HC Deb 11 January 1985 vol 70 cc1011-73

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

9.39 am
Sir Hugh Rossi (Hornsey and Wood Green)

I welcome this opportunity to debate the report on acid rain of the Select Committee on the Environment, and with it the Government's reply to the report. I am particularly grateful to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House for having kept his promise to find time for the debate. Select Committee reports are not frequently discussed on the Floor of the House. Indeed, not a single Environment Committee report was debated in the House for the whole of the 1979–83 Parliament. This is the third debate accorded to the present Committee since it was appointed to the House a little over 12 months ago, so we are indeed fortunate. Having said that, I must add, without, I hope, appearing a little churlish, that I would have preferred a better time for the debate than a Friday immediately following the end of a curtailed recess. We are discussing a subject of growing importance, when public awareness is heightening, and I know that many colleagues would have wished to be present had they been able to alter their arrangements. However, I recognise the Government's preference for a low-key parliamentary occasion on this subject, so I must be grateful for small mercies.

This is an all-party report of a Committee composed of seven Conservative Members, three Labour Members and one Liberal Member. It is a unanimous report. I wish to thank my colleagues on the Committee for all the hard work that they put in over three months to produce it in record time. Therefore, this is a House of Commons occasion, when the Back Benches seek to give some guidance to Ministers, having carried out in-depth research into matters that we know their administrative duties deny them the time to investigate in the same depth. I trust, therefore, that the debate will not be diminished by party-political posturing.

I say that directly to the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) because I heard him on the radio this morning welcoming the report because it was "straight Labour party policy". Until the report was published, I do not recall any great concern about the matter by the Labour party, certainly not in the general election campaigns of 1979 and 1983. Moreover, when I raised the problem of sulphur emissions when I was on the Opposition Front Bench during the Second Reading of the Control of Pollution Act 1974, I did not receive a very forthcoming reply from the Labour Minister of the day. Therefore, I find it hard to see a Labour policy, but I recognise opportunism when I see it.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

The Labour party would reciprocate the spirit in which the hon. Gentleman started his speech, but he has now introduced the dimension that he sought to avoid. Does he not agree that we could close this point by saying that those who insist on and enthuse about the magic of the market must watch it carefully when we deal with national and international matters of environmental pollution?

Sir Hugh Rossi

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for showing that he agrees that this should be a House of Commons matter, and should not be diminished by party political posturing. I thought it only right, having heard the hon. Member for South Shields on the radio this morning, to respond to him, because it was the only opportunity for me so to do.

I now turn to the report. The term "acid rain" is a convenient and graphic description of the problems that we consider in it. The term is not used in its strictest sense. Not all that is covered by it is rain. We are equally concerned with dry depositions and so-called "occult" depositions, or mists, as we are with acidified rain water. Not all that is covered by the term is acid. We take into account the problems attributed to man-made ozone. However, there is a consistent common denominator. All with which the report is concerned are the products of the combustion of fossil fuels emitted into the atmosphere, which on return to ground level, either singly or in combination with one another or some other elements, cause damage to the physical environment. Therefore, acid rain is a result of burning coal or oil, whether in power stations, industrial plant, domestic boilers and grates or motor car engines, which corrodes buildings, destroys water life, damages forests, trees and plant life, and might be detrimental to human health.

The Committee commenced its inquiry with a completely open mind, and came to the unanimous conclusion that action needed to be put in hand without delay to combat the effects of acid rain. The reasoning that led to our conclusions is set out in detail in the report. Our conclusions were reached after taking and evaluating evidence both here and abroad, much of it of a technical and scientific nature, in which we were assisted by our specialist advisers, Professor Alan Williams of Leeds university and Dr. Nigel Bell of Imperial college, London, to whom we are indebted for all their help and advice.

The first matter that impressed us was the concern and anxiety over acid rain that we found on our visits to West Germany, where extensive tree and forest damage has been experienced, and to Scandinavia, where severe fish losses have been suffered through acidification of lakes and rivers. In those countries there is little doubt as to the cause, although some scientists have differed on how the effects have come about. In those countries, where damage is so extensive and obvious, there is a high level of public awareness and political pressure on Governments to act.

By contrast, in the United Kingdom, there is no such awareness and, indeed, comparatively little scientific monitoring and investigation taking place. The reasons for that are several. First, because of our climatic conditions, prevailing winds and infrequent periods of summer anticyclones, we have so far escaped the obvious effects experienced in West Germany and Scandinavia. Secondly, the Clean Air Act 1956 and the tremendous benefits brought about by smoke-free zones have lulled us into a false sense of security. The London smog that killed some 4,000 people in December 1952 has been banished, and we enjoy 70 per cent. more winter sunshine in central London than in those years, and many species of birds and plants have returned to the area which, previously, could not survive there. That legislation was far in advance of that achieved by any other country. By getting rid of the visible atmospheric pollution, the grit and the soot, we believed as a nation that the problem had been solved.

Thirdly, to that was added the tall chimney policy, as a result of which industrial smoke is sent high into the atmosphere and its contents carried by the prevailing winds many miles from source. In consequence, public anxiety subsided and scientific investigation was reduced to a very low level.

There are large areas of the United Kingdom in which no monitoring of air quality has been taking place. The recording of acid deposition is patchy and primitive. Precious little has been done to study the corrosion of buildings for almost two decades. Inquiry into damage to trees and waterways has been unco-ordinated and on a minute scale. Meanwhile, vast quantities of invisible sulphur dioxide and various oxides of nitrogen have continued to be poured out into the atmosphere from the burning of coal and oil.

Today, the United Kingdom is the largest single emitter of sulphur dioxide in Europe outside the Soviet Union with something in the order of 5 million tonnes per annum. A similar picture emerges for nitrogen oxide where only western Germany produces more than we do.

No one challenges the scientific fact that when sulphur dioxide is deposited on sandstone or limestone a chemical reaction takes place which reduces to powder the surface of the buildings with which they are made. The Committee had to talk to the architect for Cologne cathedral to discover that.

When the Committee returned to the United Kingdom, it found that the Building Research Establishment had done no work on that for two decades; the CEGB had started investigating the problem some two years ago only; and the PSA had kept no central records. However, inquiries of the curators of several historical buildings revealed extensive and widespread damage extremely costly to repair.

The Committee was also told in western Germany that the modern reinforced concrete structures suffer. The acid penetrates to the metal rods, causing them to corrode, rust and expand, fracturing the concrete fabric by internal pressure. No one, but no one, has been able to confirm that to the Committee in the United Kingdom because of a complete lack of study.

When the Committee came to consider the effects upon water life, it found the scientific picture to be more complex. The extent to which water life is affected by depositions of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide depends upon the geology of the catchment area of the waters. There is no doubt that increased acidity of water kills vulnerable eggs and fry especially after snow melts when there can be a sudden surge of acidity. High levels of acidity leach toxic metals into the water which kill adult fish.

The acid effect can be buffered in areas where there is calcium in the subsoil, so fish there suffer less than in areas where a comparable degree of acid deposition falls upon granite.

In Sweden, 18,000 out of 20,000 lakes are acidified and some 4,000 have entirely lost their fish stocks. In Norway a survey of 2,840 lakes showed that 1,711 had lost their fish due to acidification. In the United Kingdom, the Committee found that fish loss is now being experienced in Scotland. A fish farmer in Dumfriesshire suffered serious unexplained losses until scientific research commissioned by him from Stirling university revealed that it was due to acidification of a burn from which he drew his water. Although the Committee does not have evidence, it understands that Wales is now expressing anxiety.

Liming is recommended by some British sources as an antidote. There is no doubt that artificial additions of calcium can neutralise acidity. However, the Swedes consider that to be a temporary measure at best, and the Norwegians say that it is useless in fast-running waters. It cannot combat the acid surges from snow melt at breeding time. They argue that the remedy is to stop the emission of the acid at source and not to attempt to combat it when it has been deposited.

The Committee found the effects on acid rain on trees and forests more difficult to investigate. That was mainly due to the fact that original observations in western Germany had again blamed sulphur dioxide as being the main culprit. It was suggested by some of their scientists that that released toxic metals in the soils, damaging fibre roots.

More recent studies have shown that ozone produced as the result of a reaction between nitrogen oxide and hydrocarbons in sunlight is a significant cause of needle burn and loss to pine trees. It now seems to be generally accepted in western Germany and Scandanavia and by some scientists in this country that ozone is the principal factor in tree damage in western Germany and Scandanavia. In western Germany, the Committee found that some 50 per cent. of the forests are affected.

However, it must be remembered that, whether sulphur dioxide or nitrogen oxide and hydrocarbons combining into ozone are the main culprits, all are the result of burning fossil fuels. The distinction lies in the source, as evidence shows that the motor car engine is equally culpable in the production of nitrogen and hydrocarbons whereas sulphur dioxide comes mainly from industry and power stations.

So far, the United Kingdom can rejoice in that it seems to have escaped the serious effects that acid rain has had on water life and forests in other countries. Whether we are simply some years behind other countries in feeling the cumulative effects of acid deposition because we have been protected by our climatic conditions is impossible to say. That requires monitoring and research, which has not been taking place.

Hence the several recommendations that the Committee makes for such programmes, which I am pleased to note that the Government have accepted, including those for the development of new combustion technology in industry, power stations and motor car engines for the reduction of emissions.

I must express the Committee's gratitude for the fact that 19 of its 21 recommendations have been accepted by the Government and are to be acted upon. However, we are disappointed that the Government are not prepared to recognise the need for urgent action to reduce emissions. The experience of other countries suggests that, while damage may be slow in coming, it spreads rapidly when it does come, and the first signs have already appeared in this country.

The Committee feels also that we have a responsibility to our neighbours. Whilst our tall chimneys and prevailing winds enable us to export 70 per cent. of our sulphur dioxide production, saving ourselves from its worst effects, there is no doubt that we are causing severe damage in neighbouring countries.

Good international relations are important, as the Government recognise in many other aspects of their policy. It is therefore inexplicable that the Government should refuse to accept the Committee's recommendation to join the "30 per cent. club" to which some 20 countries already belong. The commitment would be to reduce sulphur emissions by 30 per cent. by 1993, taking 1980 as the base year. This country has already achieved a 20 per cent. reduction in four years, leaving only the remaining 10 per cent. to be attained over the next nine years. Instead, the Government offer in their reply to attain that 10 per cent. over 16 years—by the end of the 1990s. The principle is accepted but the time scale is extended for what is, in the Committee's view, a dangerously long time. This cannot begin to be an exercise in international co-operation. Surely it is not necessary to be so excessively timid. It shows a regrettable lack of good neighbourliness.

Curious about this aspect of the Government's reply is the fact that, although they assert in paragraph 1.3 that they aim to achieve the 30 per cent. reduction by the 1990s, they do not say how they intend to achieve it. On the contrary. They go on to say that expenditure in curtailing flue gas desulphurisation in existing power stations cannot be justified.

If this solution is rejected and it is known that new combustion technologies will not be available for several years, let alone installed and operating, will the Minister please explain the precise Government programme for the 30 per cent. reduction and how it is intended to be achieved? The reply is totally silent on that.

The Committee also recommends that the Government embark, with our European partners, on a much more ambitious course than the 30 per cent. reduction; namely, the adoption of the EEC draft directive requiring a 60 per cent. reduction in sulphur dioxide emissions by 1995, again taking 1980 as the base year.

The power stations in Britain are by far the largest emitters both of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide. The targets could be reached by the adaptation of some of the larger power stations and by requiring industry to install new technology as and when new factories are built.

The cost to the electricity generating industry would be substantial — approximately £1.5 billion, or the equivalent of a rise of 5 per cent. in electricity charges. All this cost, however, would be spread over a 10-year period.

It is perhaps understandable that the Government should have baulked at undertaking such a large expenditure, especially when their main preoccupation at present is to find every possible means of reducing public expenditure. It is even more understandable that the Government should have been reluctant when they have been receiving advice from not disinterested sources to the effect that it is by no means sure that the expenditure proposed would solve the problem.

In our report, we have collated evidence from a variety of outside sources from which information has not been collated before; evidence which has not previously been considered by Government advisers and Ministers. We believe that all the evidence leads inexorably to the conclusions that we have reached and that sooner or later the Government will be obliged to recognise the validity of our conclusions.

I can only express the hope that a more careful study will be made by the Government of the evidence that we have found and that they will then be moved to take urgent action before irrevocable damage is suffered, damage which in the long term will cost far more to mitigate than the sums posited in our report.

10.4 am

Dr. David Clark (South Shields)

I wish at the outset to congratulate the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi) on his exposition today and on his excellent Select Committee report. Indeed, the House and the country should congratulate him and his fellow Committee members on what they have done.

I need hardly say that I take exception to some of his earlier comments. We are discussing not only the Select Committee report but the Government's response to it in Cmnd. 9397. While I have no quarrel with the Conservative members of that Committee, I quarrel with the Government because, like the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green, we are disappointed with their response to the two cardinal points of the report. It may be an inconvenient fact for the Government, but it happens that the Select Committee report follows Labour party policy as enunciated on many occasions from this Dispatch Box. I will not labour that point today, but, in view of the hon. Gentleman's comments, it is right that I should mention it.

I also associate myself with the hon. Gentleman's comments about having this debate today. We usually discuss non-contentious business on Fridays, whereas the Minister knows that a deep divide exists on this issue between the two sides of the House.

We claim that the Government are indifferent to this whole problem, and proof of that is to be found in Cmnd. 9397, for that response is contradictory, evasive, procrastinating, repetitive and, more important, completely wrong in its conclusions. The Government have so little to say in their puny response that they resort to mere repetition. For example, they say in paragraph 1.4: The United Kingdom has a proud record of achievement in tackling the massive legacy of pollution inherited from the past and the Government firmly intends to sustain that record. That is obviously the opinion of the Government because they say in paragraph 2.28: The United Kingdom has a pround record of achievement in tackling the massive legacy of pollution inherited from the past and the Government firmly intends to sustain that record. Methinks that they protest a little too much in their repetition, though perhaps we should give them full marks for consistency.

The tragedy is that that repeated statement shows the Government's failure to understand the problem of acid rain. To imply that the problem has been "inherited from the past" is basically false. The industrial revolution introduced the problem into the nation, but relatively recent developments by the CEGB, with its high-stack policy, have compounded the problem. It is a problem basically of modern dimensions which should and could be tackled today.

Inconsistencies in the Government's response occur again in paragraph 2.21, in which they allege, when talking about the reduction in acidic emissions: The nature of these reductions is such that resumed industrial growth is unlikely to reverse them. In paragraph 3.62 they moderate their position and assert: It is reasonable to assume that much of this reduction will not be reversed as a consequence of continued industrial growth. However, in the next paragraph, 3.63, they change their position again and say: stronger growth in electricity demand could reverse these trends. Thus, in three paragraphs we have a complete change of position, though the third gives the game away. Much of our success in reducing acidic emissions has been as a result of the industrial recession into which the Government have led us deeper than any other Government in Europe, and, despite the recession, we are still the greatest polluter among the free nations of Europe. What the Government claim in apparent innocence in paragraph 3.62 about the 1980 date for the base mark in relation to emission reductions overlooks the fact that other countries have also reduced emissions. The Government are acting shamefully and their response highlights the shameful manner of their approach.

When I am asked to name the best resumè of the acid rain problem in the United Kingdom — there is a plethora of reports — I refer always to the Select Committee's report, which I hold in esteem. As the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green has said, the members of the Committee began their consideration of the problem with an open mind. They spent a great deal of time examining the issue. They went to Germany, Norway, Sweden, Cumbria, Galloway and other areas of Britain to study the problem. They produced an admirably well-thought-out and well-researched document and its conclusions should have the full support of the House. The conclusions are balanced, objective and realistic and it is sad that the Government cannot accept the principal ones. I hope that Conservative Back Benchers will get that message across to the Government. They will have our full support in their efforts to do so.

I acknowledge that the Government have accepted 19 of the 21 recommendations and I recognise that those recommendations are important. I take the Government's point about research and the collection of data, but I endorse the argument of the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green that we can do all the research in the world but if we fail to take action quickly the damage will be irreparable and the cost even more prohibitive. Unless we accept that we shall threaten our own environment and that of our European neighbours. We shall risk also losing millions of pounds worth of exports and thousands of jobs.

The report that we are discussing is one of many to have appeared in the past 12 months. Acid rain is now much in vogue. However, I first came across the problem in the late 1960s when I was involved in a feasibility study of afforestation in the south Pennines. The project turned out to be impractical because the acidic emissions from the power stations in south-east Lancashire made tree growth extremely poor in the south Pennines. Accordingly, the scheme fell through. The Central Electricity Generating Board told us that we should not worry as it was only a matter of time before the effect of its high-stack policy would reverse the problem in the Pennines. It was right. Trees will now grow in the south Pennines. The acidic emissions have been reduced in that area. However, the same emissions are carried across to our Scandinavian neighbours.

That experience of the late 1960s made me sceptical about the CEGB's position. If acid rain was damaging trees in the south Pennines in the late 1960s, why does the CEGB deny that it is damaging the environment in Scandinavia now? That is a question which the board cannot answer. Indeed, there is no answer to it. However, it would be wrong to give the impression that acid rain no longer has any effect on the United Kingdom. It has a great effect and the problem is worsening quickly.

It must be acknowledged that we are still the largest producer of acidic emissions in the free western world. Much of the emission falls on the United Kingdom, which costs us dearly. A recent estimate of the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology —it is the Government's advisory body — is that £200 million worth of agriculture and horticulture production has been lost because of acidic emissions. Furthermore, as the Select Committee outlines, there is costly damage to many of our historic buildings such as Westminster abbey, York minster and this Palace. The cost is immense.

The damage to the rural environment is perhaps even greater. The tenth report of the Royal Commission drew our attention to the problems of the waters in central Wales. It highlighted the Llyn Brianne area, which is fishless. This is due largely to acid rain. The North-West water authority has carried out a major study in the southwest of Cumbria and the English Lake District and its conclusions are disturbing. It has found evidence to suggest that surface waters in south-west Cumbria are affected by acid rain. It reports: In the Esk and the Duddon catchments, fishery surveys have shown that there are a number of fishless or very near fishless sites in upland regions. These sites had a geometric mean pH of 5.6 or less, and the correlation between fish stock density and pH has now been demonstrated. The North-West water authority had no particular interest in drawing to the attention of the world the damage that has been inflicted on its water supplies, but that is what it did.

The Friends of the Earth in Scotland brought across a German forestry expert. He examined some trees which I have seen in the Lake District and other areas. Mr. Puhe came to this conclusion: If we had observed these signs in Germany we would have classified them as being caused by air pollution. I could give many further examples to show that our lakes and waterways are being poisoned and our tress killed. Much of the damage is being caused to sensitive areas of our country. However, our problems are small compared with those of Norway, Sweden and Germany.

The Germans are concerned about the extent of the damage, but the key factor is the speed at which it is occurring. The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green said that 50 per cent. of German forests were found to be damaged in 1984 whereas only 8 per cent. were damaged in 1982. In 1983, 34 per cent. of forests were damaged. The speed of the damage is of a geometric proportion, and that is why the German Government are pressing so vigorously in the EEC for action. They are introducing and implementing stiff domestic legislative measures to try to tackle the problem.

