HC Deb 04 November 1988 vol 139 cc1261-327

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. John M. Taylor.] Relevant documents: Third Report from the Environment Committee of Session 1986–87 on pollution of rivers and estuaries (HC 183), third special report of Session 1987–88 incorporating the Government's response (HC 543), first report of Session 1985–86 on radioactive waste (HC 191), the Government's second stage response (Cmnd. 9852), the ministerial declaration from the second international conference on the protection of the North sea, and the guidance note thereon.

9.36 am
Sir Hugh Rossi (Hornsey and Wood Green)

I am most grateful for this opportunity to discuss the Environment Committee's third report for the Session 1986–87 on the pollution of rivers and estuaries. The House will have noted the date of publication of the report—13 May 1987—which was the very eve of the Dissolution of Parliament for the general election. Much burning of midnight oil was required to ensure the publication of the report before the Dissolution of Parliament and of the Committee, which otherwise might have meant that months of inquiry and research would never have seen the light of day.

I am indebted to the members of the Committe at that time for their co-operation and I am glad to see that a number of them are in their places today. I am also indebted to the staff of the Committee, who prepared and retyped revised draft after revised draft to make possible this publication, albeit originally in typescript without photographs or illustrations. The timing of the publication meant that the report was subsumed by the general election campaign in terms of media interest, although favourable comment was received from the specialist press.

After re-reading the report some 18 months later, I do not think that, even with the advantage of hindsight, I would wish to alter its thrust nor any of its 32 recommendations. If I may make this criticism, the Government have taken an inordinate time in which to reply to the report—just over 13 months—whereas the requirements of this House are a maximum of six months. However, the long interval has enabled the Government to put in hand or to announce a number of initiatives that suggest that the major recommendations in the report have been accepted.

The changes or announcements have included, for example, the proposal that there should be a National Rivers Authority to act as a regulatory and pollution control authority and to take such control away from the water authorities. That would be the implementation in due course of recommendation No. 8. Another proposal is for a "red list" of substances for which strict environmental water quality is to be established. In recommendation 35, we suggest that there should be a list of substances which should be subject to the strictest control against their discharge into rivers. Also, there are various measures relating to sea dumping of sewage sludge and contaminates, to which the Government agreed at the second international conference for the protection of the North sea in November 1987.

The Committee should not complain that the Government have required so much time to study our conclusions. It is clear that they have studied them seriously. It has been the experience of this Committee that the moment that it announces a subject for inquiry, there is immediately a reaction—an internal inquiry—within the Department of the Environment. The opening of cupboards and the falling out of skeletons is audible from Marsham street to this place.

It is inevitable that in an inquiry and report of this kind, the Committee focuses attention where things seem to be wrong and where correction and improvements are needed. However, in emphasising these matters, it would be quite wrong to lose sight of the fact that the record of the United Kingdom in the care of the quality of its waters is the best in Europe and possibly in the world.

I draw the attention of the House in particular to paragraph 6 of the report, in which the Committee says: it is important to stress that river and estuary quality in this country is generally very high. Of …(18,750 miles) of river length in England and Wales over 90 per cent. is classed by the DOE as 'good' and 'fair', and a similar picture applies too to our … (1,875) miles of estuary length.

Mr. Allan Roberts (Bootle)

The Department of Environment measurements are based on water authority tests, which in turn are based on the amount of dissolved oxygen in the water. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that test does not include grade 1 chemical pollutants that might be in rivers?

Sir Hugh Rossi

There is an element of that, but the great test is the presence of oxygen and the ability of natural life to exist in those rivers, and it is on this basis that the tests are taken.

Mr. Barry Field (Isle of Wight)

Does my hon. Friend agree that the appointment of David Renshaw as the chief executive of the National Rivers Authority is a most inspired choice? Has my hon. Friend had time to consider the Salmon Advisory Council's report, published by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, which shows that in 1985, the latest year for which figures are available, the catches of salmon exceeded those of 1952, 1955, 1976, 1979 and 1982? That shows that that most sensitive of fish is thriving because of the much clearer waters in our rivers?

Sir Hugh Rossi

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that information. As the Committee said in paragraph 4, the United Kingdom has a strong tradition of tackling water pollution and a good record to prove it. Even though the hon. Member for Bootle (Mr. Roberts) tends to denigrate the efforts made by this country in comparison with the rest of the world, it is generally recognised that the Thames estuary restoration is the great success story of the post-war period. That is repeated elsewhere—for example, the Trent, the Tees and the Tyne. Therefore, I ask the hon. Member for Bootle not to sell this country short.

Mr. Allan Roberts

Last week, the hon. Gentleman was attacking the Government for not accepting the recommendations of his report, and the Labour party for accepting them. Now, he is pre-empting or presupposing what I shall say in my speech. I assure him that I shall be telling the real truth about the condition of our rivers and their deterioration since the Government came into power.

Sir Hugh Rossi

The hon. Gentleman should not change his spots. He was a useful member of the Committee and made a helpful contribution, but, unfortunately, when he speaks from the Dispatch Box, he seems to lose all sense of proportion.

In the course of its inquiry, the Committee noted, from the river survey of 1985, that after 25 years of continuous improvement, there had been a slippage of some 2 per cent. in water quality compared with five years previously. This is partly due to spasmodic pollution incidents, because of agriculture, and—significantly and disturbingly—partly due to the water authorities themselves. Paragraph 25 of the report says: in 1986, of the 4,355 numerical discharge consents issued by the DOE to water authority sewage treatment works, no less than 22 per cent. were breached or in the WAA's own words were, 'unsatisfactory'. That is, in 1986, 22 per cent. of all sewage works failed to meet the requirements to comply with their discharge consents for 95 per cent. of the time. This is not an acceptable state of affairs. In their response, the Government agreed that it was not an acceptable state of affairs, and informed us that they would be discussing with the water authorities the implications of bringing all works into full compliance by 1991. Therefore, I ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to inform the House what progress has been made in these promised discussions and whether there has been any improvement in the level of compliance since those discussions took place.

The Committee had considerable sympathy with the water authorities over this unacceptable state of affairs, because, as we say in paragraph 27—I draw the attention of the hon. Member for Bootle to the political implications of this statement— from the mid-1970s until the early 1980s there was a steady drop in investment by the water authorities in sewerage and sewage disposal. This is now making itself felt in the overloading of existing sewage works and operational failure. Since 1981 … there has once more been a modest increase in water authority investment in sewage treatment". Therefore, if the hon. Gentleman is to make great play of the fact that rivers have slipped in quality because of the water authorities' failure to maintain their sewage treatment systems in a satisfactory operating manner, he should pay close attention to the dates in that paragraph, which show when they were most under-capitalised.

Mr. Allan Roberts

Earlier, the hon. Gentleman said that river quality had improved. Now he is saying that it has deteriorated. Which is right?

Sir Hugh Rossi

I do not think that I should give way to the hon. Gentleman any more. Quite clearly he has not listened to what I have said. I will not spend any more time on him. I suggest that he reads Hansard, when he will see what I have said. There is nothing inconsistent in my statements today.

Mr. Roberts


Sir Hugh Rossi

No, I am not giving way again.

The problems about historic pollution are more difficult. One of the witnesses at the Select Committee told us that the Victorians had a great saying, "Where there's muck there's brass." The Victorians took the brass and left us with the muck. Many water authorities face problems with historic pollution, a problem which is particularly acute in the Mersey basin.

