister gave us an assurance that the resources will be made available to implement such a policy so that there will not be yet another nod in the right direction.

As the report rightly states, that approach has particular relevance when assessing the environmental aspects of energy policy. The report highlights the important link between energy policy and the environment. Often, that is portrayed as a battle between fossil fuels and nuclear power, but many other aspects of energy strategy have consequences in terms of environmental pollution. They are tucked away in the report in the chapter on air quality. There is a warning that effective insulation carried out in the worthy name of energy conservation could result in inadequate ventilation.

My party has often argued for a Severn barrage, although we recognise that it could have environmental consequences. Likewise, windmills dotted across the Highlands and Islands would be useful in producing wind power, but, again, there would be environmental consequences. In balancing those consequences against the advantages of certain energy strategies, the interrelationship between environmental considerations and energy is clearly extremely important.

For that reason, I support the commission in its call for the resurrection of the Commission on Energy and the Environment which was set up in response to a recommendation in the sixth report of the Royal Commission on nuclear issues but is currently in suspended animation, having produced just one very valuable report on coal and the environment. In February last year, a Government spokesman assured us that the commission would be revived if there was a pressing need for it. It may be a reflection of the Government's rather ad hoc approach to energy policy—in some quarters it is perceived as non-policy—that the Government seem not to have appreciated the pressing need. I urge the Minister to take account of the view of the Royal Commission, which is shared by many people outside, that a pressing need exists and that the commission should be resuscitated, preferably with the wider terms of reference originally recommended, taking account not only of environmental aspects but of social, economic and technical aspects of a given energy strategy.

Two further environmental issues are very much in the news and emphasise the importance of the relationship between energy and environment. I refer to acid rain and the disposal of radioactive wastes. The subject of acid rain has generated much debate even among the experts in recent months, so it is perhaps understandable that the Royal Commission has tackled it with considerable caution. Much evidence has been put forward to the effect that acid rain is responsible for the defoliation of forests and the decrease in the number of fish in freshwater streams and lochs. It is suggestd that in Sweden it has even damaged the water supply.

Mr. John Page (Harrow, West)

The hon. Gentleman, as is natural for one with a rural and very watery constituency, has referred to the countryside. Will he comment on the effect of sulphur dioxide on buildings such as St. Paul's, Westminster Abbey and the beautiful clean fabric of the House itself?

Mr. Wallace

The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. I believe that more research has been done on the continent. I understand that there is an annual maintenance bill of about £1,500,000 for Cologne cathedral due to corrosion, so it is clear that acid rain causes damage to buildings as well as to the natural environment. The Government's watchdog committee recently reported that the acidity of rainfall has been increasing expecially in parts of Scotland and the north of England, and the problems have been experienced and monitored for a considerable time in Scandinavia and central Europe.

It is right that we should be alarmed and concerned about such problems and a prompt response is required from the Government. The Central Electricity Generating Board suggests that it will take five to 10 years for options such as coal cleaning, gasification or fluidised bed combustion to become technically available. As that seems too long to wait, an extensive desulphurisation programme should perhaps be implemented. Nevertheless, I advise caution because it is important that we make the right decision. That is not made easier by the recent findings of a researcher, Dr. David Kinsman, of the Freshwater Biological Association, who is reported as having said: The whole question of acid rain, its causes and effects, is extremely complex, but there is no basis for the gloom and doom forecasts. We must spend more time on research. It would be daft to spend £3,000 million of filtering smoke emissions if it is not going to solve the problem. One should not lightly dismiss the comments of people who have no axe to grind.

The Royal Commission deals with the complex problems of cause and effect. In my opinion its conclusion is a balanced response, in the light of the evidence. The Royal Commission did not propose any emergency measures, but that should not be an excuse for procrastination. It should be an incitement to the Government to go ahead immediately with the required research called for by the Royal Commission, and with the Central Electricity Generating Board's pilot scheme for desulphurisation. It may be some time before the Government produce a considered response to the other recommendations of the Royal Commission, but I urge them to respond speedily on acid rain.

The question of radioactive waste generates considerable passion and fear. The fears have not always been allayed by the reassurances of the nuclear establishment, and may be fanned when Ministers tell us that certain beaches are not safe to walk on. The perception of a hazard, even if it has no basis in reality, can cause real fear, and the anxiety in the minds of local inhabitants can blight the quality of life as surely as a real environmental hazard.

When I was practising at the Scottish Bar, I represented objectors at the public inquiry into the boring of test bores in the Galloway hills for research into the disposal of high-level radioactive waste. Although the nuclear authorities frequently assured the local inhabitants that the project was only a research one, there were real fears which had considerable consequences in the local community. In the same way, there was a recent newspaper report to the effect that a commercial company had come up with the idea of disposing of intermediate nuclear waste under the sea bed in close proximity to my constituency. I receive a considerable amount of mail from those who have read such reports and are understandably worried about them.