The damage has been immense in Scandinavia. The hon. Member for Wood Green and Hornsey and I have visited the Tordval area of Norway. Anyone who has been there and to certain areas of Sweden cannot fail to be impressed by the damage which has been caused and the great efforts and large sums of money which the Norwegian and Swedish Governments are making and spending to try to tackle the problem.

One result of the damage has been a demand for international action. It is clear that this is a transboundary problem. I believe passionately in the United Kingdom, but I find it offensive that in Europe only my country is refusing to play its full part in the international scene. The good name of our country is being besmirched by the Government's inaction. This is bound to have an effect on our trading position and lead to job losses. Intense anger is directed against this country in West Germany, Norway and Sweden because of the problems and the damage that is being caused by acid rain. Acid rain may be an esoteric subject in Britain, but it is almost inculcated into the culture of Scandinavia, especially in Norway.

Instead of being the laggards in pollution control, Britain should be in the van. Pollution control technology could offer many opportunities for British engineering firms such as NEI, Babcock and the Howden group. If only we took up the entrepreneurial spirit we could find a great market in this- area of technology. Filtering technology is available and should be used at a number of our power stations. If five or six of our major power stations were retrofitted, they would, as the Select Committee report states, be able to meet the obligations of the 30 per cent. reduction. That would save much environmental pollution and provide jobs and export opportunities. It would provide jobs in that particular technology and in the British coal industry.

I hope that the majority of us in this place consider that the coal industry has a future and will be one of our major suppliers of energy. I regret that coal is regarded as a dirty energy production option by many countries.

If research into the fluidised bed combustion system were to be speeded up, the markets for that technology and the export of coal would be immense and would be opened up. About £25 million is going into that at the moment. That would be particularly important for coal from those threatened areas of Scotland and Wales which are relatively sulphur free or have a low level of sulphur.

That was impressed on me last September when I was taken to the district heating plant at Sōdertalje in Sweden. That was the first modern coal-burning station to be built in Sweden for many years. It was impressive to see much of that coal coming from Britain, being ground up with British technology and then filtered, and meeting all the stringent requirements of the Swedish Government's emission controls. There is much potential for the export of British coal if we can also provide the technology for sulphur-free coal.

Mr. Allan Roberts (Bootle)

The Select Committee also visited the power station in Sweden about which my hon. Friend is talking and two significant matters came to light. One was that the air emitted from the power station was cleaner than the air around the power station that was taken into the power station and the other was that the people there claimed — and we have no reason to disbelieve them—that that power station, using British coal to provide district heating, produced cheaper energy than their hydro-electricity.

Dr. Clark

Once again, I find myself in agreement with a member of the Select Committee.

Mr. T. H. H. Skeet (Bedfordshire, North)

The hon. Gentleman talks as though he favours the coal industry, but he also refers to fluidised bed combustion which is not yet available for power stations and is not likely to be available until the year 2000. But he wishes to sell coal in great quantities.

Dr. Clark

The hon. Gentleman and I have crossed swords on a number of occasions and I expect that we shall continue to do so. My main point was that if research into the fluidised bed combustion system were speeded up it would be available sooner than the hon. Gentleman suggests. I do not accept his time scale because he is generally a pessimist in such matters.

The scrubbing and filtering technologies already exist. The Select Committee has shown that, and it has suggested that they should be retrofitted. That is a worthwhile suggestion.

There is international concern about Britain's isolationist position. It is all very well for the Government to issue statements of good intent, but we want a little more from them. If they have that good intent, why will they not agree to sign the 30 per cent. reduction as 18 other countries have? We should do so as well.

As the Select Committee said, we should be actively supporting the EEC directive for a 60 per cent. reduction of SO2 and a 40 per cent. reduction of nitrogen oxide. We should be retrofitting some of our generating stations—perhaps five or six—which would allow us to achieve a 30 per cent. reduction if we were to agree to that. All that would not only provide much needed jobs but — I emphasise this—would provide us with a springboard for export potential into the developing technology of pollution control.

In rejecting the Select Committee's report, the Government are acting in a wantonly irresponsible manner which threatens our countryside, that of our neighbours, and, indeed, many jobs. In essence, they are—I choose my words carefully—waging chemical warfare not only on our neighbours but on our country.

We oppose the Government's policy and support the Select Committee's report. I hope that hon. Members from both sides of the House will feel able to tell the Government that they are wrong and that the Select Committee is right.

10.23 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. William Waldegrave)

One of the signs of the seriousness with which the Government take the Select Committee's report is the presence today of my hon. Friends the Members for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Ancram), representing Scotland, which has an important interest in this matter, for Wirral, West (Mr. Hunt), representing the Department of Energy, and for the City of London and Westminster, South (Mr. Brooke), representing Britain's research input.

The Government take not only the subject but the report with great seriousness. I pay tribute, as the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) has done, to the work of the Select Committee and to the persuasive advocacy of its report which we have heard from the Chairman today. It was a considerable achievement to produce such a report in such a short time. Although, as is well known, there are some aspects of it with which the Government do not agree, we immediately accepted a considerable range of its recommendations, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi) said.

We accept, as any Government must, that the report has identified some of the gaps in research and monitoring which need to be filled, as indeed did the Warren Spring report earlier, and we are moving to fill those gaps. We accept that more needs to be done and that more must be done in those areas.

My hon. Friend was right to pay tribute to Britain's air pollution record. I am sorry if we irritated the hon. Member for South Shields by saying that twice, but it is true that Britain has had a good record in air pollution over the years, and we do not intend to diminish it.

The hon. Gentleman accused us of inconsistency, but I detected some rather more fundamental inconsistencies in his speech. The Select Committee's recommendations are coherent, but I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman's were. He talked of five or six retrofits to meet the 30 per cent. cut—a rather pessimistic view of what would be needed — but he also said that he accepted the EEC large plants directive in toto. That means at least retrofitting all of them. The hon. Gentleman may like to consider those two contradictory recommendations.

It would not be using the time of the House sensibly for me to repeat the Government's published response today. Instead, I want to comment on some of the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green, to develop the debate a little further if possible, to explain the different emphases where they differ, what we support and why we do so, and what we propose should happen next.

There is a case which the United Kingdom must answer on the acidification of ground waters in southern Scandinavia. The case is rather different from that of forest damage. The more we learn about those subjects the more those two aspects are separating themselves, and they need to be treated with some care and differently.

The work referred to by the hon. Member for South Shields by the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology and by my hon. Friend's Department at Pitlochry shows the beginnings of evidence of some kind of linear relationship between depositions and emissions. We have, from the ITE work, clear evidence of declining depositions in the Lake District, which runs just about in parallel with the decline which we have had in our sulphur emissions over the same period. Therefore, despite the complexities of the atmospheric chemistry involved, we are beginning to establish some kind of relationship between emissions and depositions. It sounds common sense to say that what goes up must come down, but, as those members of the Select Committee who studied the matter know, it is more complicated. The atmospheric chemistry is complex and it is worth studying properly. However, we are beginning to establish a relationship.

There is not much doubt in my mind that, with an essentially vulnerable granitic geology — an acid soil with thin buffering and no limestone about — the addition of further acid is liable to cause trouble. That seems to be common sense. It is not a matter of simply seeking to hide behind further work or to obfuscate the science, but we have yet to establish a model of what gains are obtained for improvements in the depositions.

The major fall of 40 per cent. in Britain's sulphur emissions—20 per cent. of it since 1980—is not to be sneezed at. Gains are now being seen in this country and should soon be measurable in Norway and southern Sweden. Those of us who followed in the path of the Select Committee and were shown great courtesy and hospitality by Norwegian friends and others are aware that those areas seem to have experienced a worsening of the problem at the very time when one would have expected some improvement due to the sharp fall in the acid deposition contribution of this country and one or two others. More work is therefore needed.

When one is spending other people's money, in this case electricity consumers' money, it is always easy for Ministers to push for crash programmes, but we are still ignorant about an essential part of the problem in terms of a genuine cost benefit analysis: not so much in terms of money, but in terms of the environmental gain to be achieved from reductions in deposition. I have seen some of the work being carried out in Norway, some of it jointly financed by this country and Scandinavia. Work is also being undertaken in Wales, Scotland and the Lake District and more will be undertaken in response to the Select Committee's report. That being so, I believe that it is right to wait to see what we are likely to get for our money.

A minor criticism of the Select Committee discussion of ground water acidification problems is that it may have underestimated the land use change aspect. The hon. Member for South Shields has considerable expertise in this. I suspect that forestry methods, including methods of cropping trees—what is left and what is not—may make a considerable difference. Changes of practice in recent years, leaving bark and brushwood in situ, have had a beneficial effect on the soil. I agree with the Select Committee that liming may be useful in certain lakes and lochs with a relatively low water turnover, but it is no solution to the problems of the thousands of small lakes in Norway. It may help as a stop-gap while depositions decline, but it is no overall answer to the problem.

The problem of acidification of ground water in vulnerable areas due to long-distance transportation of acid deposition is a serious problem. We must establish the crucial link between the gains to be expected from further diminutions in deposition. A massive experiment is under way, in that we have already produced a 40 per cent. fall in depositions, so we should be able to start measuring the gains from that.

The problem is quite separate from that of motor car emissions and nitrogen oxide emissions. I am not sure whether the report mentioned nitrogen oxide emissions, but the Select Committee certainly understands the subject. These emissions appear not to cause any damage in Norway, because the vegetation fixes the nitrogen so that there is no contribution to water acidification. In this context, there are some interesting dogs which do not bark in the night. There seems not to be widespread forest damage of the German type in southern Scandinavia, although some damaged stands of trees have been discovered. This is a reminder that forest damage is not simply a matter of acidification of the atmosphere. The hon. Member for South Shields referred to his own work in the Pennines, which showed that acid caused tree damage of the kind experienced in Germany. This direct damage is like that caused by old-fashioned smog. Similar damage is caused in some parts of southern Germany by intense low-level mist. There is damage to trees, but it is a different type of problem.

Dr. David Clark

When the Minister visited Scandinavia he was not able to see the problem in Sweden. Forest damage in Norway is small, but in the southern part of Sweden it is extensive and growing. That should be put on record.

Mr. Waldegrave

My point is that the situation in southern Norway shows that extensive acidification does not necessarily cause tree damage. If there is tree damage in Sweden, which I do not deny, resulting from the same kind of pollutant soup as causes damage in Germany, there must be differences between Norway and Sweden in this respect.

Mr. Allan Roberts

The Minister makes some very interesting points, but neither the Select Committee nor any of the scientists or ecologists whom we met in Scandanavia would claim that acid rain alone causes the damage. It is a contributory factor, causing damage in some circumstances, but not in others.

Mr. Waldegrave

I entirely agree, and I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's support. It will not have escaped his attention, however, that in some simplifications in the popular press the view is taken that more acid necessarily means more damage, and vice versa.

Mr. Spearing

That is not in the Select Committee's report.

Mr. Waldegrave

I make no criticism of the Select Committee. Indeed, I have made it clear that I agree with the Select Committee on this. The acidification of ground water is a sulphur dioxide problem and is not related to the nitrogen oxide problem, whereas the damage to trees in Germany probably is.

Sir Hugh Rossi

We seem to be falling into the trap of using the term "acid rain" in two senses. There is the strict sense relating to the formation of mild suphuric acid through the combination of sulphur and water. There is then the wider sense referring to the result of burning fossil fuels ultimately producing ozone. The Select Committee found that it was the combination of sulphur and ozone which caused the problem. One scientist referred to the combination as a "poison cocktail", which is a good description of what is causing tree damage.

Mr. Waldegrave

There are certainly difficulties of terminology. In a way, it might be better to abandon the term "acid rain" altogether and to refer to the various pollutants in their separate manifestations.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green has provided an accurate resume on the subject of forest damage. Britain's contribution to this and the general problem of long-range transboundary sulphur transmission causing forest damage in Germany is a different problem from that of ground water acidification in Scandinavia.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green said, there is a sort of cocktail or soup. It is becoming increasingly agreed—my scientific advisers take the same view as the Select Committee on this point — that although there may be some background acidification of various kinds—and, as carbon dioxide dissolves in rain, rainfall is slightly acid naturally—the principal problem is caused by a reaction between the hydrocarbon and nitrogen oxide elements of the soup and sunlight, which produces ozone. That explains why there is more tree damage at high levels, where there is more ozone.

Research is understandably being done in desperate haste in the central European countries, and there is by no means unanimous agreement yet. However, there seems to be the beginning of the formation of a consensus among some of the best scientists on this theory. Many other factors must also be involved. Stresses on the trees must be viewed as a whole. Years of drought, or particularly harsh winters, will also have their effect. There may be soil problems, too. The trees become susceptible to damage from a number of sources, and anything that adds to the stress should be avoided.

The British Government and all other European Governments should try to help the central European countries to find a solution to their pressing and dramatic problem. It would be wrong to think that the British Government do not understand that a real crisis faces the Germans and a number of other central European peoples. Tragic things are happening on the eastern side of the iron curtain, where public debates such as this do not take place and where public opinion cannot respond as it can in the free countries. Terrible damage is occurring to parts of the Bohemian forests which will be very difficult to reverse.

We must try to establish a regime of pollution control in Europe which allows the Germans and others to do what is necessary. We agree entirely with the Select Committee about the principal limb of such a regime: there should be another forward push on motor car pollution. In terms of contributions to nitrogen oxide and hydrocarbons —which are probably the crucial ingredients of the unpleasant cocktail—the motor car is the main polluter.

There is a debating point here which is hard to resist, especially as it is a real point too. It would help us all if the Germans tackled the problem of their speed limits. Their own scientists state that if that were done they could cut nitrogen oxide emissions by 18 per cent. straightaway. In any case, the European Community must seek to evolve a motor car pollution control regime that will enable each country to take action without falling foul of Community law. We are trying to negotiate such a regime.

It is no secret that the Germans want to make more rapid progress than most of the other countries of the Community, but we must remember the severe dangers of allowing the European market in motor cars to break up. No one would gain from that except the Japanese. Commissioner Davignon, having heard people urge the instant fitting of three-way catalysts to all cars, said that he had never before heard a proposal put forward in the Community for the direct subsidy of the Japanese car industry. We must pay attention to the need to maintain the internal market. However, I hope that the Community will reach broad agreement on the matter. With luck, that should have a massive effect on forest damage.

There is another point which may have been made in the Select Committee's report, although I did not see it there. Lean burn by itself does nothing about hydrocarbons. It does something about nitrogen oxide which, with the sunlight and the hydrocarbons, produces the ozone, but it may be necessary to do something specifically about the unburnt hydrocarbons in exhaust fumes. The oxidation catalyst might be worth considering, at least for some cars, as a way of tackling the problem. It would be simpler and cheaper than the three-way catalyst.

It is no secret that the part of the report with which, in scientific terms, the Government had most difficulty was the passage on building damage. The information and measurements given to us suggest a somewhat different cause for the damage that is still taking place to medieval buildings at a dramatic rate.

I know Wells cathedral very well. It is built of limestone. The magnificent west front has rightly been called the greatest collection of medieval sculpture north of the Alps. That stone has been terribly damaged. We believe that the evidence shows that the damage is the result of dry deposition— local deposition— that took place some years ago. The process—which the Select Committee rightly described as the crystallisation of salt within the pores of the stone, which then cracks the stone —continues for a very long time.

Mr. Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet)

The generality of what my hon. Friend says may be right, but will he concede our point at least in some very important cases, such as Lincoln cathederal, which is in the plume path of the Trentside power stations, and York minster, with its relatively soft limestone? The surveyors of the fabric of York minster left us in no doubt about the fact that acid deposition is the major cause of the corrosion of the stonework.

Mr. Waldegrave

I do not disagree with the idea that the damage has been caused by acid deposition. However, it is likely that the damage is being caused by local deposition which took place some time ago. It may be that, as the Select Committee said, there has not been enough monitoring on a national scale. However, urban monitoring has shown dramatic declines in urban sulphur dioxide pollution over 20 years, and yet the crumbling of the stonework has continued. I fear that, whatever we did now, the damage would continue to occur for a considerable time.

Sir Hugh Rossi

The Select Committee entirely accepted the view that damage was far heavier in the past when the concentrations of sulphur dioxide in the atmosphere were much greater. There is no doubt that there has been a diminution.

Nevertheless, the evidence that we receive from architects who examine the buildings regularly is that the damage is continuing today. By far the greatest emitters of sulphur dioxide today—responsible for 66 per cent. of the total emission in the United Kingdom—are our power stations. The Central Electricity Generating Board may well be advising the Minister to consider past and local pollution before he turns to the power stations, but there is no escaping the truth.

Mr. Waldegrave

Clearly, this is an area of scientific disagreement between the Government and the Select Committee. I assure my hon. Friend that I am not being advised by the CEGB on the matter. The CEGB does not advise my Department.

The damage is certainly continuing. I am advised that the crystallisation of the salt goes on remorselessly year after year. One cannot argue the question both ways. One cannot say both that the high-stack policy has moved the stuff, and that it has remained where it used to be.

I think that the first thing that I said on arriving at the Department was, "What about the medieval cathedrals?" They have the same cultural importance in this country, perhaps, as the forests have in Germany, and any damage to them must be of great public interest. I have been advised that the argument may not be as powerful as it may have appeared to the Select Committee to be. However, the Select Committee will have many advocates here today.

Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill)

Leaving aside medieval cathedrals, Liverpool cathedral has been built this century—work began just after 1906 and was finished relatively recently—and yet the roof covering is having to be replaced because of the effects of acid rain. Will the Minister deal with that issue? Moreover, will he say who is to bear the cost of the work, as many great buildings throughout the country are suffering and we can hardly go to the European Community to ask for money as we have rejected the relevant EC draft directive?

Mr. Waldegrave

The peak year for urban sulphur was as late as 1961. It took some time to implement the clean air legislation. We are now down to about 30 per cent. of that peak in urban concentrations of sulphur. That is a dramatic improvement. The hon. Gentleman's point about Liverpool cathedral does not therefore contradict what I have said.

Mr. Allan Roberts

How does the Minister square that with our seeing that recent restoration work at Cologne cathedral to replace stone which had been damaged by acid rain is now itself being damaged by acid rain?

Mr. Waldegrave

Low-level pollution in Germany will have declined even more recently than in Britain, because that country did not have clean air Acts. Moreover, there has been no decline in nitrogen oxide, which derives especially from motor cars in urban areas. There is not necessarily a contradiction. The Select Committee makes a broad case, without having to rely on this aspect of the matter so heavily.

We accept the Select Committee's suggestion that it is essential to monitor potential health dangers. The Select Committee on Social Services is a little like the tabloids used to be about the private lives of prominent people in public life when they said, "The rumours were denied." We have no evidence of health risks which are derived from acid rain. We have known about the dangers in Scotland arising from plumbo-solvency in water supplies. By far the greatest contributory factor to that is peat water. The contribution of acidic deposition is extremely small.

The Government agree with the Select Committee on a range of issues concerning research and monitoring. We agree about the importance of the cocktail or soup of nitrogen oxide, hydrocarbons and sunlight in forest damage. Lean burn is a sensible route to achieve energy savings and reduced pollution. The Government agree with the Select Committee about the importance of work being done on the benign technologies such as pressurised fluid bed combustion. We shall all be happy if such things can be got on stream and made economically viable. However, the engineers still have to solve considerable technological problems. We agree that it is sensible to take a precautionary view and try further to diminish the output of nitrogen oxide and sulphur dioxide.