Enormous sums are needed to correct that historic source of poor quality water in some rivers and estuaries. The Select Committee report states that about £3.6 billion is needed over 15 years simply to remove all the class 4 bad waters and some class 3 poor waters. Such a sum clearly cannot be found out of revenue. The impact on water charges would be enormous. The water authorities are against the Treasury conventions of annuality in relation to their borrowing. The authorities are virtually bound hand and foot when it comes to raising money. It is no surprise that some water authorities have asked the Government to privatise them so that they can be free to go out on the open market to borrow money to bring their clapped-out systems up to date and so make them satisfactory.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)

Is it not true that freedom could have been given to the authorities to borrow commercially and the present financial arrangements could have been relaxed while keeping the authorities in the public sector? It is not necessary to privatise them.

Sir Hugh Rossi

I am afraid that the dead hand of the Treasury has affected the Department of the Environment under Labour and Conservative Administrations. I agree that it need not. I am not a believer in annuality, because it leads us into terrible difficulties wherever public investment is required. However, that is another argument. Perhaps the Committee can consider the problem of annuality as it affects the construction industry. Much bad policy from both Administrations resulted from certain accounting conventions insisted upon by the Treasury, when no distinction was made between capital investment and revenue expenditure within a given 12-month period of a particular Budget.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Thames. Does he agree that, about 30 years ago, the London county council—of which I believe he was a member at the time—borrowed enormous sums from the Public Works Loan Board for the purification of the Thames, including the great purification works at Beckton in my constituency? That money attracted interest, but was kept within a public authority. Why does he claim that such investment elsewhere must perforce come from private sources and that regional water authorities must be privatised? He may believe that for other reasons, but that cannot hold up for the reasons that he has just advanced.

Sir Hugh Rossi

The local authorities used their rights to expend 2 per cent. of their money in whatever way they wanted, and Waterloo bridge is an example of that. That is how much of the expenditure was incurred. Much of the expenditure has been incurred more recently than the hon. Member for Newham, South implied. I remember the great drive made by Horace Cutler to clean up the Thames when he was leader of the Greater London council.

Another problem which has militated against the improvement of water quality is the fact that water authorities are both poachers and gamekeepers. They discharge into the rivers and they are responsible for ensuring that others discharge only to certain standards. It is clear that, because they have that dual role, they have been inhibited from being as rigorous in prosecution as they should be.

Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill)

I entirely agree that the water authorities—the watchdogs—are far too closely identified with the burglars. The authorities are often responsible for pollution. However, the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi) illustrated his argument by referring to the Mersey basin and the need for more than £3 billion investment. He was referring to the regional discrepancies. The Mersey is really a communal sewer which requires so much investment to correct. Does he believe that the capacity is available within the private sector to provide that kind of money to one authority alone to carry out such extensive work?

Sir Hugh Rossi

A sum of about £2.5 billion over 25 years to clean up the Mersey means a forward debt of a kind that might deter investors if the authority were privatised. Others will have to consider that problem; it is not a matter for the Committee.

The argument that I am trying to adduce is that the Treasury convention on water authorities restricting their ability to borrow under successive Administrations has meant that the modernisation of our sewage treatment works has not carried on to the extent that it should have; that has caused the slippage in recent years. The water authorities believe that privatisation is one way out of that problem, as it would provide freedom to borrow on the market to the extent that they think necessary to run their operations efficiently and correctly. Whether potential shareholders will share their enthusiasm is something that only time will show.

I have allowed myself to digress from the theme that I was trying to pursue; I want to return to the lack of sufficient prosecutions by water authorities. That is partly due to the inhibition that authorities feel because they are serious polluters. It is also due to the difficulty of going to court to prosecute someone when the authority is equally at fault. Therefore, we welcome the fact that the Government have agreed to set up a National Rivers Authority which will take away the functions of regulation, control and prosecution from water authorities.

Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth)

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that one reason why water authorities may have been reluctant to prosecute—their reluctance has been almost dramatic—is that the courts have inflicted such pathetically small fines that the authorities might have felt that the exercise was counter-productive?

Sir Hugh Rossi

I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman: that was one of the Committee's findings recorded in the report. I would go further: the problem is not simply the fines, but the costs awarded by the courts. The exercise of proving beyond all reasonable doubt that pollution in a particular stretch of river was caused by a discharge from a particular factory or farmer and by nothing else requires a great deal of collation of evidence and scientific and chemical testing of water above and below the point of discharge, possibly over many months. When the court awards nominal costs on a successful prosecution, a water authority might think that the exercise really is not worth its while. The House cannot tell the courts what to do, so our recommendation was that the Magistrates Association should review its policy for this sort of offence.

The National Rivers Authority will take over responsibility from the water authorities, for regulation and control, and in recommendation 10, we recommend that the regulation by this authority must be both vigorous and seen to be so. Next, will my right hon. Friend assure the House that water authorities will be treated by the National Rivers Authority the same as farming and industry for pollution offences, especially after privatisation.

I am glad to see that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is in his place because I have some criticisms to make of that Ministry. The Committee found that the attitude of the Ministry was disappointing. It was relaxed and complacent. It was clear to the Committee that the major incidents of accidental pollution came from farmers. It is true that a relatively small number of farmers are involved, but slurry and silage are damaging to water quality. The Committee must express its disappointment that its recommendations for a unified conservation and pollution division in the Ministry has not been accepted.

We feel that such a division within the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is necessary to focus greater attention on the harm that some farming activities can have on our general environment. We felt, too, and regretted, that the code of good agricultural practice is not to be enforceable by statute. We are disappointed that trial protection zones in selected sensitive catchment areas, and the control of land use around boreholes, have not found acceptance by the Government to the extent that we would want.

Mr. Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet)

In iterating his criticisms of MAFF, would my hon. Friend feel it appropriate to stress that silage liquor, as I believe it is called, is 200 times more polluting than untreated sewage? Unfortunately, the incidents of the former increased by, I believe, 60 per cent. in 1987. That gives a double-edged sword to the way in which we believe MAFF should take immediate priority measures.

Sir Hugh Rossi

My hon. Friend is right. It is because of the serious pollutant nature of effluents from farms, if they are not properly controlled, that we were so critical of the apparent complacency that we detected within the Ministry on those matters.

We know from the Government response that the code of good practice is to be redesigned, that initial advice to farmers will be free, and that protection zones are to be placed under review. However, I ask my right hon. Friend again to tell us how far he has reached in the review of those protection zones in especially sensitive areas, because the nitrates that are used in fertilisers are working their way down to the aquifers and could seriously affect the quality of the water. Therefore, I hope that my right hon. Friend can tell us how the Government intend to tackle the problem of modifying agricultural practice to limit nitrate input to vulnerable aquifers. Paragraph 2.31 of the response promises that that will be done, and I would like more information about it.

While my right hon. Friend is dealing with agriculture, perhaps he can tell us of the time scale for discussions with the water industry and agriculture and fertiliser manufacturing interests, which are mentioned in paragraph 2.34 of the response, and what progress has been made on that since the Committee reported.

On the question of industry, the visit of the Committee to Sandoz and down the Rhine impressed upon us the importance of containment measures for anything that is likely to find its way into the river because of an accident; and the need for notification of the pollutants being used by a factory, so that, if an incident did occur, it would be possible to detect or to know within a short time the nature of the chemical that had been discharged into the river. That is not easy to do because of the infinitesimal quantities in terms of volume compared with the water in the river, which makes chemical analysis difficult. Therefore, corrective measures can be delayed beyond the point when protection of the environment can take place.

