HC Deb 14 December 1988 vol 143 cc896-8
6. Mr. Paice

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what proportion of pollution into the North sea from rivers and estuaries comes from Great Britain.

Mrs. Virginia Bottomley

In the order of 20 per cent., according to the quality status report prepared for the second North sea conference held in November last year.

Mr. Paice

The House will be grateful to my hon. Friend for that figure. Does not her answer disprove once and for all the allegation that Britain is the dirty man of Europe? Is it not true that German rivers contribute 50 per cent. of known pollution? Will my hon. Friend tell the House what further plans there are to reduce Great Britain's proportion even below 20 per cent.?

Mrs. Bottomley

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for pointing out the clear contrast. I agree that 50 per cent. of the riverborne contaminants found in the North sea are borne from rivers at the eastern end of the North sea. Nevertheless, following on from the North sea conference in London least year, which was hosted by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, we are bringing forward a clear plan of action for continuing to improve the North sea. We have produced a "red list" of the 26 substances most damaging to our waterways and in addition to our participation in the scientific task force we are moving towards ending incineration and dumping at sea.

Mr. Malcolm Bruce

The Minister has made some valuable contributions in terms of the Government's concern, but will she acknowledge that 20 per cent. is no cause for complacency and that the reason why the Germans, in particular, have such a high rate of pollution is that they have a river which taps the whole continent rather than just these islands? The Government's record on the North sea will be worth defending only when specific regulations are brought before the House to ban the substances that the Minister has in mind and action is taken on them.

Mrs. Bottomley

The hon. Gentleman makes some reasonable points. At last week's meeting of the North sea scientific task force Britain was the only country in the North sea to bring forward specific programmes for monitoring, regulating and providing models of the North sea. Similarly, with the "red list", Britain is the first country to have published a list of substances that we hope to see reduced by 50 per cent. by 1995.

Mr. Bowis:

Will my hon. Friend confirm that the Thames estuary is the cleanest metropolitan estuary in the world? Will she also confirm that she will not rest on those laurels but will continue to pursue the polluters of the Thames and other rivers, particularly through the courts?

Mrs. Bottomley

The Thames is probably the cleanest metropolitan waterway in the world. About £300 million has been spent on cleaning it up and more than 100 different species are to be found there. However, there is no room for complacency and it is essential that we continue with our programmes to clean up waterways and to protect the North sea. That is why we are committed to a precautionary approach and to a rigorous approach to the implementation of these policies.

Mr. Allan Roberts

Once again, the Minister and Conservative Members have proved that they are wholly complacent about the pollution that this country puts into the North sea. Of course, river discharges into the North sea from Britain are only 20 per cent. But the river Mersey, which is the most polluted river basin in Western Europe, goes into the Irish sea, which they have not mentioned. Three hundred million gallons of sewage are discharged every day into Britain's coastal waters. Twenty per cent. of the flow from sewage pipelines is composed of contamined industrial effluent. We dump 200,000 tonnes of liquid industrial contaminated—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The North sea, please.

Mr. Roberts

It is the North sea. Two hundred thousand tonnes go into the North sea. Will the Minister confirm that Britain is the only country dumping massive amounts of sewage sludge into the North sea? Thirty per cent. of Britain's contaminated, poisonous sewage sludge is dumped into the North sea. When will the Government stop that? The Minister will go down in history as one of Britain's great poisoners.

Mrs. Bottomley

I fear that that was an example of air pollution. As a party, we believe in action not words and we believe in action based on sound, scientific evidence. The hon. Gentleman mentioned sewage sludge. It is important to point out that sewage sludge is what remains after the treatment of sewage. One has to find the best practical environmental option. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would prefer to have the sewage sludge spread over the land around his constituency. Our view, is that, where it is the best practical environmental option, it is permissible to dump it, so long as it is strictly licensed and strictly monitored.

Mr. Cran

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government's commitment to cleaning up the five great estuaries in the North sea is evidenced by the fact that by 1990 £600 million will have been committed in capital works by various water authorities? Does she further agree that in the river Humber oxygen concentration has increased in the past few years from under 45 per cent. to more than 65 per cent.? Does she also agree that the situation will improve because £70 million has been committed by the water authority there to further improvements? Is that not progress and, if not, what is?

Mrs. Bottomley

I most appreciate the fact that my hon. Friend is so well informed on this matter and about the very good progress that we have made, which means that 90 per cent. of our rivers and waterways are of good or fair quality, as compared with a European average of 75 per cent. We have further to go and we are committed to do all that we can to ensure that we maintain the standards of our rivers and waterways.