As to our committing ourselves to a further reduction without a detailed programme, I must observe that we have taken what we believe is a realistic assessment of industrial trends, the shape of industry in the future, further gains in energy conservation and the additional contribution of nuclear energy, which many hon. Members want. It is reasonable to assume that further reductions will be possible without retrofitting flue gas desulphurisation. Unlike other countries, we have not signed up for the so-called 30 per cent. club. We believe that it will be achieved, but we are not sure that it will occur without FGD and do not think that the economics of FGD are sensible.

The Government have no argument with the Select Committee's sums in regard to the cost of meeting the large plants directive. There is not much argument about it costing £1.5 billion. We have not made that large commitment because we believe, on the basis of the evidence, which I hope I have set out reasonably impartially and to which the Select Committee's report has been a major contribution, that no Government would be responsible if they charged into an enormous crash programme now. We have achieved our 40 per cent. improvement. It would be easy to go on increasing the price of electricity and to add further problems to the burning of coal. I do not know whether the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Miss Maynard) is normally an Opposition spokesman on ecological matters, but, speaking to the national executive committee at the 1984 Labour party conference, she said that the problem of acid rain might have been played up in recent months merely to knock the coal industry during the miners' strike. That is one of the voices of the Labour party.

Dr. David Clark

Might I add that, during that debate, the Labour party conference gave an overwhelming mandate to the type of policy that I have advocated today?

Mr. Waldegrave

If I may say so without embarrassing the hon. Member for South Shields, I prefer him to the hon. Member for Brightside as the Labour party's ecological spokesman.

There is no escaping the fact that the economics of coal burn must get worse, in spite of possible gains in employment for the exporters of technology. We must examine the process industries. Their margins are so narrow that any unnecessary increase in the price of electricity would be crucial. We must also consider all other consumers of electricity and jobs in the round. We have concluded, as we have said in our report, that to rush into a crash programme that would cost between £1.5 billion and £2 billion is not right.

Once again I pay tribute to the Chairman of the Select Committee and his team for producing a useful and stimulating report.

10.56 am
Mr. Donald Stewart (Western Isles)

I shall not dwell on the mechanics of acid precipitation and its effects, because they have been dealt with. I too am grateful to the Select Committeee for its thorough investigations and recommendations. The House owes it a debt.

I shall concentrate on some specific issues and emphasise what the Government should do to deal with the problem effectively. In south-west Scotland and the west central Highlands, the problem is especially worrying. Many lochs and streams have become acidified and therefore fishless. It is now clear that 57 Scottish lochs are affected in that way not because those areas receive more acidic rain than other parts of the United Kingdom but because of the volume of rainfall and the low buffering capacity of the underlying rocks. Forests do not seem to have suffered to the same extent so far. I was interested to note the Government's response on page 8 of their reply which says: a new form of damage to trees has recently been observed in North and West Britain". I take it that "North and West Britain" means Scotland. Perhaps the Minister will give further details.

As for the more general circumstances in the northern hemisphere, 90 per cent. of sulphur dioxide in industrialised regions is man-made. The Government's response to the Select Committee report states that rain has been made much more acid by man. There is no doubt about that. The United Kingdom is the largest emitter of sulphur dioxide in western Europe — 80 per cent. of sulphur deposited in Britain is produced by us. In the United Kingdom, the sources of most of the pollution are tin England. The Central Electricity Generating Board produces 63 per cent. of all sulphur dioxide pollution and 46 per cent. of all nitrous oxide pollution.

Apart from the pollution that orginates from motor vehicle exhausts, coal and oil-fired power stations and the large industrial plants are primarily responsible for our pollution. In Scotland we have only two coal-fired power stations normally on stream — at Longannet and Cockenzie. They produce only 2 per cent. of the total United Kingdom sulphur dioxide emissions and are not largely responsible for the effects from which Scotland suffers.

Evidence exists that the most acidic episodes of precipitations in the Scottish Highlands occur when the south-east winds prevail. On 20 February 1984, a deep layer of sooty snow was deposited in the Cairngorms. It was brought by air currents which had passed over the English midlands and south Yorkshire—that is, over the areas that have concentrations of coal-fired power stations. The black snow undoubtedly led to fish kills in west Highland waters shortly afterwards.

Because of such events, it is possible for us to understand what the people of Norway and Sweden feel about pollution. On a parliamentary visit to Norway about 10 years ago, the attention of the parliamentary group was drawn to the fact that many of the lakes could no longer produce trout. Our hosts explained it by emissions from factories in the Soviet Union. It was either diplomatic or charitable of them to say that to a delegation from the United Kingdom, but some of us with knowledge of the prevailing winds in Norway were doubtful. Nowadays they are not in any doubt about laying the responsibility where it should lie.

I now turn to the remedies of these unhappy circumstances. Four types of action can help to reduce pollution. The first is electricity conservation. That should be of interest to any Government, apart from the question of acid rain. The other three are using coal with a low sulphur content, using the fluidised bed conversion method and using desulphurisation methods after combustion.

If I may plug the Scottish coalfield, it happens, as the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) said, that its coal has the lowest sulphur content in the United Kingdom. It would make good sense to use that coal and it makes nonsense of any plans which the Government and the National Coal Board may have to contract operations in the Scottish coalfield. Apart from other considerations, such actions are environmentally unsound.

Both the Royal Commission on the Environment and the Select Committee on the Environment recently dealt with and made firm recommendations on combustion and desulphurisation. The option is flue gas desulphurisation.

If the United Kingdom is to meet the EC directives on SO2 and nitrogen oxide emissions from large plants, it will be necessary to go ahead with flue gas desulphurisation at the largest power stations. I welcome both the directive and the commitment of those countries which have joined the so-called 30 per cent. club. It is a pity that the Government are dragging their heels on those developments.

The cost to CEGB consumers of meeting the cost of flue gas desulphurisation would be about 6 per cent. on electricity bills over 10 years, which is considerably less than that which the Government tried a year or two ago to force on the same consumers. It is a small price to pay for a clean environment and the good neighbourliness to which the Government document refers and which the Government claim to support.

The Minister repudiated the charge that the Government were unaware of the problem. The serious charge is that the Government are well aware of it and are being extremely dilatory in taking the necessary action to cure it.

11.3 am

Mr. Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet)

I am extremely grateful to be called to make a short contribution as a member of the Select Committee on the Environment. I began by praising the Government for arranging the debate. It is characteristically a little ungenerous of hon. Members to complain that it is being held on a Friday. We had 22 days' notice. More important, the pens of the commentators will be no more blunted by the debate taking place on a Friday than will the print of Hansard be faded. What is important is the Government's approach to our Committee's report.

I assure my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary that the Committee began its long inquiry with a completely open mind. He may be consoled by the fact that at least seven of the 11 members started with the assumption that we were not likely to encourage unnecessarily an increase in public expenditure or in the public sector borrowing requirement, if we could possibly help it. We were backed by considerable specialist advice. I join our Chairman, my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi), in paying tribute to Professor Williams of Leeds university and Dr. Nigel Bell of Imperial college for the tremendous specialist advice that they gave us.

Mr. Skeet

If the Government were to accept the proposals outlined in paragraph 196 of the report—that is, the 60:40:40 ratio—what would that mean in terms of the cost to the CEGB and to the public who would be the consumers of electricity?

Mr. Chapman

My hon. Friend shows great foresight in anticipating the subjects with which I shall deal shortly.

We amassed a considerable amount of evidence and closely questioned many scientists and specialists about acid deposition in this and many European countries. The evidence was compelling, even if — my hon. Friends accepted this from the outset—it was not absolutely conclusive in scientific terms.

We reached two inescapable main conclusions. First, there is an urgent need for much more research and monitoring. I am reassured by the Government's response in that respect. Secondly, there is a need for urgent action by the United Kingdom Government, pending further evidence from other countries' experience, that delay will very probably make remedial action too late because the damage caused by acid deposition can spread at an alarmingly rapid rate.

Whatever else we may be, we are not ecological nutcases looking for every possible avenue to promote every environmental cause to salvage our political consciences in other areas. We are considering areas where damage, if it takes place, will cause a great deal of environmental loss and amass a considerable amount of financial cost to our nation. It is important that that is said explicitly by some of my hon. Friends.

The problem with political awareness of acid deposition, unlike smog, is that it is invisible. The political problem in Britain is that there are few outwardly visible examples of damage caused by acid deposition, although the number is increasing. We are, happily, more fortunate than are most European countries because of our geographical position, surrounded as we are by seas, and because of our geology. Norway and Sweden are especially vulnerable not only because of geography—they lie in the wake of much of the exported United Kingdom pollution — but because of their geology. Sparse soil on top of an especially hard substratum of rock, mostly granite, makes their problem especially great. There is much more acidification in their waters because the acid cannot permeate the substratum so easily, and it runs off into their rivers and lakes.

The Committee was appalled to discover that 18,000 of the 20,000 lakes in southern Sweden have been damaged, and that 4,000 of them are now fishless. The result is that many of the lakes have become, to quote the words of Keith Spence writing in Country Life on 15 November last year, nothing more than beautiful dead mirrors. The ecological consequences are extremely serious.

Sulphur dioxide is only one of the pollutants about which we should be worried. Britain is a main offender in emitting sulphur dioxide. It is the largest European exporter to other countries of SO2 with the exception of West Germany, and I am told that last year Britain emitted 3.72 million tonnes of sulphur dioxide—

Mr. Skeet

A big drop.

Mr. Chapman

Yes, it is a big drop, and I shall come to that point in a moment.

Not only does Britain export more to other countries than does almost any other European country, but much of it falls on our friends in Norway and Sweden. Although there has been a dramatic reduction during the past 15 years, the emissions from power stations, which are the worst offenders, and which contribute more than half of the total emissions, have increased since 1960, and are at about the same level as they were in 1970. There has been no dramatic reduction in emissions from power stations, and I hope that I can say that without initiating a bitter attack on the National Coal Board, the National Union of Mineworkers or the Central Electricity Generating Board.

The cost of taking action must be at the back of the Government's mind. If we accepted the membership, if that is the right phrase, of the 30 per cent. club, and if we accepted the EC draft directive—I am using the figures of the CEGB and trying to respond as openly as I can—it is estimated that coal-fired electricity generating costs would increase by 9 per cent. to 10 per cent. Since about half of our electricity is produced by coal-fired power stations, that would increase electricity prices by 5 per cent. to 6 per cent. Many people believe that the increase will be smaller, but I shall accept the CEGB figures. Of course, the increase would be over at least 10 years.

If our 12 major power stations were retrofitted during the next 10 years, at a cost of £1,432 million at 1983 prices —we would therefore probably have to pay more than £1.5 billion at today's prices—we would achieve the 60 per cent. reduction on 1980 levels by 1995, as requested in the EC draft directive. That is a great deal of money, but I hope that the cost can be put into perspective. If I were sitting on the Opposition Benches, I might ask the Minister to say, as a guide, by how much electricity prices have increased during the past 10 years. That might put the 5 per cent. increase in a more meaningful light.

Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth)

The hon. Gentleman is correct to draw this matter to the attention of the House. On the credit side, does he accept that the resulting good will and the economic opportunities that would develop in Scandinavia in appreciation of that exercise might make it a profitable venture?

Mr. Chapman

Indeed, and I hope to refer to that later.

I shall say a few words about the alleged damage to buildings, and I presume to do so as a member of the Royal Institute of British Architects. I shall focus my remarks especially on those buildings which, by any definition, are part of our marvellous architectural heritage. There is little doubt—again I choose my words carefully—that acid deposition increases the corrosion of stonework, but, of course, it is only one factor; I have no doubt that the older the building the less it is a factor in the total corrosion of its stonework to date. I also accept that the geographical position of the building is a major factor. It must be obvious, even to non-scientific minds, that corrosion from acid deposition is likely to be greater if a building stands in the plume path of a series of power stations than if it is sited on hills facing the Atlantic.

Nevertheless, corrosion represents an expensive problem in some buildings. The Select Committee visited Cologne cathedral. In paying tribute to the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi), who is Chairman of the Committee, may I say that I was fascinated to hear him talk about our meeting the architect of Cologne cathedral—I had not realised that he was so old. On reflection, my hon. Friend was probably right to say that, because we were watching the replacement of a replica of a replica. It could be argued that much of Cologne cathedral, at least the part that is outwardly visible, is relatively new.

Lincoln cathedral has a great problem in this respect. The surveyor of the fabric of York minster had no doubt that acid deposition was the main cause of the corrosion of the magnesian limestone, which is relatively soft—many of our buildings, including the Palace of Westminster, are built from relatively soft stone, not granite—and, in at least some buildings, meant that increasing acid deposition was a costly item in conserving our architectural heritage. Therefore, I especially welcome the Government's response to the recommendations in paragraphs 36 and 37 of our report, and the fact that increased research and monitoring will take place at some of our cathedrals, including Lincoln.

The Select Committee did not visit Poland, but there is much evidence that acid deposition has put the fine 13th century gothic buildings of Cracow under great threat.

Mr. Waldegrave

My hon. Friend is entirely right about the severe problem in Poland, but once again it is the old problem of low-level intensive smog that is causing the disaster there.

Mr. Chapman

I accept entirely my hon. Friend's point, but in the wider generality of my argument I am sure he will accept my views as being equally valid.

As hon. Members have said, we have a fundamental obligation to our neighbours in Europe. Yes, the costs will be large, but the opportunities are there. Surely it is not beyond the wit and diplomatic skill of any United Kingdom Government to see that, if we are to invest hugely, to the tune of £1.5 billion to £2 billion, there will be a beneficial spin-off in the sale and development of technology, a point aptly touched on by the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark). I nearly said "my hon. Friend" because we have an agreeable pairing arrangement with each other. [HON. MEMBERS: "Shh."] I apologise to the hon. Member. We share environmental interests. I am sure that the Whips get their own back because whenever we appear in the Chamber together there is never a vote. I hope that there will not be an exception today.

There would be beneficial spin-offs from such investment. We have the skill to do it properly and we must screw more money out of the European Community. Already my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has directed the debate towards ensuring that conservation becomes part of the Community agricultural budget and should be partially paid for out of it. Here we have a heaven-sent opportunity to try to press for the reorganisation of the European Community budget. There are opportunities as well as great financial liabilities.

It is possible, over a 10-year rolling programme, to achieve what the 20 countries of the 30 per cent. club have set out to do and accept the EC draft directive, which aims to reduce sulphur dioxide emission by 60 per cent. My hon. Friend the Minister was honest in his approach. He said that we did not choose to join the 30 per cent. club because we could not guarantee that we could deliver the reductions in emissions. However, at least some of those 20 countries are in exactly the same position, but have committed themselves. Could not the Government join the 30 per cent. club, adding that rider and saying that it is a rider that we are sure all the other 20 members of the club have at the back of their minds? Could not the Government think earnestly about agreeing to the EC draft directive?

Let me just set out the possible chronological scenario. In 18 months, we should be in a position of having set up the considerable increase in research programmes that is necessary, and we should have set up the extra monitoring stations in the recommended parts of the country. By 1989, we should know more certainly, from the extra research that has taken place into pressurised fluidised bed combustion development whether the necessary technology can be produced more cheaply or more effectively in order to retrofit some or all of the power stations, so that we might not be involved in such a great expense as hitherto we have imagined. Therefore, it should be possible to meet the European deadline of 1995.

I hope that the Government will have second thoughts about this, even if they have to add that diplomatic rider.

I hope that they will subscribe to the 30 per cent. club, accept the EC draft directive and show the positive commitment that they have done in their programme to eliminate lead from petrol — a commitment that I applaud.

11.25 am
Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth)

I agree with the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mr. Chapman). I hope that I should take even less time than he did, because many hon. Members wish to speak, as they recognise that this is a vital issue. I shall not complain about this debate being on a Friday, as we are supposed to be full-time Members of Parliament.

The Government may have advanced a little from the position that they maintained in our last debate on environmental matters. I was extremely critical of the Minister's approach then, as he may recall. At least we may now congratulate him on having accepted the support for research. He accepted that for nitrate pollution in Question Time on Wednesday and we now have ample evidence that the Government are prepared to engage in research on these matters, although we need a rather more marked commitment. Embarking on costly development expenditure research alone will no longer suffice. We hope that the two principal failures of the Government in regard to the Select Committee's report will be amended.

The Minister's comments about Norway reminded me of the position that I was in about five or six years ago when, in the Council of Europe, I was seeking to persuade the Norwegians not to press their complaints about the United Kingdom. I said then that the forestry practices in the Tordval valley meant that the marginal nature of the soil and the granite condition of the area created the problem rather than atmospheric emissions from the United Kingdom. I was advised by those interested in the matter that fish deaths in the Tordval valley in the 19th century, before our large chimneys were erected, showed that those practices were responsible. I went along with that approach, until I realised that the thousands of lakes and rivers in Scandinavia where forestry practices cannot be a problem and where fish deaths in the 19th century appear not to have occurred suggested that we were making excuses. We were also seen to be so doing. A great deal of animosity between Scandinavia and ourselves has arisen because four or five years ago we seemed to be trying to evade the issue.

Since then, the problem has become worse. We have to show our good faith and accept that we cannot go on poisoning our neighbours. The cost of our poisoning is serious for our Scandinavian neighbours. Many Conservative Members, and perhaps a few Labour Members, are not concerned about causing problems for our neighbours, although that is no way for any civilised and trading country —I hope that we shall remain a trading country — to operate. However I point out to those who maintain such a cynical attitude that the problems of the past 20 or 30 years in Scandinavia are now occurring here.

Those who are not interested in the ecology of our islands may be able to take a fairly placid view of the problem. However, in a couple of weeks, thousands of people will be reading an article in a magazine called Birds, which some hon. Members may have received yesterday, which talks about the decline of the dipper. It is an attractive, fairly widely distributed little bird, whose numbers are now rapidly diminishing. This problem is occurring because of the acidification of our water courses, which has killed off the food on which the birds depend.

I am reminded of the fact, as the coal industry is relevant to this issue, that until relatively recently miners took canaries down collieries with them, not to hear them sing but because the canary died before the man did. The dipper can serve as a similar indicator for our civilisation. If a fairly tough little bird is being wiped out from the areas in our islands that it has long inhabited, that could show that we are polluting our planet, and doing so with a far too easy-going an approach. The Government should embark on the necessary expenditure. It will be only a tiny part of the expenditure that they have incurred through increased electricity costs as a consequence of the miners' strike. The extra cost of the oil burn will not be as much as the cost of cleaning up our sulphur emissions from power stations.

We must consider fluidised bed combustion. I recognise that the hon. Member for Bedfordshire, North (Mr. Skeet) is exceedingly pessimistic about that. I do not know the source of his information—

Mr. Skeet


Mr. Hardy

I shall not give way on this occasion; the hon. Gentleman will no doubt contribute later in the debate.

It is already possible for the fluidised bed to be developed. We can show our neighbours that we take their problems as well as our problems seriously. During 1983, and recognising the retreat that had developed in the mining industry, I twice in this House called upon the chairman of the National Coal Board and Ministers in the Department of Energy to take an optimistic and positive step on the fluidised bed. If they had done so, they would have encouraged the mining industry, which might have had a dramatic effect last year.