I would further ask my right hon. Friend what progress has been made in the promised EEC discussions on the classification and labelling of substances being used by industry that could harm the quality of rivers, and in the regulations under consideration to deal with the containment measures which the Committee has recommended.

We made only a passing reference to sea pollution in the report, because we regarded it basically as outside our remit—as it is not covered by the Department of the Environment—but we were worried about the practice of water authorities dumping treated sewage sludge into our seas. We received evidence from Holland that this was leading to contamination and possibly harm to fish life, especially because of the presence of heavy metals which are inevitably found in this sort of sludge. We took the view that incineration was possibly the most effective, although possibly the more expensive, way of dealing with treated sewage sludge. We note in the Government's response that they do not rule out incineration as a possible option, although they speak of expense and say that plans are under consideration for incineration. I would like more information on that matter if it is available.

Ms. Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North)

I am worried about sewage sludge and what we do with it. I do not think that the North sea conference went half far enough in dealing with the matter. I believe that the Government have now said that containment to the 1987 level will be the important issue, but perhaps the Secretary of State will comment on the statement, after the North sea conference, by Lord Belstead, the Environment Minister, that the cost of all the measures would have to be absorbed by industry and the water boards. I believe that extra money should be available from the Government to pay for those measures.

Sir Hugh Rossi

I have no doubt that my right hon. Friend heard the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms. Walley), and that he will answer the question in his own time. The hon. Lady should bear in mind that the underlying principle in this matter is that the polluter pays.

The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Nicholas Ridley)

Perhaps my hon. Friend could help me by saying whether the next sewage sludge incineration plant should be placed in Stoke-on-Trent or Hornsey?

Sir Hugh Rossi

There is no room in Hornsey; I can say that with great confidence. I appreciate the difficulties that my right hon. Friend will encounter with the NIMBY—not in my backyard—syndrome, which he is extremely fond of quoting. I also appreciate that he might take refuge in NIMTOO—not in my term of office. I offered my right hon. Friend that new acronym last week.

Mr. Allan Roberts

The North-West water authority is building a sewage treatment plant in my constituency, which has a loading station where sewage sludge is placed on boats and taken out to the Irish sea. We believe that that practice is environmentally unsound. I would much prefer an incineration plant to be built in the docklands of my constituency instead of the Sandon dock complex.

Sir Hugh Rossi

I am sure that my right hon. Friend carefully read the remarks made in the House last week about possible disposal sites for radioactive waste and the suggested ways in which the problems of NIMBY might be met. He might have to find places for such incinerators when the Committee has reported on the problems of hazardous waste and the House discussed the disposal of waste.

In a previous report on radioactive waste, we decided that we should be extremely chary of the long-established principle of disposing of pollutants by "disperse and dilute". Given the way in which today's motion appears on the Order Paper, such dispersal is a matter for discussion. We found that the Irish sea has suffered quite a lot from discharges from Sellafield. Although British Nuclear Fuels plc has said today that the quantities of ruthenium and plutonium discharged are minute, they are nevertheless toxic metals, which do not disperse and dilute. Those metals tend to conglomerate and can find their way back to the human environment via the food chain. Similar difficulties are presented by the disposal of heavy metals, which are part of the sludge disposed of at sea.

At present, the short sewage pipes out to sea are leading to unacceptable pollution of our beaches. Even if those pipes were extended, however, and carried the sludge and raw sewage further out to sea, problems would remain. One cannot accept that the disperse and dilute method, which has been historically acceptable, is now so readily acceptable, given the growing knowledge of the consequences of putting certain matters into even the vast volumes of the ocean.

I wonder whether my right hon. Friend is satisfied that sea water kills viruses? There has been evidence that the polio virus can survive for some time in the sea. Therefore, there is a risk in sending out untreated sewage, even through long pipes, into the sea. We should consider this matter carefully and decide whether all sewage should be pre-treated before any discharge takes place.

I have detained the House longer than I had intended, but I have given way several times to allow other speeches to be made during the course of my own.

Progress has been made. The Government have responded positively to the main thrust of our report. We are gratified that, perhaps, the work that we undertook for several months has had some impact upon discussions of several serious matters that are causing growing public concern.

10.15 am
Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth)

I shall endeavour to be relatively concise; I do not wish to take up as much time as the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi). I am, however, in no way critical of the length of the hon. Gentleman's speech. He gave way on numerous occasions and it is right that, as Chairman of the Select Committee on the Environment, he should make a substantial contribution. I shall make a shorter speech, but I hope that it will not lack pungency.

Ministers must enjoy the long recess. The press are not unduly critical of the Government, the House is not sitting, and, therefore, sometimes quite preposterous claims can be made. During the summer recess, many Labour Members and many people concerned about the environment were amazed and bewildered by the apparent greening of the Conservative party. I found it almost hilarious. When the Prime Minister announced her attachment to and affection for the hedgerows I was reminded that the Government have repeatedly blocked my own and other attempts to protect a skeleton of important hedgerows. I am delighted that the Prime Minister is now convinced that the hedgerow deserves our affectionate regard. I trust that when a Hedgerow Bill is presented in the next Session the Government will not block it yet again.

I have also been reminded of the rather dishonest approach that some Ministers have adopted to the environment. We sought to close a loophole in the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. The Government blocked my Bill to close that loophole, but promised to introduce legislation. They did not. My hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) was fortunate enough to be drawn in the ballot and his Bill contained six relatively modest proposals. The Government took out four of them, virtually cauterised the fifth and left only the part closing the section 28 loophole. I remember the Standing Committee on that Bill when the Government Whips allowed varous individual Conservative Back Benchers to abstain once in turn to demonstrate to conservationists that they had a residual conscience.

The House of Lords then reintroduced four of the original proposals to the Bill. The Government reluctantly accepted that my hon. Friend's Bill could go through. The day after that, the Department of the Environment issued a press statement proclaiming its virtues, and said that it was a Government Bill. Even though the Department was corrected then, similar claims have been made since. I walked out of one function in London when a Minister of the Crown claimed that my hon. Friend's Bill was a Government measure. I do not believe that he was deliberately lying; I believe that he did not know the truth. It is rather sad that a lot of people present applauded when they knew that was not an accurate statement.

In recent weeks, Government statements have been full of inaccuracies. I was grateful that the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green allowed me to intervene to suggest that water authorities may be reluctant to prosecute because such prosecution could involve waste of public money and could be utterly counter-productive, given that the fines inflicted are a fleabite in comparison to the profits that can be made from pollution. That problem has been with us for years, but the Government have done nothing about it.

I wish to refer to the campaign that some of us, led by the Yorkshire Post and its then reporter, Geoffrey Lean, waged in South Yorkshire in the early 1970s. You may remember that campaign, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It began in the early 1970s because the rivers of South Yorkshire were obscene, disgusting and foul sewers. As a result of the attention that we drew to the matter, the water authority pledged to me that the rivers of South Yorkshire would be brought up to class 2 recreational standard by the middle of the 1980s.

I raised the matter again last year. This time I was assured that the rivers of South Yorkshire would be brought to class 2 recreational standard by the year 2000. It seemed to me last year that we were as far from approaching decency for our rivers as we were in 1971, when I was told that the rivers would have approached decency by the mid-1980s—that is, two or three years ago.