I am grateful to the Minister for his recent reply reassuring me that any such proposals are purely conjectural and that the Government have still to be satisfied about the techniques of disposing of waste beneath the sea bed, let alone in any specific spot. The reply was given with conviction, but the seed of doubt has been sown in the local community. All responsible voices on both sides of the nuclear debate agree about the need to find a safe means of disposal. It is essential that the public should have confidence in the bodies which are determining the means of disposal. That confidence would be enhanced if the recommendations of the Royal Commission about the composition of the radioactive waste management advisory committee and NIREX were implemented. That is particularly important in the case of NIREX, which is an example of the regulation of the industry by the industry and for the industry. Its failure to respond in spirit—if not strictly to the letter—to the recommendation of the radioactive waste management advisory committee that it should publish a short list of sites for the disposal of intermediate level waste before the selection of two particular sites raised doubts as to whether that decision was entirely uncoloured by political influence, and diminished the credibility of the body. The addition of an experienced independent member, or members, to NIREX—possibly even from an recognised environmental lobby group—would enhance its standing in the eyes of the general public.

The debate between fossil and nuclear fuel is referred to in the report. I accept that the report argues for a modest expansion of the nuclear programme. That recommendation does not necessarily find favour with my right hon. and hon. Friends and me, but, as the commission said, it does not expect everyone to accept all of the recommendations. The problems associated with acid rain and radioactive waste underline the need to develop alternative benign sources of energy. That was pointed out in the Royal Commission's sixth report. It urged greater investment in and spending on research and development in such alternative and renewable resources. Many of us acknowledge that there has been such an increase, but there is still an imbalance between the money spent on nuclear development and that spent on alternative sources.

It is impossible to deal with all aspects of environmental pollution. If my hon. Friend the Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, he will seek to raise other issues, especially secrecy. A recent European Community survey found that 93 per cent. of interviewees wanted stronger measures to protect the environment against pollution. We believe that pollution abatement is a vital ingredient in promoting the quality of life. It is therefore essential for us to develop consistent and progressive policies. Such policies would require investment and the allocation of resources. I suspect that the Government have been sluggish, as the Royal Commission suggests, because environmental control, like many other issues, has had to genuflect before the altar of monetarism. Such an approach is short sighted. If we are seriously to safeguard our environment from pollution—it is an issue that has consequences for future generations—the Government must signal an enthusiastic attitude by coming up with a prompt and positive response to the report, although I do not expect a full response today.

10.13 pm
Mr. Nigel Forman (Carshalton and Wallington)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) on initiating this debate. I am glad he said that he did not expect my hon. Friend the Minister to give a fully-fledged response now. I was a little dubious about his practical wisdom in initiating the debate so soon, unless it was to put down some markers to show what he and his right hon. and hon. Friends are worried about. That is a perfectly fair way in which to go about things. If he is looking for definitive answers, however, he is seeking them too soon. That would be an unrealistic expectation at this stage.

The Conservative party, which my hon. Friend the Minister represents so well, already has a good record on environmental matters. That needs to be said. It also has good intentions. I was pleased to see that, in our June 1983 manifesto, under the heading "Controlling pollution", the Conservative party committed itself to removing lead from petrol at the earliest possible date and to reducing lead in paint, food and drinking water. It also committed itself to reducing river pollution, tightening controls on the disposal of hazardous waste, supporting emerging technologies in recycling and reclamation, further reducing levels of smoke and sulphur dioxide in the air and maintaining th safety record of the British nuclear industry. I admit that that is not a full menu of matters of environmental importance, but it shows that the Government and the party that I support are serious about these matters.

I was especially pleased that, during Environment Questions last Wednesday, in reply to my question about the report, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment said: The Government are anxious to be in the lead and to ensure that we pay our full part, both nationally and internationally, in the improvement of this area of policy."—[Official Report, 7 March 1984; Vol. 55, c. 834.] No one can say with any justification that the Government do not take environmental issues seriously and are not proceeding with all due attention to cope with these matters.

In the light of that, I shall devote my brief intervention to a series of questions about the excellent tenth report of the Royal Commission. I shall use the questions to highlight some points to which I attach importance and which cause anxiety in these matters. I hasten to add that I do not expect my hon. Friend the Minister to answer them tonight, but I ask him to think about them over the coming weeks and months and preferably to come up with a typically positive and forward-looking response.

First, does my hon. Friend the Minister agree that special attention should be paid to substances which have persistent and bio-accumulative properties, which run the risk that options could be closed in future years? I refer to the arguments that were put forward in the world conservation strategy and the Government's response to it. Secondly, does the Minister agree that unnecessary secrecy—a point which the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) is likely to touch on—is harmful to the environmental interest and that there should be a presumption in favour of unrestrictive public access to the information which the regulatory authorities are entitled to receive by statute? I think of the secrecy imposed on the air pollution inspectorate by the Health and Safety at Work Act etc. 1974.