We cannot afford to neglect that magnifient opportunity. It would take our burning of fossil fuels out of the 19th century and into the 21st century. We have been too dependent upon 19th century combustion technology for coal. We need to take that leap forward, for both economic and commercial reasons. It would serve the cause of the environment and also coalfield economies —something that is desperately needed.

Above all, the Government must spend money. They should devote a small proportion of the £50,000 million from our offshore industries to put Britain in good order and bring about a system within Europe that would command respect rather than hatred for Britain.

11.31 am
Mr. Michael Forsyth (Stirling)

I am grateful for the opportunity to make a short contribution to the debate. In response to the hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy), I cannot resist saying that his argument about the effects of fossil fuels would be more convincing if he would embrace the argument that one way of reducing acid rain emissions is to accelerate the speed with which we are commissioning and building nuclear power stations. I find it astonishing that among those who have jumped on the acid rain bandwagon with such haste are those who are quick to attack nuclear power.

I declare something of an interest, because one of the Scottish lochs which is badly affected by high acid levels and has been the subject of much scrutiny and research is Loch Ard, which is in the middle of my constituency and quite literally on my doorstep.

Although much of the debate, both inside and outside the House, has centred on the effects of sulphur and nitrogen oxides produced by industry and power stations, and recently the interaction between the gases and products from the internal combustion engine, I want to leave the debate on those matters to the members of the Committee. Far be it from me, as someone who was neither a member of the Committee nor has any claim to great expertise in the subject, to embark upon that highly technical debate. It would be difficult for me to make any meaningful comment.

I wish briefly to refer to the question of how far the impact of atmospheric pollution is exacerbated by the activities of commercial forestry, especially in Scotland. While the Committee did not go into that matter in any great depth, several witnesses were questioned—notably the Forestry Commission, the Natural Environment Research Council and Department of the Environment officials.

The NERC made a significant reference to the problem, which is not a new one. I recall reading an article in The Observer last September which said that it had somehow obtained unpublished official documents from the Welsh water authority, which had found that the rivers, streams and lakes surrounded by coniferous forests are much more deadly than identical ones in open moorland." I do not know whether the Welsh water authority referred to that in its evidence to the Committee. The evidence was not published in the final report.

As part of the NERC evidence, there is a note on the work of Macaulay Institute for Soil Research at Aberdeen, and many of the experiments were carried out in my constituency. The institute looked at stands of Sitka spruce to examine their throughput of acid rain. Subsequent research extended that to examine the effects on other types of trees. That research appears to show that certain types of trees, especially pines, create very acid soil.

While that higher than normal acidity in the soil did not usually appear to affect the acidity of streams, after draining the areas concerned a period of high rainfall appeared to result in a marked rise in the acidity of the streams. The significance of that is that improved drainage is often a feature of new forestry activity and planting, and the easier run-off of rain water seems likely to increase the amount of acidity entering streams, rivers and lakes.

For those in Scotland who are especially concerned about the impact of acid rain on the fish population, there is a further factor which has nothing to do with the acidity arising from the drainage problem. It is that the quicker run-off destroys salmon beds and other spawning grounds and thereby reduces the embryo population of fish. That is not unique to this country. Indeed, there was an interesting article recently in a magazine about research in the United States. Although generally everyone seems to blame power stations for the problem, in America they blame Smokey Bear, which is the symbol used to prevent people from throwing away matches and starting forest fires. A theory has been advanced that, even though there are natural coniferous forests, the acid rain problem has been increased because below the trees on the floor of the forest there is a build-up of pine needles and acid humus which greatly increases the acidity of water passing through it. In the natural state of things forest fires would occur which would burn up that carpet and create an alkaline neutralising influence, but because of the impact of commercial forestry taking away the trees, and because of the management that prevents forest fires, the balance has been shifted towards acidity.

Mr. Chris Smith (Islington, South and Finsbury)

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the Select Committee received considerable evidence when it was in Norway that, although there is some scientific evidence that the existence of coniferous trees increases the acidity in the soil around the trees, it is also clear that in Norway the lakes and trees above the tree line are affected by acid to an even greater extent than those below the tree line? That, therefore, cannot be the cause of the increased acidity.

Mr. Forsyth

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. As I said earlier, I do not want to become involved in the detail of the argument that concerned the Committee. I accept the hon. Gentleman's point. I apologise for my parochialism in talking exclusively about the Scottish problem.

Loch Ard has been affected comparatively recently by high acid levels and, regrettably, by a substantial reduction in the trout population, if not the perch population. The fact that that has coincided with the ringing of Loch Ard by coniferous forests is a coincidence which should be studied.

The research carried out by the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology at Loch Ard shows high acid levels in the water, but above the tree line on Ben Lomond there is no acid problem at all. The Norwegian problem may be that the acid is coming from the deposition of water on the area, but that is not the case in Loch Ard. Ben Lomond receives the same rain and, indeed, provides the head water to the Forth.

Those who are jumping up and down in my consitutency and elsewhere in Scotland telling me that the fish are dying because my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland is not prepared to join the 30 per cent. club must deal with that problem. They should address their remarks to the activities of the Forestry Commission and look at the evidence of forestry as a means of creating acidity if they are concerned about acid levels in the water supply. I accept the point made by the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith), which is that if we are discussing the deposition of acid, we must look to the power stations, and so on.

I am sorry that, having identified the problem of ground water acidity arising from forestry activities in paragraph 52 of its report, the Committee went on to minimise its importance and made no recommendation for action. That was disappointing. I apologise to my hon. Friend the Minister for the fact that I shall not be here when he winds up the debate, but I have a long-standing commitment in my constituency. However, I should like him to give an assurance that the Government will not allow the Committee's neglect of the issue to lead to any reduction in the research into the highly complex relationship between alternative land uses and their impact on the acidity of our rivers, lakes and lochs. I am pleased to notice from the evidence of the NERC that it spent an estimated £500,000 last year on those and other related areas of research, and I welcome the fact that others are also working in the area.

Reducing the pollution of the atmosphere that creates acid rain is only one side of the coin. The other is to try to restore the natural way in which the soil and the plant life that it supports act to reduce the acidity before it enters our rivers and lochs. To do so, we require a greater understanding than we currently possess of the way in which the water interacts with the environment on its progress from raindrops to rivers. Our current lack of knowledge is shown in the report. It is interesting to compare the evidence of the Macaulay institute research, which showed clear differences between the acidity of water passing through different types of trees, with the answer given by the Forestry Commission to question 477, when it was claimed that whether there were conifers or broad leaves, the same drain, the same imbalance occurs. Both cannot be correct. As new Forestry Commission and private forestry developments, with subsidies, are continually taking place, and mature forests are being regularly felled and replaced in Scotland and elsewhere in the United Kingdom, it is essential that the implications of current methods of forestry are understood and that where they can be seen to he potentially damaging to the environment and the rural economy of many areas of Britain, particularly Scotland, they are changed, or the developments abandoned. If, as seems to be the case, in some areas we are in danger of creating a few jobs in forestry at the cost of destroying many jobs in tourism —the former all too often being subsidised, while the latter is profitable and taxed—an examination of current policies is imperative. I leave aside the incalculable cost in terms of damage to the environment.

I have no wish to detract from the main thrust of the Committee's report or to quarrel with the Government's response, but my concern is to look at the initial causes of acidic pollution of the atmosphere and at what further steps can and should be taken to reduce them even more than we have over the past 30 years. We do not forget that other factors are at work that make a serious and significant contribution to the end consequences of pollution.

11.44 am
Mr. Willie W. Hamilton (Fife, Central)

There is no doubt that in the past decade or so there has been a rapidly increasing public interest in the effects of pollution of one kind or another on our environment and our health. I should like to make one or two points about Scotland before I embark on more general matters.

First, I should like to refer to the composition of the Committee. It is interesting and regrettable that there is not one Scottish Member on it from either side of the House, yet the debate is being wound up by two Front Bench spokesmen from Scotland, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mr. Craigen) and the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland. I have no complaint about that, but it is important to the House to recognise that it is a United Kingdom Committee and a United Kingdom problem. The various parts of the United Kingdom should be represented on such Committees.

It is also a pity that the Scottish Office was not asked, nor did it offer, to give any evidence to the Committee, yet the Scottish problem excited a great deal of interest among the Scottish people. I shall address some points specifically to the Minister, which I believe are important. Before I do so, I should like to refer to matters that have not been referred to hitherto. One is the effect of acid rain —I use the term in the general sense that the Committee used — on human health. In Sweden, the Committee found evidence that acid rain is an increasing threat. There is evidence in Sweden that acid rain increases the corrosion of copper pipes. The leaching of copper and lead from water supply pipes by increasingly acidic water and the leaching from soil of heavy metals such as cadmium and mercury into water can have serious implications for human health. Those are not trivial matters. Evidence was cited of copper leaching having caused diarrhoea in small babies, and that was confirmed by United Nations organisations and supported by evidence from the United States.

Those points were put to the chief scientist at the Department of the Environment, Dr. Holdgate, and he did not know anything about them. He said that limited work" had been done on lead and copper piping. I should like to know—I think that the House and the country would also like to know — exactly what that limited work is on lead and copper piping. Research in West Germany and the United States suggested that serious health effects arose from sulphate particles in the atmosphere. The number suffering from asthma, allergy, hay fever, bronchitis and so on was rising. Evidence from both the United States and Sweden was that, if sulphur dioxide levels could be cut by 30 per cent. from the 1978 levels, annual deaths from United States pollutant emissions could be reduced by 10,000. That is a substantial problem. The British people have a sight to ask what our Government are doing about those frightening facts. They are literally matters of life and death.

The Chairman of the Committee, the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi), reiterated a fact that shines through the whole report. There is virtually a complete absence of research in many of those areas. The Committee recommended that there should he research into all aspects of risk to human health consequent on acidic rain. There was no attempt to respond to that recommendation. If the matter was not so serious, the Government's responses would be laughable. All that they did was refer to the fact that the smog in London has virtually disappeared. I remember it vividly. I lost my way walking in London in that terrible smog in 1952. I did not know where I was—[HON. MEMBERS: "You still don't know."] Perhaps. That was a terrifying experience, and we are all glad that the smog has disappeared—I hope, for ever.

I wish to return to the subject of our water supply. I discount the one third or one quarter of the water which leaks away through our ever-decaying pipes. When the water reaches our taps, there is a disturbing increase in the rising levels of poisonous metal concentrates it our water. That is a matter of considerable anxiety, but, according to the Government's response, it does not worry them too much. In their reply the Government said: the capacity of acid waters to dissolve lead from plumbing has been known for many years and has led to preventive action, especially in Scotland. The Government say that this problem has beer or is being dealt with "especially in Scotland". I gave notice to the Minister that I wanted to ask him questions about water piping in Scotland. What is happening about the replacement of lead piping in houses, hotels, hospitals and other public buildings? What has happened during the past few years to inspire that reference to Scotland in the Government's reply? What additional cash has been allocated to the local authorities to replace those lead pipes? The problem must be identified, emphasised and returned to until the matter is put right, because it is literally a matter of life and death. What is the scale of the problem? Are any statistics available? For instance, how many houses, schools, universities and hospitals are still supplied through lead pipes?

Other problems have been referred to which are not as important as that one, but they are important. I need not expand on the effect of acid rain on fish life, because the Minister is well aware of the problem. In Galloway, evidence was given of the deleterious effects of acid rain on fish life there and elsewhere, but there has been little study of this problem and still less of the solution.

The bulk of the problem is caused by the burning of coal in power stations and of oil in refineries, petrochemical complexes and motor cars. The CEGB seems to take the view that that pinpoints the need to expedite the development and replacement of coal-fired stations by nuclear-powered stations. There is not much support for that proposition from the Opposition. It would create a hell of a lot more problems than it would solve. The Minister talked about the cost of converting the power stations. He accepted this morning that the figure of £1.5 billion was about right, give or take £500 million. It could be £2 billion, but it would be spread over 10 years.

With little evidence of having done much homework on the matter, the CBI said—it would, wouldn't it?—that industry could not afford an increase of about 5 or 6 per cent. in the cost of energy over 10 years. That is nonsense, when we remember how electricity prices have been increased over the past three or four years.

The sum of £1.5 billion is nonsense. It is all very well for the Minister to say, as the Government did in their reply, that we must ensure that we have value for money. When I hear that I remember that it is just about the amount of cash that we will be spending in the Falkland Islands over the next three years. There is no question of the Government saying that we must ensure that we have value for money when we are dealing with 1,200 folk 8,000 miles away. We pour about £2 billion into the Falkland Islands, but when it comes to spending £1.5 billion over 10 years the Government say that they are not convinced that we will get value for money. What value are we getting for our money in the Falkland Islands? It is a matter of priority in public expenditure.

If the will were there to solve the pollution problem, it could be solved. Moreover, the more reluctant we are to deal with it, as has been pointed out time and time again on both sides of the House, the more soured become our relations with Scandinavia and other parts of Europe, because they are much more conscious of the problem and are at the receiving end of our filth and of the belching out of dangerous materials due to the prevailing winds and the rest.

For all those reasons—my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) talked about the prospects for exporting advanced technologies to solve the problems which is an extremely important consideration — this subject calls for a much more imaginative reply from the Government.

The Opposition hope that we will return to these matters, if not precisely to this report, within the next two or three years because they are vital. The Government's record on such matters is deplorable, as is their response to the report. If the debate had taken place on any day other than a Friday the Opposition would certainly have voted on it.

11.57 am
Mr. John Mark Taylor (Solihull)

There are lessons for the Government; there are lessons for the forest cultivators; there are lessons for the automotive engineers; and there are lessons for generators of electricity to be learnt on this subject. The Government have received a great deal of instruction this morning from these Benches, and perhaps the 'first lesson for them is that a reputation for enlightenment in matters of pollution and pollution control is one at which they have to work continuously if they wish to retain it.

British Governments in post-war years have rightly had attributed to them a good reputation for taking care in such matters, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi) said, there is some way to go with the newly discovered dangers. We need to match the reputation that we rightly acquired with our pioneering work in clean air legislation and in cleaning rivers. There is hard work for the Government to do if they are to polish a hard-won reputation.

There are lessons for the forest cultivators to learn. Cultivated plantations of trees are a series of miniature chemical systems. That is especially true of conifers. As the conifer matures it begins to shed into its environment a degree of acidity as it renders itself more alkaline. It is interesting to note — perhaps it is obvious — that in natural circumstances that tree would in due course die and fall and return the alkalinity to the ground. But when the forest is a plantation made by man and when the timber is cut and taken away, the forest ground is steadily rendered more acidic. This process has contributed to damage in forest areas and the water systems of those areas and must be borne in mind as a contributory factor.

A conclusion to draw at this stage is that almost all environmental arguments, when we consider the best interests of the ecology of these islands, seem to converge on a preference for the broad leaf deciduous tree and not for the economically easier conifer tree. All the best interests of our countryside and wildlife—and, in this case, of toxicity and acidity—lead to the deciduous tree being the preferred tree in our natural environment.

The lessons for the automotive engineers are clear enough. Much publicity has recently been given to prototype electric cars. The simple fact is that until there is a vast breakthrough in the technology of electrical energy storage or portable energy storage we shall not have realistically in Britain the main automotive carriage of people and goods accomplished electrically. For the time being at any rate—until there is a step change in the technology of electricity storage — we shall have the internal combusion engine as our servant on the road.

Improvements in the oxides of nitrogen emissions from motor cars all seem to argue for the lean burn engine rather than for the much more complex and often less reliable chemistry of the catalysts, which are preferred by some but which I believe are not the better conclusion.

There are some important lessons for the generators of energy. I was surprised throughout the hearings which led to the report — I too had the privilege of being a member of the Select Committee—that the CEGB did not take an altogether neutral and detached attitude. The CEGB could have told the politicians, "Tell us by what extent, as you speak on behalf of society generally, you would like us to reduce SO2 emissions, in particular from our coal burn. If you tell us by what amount you want us to reduce it, we will tell you how much it will cost and you can then decide whether you are prepared to pay". That would have been a cogent position for the CEGB to have taken and I remain surprised that it did not take it.

Whoever should learn lessons from the consideration of this subject and from the report— I have enumerated four—it is certain that those who will truly derive comfort and support from all the deliberations now going on are the adherents of those arguments that say that increasing priority should be given to generating electricity by nuclear means and that less priority will have to be given to generating electricity by burning an extremely valuable mineral, namely coal.

12.4 pm

Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill)

I join the hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor) in commending the development of lean burn engines rather than the catalyst as a method of reducing nitrogen oxide. I am sure that lean burn engines are the right way to proceed. I join the hon. Members for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) and for South Shields (Dr. Clark) in urging the need for the greater development of flue gas desulphurisation equipment because of both the beneficial impact on the environment of doing that and because of the opportunity for creating new jobs that would result.

The Minister said that there was little evidence about the destruction of tree life in Scandinavia. In paragraph 70(b) of the Select Committee report, we refer to the experience that the Select Committee had in Scandinavia: A survey of all 12 counties in south and central Sweden in the winter of 1983 reported 244 damaged stands of trees. A sample survey since has extrapolated a damage area of 17–18 per cent. That evidence was further underlined by Professor Tamm, whom we met during our inquiries. He and his father before him have been involved in monitoring the effects of acidity on the soil and on forests since 1927. They have expressed deep concern about the mounting evidence of the effects of acid rain on trees in Scandinavia.

The Minister referred to the costs involved in tackling the problem and said that £1.5 billion was a lot of money. However, as hon. Members have pointed out, that would be spread over 10 years. When the British people were asked in a MORI survey two years ago about the cost of tackling pollution, 56 per cent. replied that they would be prepared to pay an extra penny in the pound on income tax if that would result in a reduction in pollution. We would be asking them to do much less than that. We are speaking of a small increase in electricity prices.

The Minister also made great play with the 40 per cent. fall in emissions and seemed to suggest that this and preceding Governments had done a great job in reducing emissions by that amount. In fact, the reduction has occurred mainly because of deindustrialisation, massive unemployment and the closure of factories and smelters—in other words, because of what has happened to our economy — rather than as the result of a positive programme on the part of Government.

While this debate has been in progress, a meeting has been held elsewhere in this building by Greenpeace, whose members have been expressing the need for a coordinated attack by the European countries on the problem of acid rain, and they have today presented a petition signed by parliamentarians from nine countries. My hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace), who has now returned from that meeting to his place, tells me that many people there pointed out that unless urgent action was taken trees, lakes and buildings would be damaged beyond recall.

With my hon. Friend the Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes), who speaks for the Liberal party on environmental matters, I met the former Swedish Liberal Minister for the Environment. This was during our assembly this year in Bournemouth, at which we debated acid rain. He underlined to us the fears of his countrymen and pointed out the dangers to international relations, and in particular to Anglo-Scandinavian relations, if urgent action was not taken to deal with acid rain.

In my six years in this House I do not recall being involved in a more rewarding piece of work than this inquiry into acid rain. It was rewarding for several reasons. For example, not only was a thorough and intense report produced, but the inquiry was personally enlightening. The final report is well researched and competent. Much of the credit for that must go to our Chairman, the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi), who was a hard taskmaster, and to our scientific advisers, to whom reference has been made. I wish also to pay tribute to the work of the clerks, particularly Mr. Andre Gren, who is recovering from a serious road accident. His work made our task much easier.