The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green talked about the backlog of costs. As a result of the Government's approach to conservation, I have developed a rather suspicious mind. I believe, for example, that there is at least a possibility that the Government are allowing arrears of need to mount up, so that the water industry can be sold off more cheaply than it ought to be. My cynicism is compounded by the fact that the French, almost as a matter of national strategy, are queuing up to buy private water undertakings and are clearly preparing to launch themselves into the privatisation market, just as the Japanese are to be allowed to buy an excessive stake in the British steel industry under plans that are about to proceed.

Rivers in south Yorkshire remain grim. My hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) drew my attention to a broadcast—like many hon. Members, I have little opportunity to watch television—about some people who took a boat down the River Don. It also looked at the Rother and the Dearne and found that Aldworke sewage works was often exceeding the level of effluent that was supposed to be discharged. I understand that that problem will be resolved, but over the past three years I have drawn Yorkshire Water's attention to the pollution of Roundwood brook, which feeds into the river nearby, on at least 14 occasions, yet there has not been a single prosecution.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that, on almost 1,000 occasions last year water authorities were given consent to make significant and serious discharges into their own rivers? Perhaps it is because they themselves are polluters that they are hesitant about prosecuting others who pollute.

One case in Yorkshire last year caused me enormous concern. The operators of an opencast site were allowed to dig a little channel so that effluent from the site could be discharged straight into the river. The discharge was many times higher above toxicity levels than it ought to have been, but the fine for that highly profitable exercise was £200.

Another firm that enormously exceeded toxicity levels when it deposited chlorine into a south Yorkshire river was fined £300, despite the fact that the poisoning of that river was 50 times over permitted levels. There are examples of south Yorkshire rivers having received poison at 76 times the level for which constant was given, yet no prosecutions followed.

Before 1971, there was far less concern about the poisoning of rural rivers. We were accustomed, as part of the Victorian heritage to which the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green referred, to the sewer quality of rivers in industrial areas. By the early 1970s, some of us had become restive about that. However, since then we have seen an enormous increase in agricultural pollution, to which the hon. Gentleman referred.

A matter that I raised some time ago is that in the Yorkshire Water area—I do not believe that Yorkshire is any worse in this respect than other authorities—the number of incidents of agricultural poisoning of rivers increased by several hundred last year. However, the number of relevant prosecutions fell from 18 to 12. Perhaps the water authorities are reluctant to prosecute because they are frustrated by the low fines that are inflicted. It is unsatisfactory that, although hundreds of offences are committeed, the number of prosecutions has declined dramatically.

What does the Secretary of State think about that, given his frequently uttered and much vaunted policy that the polluter should pay?. The polluter is certainly not paying—the polluter is making profit. Meanwhile, there is anger and frustration about the neglect of need, just as there is astonishment at the Government's commitment to greening.

I know that efforts have been made. In south Yorkshire's streams and rivers, there are now sticklebacks and minnows where, a few years ago, there was no life at all, but the stretches that contain a minimum of life are a small proportion of the total. As you will recall, Mr. Deputy Speaker, last year a salmon was found in the area of Doncaster metropolitan authority. I believe that it was approaching the constituency that you represent. That salmon received considerable attention. I must point out that there may be manic-depressive fish, just as there are manic-depressive humans, because it is not yet possible for the river Don, the river Rother or the river Dearne to sustain salmon, trout or grayling. It may be many years before those rivers can accommodate them, but the sooner they contain any fish at all, the more delighted I shall be.

My area faces enormous economic need as a result of rapid economic change. We shall not secure the economic advance we need unless our environment is improved. It will not be improved—despite all the protestations of greening that Ministers have uttered in the past few weeks—unless resources are provided to allow the environment to improve, so giving us the chance of economic health. The environment and the economy are linked. If we have a sordid, ugly and poisoned environment, economic health is inevitably affected. I do not believe that either the economic or the environmental health of our islands is adequately served.

My other reason for speaking in the debate is that I am chairman of the Council of Europe Environment Committee. There has been a growing interest in these matters in Europe. The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green referred to the Sandoz plant. The Council of Europe appointed me as Rapporteur on the incident. The only welcome aspect of the incident was that it led to a growing awareness of the scale of horror that can follow such poisonous discharges. Europe was awoken to reality when, a week after the Sandoz discharge into the Rhine by the city of Basel, the Dutch had to stop taking drinking water out of the Rhine.

Europe is fortunate because, now that it is alert to the realities, if poison enters one country because of a discharge into a river by a neighbouring country, there is increased national awareness and a greater emphasis on the need for action. We have seen the effect of pollution of the River Rhine on the Nethelands and the effect of the Sandoz discharge on the entire enormous length of that river. That led to a call in the report that I presented for adequate commitment by each member state to international conventions.

Will the Government make it clear that the United Kingdom will fully subscribe to international conventions on the health of water courses—

Mr. Allan Roberts

For the first time ever.

Mr. Hardy

As the Government have become green, they must be consistent; if they are not willing to be consistent, I hope that, in the next long recess, Ministers will not spend their time proclaiming that they are greening.

The Council of Europe Environment Committee decided to undertake a sea-by-sea study of European seas. We have just completed our work on the North sea and are waiting for the Council of Ministers to express an opinion on it. An Irish colleague asked that the second sea that we should consider should be the Irish sea. I am waiting for that colleague to attend the next meeting of the committee so that we can consider the approach to be adopted. In the light of the comments made by the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green, I am a little worried about the embarrassment that will face Britain as a result of any detailed work on that part of our oceans.

I do not make these points to criticise the Government in the European context but because there is an obvious awareness that, if the Government are green, it is because they have perceived that there is now greater and continuing public interest in this subject. If that is true, it deserves a cautious welcome. We are entitled to a mature and proper response to questions such as these from a green Government.

The first sentence of Walter Scott's famous book "Ivanhoe" referred to that pleasant district of merry England which is watered by the river Don". When that was written, that area was a pleasant part of merry England. It was green and fertile and the rivers were full of salmon, grayling and trout. Until that part of merry England is made green and pleasant again, there will be no excuse for complacency on Benches which may be green in colour but which are occupied by people who are only green by pretence.

10.33 am
Mr. Cranley Onslow (Woking)

Perhaps I may be permitted to comment on the more manic-depressive elements in the speech by the hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy). If the hon. Gentleman goes back to the works of Izaac Walton he will find that much of his fishing was done in the river Wandle; the hon. Gentleman would have a job finding that river if he looked for it today. He is not being entirely fair to himself, the House or past Governments by concentrating his attack on how green or otherwise this Government are. There have been some pretty ungreen Governments in the past, and some of them were Socialist.

In his capacity as a Council of Europe Rapporteur, the hon. Member for Wentworth did not attempt to deny the proposition of my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi), that the record of European countries in river and water pollution is a great deal worse than that of this country. The Rhine is a standing disgrace, and I sometimes wish the hon. Member for Bootle (Mr. Roberts) would go and jump in it—

Mr. Allan Roberts

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way? That is personal abuse.

Mr. Onslow

I shall not give way. I was only expressing a personal wish; if the hon. Gentleman will not gratify it, I can only regret it. I shall not refer to him any more, as I do not suppose the House would like me to.