Thirdly, is the Minister prepared to strengthen local authority powers to act against smoke emitted from diesel engines? As a resident of central London, I find that that is a considerable problem. Is he prepared to encourage local authorities to pool their resources of manpower and equipment for pollution control? To embark upon a topical point, when the Greater London council is finally abolished—a policy which I support—will the Minister make sure that the excellent GLC scientific services and those who work for it will be available to the people of London to perform these vital environmental functions?

Fourthly, is the Minister prepared to reaffirm the Government's commitment to complete the legal implementation of part II of the Control of Pollution Act 1974, which they are due to do by July 1986? I sincerely hope that the Government intend to do so, because it would be an earnest of the Government's good intentions, of which we made so much in our election manifesto, especially in the passage to which I have already referred.

Fifthly, does the Minister attach importance to the long-term monitoring of air quality, and is he prepared to increase the number of sites in the baseline network for monitoring nitrogen oxides and ozone—two of the most significant compounds?

Does the Minister intend to see that further progress is made towards the reduction of motor vehicle emissions, and do the Government accept that the method of introducing unleaded petrol, to which we are committed, should not involve an increase in the total amount of carcinogenic hydrocarbons emitted from vehicles? Do the Government favour the implementation of pilot schemes to abate sulphur dioxide emissions while we await the findings of the longer-term investigation of the problem being conducted by the CEGB and other bodies? My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Page) mentioned the effect that sulphur dioxide can have, not only in traditional industrial areas, but in the heart of London on some of our historic buildings, such as the palace of Westminster, which is having to be cleaned at such effort and expense.

I shall add a word about the more remote problems, which are just as important. Are the Government prepared to take an international initiative of an appropriate kind to limit the use of chlorofluorocarbons, which may deplete the stratospheric ozone? Are the Government prepared to pay more attention to the possible dangers of the "greenhouse effect" on the globe as a consequence of the increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere? Nobody knows about these matters for certain, but one knows for sure that the more investigation that is done in good time, the more we shall be able to minimise any risks that may ensue. Since the greatest contribution to the "greenhouse effect" comes from the burning of fossil fuels, does that not have important implications for our energy policies and those of other countries, since we are not the largest burners of fossil fuels?

Apart from a modest increase in nuclear capacity, which may be necessary in coming years, should we not make greater efforts in energy efficiency and conservation? In the broadest sense, energy conservation is an invaluable fifth fuel in our economy and should be treated as such.

On a more philosophical note, do the Government accept the point that comes through the report time and time again that prevention is better than cure in environmental policy? Are they as committed to that philosophy as some of our EC partners seem to be, since they have thrown their weight behind the so-called third action programme of the Community to a greater extent than previous British Governments have been prepared to do? We must, at all costs, avoid what was described in the report as environmental time bombs of the sort instanced in the case of asbestos. We must ensure that we do not tread that path again.

It is most timely that the Royal Commission published this valuable report for the benefit of the House. I was glad to hear my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State tell the House the other day that the Government would respond to the report by the end of this Session. I trust that the response will be purposeful and that appropriate action will follow. After the great issues of war and peace, the issues tackled in this report may be the most important that face the Government and, in some cases, the rest of mankind. If the report calls for a dynamic, anticipatory approach to pollution problems, the House and the country can be confident of receiving such a response from the Government.

10.21 pm
Mr. Donald Stewart (Western Isles)

I am in general agreement with the hon. Member for Carshalton (Mr. Forman), although it was rather amusing to hear him put forward the party piece so strongly, as though there was great devotion in the Conservative party to environmental protection. I recall the pressure that we had to put on his right hon. and hon. Friends about lead in petrol. It took a long time to get any change in the law, and was almost like pulling their teeth out one by one.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) on introducing this debate, and I thank him because it gives me the opportunity to speak about acid precipitation, an issue that I have followed closely for two years. The Royal Commission report rightly focuses attention on the problems of air pollution, because acid rain and acid deposition are increasingly worrying problems, especially in Scotland. In the spring of 1982 the Government announced plans to cut their funding of research on air pollution. Among the worst hit establishments was the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology, whose headquarters and many field offices are in Scotland. Recommendations 7.60, 7.61 and 7.63 of the report, which call for an increase in air pollution monitoring capability, show how wrong-headed were the Government's intentions in April 1982.