As the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mr. Chapman) said, all the members of the Select Committee approached the inquiry with their own views and sometimes their own prejudices. However, we were able to reach unanimous conclusions on what must be done to tackle the environmental catastrophe that is referred to, perhaps sometimes misleadingly, as acid rain. Such cross-party consensus and co-operation is rare in this place and when it occurs it is welcome and rewarding.

My only disappointment concerns the Government's cavalier response to the most important of the Select Committees' findings and proposals. It is not good enough for the Under-Secretary of State and others to talk about 17 of the 19 recommendations and proposals having been accepted, when the two most crucial recommendations were rejected out of hand. It is cold comfort to be told that many of our conclusions have been endorsed, when the central recommendations have been repudiated.

In a nutshell, the Select Committee asked itself what was the major cause of acid rain, who was the main culprit and what could be done to minimise the appalling damage that is being inflicted on our forests, lakes and buildings. The Committee put most of the blame at the door of the Central Electricity Generating Board. It identified its emissions of sulphur and nitrogen dioxide as a major factor. It recommended a series of measures designed to reduce emission and to clean up the atmosphere. It said that the Government should join immediately the 30 per cent. club of nations, which has already committed itself to reduce its emissions by one third. It asked for a commitment to the EC draft directive, which seeks a reduction in emissions of 60 per cent. by 1995.

These two recommendations were the guts of our conclusions and they are the two which the Government have rejected. In doing so, the Government have forgone the right to describe themselves as an Adminstration who are concerned about the environment or the quality of life. Instead, they will earn themselves a place in the history books as a Government of cushy complacency. Their decision to delay will lead to irreversible damage and they will be judged as lacking responsibility and wisdom. In the case of this Government, how true are the words of William Blake, who wrote: A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees. A wise man or a wise Government would not have said complacently that he or they would await more research. Nor would they have relied on the specious argument of an interested party. A wise man would have invested in an insurance policy at the very least. Instead, the Government have allowed themselves to be wooed by Sir Walter Marshall and Peter Chester of the CEGB. The board's propaganda machine has been working at full capacity to disseminate disinformation. In the process, it has conned the Government.

That is to take a kind view. An unkinder view is that, as an appointee of the Prime Minister, Sir Walter was only too anxious to say the things that his mistress bid him say. Either way, the outcome amounts to much the same thing. The CEGB has been able to avoid the cost of tackling the problem of acid rain and the Government have been able to avoid a major public works programme. In the meantime, the environment continues to be poisoned.

In contrast with Her Majesty's Government and the CEGB, the members of the Select Committee, myself included, believed by the time that our inquiries and research had been completed that there was no doubt that introgen oxide and SO2 lay at the heart of the problems. I recall vividly — perhaps this is the factor that convinced me more than anything else—the depressing walk that the members of the Committee took in Germany's Black forest. It was there that we saw evidence with our own eyes that convinced us that urgent action was needed. We saw that nearly every fir is diseased. Officials in the state of Baden-Wurtenberg told us that half the trees in the Black forest were diseased beyond recall. For any of us who had lingering doubts about the catastrophic effects of acid rain, the Black forest underlined the need for urgent and co-ordinated European action.

Sir Nicholas Bonsor (Upminster)

How does the hon. Gentleman explain that the level of sulphuric acid fallout in the Black forest is lower than that in the Norwegian forests, which are thriving?

Mr. Alton

The hon. Gentleman has anticipated what I was about to say. He has given a good illustration of the complexity of the problem. Contributory factors, working together, cause acid rain, which is itself a generic term. Since the mid-1970s, the silver firs in the Black forest have been dying in their thousands. Since 1981, there has been a dramatic escalation, with spruce firs and deciduous trees also being affected. Even nursery saplings are withering.

Yet as long ago as 1972, at a specially convened conference in Stockholm, the impending disaster was predicted by scientists. However, Governments throughout Europe complacently stood by. Trees have died while the Government have recommended more research. Acid rain has been sweeping across central Europe's forests like a cyclone of death.

The psychological impact on a country such as Germany, where a third of the land is covered with woodland, is perhaps difficult for a Briton fully to appreciate. Sadly, only 8 per cent. of the United Kingdom remains as woodland. The forests are central to German culture and heritage, which makes the economic and ecological considerations even more mind-boggling. About 250,000 jobs in Baden-Wurtenberg alone depend upon forestry. In addition, the disappearance of trees will fundamentally alter the ecology of western Europe. The forests protect ground water and retain rainwater. They preserve the fertility of the soil and they provide protection against erosion. They purify the air and influence local climatic conditions. Wildlife depends on the forests for its survival.

It is obvious to even the most casual observer that for many of the trees it is already too late. A walk in the Black forest is like a walk in a graveyard. The skeletons of the trees that are already dead leave no room for scepticism about the seriousness of the situation.

The dangerous levels of European pollution are threatening our buildings as well as our trees. Here is a short tale of two cities. At the top of Cologne cathedral — Cologne is Liverpool's twin city — the chief stonemason described to the members of the Select Committee how 67 stonemasons are employed constantly in replacing corroded stone. He told us that some stone has been replaced four times in 20 years. That gives the lie to the view which others have proffered to the Minister that it is only medieval cathedrals or buildings that are being affected and that the effects are cumulative. Stone that has been in place for only 20 years is having to be replaced regularly in Cologne. The chief stonemason said that the cathedral will soon be a replica of a replica.

In Liverpool, the Anglican cathedral is facing a bill of hundreds of thousands of pounds to replace all the copper sheeting that covers the roof. The building of the cathedral started at the turn of the century and it has only recently been completed. The fact that the building is already in danger demonstrates how much of our heritage is at risk. Great buildings such as St. Paul's cathedral, the Palace of Westminster, Lincoln cathedral and York minster are being badly damaged as a result of acid rain. The dangers to our heritage are phenomenal.

A constituent of mine — Mr. John Hulton of Wavertree—put it well when he commented to me in a letter: Cleopatra's needle has suffered more erosion from London pollution in the past 80 years by the River Thames than in 3,000 by the Nile. Connected with the problem of the effects of pollution is the question of cost. I hope that the Under-Secretary of State, or the Minister who is to reply, will say who is to meet the cost of putting right the damage, especially to our buildings. How can we go cap in hand to the European Community and claim to be good Europeans when we are turning our backs on its draft directive which asks for a 60 per cent. reduction in emissions?

Apart from the effects on trees and buildings, the members of the Select Committee saw horrifying evidence in Sweden that great damage is being done by acid rain to lakes and aquatic life. In southern Sweden, over 18,000 of 20,000 lakes have been acidified. According to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, which has recently undertaken a study of the effects of acid rain and its implications for bird conservation, for the first time in Britain a connection has been shown between reduced bird populations and acidic run-off of water from certain upland areas. The society's study was undertaken in Wales with the co-operation of the Welsh water authority. In its conclusions, which came too late to be submitted to the Select Committee, it states: The Government, in responding to the Select Committee, has so far only pledged to continue existing levels of research. This is quite inadequate. Faced with all this evidence, the CEGB, aided and abetted by the Department of the Environment, has decided vaguely to aim for a reduction in emissions of 30 per cent. from 1980 levels by the end of the next decade. There will also be some more temporising research.

Faced with the same evidence as the CEGB, West Germany, by contrast, has plunged into a massive programme. Its Government have made available between 10 billion and 15 billion deutschmarks for filter equipment in power stations. The Japanese, as usual, have stolen a march on everybody else. Japan is the only country producing sophisticated environmental technology. However, German industry is now catching up fast. By 1988, German-made desulphurisation plants will be in position in three quarters of all German power stations, massively reducing emissions.

Preparations are now also in hand in Germany for the removal of nitrogen oxide. That work will involve planning, erection and construction, and, as the hon. Member for South Shields, (Dr. Clark) said, it will involve the creation of thousands of jobs. No doubt that is heresy in the view of this Government, but it would be spending to social advantage, not just digging holes and filling them up again, as is so often the case with the job creation programmes and youth training schemes, and the other irrelevances on which the Government spend money.

The German Government are also taking urgent action to introduce lead-free petrol. That will be compulsory by January 1986. We have simply announced our intention to travel the same road by the end of the decade. We are falling hopelessly behind. The Government are now showing all the hallmarks of an insular and xenophobic Government. It is all summed up in the attitude of some of the more hard-line Conservative Members who seem to believe in the philosophy of do unto others before they do you.

British scientists have been haggling and arguing about conflicting theories. Meanwhile, Germany has acted to reduce pollution regardless of whether it is the sole cause of forests dying. It is irrelevant whether it is all the fault of SO2 or nitrogen oxide. The fact is that we should be tackling the problem of emissions now.

Unilateral action by Germany or any other country in tackling air pollution will never be enough. Only 50 per cent. of their pollution is home grown; the rest is imported from neighbouring states. Pollutants know no frontiers and observe no customs posts. The Black Forest receives more pollutants from foreign sources than from internally generated emissions — 32 per cent. from the German Federal Republic, 32 per cent. from France, and the rest from countries such as Czechoslovakia, the Netherlands and Britain. German scientists told us that pollution of the air in Czechoslovakia has become so bad that children had to be evacuated from one border area to a spa town for recuperation.

Clearly, a concerted European approach—East and West—to the problem is needed. Britain, as the largest emitter of SO2, must take the problem particularly seriously. Britain also needs a Department of the Environment which has a commitment to safeguarding our heritage and environment. It should be separate from the rambling empire of the present Department, which is really only a Ministry for housing and local government —or should I say the abolition of local government? Such a Department should seek to champion an improvement in the quality of life, not become a defender of the status quo. In its present form, the Department is a willing accomplice and a fellow conspirator with those responsible for this calamity.

Acid rain is part of the environmental catastrophe facing the world. There are others. For instance, one in 10 of the estimated 250,000 different plant species are said to be rare or threatened; 320 species of mammal are in extreme danger of extinction, and so are 400 species of bird. Forests are disappearing from the humid tropics in Africa, Asia and Latin America at a rate of 11 million hectares a year. Great monuments such as the Acropolis are disintegrating through the effects of man-made pollutants.

Today the House should simply try to imagine a forest where half the trees are dead or dying, lakes that are so badly polluted that fish can no longer survive, or great buildings that have survived the pillage of sackings and war which are now crumbling from the effects of pollution. We should simply imagine all that and worse and then ask what kind of a country it is and what kind of values allow that kind of grisly fantasy to become a nightmare reality.

12.23 pm
Mr. T. H. H. Skeet (Bedfordshire, North)

I have just heard an extremely alarmist speech and one that seems to believe in solving problems simply by throwing money at them in the hope that some will be solved. It may be that after money has been thrown at the problems none will be solved.

I must congratulate all the members of the Select Committee on the work that they put into their report and the conclusions that they drew. It is a good thing that at least 17 recommendations have been accepted. The recommendation that I quarrel with is probably that with which the Government quarrel, too, which is contained in paragraphs 196 and 197. It deals with the EEC proposal for a 60:40:40 ratio.

The EEC draft does not call for an overall national reduction of 60 per cent., but for a reduction from large combustion plants of 15 mW and over. Exactly what is the Committee referring to? Is it talking about an overall reduction, or is it calling on the CEGB virtually to reduce the lot? If so, it could be extremely costly for the CEGB over the years and extremely costly both for industrial and domestic purchasers of electricity in the United Kingdom.

It has been said, rightly, that the factors involved here are a combination of sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, hydrocarbons, ozone and many others. The report rightly says that until further examinations have taken place the real cause will not be known and that much additional research will be required.

One of the conclusions that I have reached is that the Select Committee, in coming to its conclusions in paragraphs 196 and 197, has not taken into account the facts that have been adduced by the evidence before the Committee. For example, let me refer to the good work of my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mr. Chapman). In paragraph 585 he says: If that is right, and I know you have got to cover yourselves, am I right in saying that the problem that Germany faces with its trees, and Scandinavia, will not in any way be alleviated by de-sulphurisation programmes? Professor Last, speaking on behalf of the Natural Environment Research Council, said: I have to give a guarded answer in that I believe that the answer is probably no, it will not be helped". That serves to answer the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) who talked about the state of forests in western Germany. It is not sulphur dioxide by itself which is the problem.

In paragraph 586 Dr. Miller said: if they were to remove sulphur from the atmosphere, the German trees would still die. It is extraordinary that members of the Select Committee, who studied the evidence extremely carefully, did not come to the conclusion which was in evidence. I am referring to the evidence given by representatives of the NERC because the Select Committee says that that is independent evidence from people who have no axe to grind. Dr. Bowman also says: The major manifestation of damage to the forests occurred in Germany and we have said that we believe that it is mainly on ozone problems. In paragraph 463, Dr. Binns of the Forestry Commission refers to that, saying that he did not see any great damage occurring in the United Kingdom as yet. It is an extremely complicated problem which must be properly worked out.

Mr. Chapman

I accept my hon. Friend's quotations, but he will find that we concluded that long-range sulphur dioxide was not the principal cause of damage and destruction to trees, although it was responsible for the destruction of fish in Scandinavia. We stressed that there were different forms of pollutant and that we believed that ozone was the principal cause of the 58 per cent. damage to trees in the Black Forest, some of which we saw. My hon. Friend has quoted Professor Last whom I know well and respect deeply, but we also took evidence from other distinguished scientists in this and other countries.

Mr. Skeet

I am obliged to my hon. Friend. Paragraph 84 of the report indeed refers to ozone. But if the Committee had considered this aspect carefully it would not have jumped to the conclusion in paragraphs 196 and 197 calling for a 60 per cent. reduction, which would be extremely onerous for the United Kingdom.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi), who opened the debate with an extremely good speech, referred to the effect of sulphur dioxide on concrete. Paragraph 240 may have escaped my hon. Friend's attention. In that paragraph Dr. Everett stated: The damage done to concrete from the SO2 levels in the environment is very little, because the SO2 that gets into concrete is tied up very quickly to form a compound called Ettringite which is insoluble in concrete, and once it is formed the SO2 plays no further part. Many people in this country are concerned about our heritage, much of which is built with concrete or limestone. But limestone takes many forms. Sulphur dioxide has little effect on hard limestone but soft limestone may well be destroyed over the years. Despite the commissioning of the three Trentside power stations at High Marnham, West Burton and Cottam, sulphur dioxide levels in Lincoln have fallen steadily. The levels in Lincoln in 1970 were three times the levels around those stations, as Dr. Gerald Gibbs points out.

I am not saying that there has not been destruction by sulphur dioxide or acid rain. That may have started the damage, which may now be continuing because other plants are producing other corrosive substances. For instance, power generation in London has almost ceased. Sulphur dioxide emissions have fallen from 55,000 tonnes in 1975 to 3,000 tonnes in 1983 without any reduction in the rate of corrosion. It is extraordinary that, despite the abatement of sulphur dioxide emissions, corrosion has increased in some areas. We heard in an earlier debate that tall chimney stacks were adopted to reduce urban concentrations of pollutants, but that the emission of sulphur dioxide at great velocity into the higher atmosphere transported the pollution abroad. If there was so much damage in Scandinavia as a result, there should be less damage in the United Kingdom. Indeed, that was part of the tall-stack policy, to prevent urban concentrations.

Mr. Richard Alexander (Newark)

Does not that account for the greatly increased acid rain damage in Scandinavia?

Mr. Skeet

Yes, but only 2.1 per cent. of the sulphur dioxide leaving the United Kingdom actually falls on Norway, to be added to the large amount of indigenous sulphur dioxide already there. We need to know what chemical changes take place in the atmosphere in transit between the United Kingdom and Norway. The sulphur dioxide may be transformed by ozone and hydrocarbons in such a way as to produce other effects. After careful thought, I have come to the conclusion that in coming years rather more research is required than the type of research now being carried out.

The problems of Scandinavia are of the greatest interest to us. There are two ways of approaching them. We could reduce our emission of sulphur dioxide. According to the Watt committee, to reduce sulphur deposited in Norway by one ton Britain would have to reduce its output by 46 tons but Norway would have to reduce its emissions by only two tons. Should we not therefore call upon Norway to make a bigger contribution than we do? Hon. Members have all talked about the comity of nations and about relations between the two countries, and I fully understand what has been said. However, we should try to measure the relative burdens of both countries.

My hon. Friend the Minister has told us that since 1970 the amount of sulphur dioxide emitted in the United Kingdom has fallen by 37 per cent. He did not say what the reasons were. However, if emissions have been reduced here, their effect on Norway must have been reduced too. In that case, how is it that the amount of corrosion there and the acidity of the lakes have increased? Other factors may be involved that we do not understand. The Government may be right to say that there should be broader research before we spring to conclusions and cast money in all directions.

We are endeavouring to find a cure for cancer, but many of the charities that exist in order to collect money for that purpose cannot find suitable projects to spend it on, because the leads are not available. Throwing money at a problem may not produce results. What is required is an effective lead.

I am no friend of sulphur dioxide or of nitrogen oxide. Something must be done. However, I am probably a better friend to the miners in Britain, who want us to use a little more coal, than some Opposition Members who are creating further difficulties for their brethren.

We must consider the possible consequences of pursuing the recommendations of the Select Committee. The major recommendation has wisely been rejected by the Government. It would affect the quantity and quality of coal burnt in the United Kingdom and ultimately have implications for the refiners of high sulphur crudes imported into the United Kingdom. It would involve the industry in the use of expensive technology immediately, at considerable cost to the consumers of electricity. The Liberals are quite prepared to forget the consumers, but I think that their views should be put forward in the House.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Skeet

Yes, in a moment.

There would also be further environmental problems connected with the disposal of waste products. Comparisons between the United Kingdom and the Continent are of dubious value. Trees on the Continent are subject to different stresses from those in the United Kingdom, because of different meteorological conditions. Furthermore, because of the long lead-time involved, it is not feasible to switch to the increased use of nuclear power.

Mr. Simon Hughes

Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that one can anticipate the environmental consequences of a policy by making sure that there is an assessment of environmental impact before rather than after the event? The assessment is then available for debate. It may be too late now to deal with problems that are the legacy of the fact that, in the past 20 years, Governments have paid inadequate attention to the environment.

Mr. Skeet

No, the hon. Gentleman is wrong. There has been a reduction of 37 per cent. since 1970, and we contemplate another 30 per cent. reduction in the coming years. Much of the destruction to which the hon. Gentleman refers is historic and dates from a time when conditions were extremely difficult.

The hon. Gentleman is unaware that there has been a considerable switch from coal and a restructuring of manufacturing industry which has retired some of the heavy and dirty users of coal. More nuclear-generated electricity is used—17 per cent. of the total—and more natural gas is used in the domestic sector. All of those factors are being overlooked. The hon. Gentleman is jumping to conclusions when the problem is imperfectly understood. The CEGB has brought in Northern Engineering Industries Ltd. to help it with some problems, much research is being undertaken and there have been many major reports. There have been countless reports, such as the Watt report, which I dare say the hon. Gentleman has read. If he had read them and the evidence in the Select Committee report, he would have come to a rather different conclusion.