I welcome the opportunity to debate this subject. Whereas the hon. Member for Wentworth was pessimistic, I am optimistic. Today's debate, and those which will doubtless follow on the water privatisation legislation in the new Session, mark a real turning point in the fight against river pollution. Minds are being concentrated, and that is no bad thing. The matter has now been studied with considerable care and the Bill will give us an opportunity to make up for years of under-funding during which, as a result, the chance to improve river quality has not been grasped as fully as it should have been. Public limited companies will not want to take on the liability that polluted rivers will present them with.

The machinery for pollution control is being greatly improved. The creation of the National Rivers Authority and its forerunner the National Rivers Advisory Council is extremely important. Lord Crickhowell's comments have given a great deal of encouragement to those of us who take an interest in these matters, especially his assurance that the plcs will not be given a privileged position with the NRA as abstractors or dischargers. That represents a considerable advance on the way in which the water authorities have been allowed to carry on, and is a major change for the good.

It is important, as my right hon. Friend knows, that the public should be reassured about the process upon which we have embarked. So should those who take a special interest in these matters, including the National Anglers Council, which represents all fishery bodies, some of which I belong to, and the Anglers Co-operative Association, on whose council I have sat for a number of years. For 40 years, the association has led the fight against the pollution of our rivers. If the hon. Member for Wentworth had been able to establish that damage had been done to fisheries in his constituency, the association might have been able to bring prosecutions in the courts for him in the same way as it has done in many other parts of the country for a long time. The ACA has a splendid record, to which Opposition Members have significantly contributed. I had the pleasure of persuading the husband of the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding) to join the association council of which the noble Lord Mason of Barnsley is now chairman. There is no politics in the fight for anglers' rights; it does not and should not divide the House.

The ACA and NAC were concerned about an article that appeared in The Independent on 7 October, which was taken by some as suggesting that water quality and discharge control standards would be replaced in order to make privatisation easier. The NAC issued a press statement about that in which it affirmed its opposition to any proposals that effluent standards be relaxed to make the plcs more attractive on flotation.

I took this up with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I am glad to be able to read out a letter that he sent me a couple of days ago, which I hope deals with the subject comprehensively and satisfactorily: As you know, some 20 per cent. of sewage treatment works at present breach conditions attached to their consents for the discharge of effluent into rivers and estuaries. As we told the Environment Committee earlier this year we consider it essential that this standard of performance should be improved. To bring these works up to the proper standard it is therefore planned to spend over £700 million in the next 4 years. This is one of a number of measures which we propose to take, either in the Water Bill itself or in conjunction with it, to ensure that water privatisation and the establishment, of the National Rivers Authority lead to a clear and enduring improvement in the condition of the water environment. Later in his letter, my right hon. Friend said: As to the consequential arrangements, I emphasise two points. First, we do not intend to relax consents on a general or long-term basis: any variations will be temporary, will take account of the need to protect the receiving water, and will be limited to the period required to carry through the necessary improvement programmes. Second, and contrary to other press reports, we do not propose to restrict prosecution rights in respect of these or other effluent discharges. I know that the Anglers' Co-operative Association attaches importance to their right to mount prosecutions where fisheries are being damaged by pollution and we believe that right should continue. I hope that the House will be encouraged by that clear statement of the position, and that in future the press will get it right.

I shall now deal with the importance of maintaining standards and of using the courts, if need be, to enforce them and to penalise those who are guilty of pollution. I shall illustrate what I mean by quoting from a case that was recently brought to the notice of the ACA by the City of London Piscatorial Society. The matter that it deals with is also of great concern to the local residents association which has sent me some briefing about it. It is about a case not in my constituency but in the constituency of Wokingham, with which my own is sometimes confused.

I can best summarise the matter by quoting from a letter sent by my hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) to the chairman of the Thames water authority, of which, my hon. Friend kindly sent me a copy. The letter deals with what is probably one of the worst cases in the Thames area, but there is more than one instance of sewage treatment works in the Thames area not meeting the proper standards. My hon. Friend's letter deals with the case in Wargrave and says: I have been shown photographs indicating that discharges into the River Loddon contain an unacceptable amount of solid matter. I believe that one part of the recent regatta involved children and had to be cancelled because of the dirtiness of the discharges and I see from figures of readings taken over recent years that there has been a general tendency for the amount of suspended solids and ammoniacal nitrogen in the discharges to rise. Looking at the evidence it would seem that you must be in difficulties meeting the necessary legal consents, even on the laxer standards now set to control effluent discharges. In his letter, my hon. Friend also points to the noise and smell nuisance created by sludge lorries going through the village and asks that action be taken to deal with all those matters. I am glad to say that my hon. Friend has now been able to send me a copy of the response he has had from Mr. Roy Watts, the chairman of the authority, and it seems clear from it that the Thames water authority is at last taking action to deal with these matters. I hope that it will be effective action.

I do not know whether the residents association and the ACA will still feel entitled to press their case on behalf of those concerned against the Thames water authority in the courts. If that happens it will not be the first time that we have taken such action. Not long ago we brought eight prosecutions against the Thames Water authority for breach of its own discharge consents. The authority pleaded guilty on all counts and was fined £1,000 on each. The same thing happened in the case of the Anglian Water authority where further prosecutions resulted in a similar finding.

It is not really satisfactory to take a water authority to court, have it plead guilty and see it fined. We need action to deal with the situation. I am not advocating massive litigation to deal with the problem; what I want is a mass of money. That would satisfy the need and the justified requests of everyone who wants to see water quality improved.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)


Mr. Onslow

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not give way; I am trying not to take too long.

We are told that money will be forthcoming. If, in the meantime, there is a temporary moratorium on law suits or if it is a possible defence in court to say that action is in hand to deal with the matter, these points can be pressed under the water privatisation Bill. However, we shall want to set clear and concise conditions, which will need to be met and be seen to be met. There can be no question of stretching deadlines or moving completion dates. If anything, we want to see things done even sooner. I am sure that much of the debate on the Bill will focus on that point.

The problem in Wargrave arises from a massive housing development. An enormous housing estate was built on the former airfield at Woodley just outside Reading, and quite clearly the capacity of the sewage treatment works was inadequate from the start. The water authority had to try to deal with sewage for which it simply did not have the plant. That may be typical of the situation on other massive housing developments, and I ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to address himself to the possibility that a condition of a successful planning application should be that adequate sewage capacity will be available before the houses are occupied. He should say that, unless that can be shown, it may be necessary to refuse the planning application. It is entirely unreasonable, in this as in other contexts, to build houses without the infrastructure that the people who live in them have every right to expect.

Sir Hugh Rossi

Under section 52, local planning authorities have power to reach agreement with developers under which a contribution could be made, or new sewerage works provided—if the development is extensive enough—in return for planning permission.

Mr. Onslow

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and hope that the power he mentioned will be more widely used by the plcs than it appears to have been by the water authorities. Such powers will have to be used if the plcs wish to protect themselves from prosecution by the National Rivers Authority, the pollution inspectorate and the interested parties who may bring civil actions. Here again there is an opportunity to tighten up the regulations and to bring the situation back under control. I hope that my right hon. Friend will be able to tell us something about that.

In introducing his report, my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green told the House that his Committee's deliberations were cut short by the 1987 election. I know that that is correct, because among the witnesses who were disappointed were the NAC and the ACA who had formed up to come in and give oral evidence that would have enabled the Committee to cover a little more ground.