In June 1982 I tabled a motion on the subject of acid rain, which included a call for the reversal of the proposed cuts. A few days later—I do not claim that it was cause and effect—the interim report of the United Kingdom acid rain review group was published, and in July there was the Stockholm conference on long-range, trans-boundary air pollution. Because of the mounting worry about acid rain deposition and increasing evidence from other countries, the Government later decided to reverse the proposed cuts. That decision was welcomed, but it can be only a first step towards more positive action to curtail sulphur dioxide and nitrous oxide pollution of the atmosphere.

At the beginning of this Parliament I tabled early-day motion 81 entitled "Acid Rain", which was signed by 45 hon. Members from all parties. Apart from observing the damage that acid deposition is doing to the environment, it calls for specific actions by the Government under three headings. First, there should be energy conservation measures to lessen the amount of pollution. Secondly, there should be the use of available technology to control and clean emissions to the atmosphere, and, thirdly there should be increased research funding for the continued study and monitoring of the problem. The third of these three is now happening to some extent, with the announcement of a £5 million research study to be undertaken by the CEGB and others.

It is the second measure that needs urgent consideration —the use of already available technology to control and clean emissions. I emphasise the fact that in Scotland we are facing a real risk of becoming the next acid deposition casualty in Europe. The evidence points to the fact that the problem is coming our way. The interim report of the acid rain review group has been supplanted by the final report and, not surprisingly, the conclusions are, if any thing, strengthened.

The report says that the acidity of rainfall is increasing in Britain and that a nation-wide monitoring system must be established. It identifies the areas that are most badly affected as the west central highlands and the southern uplands of Scotland and the Lake District. Although Scotland has not experienced the highest level of acid rainfall in the United Kingdom, the higher volume of rainfall in the highlands ensures that it receives the greatest input of acidity over the year, and many lochs and rivers in southern Scotland are already badly affected, with fish stocks dying off. It is probably only a matter of time before other watercourses in the highlands have the same thing.

I wish to stress why Scotland is particularly at risk. Unlike much of England, which has limestone and other calciferous rocks and deeper soils, much of Scotland has granitic and gneissian underlying rocks, and the soils are often thin. This means that the acid effects of the rainfall are not neutralised and groundwater remains very acidic.

In November 1982, the Under-Secretary of State for Energy, then the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, said that: there is no evidence at present to suggest that the levels of air pollution, including acid rain, experienced in this country are having serious or widespread effects on the environment."—[Official Report, 14 November 1982; Vol. 39, c. 76.] Whatever country he was talking about, it cannot have been Scotland, or else the hon. Gentleman was simply ignoring the evidence. His attitude is typically English and part of the Government's stiff upper lip syndrome that the patient has to be almost on the point of death before he is considered to be ill.

Finally, there is the problem of controlling and reducing sulphur dioxide and nitrous oxide pollution. The Royal Commission report in recommendation 7.87 says: The Central Electricity Generating Board should introduce … over the next five years, certain of the sulphur dioxide abatement options that are already available. There is no doubt that this would cost money, and would be equivalent to some 3 per cent. to 5 per cent. on the price of electricity. However, given that the Government have recently attempted to raise the price of electricity by 5 per cent., that does not seem too much to pay for a cleaner environment.

I mentioned the example of the CEGB because figures show that power stations burning high hydrocarbon fuel are responsible for over 60 per cent. of the sulphur dioxide emitted into the atomsphere from the United Kingdom.

Mr. John Page

I have only glanced through the report, I am afraid to say, while the right hon. Gentleman is obviously deeply expert in it. Can he explain to a novice such as myself why there is this new bad thing which seems to be happening so suddenly? There have been power stations burning coal, oil and other things for a long time. What has come together to create the new difficulty that the right hon. Gentleman is so eloquently explaining.

Mr. Stewart

The hon. Gentleman says that he has not read the report, which deals with this problem. I take issue with him over the fact that this is an entirely new problem. I remember being part of a parliamentary delegation to Norway over 10 years ago. The attention of members of that delegation was drawn to the fact that lakes were becoming sterile and that it was because of sulphur emissions. It is not a new problem, but the hon. Member is right to say that it has suddenly come to a head.

Some would argue that a greater increase in nuclear power generation is the obvious answer. I do not agree. In Scotland already, 38 per cent. of electricity demand is supplied by nuclear power stations, and Torness still has to come on stream. Torness will greatly increase that figure, which in unfortunate. I say "unfortunate", because increased reliance on nuclear power is only storing up another kind of environmental problem for the future, and one which will be equally regrettable—if not more so—when our land and seas become polluted by radioactive waste.

I conclude by observing that the EEC has recently adopted a resolution based on the "Muntingh" report on the combating of acid rain, which is a hopeful sign. I hope that the United Kingdom Government will soon take steps to ensure that sulphur dioxide and nitrous oxide pollution in this country is greatly reduced. If I might say so, had it been a decision that was required of a Scottish Government, it is my belief that we should have reached the correct conclusion long ago.