Mr. Simon Hughes

I must have one more go at the hon. Gentleman. Is he trying to rewrite history and say that energy generation has been transferred to the nuclear sector for environmental reasons — that is clearly not true—or that the principal reason for the improvement in Britain is the decline in our industrial base, which started higher than anywhere else in Europe because of the industrial revolution? That is an accepted fact and does not result from the Government's awareness of environmental issues. The hon. Gentleman cannot adduce those developments as reasons for changes in our economic or energy circumstances.

Mr. Skeet

The hon. Gentleman is merely repeating himself and I have already answered him. I should be only too pleased to argue with him at full length outside the Chamber.

The production of sulphur dioxide is not proportionate to the deposition of sulphur. That was carefully shown by Dr. Holdgate in his evidence. Unless sulphur dioxide is attended by nitrogen oxide and hydrocarbons, there will not necessarily be the depositions, either wet or dry, which cause the destruction complained of.

I should like to consider two processes which have been referred to. The first is pressurised fluidised bed combustion. I am a great supporter of it. It is being operated by the National Coal Board at Selby and has been active in several manufacturing plants, but there are difficulties in scaling it up for a full power station. However, a new technology brings in further problems. A 2,000 mW pressurised fluidised bed combustion station consuming 5 million tonnes of coal at 2 per cent. sulphur content per annum would require between 1.09 million tonnes and 1.28 million tonnes of limestone per annum as compared with a gypsum flue gas desulphurisation project of only 320,000 tonnes to achieve a similar removal of sulphur dioxide.

It is clear, therefore, that there is an environmental problem of some magnitude in disposing of the waste. What are we to do with all of the calcium sulphate that cannot be used on the market? I have said that I do not expect to find a full sized fluidised bed combustion plant in operation before the year 2000 because the Grimethorpe reactor has erosion problems in its tube banks and is having difficulty with its turbine blades.

There is a considerable chlorine element in British coal which causes corrosion problems.

Mr. Hardy

There is an earlier opportunity for the fluidised bed as there is considerable and proper pressure on the Government for the development of combined heat and power for district heating. Many right hon. and hon. Members believe that such schemes should proceed urgently. There is no technological problem to their development on the basis of fluidised bed. Does the hon. Gentleman agree?

Mr. Skeet

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman raised that point. The Government are considering the number of schemes available, but until heat loads have built up the operators will probably start on an oil-fired operation and eventually transfer the system to a power station. One is looking years ahead, not for immediate solutions. I think that the schemes are good. They exist in Scandinavia, Germany and elsewhere, but we have few examples of them in the United Kingdom.

I turn to flue gas desulphurisation which takes place after combustion. Processes are available, such as the Wellman-Lord process. However, again we are faced with a high effluent. Limestone is used to a lesser extent than in the AD2000 programme. The sludge will have to be disposed of. Caustic soda is used, and sodium sulphate will have to be dumped. Calcium chloride will have to be disposed of in some way. Moreover, the consequential problems to the environment which are created by the new methods are not as easy to solve as some hon. Members suggest.

We have not solved the major problems that we face. The Minister is right to resist the proposal of the Select Committee that he should go ahead with an untargeted programme and reduce sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide. It is perfectly right that he should accept all the other recommendations and go ahead with monitoring arrangements to find out the concentrations of SO2 and nitrogen oxide and, through research, where the real causes lie. But he should not be panicked into spending billions of pounds now on something which may not be satisfactory over time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

Before I call the next hon. Member to speak, I should draw attention to the fact that about 10 hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye. Unless speeches are briefer, one or two hon. Members will be disappointed.

12.47 pm
Mr. Allan Roberts (Bootle)

I shall take up some points raised by the hon. Member for Bedfordshire, North (Mr. Skeet), who sounded like the hon. Member for the Central Electricity Generating Board. As a Labour Member of the Select Committee, I add my voice to the tributes paid to our technical advisers, the Clerks who served our Committee, the way in which the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi) chaired the Committee, and the way in which we managed to change a Committee of sceptics into an all-party Committee committed to action to reduce the problem of acid rain.

It was not a difficult task to reach a unanimous conclusion and not to be separated by party political barriers. The weight of evidence in Germany, Scandinavia and the United Kingdom was overwhelmingly that action was needed quickly if we were not to continue to pollute Scandinavia, West Germany and other parts of western Europe, and if we in the United Kingdom were not to suffer in the sort of crisis that has occurred in central Europe and Scandinavia. We should learn from what has happened there and take action before it is too late.

The hon. Member for Bedfordshire, North will regret many of his words when that area starts to suffer from pollution. The one argument which he, the Minister and the CEGB produced in favour of inaction was that further research was needed. They seek to throw money at the problem. I shall deal with cost shortly. They want conclusive proof provided scientifically. They want a linear correlation between a reduction in sulphur in one place and a reduction in damage by pollution in another. If they want that before they act, they will never act, because they will never get that evidence. It is impossible to produce such evidence.

The hon. Member for Bedfordshire, North, the Minister and the CEGB, including its scientist Mr. Peter Chester, purposely ignored the fact that such pollution is cumulative. It builds up over many years. Even if we reduced emissions today, pollution would continue tomorrow and would become worse by next year, because we would still be emitting sulphur and nitrogen which would be added to the pollutants already in the atmosphere.

In Scandinavia, pollutants emitted at a low level—they have been reduced—during an entire winter build up in the snow. When the snow melts, the accumulated acidity destroys the fish and eggs in lakes and rivers. In Germany, we saw the results of research which had been conducted on cross-sections of trees and on soils, which showed the cumulative build-up of acidification.

From what the hon. Member for Bedfordshire, North said, one would believe that the sulphur emitted from our power stations does us good and that it is not really a problem. It used to pollute the atmosphere, vegetation and lakes, but we built the high stacks to take care of that. Why did we do that if the emissions are not harmful? We did it to disperse the emissions into the atmosphere. As a consequence of that policy, the sulphur is being exported to Germany and Scandinavia, but it is still landing in Britain, and it will remain a problem in Britain. As hon. Members said, Britain is fortunate in that few emissions from other countries fall on our land. We are responsible for our pollution, but as it increases—there are signs of it already in Cumbria, Scotland and other parts of the country—we shall face difficulties similar to those in other countries.

The arguments are similar to those used when we first discussed the possibility of smoking causing lung cancer. People said, "We want conclusive scientific evidence," but that has not been produced to this day. We still do not know what causes cancer, but we accept that cigarette smoking contributes significantly to the problem. That is exactly the sort of evidence, in terms of statistics, correlations and research, that we have about sulphur and nitrogen damaging the environment. If we do not take action now, it will be too late for the British environment. The smoking patient—our environment—will be dead.

No cost-benefit analysis can show conclusively that if we reduce sulphur emissions crop yields will increase. It would be extremely difficult, in the period during which research would be necessary, to assess the effects of sulphur and nitrogen emissions on crop yield. However, the National Farmers Union and others have said that there is no doubt that there is a reduction. Research shows that there are problems with crop yield and the corrosion of metals. Research has not yet been conducted on human health, but must we wait until a child is killed on a road before we install a zebra crossing—

Mr. Waldegrave

The hon. Gentleman is getting a little carried away. The problem with health is not that the solution of heavy metals in water is not well understood—it is recognised as a danger—but that the acidity of water derived from deposition as a contribution to that problem is so minimal as to be far less important that other sources.

Mr. Roberts

There is some dispute about that. I accept the Minister's statement that acidification from emissions of sulphur and nitrogen into the atmosphere is only one factor. In its report the Committee did not fall into the trap, as Sir Walter Marshall accused us of doing, of saying that all pollution is caused by sulphur emitted from Britain's power stations. There is a combination of complicated factors. Equally, to suggest that we do not know whether any significant benefit would accrue from reducing sulphur and nitrogen emissions from power stations is to mislead the nation and the House. However, that is what the CEGB tried to do when it gave evidence to the Select Committee, and through its public statements and press releases.

Mr. Alton

I agree with everything that the hon. Gentleman is saying. To underline the point, is it not the case that everybody is out of step but ourselves? Why cannot this country recognise what the countries in the 30 per cent. club have recognised, as have other countries in Europe which recognise and support the EEC draft directive, which is that it must be good for the health of our citizens to take urgent action now?

Mr. Roberts

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. We were at one on the Committee, and I am at one with him in what he has just said.

I hope that what I say in simple terms about acid rain is not misunderstood. After listening to the hon. Member for Bedfordshire, North, one would think that the CEGB did not emit nitrogen dioxide from its power stations, which the retrofitting of the power stations would deal with. I shall deal with the pressurised fluid bed combustion system and with the retrofitting of power stations.

Acid rain is created by the emissions of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide when either coal or oil is burnt in power stations, industry or motor cars. The generally accepted contribution of each to the acidity of our rain is that 70 per cent. of the pollution is caused by the sulphur dioxide and 30 per cent. by the nitrogen oxide. The United Kingdom is western Europe's largest producer of sulphur dioxide. We emit one fifth of the region's 20 million tonnes per year. Historically, we have always been the leading European polluter. In 1970 we were producing almost one third of west Europe's SO2 because of our dependence on coal and oil and our refusal to clean emissions.

As a result of North sea gas, the recession and several other factors, there has been a reduction in our emissions, but that has not come about as a result of action or positive decision by the Government, the CEGB or industry. Although we have reduced our emissions by the amount that is claimed by the Government, we are still the largest polluter in western Europe and probably emit more than anybody else except the Soviet Union. Research and political pressure in Europe have led to action and the consequences that we have seen in our environment. There is a need for action here, but we stand isolated.

Countries in the EEC—France, West Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Belgium, Denmark and Luxembourg — and in Europe outside the EEC — Austria, Switzerland, Sweden, Norway and Finland—have all taken the action which the British Government refused to take, and have done so on the same scientific evidence that is before the British Government and the Select Committee. The Select Committee made recommendations hoping that the Government would look at the evidence objectively and become good Europeans and good internationalists.

At one stage the Government were on the verge of taking the necessary action and wondered what to do. The Prime Minister was under pressure from the West German Chancellor and others in the EEC, so she called a meeting at Chequers to consider the issue. Along came Sir Walter Marshall and Peter Chester, among others, and the result was catastrophic. It was probably the dirtiest dirty weekend in history. They came to the conclusion that no action should be taken and that public expenditure was not justified because they agreed with what the CEGB said then, and what the hon. Member for Bedfordshire, North has been saying this morning.

That decision was not only wrong, but politically inept, because it would be relatively cheap to join the 30 per cent. club, as the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mr. Chapman) said. The sum of £1.5 billion spread over 10 years represents a farthing a day on the average electricity bill of £200 a year. That would mean a bill of £201 a year instead of £200 a year.

Mr. Skeet

If the hon. Gentleman wishes to save money to make it available for scientific research, will he consider the fact that if the miners' strike had not happened we could have saved ourselves, in Scargill's estimate, £5 billion? That money could have been used for this purpose.

Mr. Roberts

I am in favour of a negotiated end to the dispute. I hope that what the hon. Gentleman says about the cost of the dispute is heard by the Secretary of State for Energy, the Prime Minister and the chairman of the NCB. Perhaps we could then get round the conference table.

When the hon. Gentleman spoke in the debate, he mentioned his so-called support—while attacking coal and wanting it to remain dirty — for the miners, the NUM and the coal industry. I do not think that we want that sort of support. He and other Conservative Members mentioned the alternative of nuclear energy, which is an important issue.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Miss Maynard) attended a fringe meeting during the Labour party conference. She heard the first speaker, Mr. Peter Heathfield, but left before the second speakermyself—was able to reply. I am not surprised that she formed the wrong view of the position when she spoke to the party conference. I do not believe for one minute that it is in the interests of the coal industry, the NUM or the miners to allow coal to be burnt in a way that pollutes the atmosphere.

In 1982, 14 per cent. of our energy was supplied by nuclear power and the remainder by coal. During the strike, of course, the remainder has been supplied by coal and expensive oil. We are led to believe, through leak and innuendo, that the Government want to expand the nuclear base to 33 per cent. I believe that the closure of pits has something to do with that, as has the Government's and the CEGB's response to the Select Committee report. If the miners cannot strike because nuclear energy is providing the bulk of our electricity, that will make the problem easier for the Government. Expansion depends on the completion of the Sizewell inquiry. In the meantime, the Government are happy to have coal stigmatised as an acid rain producer.

Mr. Waldegrave

That is not a fair point The hon. Gentleman's views are not shared by the fuel and power committee of the TUC, which wrote to the Secretary of State for Energy saying that, although it was indeed a serious problem, more research was needed and that specific emission limits were probably not yet in order. Therefore, the matter is not quite as simple as the hon. Gentleman suggests.

Mr. Roberts

I have disagreed with the TUC before, and no doubt will do so again. Similarly, I have disagreed with the NUM, and will do so again. On this matter, the TUC is misguided. I do not put the responsibility for this Machiavellian approach of wanting to develop nuclear power and not to take action on acid rain at the door of the Department of the Environment or the Minister, but at the door of the CEGB, the Department of Energy, Sir Walter Marshall and, perhaps, the Prime Minister. If we act now to prevent acid rain pollution, there will be no justification to move further towards nuclear power on the ground that coal-fired power stations are begining to destroy the environment.

Another issue is involved. The NCB wants to develop super-pits in the midlands using computerised machinery to minimise labour costs. If that happens, there will be a large-scale closure programme in Scotland, Wales and the north-east and the coal reserves will be sterilised. We will never again get hold of those reserves, because the pits will have been closed. If the United Kingdom joins the 30 per cent. club, that will reduce SO2 emissions by installing the filters necessary in the coal-burning power stations. That may be too expensive for smaller industries, which will have to use coal with a lower sulphur content. The Welsh and Scottish coalfields produce more coal with a lower suphur content than any other area in the United Kingdom.

Clean coal means that the whole basis on which the economic or uneconomic pit is assessed will alter, and that is very important. It is not those who are advocating the retrofitting of power stations and the production of coal so that it does not create acid rain who are attacking the coal mining industry and the NUM; it is those who take the opposite view who are doing so. If the Government and the CEGB plan an expansion of nuclear energy, jobs will go not only at power stations but in the coal mining communities.

The fluidised bed combustion system which is being developed, and which I hope will continue to be developed, if successful, could be put into new power stations. Even if it is developed to the full, it cannot economically be put into existing power stations. Therefore, there must be flue gas desulphurisation. That is what the Select Committee recommended for all our large power stations. By doing so, without turning to the small industries such as cement and gas, we could achieve the 60 per cent. reduction and fall in line with the EEC directive. We could certainly join the 30 per cent. club.

A question raised by the Chairman of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green, was not answered by the Minister. How do the Government envisage achieving the broad policy aim of a 30 per cent. reduction in notional SO2 emissions from 1980 levels by the late 1990s? The Government do not tell us in their response to the report. They do not explain exactly how they will implement their policies. They should do so quickly.

The Government's approach is "We do not know. We need more research. It is not proven. If we spend the money, perhaps that will not result in saving the environment." That is an excuse, a cover and a blank. The Government have accepted the recommendations which do not cost anything. The ones that required expenditure were rejected. The environment in Britain will suffer as a result and the cost to the community, private individuals, the public purse and Britain's reputation in the world will be tremendous. The sum of £1.5 million over 10 years, a farthing a day increase in electricity costs for the average household, will be considered a small price to pay when the cost of the damage of not taking action now is assessed in a few years' time.

1.7 pm

Mr. Nigel Forman (Carshalton and Wallington)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi) on his speech, and all the members on the Committee on their report. I endorse much of what was said by my hon. Friend the Minister, in the sense that he was right to remind the House that over many years the United Kingdom, and this Government in particular, has had quite a good record of achievement in combating the problems of pollution. It is not perfect, but it is quite good. One has only to look at the decision to take lead out of petrol by the early 1990s, the gradual and welcome implementation of part II of the Control of Pollution Act 1974 and the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 to see that, though not a complete agenda of progress in dealing with pollution, none the less the Government have a solid record behind them.

I believe, as do many of my hon. Friends, that the party of which I am a member and the Government whom I support can and should do more, and should do better and act more urgently. I have one comment on what my hon. Friend the Minister said when he talked about the need to wait for a more convincing cost-benefit model to decide the balance between the economic costs of certain forms of action and the environmental benefits. If the Government wait until such a virgin and youthful model is forthcoming, they may wait too long. There are preferable ways forward, to which I shall refer.

"Acid deposition", as it is more correctly described, has become, whether we wish it or not, a litmus test of the Government's good faith in dealing with air pollution. It may not be admirable that that is so, but it is the politcal reality. Limiting air pollution must be the next main area of environmental progress by this country.

It was reassuring to read in paragraph 1.2 of the Government's reply: The United Kingdom believes in the principle of good neighbourliness". I hope that our friends and partners on the Continent will take that as a sincere statement.

Equally, it is good to learn that the Government, as they said in paragraph 1.3, will, however, continue to encourage the development of new technologies to deal with some of these problems of pollution. All that is to the good, and I am glad that it is on the record, but there are a number of worries that arise about that broad statement which need to be underlined. I have one or two worries of a kind which need to be spelt out a little.

First, do the Government define what they choose to call environmentally effective and economically feasible policies in a way which means something, or is it just vacuous language? I hope that it is not the latter, because, clearly, if we are talking about environmental policy, we want something that is effective and economically feasible; we do not want the cost grossly to outweigh the environmental benefits. I am prepared to give the Government the benefit of the doubt on those points, but more evidence is needed to substantiate the Government's position.

Secondly, if the United Kingdom is making such good progress, as my hon. Friend the Minister said, with the reduction of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions, why is it not possible—I ask this in all innocence—for us to join the 30 per cent. club, which, after all, is an objective which has 1993 attached to it—some little time away—when it seems that we should probably be qualified to join that club at least on terms comparable with those of some of the other nations by that stage as a result of the progress that we are making in parallel and independently of any such commitment?

Thirdly, and this is the point that I wish to stress most, surely the best way for the Government to encourage the development of the relevant technologies, which is an important part of the limitation of power station emissions, would be to follow the recommendation of the Royal Commission on environmental pollution in paragraph 5.96 of its report, which is relevant to today's discussion. It said that certain of the technological options already available should be tested on an experimental basis on a couple of our large, new coal-fired stations for a trial period over the following five years to see which works best.

That would not involve the CEGB in extensive and costly retrofitting for all its existing coal-fired stations; nor would it prejudge the outcome of further scientific and technological progress which may be made. It would be more than just a token of the Government's good faith. It would enhance the Government's credibility in the eyes of the public, and especially in the eyes of our partners on the Continent. I am thinking of the Germans and Scandinavians. I hope that the Government will be able to respond positively, if not today, in the near future, to that point in the Royal Commission's report.

There are one or two small tangential points which I should like to mention briefly. I welcome the Government's positive response to the Select Committee's recommendations on air pollution monitoring. We shall never control and limit air pollution from any source adequately if our data base and monitoring facilities are inadequate. Much of the Government's approach over the years has relied on what we choose to call the "best practicable means". That sounds sensible, and allegedly it can do more to protect the environment than legally enforceable maximum limits, which is more the continental or American approach to such problems.