I listened to what hon. Members said about the pollution caused by agriculture. It is unforgivable that farming should cause so much pollution. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food should take further steps to make farmers understand what serious pollution they can create. It is difficult to understand why there are not more prosecutions, and even more difficult to understand why the penalties in some cases seem so small. No doubt all those mysteries are clear to the Minister.

One factor about river pollution seems to have been missed by the Committee—the vital importance of river flow, the amount of water that flows naturally down a water course. That has a significant effect upon the extent to which pollution is diluted by clear water. If we discharge effluent into low water, it is bound to cause more pollution than if we discharge it into high water. The proportion of clean and dirty water is critical in that context. We need further study of the effects of such abstraction, particularly when it is used for irrigation. We need further study of the impact of land drainage works, which bring into cultivation land which is often surplus to requirements nowadays. That has had the effect of turning rivers into gutters down which storm water runs and which are left more or less as a trickle when the rain has stopped.

There is scope for further attention to be paid to the effects of forestry. Forestry often incorporates extensive drainage and carries the risks of acidification with which we are familiar. The opportunities offered by the change in agricultural practice for replanting low ground, instead of concentrating plantations on high ground and around the headwaters of rivers, is an important factor and I hope that that will be considered in the future.

Finally, the extent to which fish farms are a primary cause of river pollution cannot continue to be ignored. I know at least one water authority which is likely to find itself prosecuted if it does not enforce much stricter standards on a large fish farm that has been operating for some years on a river in its area. Everyone who fishes below that fish farm believes that it has been polluting the river significantly. However, I do not want to say which water authority it is because it is important to keep them all on their toes and I hope that this debate will have served that purpose.

10.51 am
Mrs. Llin Golding (Newcastle-under-Lyme)

As the right hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow) will know, I am the match secretary for the Lords and Commons Fly Fishing Club and, as such, I will make no apologies to the House for confining my remarks to the interests of fishermen and fisherwomen. I also wish to confine my remarks to the views of the Anglers Co-operative Association, which has done so much work voicing concern about the state of our rivers and estuaries. There will be some dissenting voices from those views, but I am given to understand that they are the views of the majority of members.

First, let me put on record the appreciation for the work of the Anglers Co-operative Association and especially for the work of Allen Edwards, its dedicated secretary. This year, as some hon. Members will know, the ACA celebrates its 40th birthday. It was founded to fight those people who pollute our rivers and destroy our fish. As statutory law was ineffective, the ACA resorted to the common law to secure compensation for those whose fisheries had been destroyed because of the greed or wilful neglect of others. Its record in the courts has been superb. It has won hundreds of cases and lost only one and has gone on to take out successful statutory prosecutions in magistrates courts against water authority polluters.

For 40 years, the ACA has campaigned for cleaner rivers, not only on behalf of the 3 million to 4 million anglers and their clubs, but on behalf of the environment as a whole. It is no secret that, for most of that time, the ACA has felt very lonely indeed. Many organisations have expressed concern about the environment, but none have fought so tenaciously in the courts to bring about improvements. That is why it was so pleased about the decision of the Select Committee on the Environment to conduct an inquiry into the pollution of our rivers and estuaries. It was even more pleased to find that the Select Committee was reinforcing so strongly the ACA's message and giving it far wider publicity and strength than it had been able to achieve itself.

The Select Committee shared the ACA's concern that there has been a deterioration in our rivers over the past three years. It concluded that the Department of the Environment should draw up a national strategy to maintain and improve water quality with a clear timetable for its execution. The ACA agrees with the Select Committee's recognition that water authorities could not be excused for the pollution that they cause. It is certain that improvement in sewage work effluent is necessary, as I am sure many hon. Members will agree today.

One great problem facing the ACA has been that the bodies with the power to act against pollution—the water authorities—have themselves been the greatest polluters. The Select Committee was right to insist that there should be stricter controls. It is a disgrace that the public bodies reponsible for the control of pollution have been the greatest polluters, running totally inefficient sewage disposal plants. In 1987, 867, or 20.5 per cent., of the 4,226 works with numerical consents breached their discharge consent conditions. That is an absolute disgrace. Apparently, they have also turned a blind eye to pollution by agriculture and industry, and I am told that the prosecutions of farmers and fish farmers have been negligible. Overall, in 1985–86, only 254 prosecutions followed 19,892 incidents of pollution. That, too, is disgraceful.

The Anglers Co-operative Association was delighted to see that the Select Committee had concluded that the water authorities should seek to enforce the law and prosecute more frequently, and that magistrates reconsidered the fines and costs awarded. In turn, it was recommended that a Department of the Environment inspectorate should have the duty to prosecute those water authorities that pollute water courses.

The ACA welcomes the comments of the Select Committee on the question of agricultural and industrial pollution. The Government have gone some way to accepting the Committee's report. They agree that there should be a national water quality programme. They have conceded that the performance of water authorities requires urgent improvement and that the present position is unacceptable. They are looking to the water authorities to remedy that within three years. They also intend that the new rivers authority should be responsible for the control of water pollution.

On the face of it, the ACA should be well satisfied with what has been achieved, but as the right hon. Member for Woking will know, it is a little edgy about it. It fears that, as it was let down badly by Governments failing to implement the Control of Pollution Act 1974 and is inclined to believe that that could happen yet again It took 11 years for Governments to implement those provisions providing for public registers and the right to allow prosecutions on that basis.

Mr. Simon Hughes

Will the hon. Lady confirm that some parts of the Control of Pollution Act 1974 have still not been implemented? The fact that 14 years have passed without the implementation of those provisions, which I intend to mention in my speech, shows that Governments have not been resolute in practice, although the possibility of doing a great deal of good has existed for so long.

Mrs. Golding

I take the hon. Gentleman's point. The environment is a concern, not only for the Government, but for us all. It is not a political football.

Mr. Spearing

Would my hon. Friend care to modify what she has just said? Surely the proposals for the privatisation of water disposal, as distinct from supply, which the Government will anounce in the Queen's Speech in a few weeks' time, show that they consider the environment to be such a political football. They are not green at all.

Mrs. Golding

I am sure that the House hopes that the Government have learnt a lesson as a result of long delays. I am certain that the Government will listen to the views that are expressed during this debate by Members on both sides of the House in their concern for the environment.

The association is pleased that the public registers will continue. It believes, however, that it would be far better if the registers were kept in a uniform manner. I hope that the Secretary of State will consider that and respond to the issue when he replies. The association's worries centre mainly on the ability and willingness to prosecute in cases of breach of consent conditions. It has been disturbed by the existence of the so-called 95 per cent. rule, which means that water authorities are immune from prosecution if they behave themselves for 95 per cent. of the time in a period of 12 months. The association tells me that this rule is nonsense and that substantial damage can be caused by such tolerance. It would like the Minister to say today that the new water companies will be allowed no such loophole.

The association is concerned also about the arrangements that will apply to the new companies. Rumours are circulating that those buying will be guaranteed immunity from prosecution. Will the Minister scotch these rumours once and for all by telling us categorically that no open-ended immunity can or will be granted? The Minister must address himself to the prevalent fear that the Government will allow lower standards of consent for discharge from sewerage plants to assist privatisation. The association would like to know what the Government intend in this area. Will they allow a drop in standards to help the sell-off?