If we are to sustain that position, which is almost a theological one in British government, we must be able to point to instances where our approach has enabled us to do better than the alternative method of dealing with those matters. It would be useful for the House and some of our more dubious continental partners if, at the end of the debate, or on another occasion, the Minister could provide some useful and convincing examples of where our approach of the "best practicable means" has led to better results than the more legalistic continental approach.

Paragraph 3.65 of the Government's response appears to some of my hon. Friends to be a little negative and paradoxical in view of the Government's stated intention to achieve a 30 per cent. reduction in sulphur dioxide emissions by the end of the 1990s, compared with the 30 per cent. reduction by 1993 of the 30 per cent. club. Is the real reason for this discrepancy that the CEGB is now confident of having its new and better combustion technologies beginning to work by the end of the 1990s rather than by the early 1990s? That would seem a plausible explanation for the discrepancy between the two dates.

If agreement with our Community partners can he reduced to a reasonably simple and minimal area of disagreement, it is surely worth considering whether our policy is absolutely right. Perhaps it boils down to a seven-year difference in target date, to a methodological difference between the best practical means and legal maxima, to the problem of there being a continuing scientific dispute — which will probably continue ad infinitum; if we wait for scientists to agree on every point we will wait for ever—and to the political point, which has not been mentioned in today's debate.

It is clear that the whole issue raises extremely difficult matters to do with the unequal sharing of costs and benefits. At present, our partners have the dubious privilege of getting the effects of our invisible export in the shape of certain forms of air pollution, whereas we get the benefit of not having to finance the costs of limiting those. If we followed the lines suggested by the Select Committee, the United Kingdom would pay more, relatively speaking, and our partners would benefit more, relatively speaking, and that must be considered in a Community context.

The Government have it in mind to bring forward in due time a new comprehensive form of clean air legislation as the successor to the 1956 Act. That is all to the good, but I hope that when preparing that legislation Ministers and their advisers will pay attention to the need to include a suitable means of limiting air pollution emissions from hospitals and other forms of Crown property. This may sound a narrow point, but it is important symbolically.

At present, such places are excluded from the legal provisions, with the result that anybody walking past the Great Ormond street hospital for children on a fine summer day or looking across the river at St. Thomas's hospital can often see great plumes of noxious smoke and fumes emanating from their coal-fired boilers, simply because those places do not fall even within the provisions of the 1956 Act. I hope that that loophole will be closed.

In making preparations for subsequent air pollution legislation, I hope that the Government will give a favourable response to the idea that the Department of the Environment should truly become principally a Department of the Environment, because there is no other institutional body in Whitehall which has exactly that remit and responsibility.

In that context, I hope that the Government will move towards the establishment, soon after the legislation comes into force, of a new Her Majesty's pollution inspectorate, with real power behind it, specifically to see that environmental standards are monitored and met.

I welcome the progress that the Government have made so far, I congratulate the Select Committee on the work it has achieved, and I hope that Ministers and others concerned will recognise that a great deal remains to be done.

1.20 pm
Mr. Chris Smith (Islington, South and Finsbury)

During the debate we have, quite rightly, been using the term "acid rain" to cover a number of different chemical and polluting effects. We use the term to describe various forms of air pollution, sometimes carried over many hundreds of miles both within Britain and from Britain to abroad, arising from the production of sulphur dioxide, oxides of nitrogen and hydrocarbons, both singly and in various chemical combinations. It is important for us to recognise, as the Select Committee does in its report, that there is no one chemical process at work. Indeed, there are several processes. They are caused by several different forms of pollution and it is necessary for us to tackle them all if we are satisfactorily to solve the problem.

The result of the pollution that is produced and carried is environmental damage elsewhere in Europe of untold proportions and the environmental damage which is beginning in Britain, which is extremely worrying. I do not think that any of the members of the Select Committee who went to West Germany to see the results of environmental pollution there will ever forget our visit to a forest on the north-western escarpment of the Black forest, where five years ago there was luxuriant tree growth. There was a living, vital and extremely attractive forest. That area now looks like Passchendale. There are a few skeletons of trees. There is a wilderness where before there was a forest. That is a direct result of acid rain, the pollution which has fallen in both wet and dry forms on that part of the Black forest.

I do not think that any of us will forget either our visit to Galloway's lochs and rivers to see the dramatic increases in acidity which are being experienced, especially at times of the year when the snow melt occurs. These results should be fixed clearly in our minds when we go on to consider how it might be possible for us to start tackling the problems.

I am pleased that the Government have accepted many of the Select Committee's recommendations. I am pleased, too, that they will engage in more monitoring and research work. However, I must say strongly that it is obvious that, on the crucial recommendations of the Select Committee, especially on the reduction of the emission of sulphur dioxide, the Government have failed to take up the seriousness of the problem and the recommendations of the Committee.

The Central Electricity Generating Board is trying to claim, as it tried to claim at different times in its evidence to the Select Committee, that there is much less of a problem than many of us have been arguing. The briefing note which the board circulated to Members only a few days ago in preparation for the debate states in paragraph 7: In only a few, fairly small areas of Europe—and Britain is not one of them — has SO2 been shown to be directly responsible for environmental damage. That is misleading at best. It ignores the fact that there is overwhelming agreement among scientific opinion, both here and abroad, that SO2, in terms both direct and indirect, has a damaging effect on fish life in streams, rivers and lakes. The Minister accepted that in his evidence to the Select Committee.

The Government have said that, in tackling the problem, there is something to be said for the fact that Britain has "achieved" — that is the word that the Government use — a major reduction already in the production of sulphur dioxide. It is worth reading carefully paragraph 3.62 of the Government's response to the Select Committee's report. They point to the 40 per cent. reduction in SO2 production since 1970 and state: This reduction has been due to a number of factors such as fuel substitution, energy conservation and"— here we have a wonderful euphemism— industrial restructuring". They mean that the major reasons for a reduction in SO2 production over the past 20 years have been a transfer of fuel use to natural gas and, even more important, the industrial recession. To call that an achievement is to deny entirely the basic causes of the reduction in production.

If, as the Government and we hope, the economy shows an upturn in the next five to 10 years and the recession turns around so that we have an industrial base again, what is the potential upturn in sulphur dioxide production that the Government expect if there is not a specific effort to reduce sulphur dioxide emission at source? We must ask also whether the Government have any figures available on the production of sulphur dioxide by power stations over the past 12 months. If the burning of Polish coal, which contains about three times the amount of sulphur that British coal tends to have, and the burning of heavy oil in power stations have both been increased considerably, we must expect that the production of sulphur dioxide by power stations will have increased accordingly over the past 12 months. It would be interesting to know whether the Government have done any work at all to monitor the effects that have occurred in the most recent period.

Mr. Robert B. Jones (Hertfordshire, West)

The average sulphur content of Polish coal is certainly higher, but the coal exported has a sulphur content much lower than the average, so the most serious problems occur in Poland rather than abroad.

Mr. Smith

That may well be true, but the fact remains that the coal currently being imported from Poland has a considerably higher sulphur content than the average for British coal. Indeed, the areas where British coal has the lowest sulphur content are south Wales and Scotland, which are currently producing very little coal indeed.

The Government state that, having reduced sulphur dioxide emissions considerably in the past 20 to 30 years, the aim is a further reduction of 30 per cent. They state in their response: the Government aims to achieve a further reduction of 30 per cent. from 1980 levels of s2 emissions by the end of the 1990s. It is sad that they should refer to the end of the 1990s rather than to the internationally agreed date of 1995. Moreover, the Government have not so far addressed themselves to the point so forcefully made by the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi). I hope that the Minister will do so when he winds up. Although the Government claim that they are aiming for a reduction of 30 per cent., nowhere in their response or in the Minister's speech today have they said how they intend to achieve that. No specific measures whatever have been proposed. It is incumbent on the Government to put forward specific proposals and to show how the reduction will be brought about.

The Select Committee went further, rightly commending the 60 per cent. national reduction proposed by the EEC, which would mean a reduction in sulphur dioxide production by power stations of between 80 per cent. and 85 per cent. The Government's dismissal of that proposal in their response to the Select Committee is sketchy and thin in the extreme. The only argument that seems to have been put forward and the only argument that the Minister gave related to the cost involved. They ignore entirely the experience of countries such as Germany where, when flue gas desulphurisation equipment has been installed in power stations and industrial enterprises, it has been found that the eventual outturn cost of that installation is considerably less than original estimates. That must surely now be taken into account when we consider the costs of installing flue gas desulphurisation equipment in our power stations.

The Government also ignore the fact that the cost would be spread over some 10 to 15 years and that the impact year by year would be far smaller than the figures which the Government have been giving out. The Government should also bear in mind the fact that fuel costs in Britain have risen substantially over the past 10 years.

During his evidence to the Select Committee, I asked the Under-Secretary of State if he would care to compare the figures that he was giving for the installation of flue gas desulphurisation equipment and the cost to the electricity consumer if it were borne directly and entirely by the consumer—that is open to debate—with the rise in electricity prices over the past few years. He said: I have no doubt the question would not have been so pointedly asked unless there had been quite a considerably large figure involved: 50 per cent. over the last few years. One should consider what the Government have done to fuel prices for the consumer. There was a request from the Secretary of State for Energy in 1979 to the British Gas Corporation to raise domestic prices by 10 per cent. plus inflation for each of the following three years. Recently the Government forced the electricity industry to raise its prices by 2 per cent. There has been a rise of something like 40 per cent. in electricity prices in real terms over the previous decade. The Government imposed a levy on the gas industry of something like £526 million in the financial year 1983–84. Therefore, it ill becomes the Government to say that a rise of 1 per cent. a year in electricity costs to the consumer over the next 10 years is an intolerable burden for the electricity consumer to bear despite the environmental benefits which might well result. The environmental task is surely far more urgent, and the benefits of action are far greater, than the Government have yet given any sign of realising.

Two further small points ought to be made. The first is to ask the Government whether they have a policy, and if so what it is, in relation to new power stations which might be commissioned over the next few years. In particular, what requirement will they place on SO2 emissions from the oil-fired Kilroot station in Northern Ireland which it is planned will convert to coal later and which is upwind of some of the most sensitive areas in southern Scotland? What are the Government's plans for that, and do they have any specific proposals for ensuring that proper desulphurisation equipment and low nitrogen oxide-producing burning processes are installed in that planned station?

Secondly, there is pressurised fluid bed combustion. All the members of the Select Committee were impressed by the evidence that pressurised fluid bed combustion could provide, if the necessary research was done, a new, attractive and clean technology for the burning of coal in future. But we were all agreed about the importance of speeding up research to produce that technology much sooner than at present expected.

We all know that there are difficulties. In particular, there is the effect on the turbines and the necessity of disposing of waste products. The problems have not yet been entirely solved. However, the attractiveness and potential of the PFB combustion process are such that the Government should assist the National Coal Board and the CEGB in bringing forward the date for the final establishment of a proper working method of PFB.

While it is true that the Government seem to recognise the existence of a problem of some sort, and while they have agreed to carry out more research and more monitoring, their response to the Select Committee's report is deeply disappointing. They have totally failed to acknowledge that action must be taken on the crucial recommendations about the emission of pollutant gases from power stations.

Of course there are complexities, uncertainties and difficulties. There is no 100 per cent. scientific proof of the exact chemical processes at work. However, the members of the Select Committee all agreed that there was overwhelming evidence that the production of SO2 and nitrogen oxide by power stations causes environmental damage. The Minister himself acknowledged that that is so. He told the Select Committee that sulphur dioxide must cause some damage. It must contribute to some environmental damage, either now or in the future. I think that is right, yes. If the Minister seriously believes that, we must take steps now rather than later to start to curb the emission of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide by our power stations.

We have heard much talk recently about the so-called greening of the Conservative party. The phrase may well be appropriate with regard to the Conservative Members who joined me and other hon. Members on the Select Committee in producing our report. Regrettably, it is not yet true of the Government.

1.38 pm
Mr. Norman Miscampbell (Blackpool, North)

I am very conscious of the time. I shall therefore make only one of the points that I had intended to make in a somewhat longer speech. I shall not follow other hon. Members by dealing with the scientific particularities of the matter, which have been fully dealt with.

I believe that in making a decision on this matter we should not concentrate entirely on the economic consequences to ourselves. There are grave political decisions to be made, and grave political damage could be done to our country if we do not recognise the anger—anger is the right word — that has been expressed, especially in Scandinavia and, to some extent, in Germany.

I wish that we could accede to the Committee's suggestion that we should adopt all the EEC suggestions. However, to join the 30 per cent. club would not, in our present situation, cost nearly as much as going all the way with the EEC, and the cost of that step should be weighed against the costs that will inevitably be imposed upon us in terms of political damage if we do not take it.

I remember being at a lunch in a forest when the Swedes sang a song, several verses of which referred unfavourably to the CEGB. I also remember, with special force, talking to an obviously well-informed journalist who said of our visit to Scandinavia that we were brave to come. I remember, too, a highly placed official saying that he dealt continuously with troubles in the forest and with people who rang in for advice, and that at times they were almost in tears. There is undoubtedly great political feeling there. We were taken to see a river in Norway where, in 1929, two Englishmen caught 1,000 salmon in six weeks. I cannot think what they did with so many fish, or why they should want to catch them, though I am a fisherman. Not one salmon has been taken out of that river for nearly 20 years.

We are faced with considerable political difficulties and should not think that others will necessarily keep their word. Eastern Europe has made the appropriate noises, but we know that Czechoslovakia continues to burn lignite, which is causing enormous trouble, and of other difficulties. Unless we act, I do not believe that they will.

I welcome the Government's obvious intention to deal with nitrogen oxide emissions, and I hope that we are successful. I urge the Government to consider joining the 30 per cent. club. Although I should like to go much further, I cannot believe that the costs of doing that do not represent a bargain, bearing in mind the political damage that we shall do ourselves in Europe, especially with our friends in Scandinavia, if we do not show that we are willing to co-operate.

1.41 pm
Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton)

The attitude of the Government, some of their supporters and the CEGB can be summarised as, "Acid reigns OK." It is not OK. It must be admitted that Britain leads the Western world in the most unenviable capacity as a producer and exporter of acid rain pollutants. We are ahead of the rest of Europe, the United States, Canada and Japan. We are the largest emitter of sulphur pollution in western Europe. The catastrophic effects of that pollution are well documented and incontrovertible. They expose the inadequacy of the Government's policy on the problem. Evidence of damage nationally suggests that the Government have taken into account only the tip of the iceberg when considering the enormous hidden costs to the country of this most obnoxious rainfall.

There is great anxiety in agriculture. Evidence shows reduced yields of cereals, root crops, grass and possibly sheep on acidified pastures. Friends of the Earth estimates that losses to winter wheat and barley might amount to £200 million a year. That represents an entirely unnecessary loss to the farmer, which, in turn, costs the country dear in terms of the cost of food and the loss of farming land.

For the ruinous effects of acid rain on our national architectural heritage we need look no further than the Palace of Westminster and the work that has had to be done here. The cost of treating corroded iron, steel, glass and Portland stone here, at Westminster abbey, St. Paul's cathedral, the Hyde park corner memorial and other buildings throughout London could well run into millions of pounds. Moreover, that cost will recur every decade unless we reduce acid rain pollution. The country is bearing an unjustifiable financial and cultural cost as buildings old and new are damaged, leaving future generations an architecture that is etched in acid.

The danger to our natural environment must also be taken into account. That is even more sinister, because the damage may not be apparent to the general public. The widespread nature of acidified fresh water in the United Kingdom is a disgrace. According to the Welsh water authority, 120 Welsh rivers are affected. In addition, it is estimated that 57 Scottish lochs are either partly or wholly acidified. Unless the Government take steps to reduce those levels, they should make it a statutory obligation on water authorities to erect public notices to warn the population of the possibility of acid baths which may replace natural fresh water ones.

The Nature Conservancy Council lists 100 areas of international importance which are vulnerable to acid rain. Its appeal for legislation to reduce pollution because of the dreadful effects on wildlife has been met by an unsubstantiated attack by the CEGB. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the World Wildlife Fund are among the esteemed authorities which are painstakingly cataloguing the decline of our natural environment.

The Forestry Commission, reluctant until recently to consider the Scandinavian tree death problem, is now conducting a national survey into widespread unexplained damage to trees in the United Kingdom. In the face of the evidence catalogued by many reputable organisations, the Government's present position is feeble.

At present, the aim of the policy is to bring about a 30 per cent. reduction in acid rain pollution by the year 2000. That policy compares unfavourably with that of other Western countries. The nine European Community countries and Canada have formed a 30 per cent. club which commits each member to a 30 per cent. reduction in sulphur emissions by 1995. Even if the United Kingdom joined the club and met its objectives, we would still be the biggest emitter of sulphur pollution in western Europe. The reduction would only retard environmental damage.

The European Commission proposes an EC directive for a 40 per cent. reduction in nitrogen oxide and a 60 per cent. reduction in sulphur by 1995. Britain should support that directive and put it into effect. The EC proposal is of the highest order because it commits all its member states to a mutually beneficial improvement in the quality of environmental life.

How tawdry by comparison are the Government's European preservation policies, which preserve wine lakes and butter mountains rather than the environment. I find little evidence for the Government's opposition to this laudable EC directive to reduce acid rain.

The principal component of the practical strategy consists of modifying combustion at large plants. In the United Kingdom the large plants responsible for 66 per cent. of pollution are CEGB power stations. Although the Government have identified that major source of pollution, they oppose cleaning it up, even though the amount added to an average yearly electricity bill would be about £1. Polls have shown that the general public would willingly pay the extra amount for pollution-free electricity, combined with a vastly improved environment.

Given that, one would expect the CEGB's case to the Government, which opposes improvements, to have substance. Far from it. The CEGB's only consistency has been its unremitting propaganda against improvements. It has waged a campaign of misinformation, first against the Scandinavians in the mid-70s and then, as EC pressure grew, against the Germans, British environmental groups, the NCC and finally the House of Commons Environment Select Committee. The press, too, has been misinformed, leading it to publish much higher consumer costs than is the case.

The Select Committee criticised the CEGB for presenting misleading and useless cost estimates, seriously inaccurate forecasting and "trite and evasive" evidence on several serious issues. The comment by Sir Walter Marshall, chairman of the CEGB, to the Committee provides a most objectionable quote rather than an explanation of its policy. He said: I would much prefer it if politicians did not attempt to make balanced scientific judgments. It is not for him to tell us our responsibilities when investigating matters of national and international importance.

The Chairman of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi), replied to the chairman of the CEGB: You say that my committee misunderstood CEGB evidence. To the contrary. Your evidence was assessed alongside that of over 100 other witnesses, tested, evaluated and found wanting —not for the first time by a Select Committee. I should prefer it if the Government did not attempt to make balanced political judgments on acid rain based on the dubious record of the CEGB, and especially the performance of its chairman. The Government have already experienced the undesirable effects of entrusting the future of a nationalised industry to the cult of the personality. Mr. MacGregor at the National Coal Board has wasted £5 billion of taxpayers' money in one year. Britain cannot afford the additional, inestimable cost of environmental damage following the "Marshall" plan.

I ask the Government to adopt the EC directive on the reduction of acid rain as a matter of urgency to combat its catastrophic consequences.

1.51 pm
Mr. Robert B. Jones (Hertfordshire, West)

As one with an academic chemistry background, I find this debate and the Select Committee proceedings on the subject fascinating. I feel strongly on the subject, but where one feels strongly it is all the more important that one tempers such strength of feeling with due regard to the scientific facts and to the economic costs of possible options. Notwithstanding that, it is evident from the evidence taken by the Select Committee in Britain, Germany and Scandinavia that there is a serious problem. I welcomed the opening speech of my hon. Friend the Minister, which was thoughtful. He is a genuine seeker after the truth. His visit to Scandinavia did much to convince him of the importance that the Scandinavians place on the problem and of the large scale of their difficulties.

The place of fishing, hunting and shooting in the Scandinavian psyche and the position of trees and forests in the German psyche are similar to the British view of land, which has always been a great feature of British aspirations. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that the Scandinavians should react so strongly when in one area of Norway alone more than 10,000 lakes are fishless.

There is some agreement about the evidence for the depredations that have occurred and about the volume of pollution that is being emitted from Britain and other countries. It is all very well for the Soviet Union cynically to attach itself to the 30 per cent. club. Britain has a proud tradition of fulfilling its promises, whereas the Soviet Union frequently joins international commitments to impress people without the slightest intention of carrying them out. The evidence of serious pollution not only in eastern Europe but in the countries immediately adjacent to it shows that it is a cynical attitude compared with the genuine concern of many western European countries. A realistic appraisal of the fact that if we commit ourselves to the 30 per cent. club we have to achieve that has led my hon. Friend the Minister and his advisers to take a rather more cautious approach than we would like.

I impress upon my hon. Friend two points. First, pollution is wrong in principle. There is no question but that these are toxic substances, and that means that we have a moral obligation to take every opportunity to reduce the level of pollution that we are giving out. Secondly, there is a real worry in Scandinavia about what effect this will have on British-Scandinavian relations, which have traditionally been extremely good.

We have an opportunity to put into practice the traditional British approach of best practicable means by taking full advantage of the technology that is presently available to us. The cost of complying with joining the 30 per cent. club is a reasonable cost, given the balance of probability that arises from the scientific evidence that we received and evaluated. From the scientific evidence, there was no question but that there was a relationship between our emissions and Scandinavian problems. We may not understand each and every link in the chain that joins those two, but we must accept that if we reduced our pollution it would bring some benefits to Scandinavia and to ourselves. Under those circumstances, it is right to make a commitment to the 30 per cent. club. After all, we are nearly two thirds of the way there.

It was unfair of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) to say that the Government have entirely rejected the main point of the Select Committee's report, because one has to examine not just the letters that are printed in the report but the thought behind them. If we were to achieve part of the 30 per cent. reduction, that would take us into compliance with the membership of the so-called 30 per cent. club and would achieve a good proportion of the Committee's main objective, which is to secure a large-scale reduction in pollution.

There is a long way to go, but there is a great deal that we can achieve. I commend to my hon. Friend the Minister the fact that the consequences of our go-slow on the 30 per cent. club are a serious deterioration in our relations with Scandinavia and are undermining our justly-earned reputation as one of the leading European countries in pollution control.

1.57 pm
Mr. Conal Gregory (York)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi) on his chairmanship of the Select Committee and for so ably opening the debate.

This is not simply a matter for the Department of the Environment. There are also implications, which have not been raised, for the agriculture and food industries, certainly through better education and information. There are employment aspects and energy implications. I have been pleased to see my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environmnent here for most of the debate. The Foreign Office is also involved because of the interaction with other states. The Health and Social Security Department is involved because of the damage that sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and other emissions are having on the health of our nation. I could carry on in a similar vein. Therefore, I am delighted to see that the representative of one of our most important regional offices is winding up, and it would have been nice to have seen a representative from the Welsh and Northern Ireland Offices. Environmental considerations need to be an integral part of our policy network if they are to make any headway. We have a moral as well as an economic duty to safeguard our society.

Has the scale of the problem been truly appreciated? The debate has been relegated to the first parliamentary Friday after Christmas, so it would appear not. Only the USSR, in the whole of Europe, produces more sulphur dioxide than Britain. Man-made ozone, created from the combustion of fossil fuel, has had the most damaging effect. An example from my own constituency is the historic York minster, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mr. Chapman) referred today.

The information that I received was from the surveyor of the fabric at York minster. There were two specific examples. Five or six years ago, Norman stone exposed to medieval air for 200 years on the north side underneath the vergers' vestry was revealed. Although it had been covered at about 1380, during all that time there had only been a darkening of dirt. There was no erosion or decay of the stone. Now, with magnesian limestone—which is certainly more delicate—there are great problems. The second example is stone put in only seven years ago, which has already lost one eighth of an inch of its surface. That is a staggering example of what is happening to a major historical and religious building. Acid rain is a contributory factor. I do not doubt that we have cleaner cities since the Clean Air Act 1956, but that deterioration has occurred during such a short time. I hope that the Minister will appreciate that we do not want to get into the United States bumper bar expression "acid rain causes nuclear power", but it is a strong message.

I know that a number of my colleagues have referred to the difficulties of the CEGB, and I am sure that we have underestimated the arguments about nitrogen. But if we are to deal with true diplomacy and in the interests of trade, there must be stronger action. I am one of those who would like Britain to join the so-called 30 per cent. club, and feel that we should go further, because polite nagging is not enough. The Minister should not shelter under an umbrella of limited technical energy research to protect him from an anticipated acid drizzle of disapproval from his fellow environment Ministers in Europe. We owe it not only to this generation but to our children and grandchildren to improve the environment, which has been so damaged by man, and, in consequence the quality of life.

2.2 pm

Mr. Jim Craigen (Glasgow, Maryhill)

Tribute has already been paid to the work of the Select Committee. I wish to pay tribute to the interest shown by the members of the Committee in today's debate — not only in speaking about the report but in standing by its recommendations. The Chairman of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi), pointedly asked the question what is the precise Government programme. He did not receive a reply from the Minister. Perhaps he could not answer or perhaps he did not want to answer. The fact remains that the Chairman was understandably disappointed that the Government did not accept the two main recommendations in the report, although they accepted the other 17. It was almost as though the twin pillars upon which many of the recommendations rested had been pulled down by the blind Samson at the Department of the Environment. Time and again hon. Members argued in favour of joining the 30 per cent. club and of commitment to the European directive.

In many ways, this has been a House of Commons occasion. One of the duties that Select Committees perform is to make the House more aware of the issues, the complexities and the technicalities at stake. Having served on a Select Committee, I know that in many ways they fulfill that important obligation.

The hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mr. Chapman) emphasised a point contained in the text of the report, that the Committee had started its inquiry "with open minds". However, the Committee is now convinced about the matter and looking for more positive Government action and acceptance of the urgency of what is at stake. Several hon. Members have said that costs are involved, but there is a price to be paid for doing nothing. Many hon. Members also referred to the Clean Air Act 1956. Of course, nobody would say now that that was not worth the cost. We probably take it too much for granted. People have forgotten or did not experience the fogs and smogs that used to plague urban areas. Therefore, there is a sense of acceptance with regard to that aspect of clean air legislation.

Several hon. Members also referred to the on-costs that will arise elsewhere if we do not act on the problem of acid rain. In a notable passage in his speech, the Minister talked about the cost-benefit approach. I wondered, cynically, whether it was benefit to us and cost to somebody else. That is the difficulty that we are dealing with. My hon. Friend the Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) spoke about a Marshall plan. For a moment one thought of the post-war Marshall plan, which was positive and designed to give out resources. It was not of course the same as the Marshall plan associated with the CEGB, which is to hold back and restrain, but there will be costs elsewhere. We have a compartmentalised approach in the way in which we do our accounting in Government circles. What may seem to be a cost at the Department of Energy may not be a cost in another Department. The Government should take a view on the basis of totality.

My hon. Friend the Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton), who was, as ever, on the ball, mentioned the Scottish interest and the apparent absence of input by the Scottish Office, although I know that many eminent Scots gave evidence to the Select Committee in other capacaties. The Scottish Development Department published its paper on acid rain in June last year, which acknowledged the potential damage to the lochs in Galloway. The hon. Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth) referred today to the problems of Loch Ard in his area. The right hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Stewart) drew attention to the areas at risk in many parts of the western Highlands. Last year the Nature Conservancy Council report on acid deposition and its implications for nature conservancy in Britain contained some disturbing warning signs in its text.

The hon. Member for Stirling also alluded to the aggravation of some problems by the Forestry Commission's policies over the years, and the species of tree that it has planted. That is a fairly complicated matter because age, structure and other factors undoubtedly come into play. However, I wonder whether, if more of the woodlands of Scotland were in the private sector, there would be a greater sense of urgency on the part of the Government with regard to the damage that is being done. The Government have a slipshod attitude on matters of public asset as against private interest.

Mr. Chris Smith

Does my hon. Friend accept that the planting policies of private forestry operations have over the past 10 or 20 years tended to be even worse than those of the Forestry Commission in terms of the type of tree planted? Does that not augur badly for the sale of Forestry Commission land upon which the Government are now embarked?

Mr. Craigen

That is a tree up which I shall not climb. My hon. Friend, however, makes an interesting point. One of the difficulties facing many lay people who are not caught up in either the ecological or energy lobby is that they see no direct result from the problems of acid rain. It is only when they come up against the specifics that they start taking an interest.

In our basically urban society—that is what we have in the United Kingdom—less attention is paid to the problems of the environment than in some European countries where, although they may be urbanised, there tends to be a greater interplay between urban and rural areas than is often the case in part of the United Kingdom.

The hon. Member for Chipping Barnet referred to the problems of buildings. Several hon. Members have mentioned the forests under attack. We have also heard about the risks to agricultural land and the threat to our fresh water. My hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy), a recognised authority on matters of the natural environment, mentioned the threat to much of our wildlife. The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green made the point that it is sensible to try to stop the emission of acid at source. I agree that preventing rather than paying for the consequence is the most sensible approach. My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) made a useful point when he asked what was the Government's policy about the commissioning of new power stations, because that would at least give us a clue as to the importance that they attach to the problem.

Several hon. Members, not least my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark), have rightly emphasised the importance of using as much as possible coal with little sulpur content. They specifically referred to coalfields in Scotland, the north-east and south Wales where we might say that the coal is worth its weight in coal if it has a limited sulphur content. I hope that more attention will be paid to the use of clean coal, if it can be described as such.

The hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor) and others rightly emphasised the employment potential in environmental conservation and protection. We are inclined to overlook the job creation spin-off that can arise from preventive measures.

I wish to repeat two points made by my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields. We feel that the United Kingdom should join the 30 per cent. club and show much greater earnestness of its intent to our neighbours. That point was ably put by the hon. and learned Member for Blackpool, North (Mr. Miscampbell) when referring to the importance of external relations.

Secondly, we must indicate our strong and clear commitment to the European directive. The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Forman) rightly emphasised that we are dealing with an issue which straddles national boundaries and which requires the greatest possible collaboration and co-operation in the European context.

We have today paid tribute to the Select Committee. Our tribulations arise from the Government's response to the report of what was an all-party Select Committee which emphasised the urgency of the problem and the need for quick action. There is a temptation for any generation to bestow on future generations the consequences of its short-sightedness. That is especially true in politics where, let us be frank, we tend to operate at least on a quinquennial basis. While the green fingers may not yet have touched the ballot boxes, environmental factors must have a higher place in the politics of Britain.

No Government this century have gained so greatly and benefited so quickly from the natural resource of offshore oil than the present Government. Moreover, the benefits were put in their lap by the efforts of the former Labour Government because of the way in which that Administration approached oil participation and public enterprise arrangements. I hope that the Government will not prove as careless in their handling of environmental issues as they have shown themselves callous in dealing with all matters domestic.

2.17 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Michael Ancram)

The hon. Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mr. Craigen) ended by saying that we should not be short-sighted. I suspect that he suffers more from a short memory, judging by his remarks about the development of North sea oil under the last Labour Government. He seems to forget the record of that Administration in environmental terms and particularly the fact that between 1974 and 1979 they had the chance to implement the Control of Pollution Act 1974 but failed to do so, purely on the grounds of cost. On the basis of that example, we are entitled to take with a pinch of salt the remarks that have been made today from the Opposition Front Bench.

This has been a useful debate, introduced comprehensively by my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi) on what is probably one of the most complex environmental problems facing us today. Hon. Members have shown interest in and knowledge of the subject and have expressed what I appreciate is a widely held concern about the environmental effects of acid rain. This mirrors the concern which the Select Committee expressed in its report.

The debate has demonstrated the complexity of the issues and the potentially enormous costs which could arise from some of the solutions proposed. There is a great deal at stake and we must be sure that we fully understand the essentials of the problem, and particularly the cause and effect relationships, before we commit ourselves to considerable sums of public expenditure; time permitting, I shall return to that subject. I shall deal with as many points as possible in the time available to me, but if I fail to reply to any questions I shall endeavour to answer them by way of correspondence.

I will try to put the whole issue in perspective. A number of hon. Members have criticised the Government for what they describe as inactivity. They criticise us for depending on research instead of taking up some of the measures which they feel we should be undertaking. Had this criticism been made against a background of increasing emission levels of SO2 there might have been inactivity worthy of the criticism which has been levelled at the Government. However, that is not the background against which we are debating this issue. As my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State said, we have seen a reduction of about 40 per cent. in the SO2 level since 1970, and a 20 per cent. reduction since 1980. The emission levels are reducing. It has been said that they have reduced for many reasons outwith the Government's control but that does not diminish the importance of the fact that the levels are reducing. We must continue to encourage their reduction.

The speech of the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) was dealt with by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State. I regret the language which the hon. Gentleman used when addressing himself to a sensitive and complex issue. He described the present position—I think that I quote him correctly — as like waging chemical warfare against Britain and north Europe. He will realise that those are emotive words which conjure up fears and frightening pictures for many, especially in terms of health.

I have always believed the hon. Member for South Shields to be a responsible politician who would not wish unnecessarily to create fears in people's minds. He knows that there is no evidence in the United Kingdom that acid deposition directly affects health at ambient air pollution levels and that any current health factors associated with air pollution are most likely related to past exposure, especially to smoke from the use of coal in pre-Clean Air Act days. I believe that the hon. Gentleman used the language of exaggeration. I hope that on mature reflection he will realise that he should not have used it. I hope, too, that at some future time, if not now, he will withdraw it.

Dr. David Clark

I shall not withdraw. We are talking about chemicals in the atmosphere, and there is considerable evidence of health risks in Scandinavia as a result of Britain's acidic emissions.

Mr. Ancram

Obviously the hon. Gentleman has a picture of chemical warfare that is different from that of my hon. and right hon. Friends. I hope that when he reflects upon his remarks—

Sir Hugh Rossi

On the risks to health in Scandinavia, the Select Committee adduced evidence of diarrhoea in babies as a result of leaching through copper pipes in the water supply. That does not happen in Britain.

Mr. Ancram

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that clear on the basis of evidence received by the Select Committee. I hope that the hon. Member for South Shields will reflect on his remarks in a calmer moment.

The hon. Members for Maryhill and for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton) said that the Scottish Office did not submit evidence to the Select Committee. If they read page VIII of the first volume of the report, they will find a list of written evidence received on the acid rain inquiry that was not printed. The Scottish Office is referred to about a third of the way down the page. That evidence was based on the position paper to which the hon. Member for Maryhill referred.

As Minister with responsibilities for the environment in Scotland, I have given considerable and serious attention to acid rain. It has aroused considerable public concern and debate in Scotland. There was evidence of this in the three-day conference that was organised in September by the Scottish Wildlife Trust. It is because of that concern that I have been anxious to ensure that there should be a widespread and fully informed public debate. To assist in this, the position paper was published in the summer of 1984. That document sets out the Scottish dimension.

I can summarise the position in Scotland by saying that, because of its geology and soil, Scotland includes many of the areas that are most vulnerable to acid deposition. Consequently, an extensive research effort is being undertaken in Scotland to determine the chemical reactions taking place in the atmosphere within plant canopies and within soils and water systems to assess the impact that acid rain is having on those environments.

The evidence so far is of some past acidification of surface waters, but I am glad to say that as yet the environmental effects are limited to a reasonably few lochs and streams in the geologically most vulnerable areas, mainly in the south-west of Scotland, where over a period of years there has been some reduction in fish populations.

I was most interested this summer to see for myself something of the research work that is being undertaken at Loch Dee in Dumfriesshire by the Solway river purification board in conjunction with the Forestry Commission and the freshwater fisheries laboratory of the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries for Scotland. Several hon. Members asked about the impact of afforestation on acidity. At least one of the experiments that is taking place at Loch Dee is related to that and the findings of those experiments will obviously be of great value in terms of the way that afforestation should take place in future.

The Government are keen to see research on the subject progressing. We shall continue to support it financially. As was made clear at the beginning of the debate, a considerable amount of research work is already being undertaken in the United Kingdom. In 1984–85 Government-sponsored work alone will cost £5 million, of which 10 per cent. will be spent on projects in Scotland. That is a substantial effort and, for those who said that it should be increased, it shows an increase of about 30 per cent. over last year.

My Department has also published a register of research projects on acid rain being undertaken in Scotland, whether at the behest of Government Departments or sponsored by other bodies such as universities, electricity boards, and so on. Copies of that register have been placed in the Library. It is interesting and impressive that 49 separate projects are under way in Scotland, representing an investment of some £3 million up to about 1987. Of that, some £2 million involves direct Government funding.

The right hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Stewart) asked about the damage to forests and where it had occurred. Visible damage to forests has been observed in old plantations on the western seaboard of Scotland, but that damage is not extensive. It is largely random and the symptoms differ in some significant respects from those observed in Germany.

The Forestry Commission's initial view is that the damage is climatic in origin and relates to the temperatures which were experienced in 1983–84. However, the possiblity of pollution damage cannot be ruled out. Therefore, the commission is undertaking research to establish the causes, but it will be some time before the results of that research are available.

Several hon. Members asked what would be the cost of implementing the EC directive or of joining the 30 per cent. club. A number of figures were put forward which in general it was agreed came roughly to an increase of 5 per cent. in electricity prices over 10 years. I do not think that hon. Members realise that that figure covered SO2 measures alone and that in addition several million pounds would be required for power stations to install nitrogen oxide controls.

Mr. Alton

Who pays to put right the damage being done to buildings up and down the country, and what will the Government contribute to those costs?

Mr. Ancram

The hon. Gentleman must realise that it is one thing to define an environmental problem when the sources of pollution are identifiable and quite another to seek to define it when other principles apply.

I am conscious that time is running out, but several serious points were discussed, not least by my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Forman), and I shall try to answer them in correspondence as soon as possible.

The basic question throughout the debate has been how the Government intend to achieve the reduction by the end of the century. We believe that we can build on what is already a substantial reduction in SO2 emissions and that we can achieve the further 30 per cent. by the end of the century. We also believe that we can achieve a similar reduction in nitrogen oxide emissions.

We believe that we shall achieve that aim not by the adoption of a rigid emission target, which is ultimately just a set of words, but by a progressive and flexible approach using new developments and new control techniques, from the lean burn engine and fluidised bed combustion which have already been mentioned to further conservation measures with both intrinsic and economic merit as well as the changing pattern of energy generation and fuel use. It has become clear from the debate that our aims and purposes are, in a sense, common to us all—

It being half-past Two o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.