The association is adamant that none of our rivers should be allowed to suffer from privatisation. It believes that to protect both our rivers and estuaries we need a rigorous regime of prosecution where pollution occurs, as well as of high standards. The association would want the National Rivers Authority to prosecute whenever there was no excuse for pollution. It has discovered that water authorities dislike the publicity that attends a prosecution, and therefore avoid bringing them. The association believes that the Government's attitude to prosecution is too weak and wishy-washy. It is no good if polluters know that they can get away with being told off if they apologise or promise to do better. For the polluter, it is so much cheaper to be told off than to take active steps to avoid any embarrassing and possibly expensive prosecution.

The association wants the National Rivers Authority to be active in bringing prosecutions. At the same time, it wants it to maintain its right to initiate private prosecutions, as it is now doing. It will not be quite as serious then if the NRA turns out to be as half-hearted in prosecuting polluters as the Department of the Environment and the water authorities have been.

The association is determined that we change the present position, in which, apparently, the Government have acquiesced, whereby, far from the polluter paying, it often, regretfully, pays to pollute.

11.4 am

Mr. John Ward (Poole)

As I represent a constituency overlooking Poole harbour, it would be surprising if I were not to intervene in the debate.

Poole has the second largest natural harbour in the world. The constituency sits on the edge of the largest onshore oilfield in the United Kingdom. The harbour is surrounded by conservation areas bird sanctuaries, sites of special scientific interest and the like. The beaches in the area are well up to EEC standards. Perhaps more importantly, there is a thriving fishing industry in the harbour. The constituency is on the migratory route for salmon and trout. It is a designated area under the EEC shelfish directive, and besides the usual lobster, crab, oysters and mussels, which are well-known exports, we keep to ourselves the greatest delicacy of all, Poole cockles. These are four times the size of the cockles in the other insignificant areas of the shell fishing industry. I am told that they have much to do with the long life of some of my constituents.

There is much to preserve and even the smallest concentration of toxic substances could ruin a successful area. The Poole harbour commisioners and Wessex Water, which have prime responsibility, do an excellent job in preserving the quality of the water. However, I still see the need for vigilance in the years to come.

I have referred to the largest onshore oilfield in the United Kingdom. To date, BP has been a model of how oil companies should behave in a sensitive area of their activities. Its recently retired development manager, Mr. Michael O'Sullivan, has done a marvellous job throughout the time that he has been in the area. He has co-operated with ecologists, environmentalists and the local authority. He has done much to make BP the acceptable face of the oil industry. Drilling is now taking place near the EEC-standard beaches to which I have referred. There will be the need for even greater care and I hope that the company and, perhaps more importantly, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food—I am glad to see my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary in his place—will ensure that no risks are taken while inshore drilling is taking place.

Poole has an expanding commercial port as well as a large leisure industry which offers almost every type of water sport. The harbour commissioners tell me that the 10,000 yachts that are seen in the harbour every summer represent almost as great a concern to them, because of the occasional irresponsible discharge, as do the commercial operators. An education programme is needed to make leisure sailors aware that their activities can be as significant as those of the large boats.

I am pleased to hear that, after privatisation, the National Rivers Authority will reinforce controls over pollution. I hope that the penalties available to the courts will be an efective deterent to the polluter. We in Poole must be worried by the increase of one third in the number of serious pollution incidents due to agricultural activities from 1986 to 1987. As far as I can trace, there was no serious incident in the area of Poole harbour.

The Water Authorities Association has told me—we have been reminded of this by hon. Members who have already spoken—that silage liquor is 200 times more toxic than untreated sewage. Given the impossibility of continuous checks at every silage pit, I ask again whether the penalties for this class of pollution are high enough. A much greater availability of fines would be an incentive to the courts.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Richard Ryder)

I agree with my hon. Friend that pollution due to agricultural activities is far too high. The maximum penalty available to the courts for that sort of pollution is £2,000, but the average fine that is meted out by the courts in the south-west of England is £140. I take the opportunity through my hon. Friend of reminding the Magistrates Association of the maximum fine that is available to its members. It is important that they take hold of this fact.

Mr. Ward

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I was about to make the point that the best incentive would be the availability of higher fines to the courts. There is a maximum fine of £2,000, but the maximum seems not to be applied. If our rivers are polluted as a result of carelessness or gross stupidity, those responsible should face a minimum fine of £2,000. Perhaps the polluter who continues to act irresponsibly after one warning should be forced out of business. His activities will affect many people and we have no protection other than the courts.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Minister that, although we cannot affect the courts' decisions, we can continue drawing their attention to the derisory fines being imposed. The blunt economic fact is that at the moment, it pays the polluter—if he can get away with a small fine of the kind my hon. Friend mentioned.

In recent years, we paid farmers to produce food that we could not use. That has changed and we are starting to pay them not to produce food that we are unable to use. Logic suggests that we could devise a system whereby farms will be used less intensively, with less incentive to apply excessive amounts of chemical fertilisers. In some areas, the higher level of nitrates already in the soil will take years to clear. I am attracted to the Water Authorities Association's plan to designate water protection zones where agricultural activity will be restricted.

Just as excessive land nutrients can upset the ecological balance, so can fish farms, as was mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow). If there is an inquiry, it should embrace not only inland fish farms but those on our coastal waters, because intensive fish farming, popular and necessary though it may be, should be checked to ensure that it does not have long-term harmful effects.

I welcome all that has been done by the Government to increase investment in sewage treatment. That unglamorous and neglected area of pollution control must be tackled, and if we are to achieve the water quality standards that are increasingly being expected we cannot ignore the fact that we, the consumers, must make available sufficient funds to bring all treatment works up to standard.

I confess to continuing concern about and dislike for the discharging of sewage and sludge at sea. I know that that is now dumped further out to sea, and that such discharges are now a smaller proportion of the whole. However, I hope that we shall continue to find ways of avoiding all such discharges. I am not reassured by the use of underwater cameras and so on. I strongly suspect that one of the problems we are laying down for the future is the presence of metal pollutants in sewage, to which reference has already been made.

Mr. Spearing

The hon. Member has touched on an important aspect. As the Secretary of State for the Environment is present, I may point out that the Government's response to the report that we are debating made no satisfactory undertaking in respect of metals in dumped sludge. Will the Government tell the House why they have not taken any steps in that direction?

Mr. Ward

On the contrary, the Government have moved some way towards accepting the importance of that aspect. It is no use this country moving forward alone. The source of some of the worst discharges are countries on the continent. Nevertheless, I agree with the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) that it is a subject of immense importance. More important still, we should give even more consideration to industrial discharges generally around our coasts.

Despite my concerns, I was glad to hear of the Government's proposals to control the most dangerous substances. The red list will have a proper scientific basis rather than a basis of guess work, rumour or sensationalism. Nevertheless, we should always err on the side of caution and the environment. The principle that the polluter pays must always apply. As I said earlier, slaps on the wrist for persistent offenders are no use. Substantial financial punishment is the only deterrent that polluters will understand.

I do not wish to end on a complacent note, but I believe that we are moving in the right direction. Thanks to the Government's economic success, more cash is available to remedy the neglect of the past. We must keep up the pressure not only at home but on our European partners, some of whose contributions to North sea pollution remains a disgrace. I hope that by co-operating with other EC nations, and by encouraging the efforts of the 21-nation Council of Europe, we shall build on recent successes. I am much encouraged by what was said earlier by the hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) about the Council of Europe's environmental activities. All that is part of the great environmental challenge that the Prime Minister has clearly accepted, and it is one in which I am sure she will prove to be the driving force in years to come.

11.15 am
Ms. Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North)

I shall be brief because I know that many other right hon. and hon. Members wish to speak.

Never before has public opinion been so concerned about environmental pollution, particularly in our rivers and in the North sea. We must place on record not only the Select Committee's important work in identifying the problems but that being done by organisations such as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and the Consumers' Association.

About 13 months have elapsed since the Government's response to the Select Committee's report. If the Government really were committed to the protection of all things green, we might have expected a much speedier response, of the kind that was given after the survey undertaken by Greenpeace, when its research vessel went round the coasts of this country.

One of the fundamental points in the Select Committee's third report comes in paragraph 12: Importantly, there was no suggestion that water quality in our rivers or estuaries poses a serious risk to public health. We must acknowledge that it is not just a matter of contracting gastro enteritis or some other illness from bathing in poluted sea water, of eating contaminated shrimps fished in some parts of the country, or contaminated eels from one of our freshwater rivers. I believe that the Select Committee was wrong to single out rivers. It should be recognised that the pollution that reaches our rivers from agricultural practices, from industry, and from human sewage and sludge has a consequential effect on the whole environment. It is a problem not just for our country but for all countries bordering the North sea.

I acknowledge that we secured further Government concessions from the North sea conference a year ago. However, I do not believe that the Government made half enough concessions. We now confront the urgent problem that 5 per cent. of our rivers are not as clean and as clear as they should be. It would be bad enough if we had a problem with existing environmental pollution, but matters will be made worse by the Government's privatisation of the water industry, which shifts the whole focus on to the political arguments. We cannot say that privatisation is not a political issue; there is nothing more political than our environment. That is why the Opposition place so much importance on these issues.

Under the Government's proposals, it will still be incumbent on local councils to guarantee the wholesomeness of their water supplies. I should like the Secretary of State for the Environment to concentrate on explaining how he intends that the whole area of integrated water control and monitoring will be brought to account.

The Secretary of State does not seem to be giving local authorities the wherewithal to provide for clean, healthy water supplies or for the control and monitoring of what is going on. I fear that the privatisation Bill poses a real danger that environmental priorities will become secondary to profit and issues connected with the economy. Everything will be subservient to clause 5 of the draft legislation which is soon to come before the House.

We have heard a good deal today about the Prime Minister's concern for "green" issues, but during the summer when we were presented with the spectacle of seals dying all around our coastline the Government did not respond by calling for a reconvening of the North sea conference.

Mr. Chapman

On the day of our return after the recess I put down an early-day motion on the protection of seals, which had all-party support. Within a fortnight the Government announced that they would activate, under section 3 of the Conservation of Seals Act 1970, an order forbidding the culling and killing of all common and grey seals for the next two years. Is that not a good example of speedy and effective reaction by the Government to parliamentary pressure?

Ms. Walley

That is indeed a good example of constructive action that can be taken. But it is clear that, because of pollution in the North sea, immune systems are breaking down, and we must see what we can do to prevent that from happening in the first place. We should also be concerned about otters dying in our rivers, which has been highlighted by the Nature Conservancy Council.

Mr. Allan Roberts

Is my hon. Friend aware that the Government do not believe that pollution is causing the death of the seals? The Secretary of State has said as much. Some scientists think that the virus may be caused by pollution. The Government are supposed to be in favour of the precautionary approach, but they say that the problem is that there is not enough food for the seals. Where has the food gone? Has it not disappeared because of pollution?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

Order. Will hon. Members who catch my eye reserve their comments for their speeches rather than adding to them with interventions?

Ms. Walley

Nothing is more important than providing funds for the necessary research, and that is what the Government must do.

We should be putting prevention at the heart of our policies. In my region, if the Severn-Trent water authority put water meters in every one of the 2.75 million households in the area, it would incur a total cost of £430 million—about half the authority's entire capital works programme for the next five years on mains, sewers, leakage and environmental work on, for instance, river quality. I want the money to be put into research or effective measures to stop us from polluting so many of our rivers.

11.25 am
Mr. Norman Miscampbell (Blackpool, North)

I start my brief speech by apologising to those who will follow me. I shall not be able to stay for the whole debate because of engagements in the north of England this afternoon.

Mr. Allan Roberts

Swimming on Blackpool beach?

Mr. Miscampbell

Maybe a little swimming on Blackpool beach, yes.

We are debating a matter arising from the proceedings of a committee on which I was privileged to serve for many years, and I am hearing again the overtones that I heard last Friday. Again we are considering not only the best that we can do for our country and its environment but how we can take the public with us, for public awareness is pre-eminent in this context. Nowhere is that clearer than in the disposal of sewage, notably in my constituency—and the neighbouring constituencies of hon. Members who are present today—where the bathing beaches of the largest holiday resort in the country, and almost certainly the largest in western Europe, have been condemned as not being up to EEC standards. We are obviously keen to amend that position.

The problem faced by us on the Fylde coast encapsulates almost uniquely the problem of how to dispose of waste properly. The North-West water authority's proposal to clear up the beaches running from Fleetwood down to south Blackpool have my cautious approval. It raises some problems, but we must face up to them and not simply say that the only solution is an onshore solution. I once served on a local authority that had to make up its mind whether to adopt an onshore solution or a long outfall. The political position can be summed up—the Secretary of State has already referred to this—by saying that there was a clear majority for an onshore solution, and an overwhelming majority for its being nowhere near the houses of members of the authority.

None the less, the scheme for the north Fylde coast is a vast improvement on the present position. It is proposed to put out a three-mile outfall, which is necessary in any event, and the Government are beginning to consider whether the ordinary raw sewage that goes out should be treated. If toxic waste and heavy metals are removed, long outfalls containing ordinary domestic waste are a perfectly acceptable solution which is not condemned by any EEC country. It has been done in this country, and we know that it will prove satisfactory. We know that a mixture of sun, wind and movement in sea water is an effective way of grading sewage.

There are two problems. First, we must ask ourselves whether at the end of this century or the beginning of the next the EEC will allow us to discharge sewage into the sea. That is a long-term political problem. Our unique advantage is our turbulent seas, which in many instances, are most suitable for the discharge of sewage. The other problem is what will happen about heavy metals, and I am glad that the Government seem to be showing concern about that.

I welcome the scheme proposed by the North-West water authority. I hope that if political pressure makes it necessary more screening and actual treatment can be done without vast extra cost. I also hope that we shall pay attention to the problem of extracting heavy metals, for which an onshore solution may ultimately be necessary. Much could be achieved by preventing heavy metals from getting into the sewerage system in the first place.

No matter what the solution, the Fylde coast from minimum to maximum discharge due to storm water going through the sewerage system can change between one and 40 times in volume. No sewerege works in the world could possibly cope with the really heavy storm outflows. We must have a system at the end if we must put it out. That is why it is not a choice between long sewers going out to sea and onshore treatment. We may need to have both, but the long outflow is necessary in any event and I welcome it in the north-west.

11.30 am
The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Nicholas Ridley)

It may be for the convenience of the House if I intervene now. Our rivers, estuaries and seas are an absolutely vital part of our national heritage. Not only do we depend on them for sustaining life, but they are a vital source of relaxation and enjoyment for countless fishermen, boaters, ramblers, painters and poets. They are part of our cultural heritage, as is our beautiful countryside.

Our forebears allowed appalling damage to our rivers and estuaries. Thank goodness that in my lifetime so much of that damage has been repaired, as I intend to show. Nevertheless, I readily concede that there is much more to do. Today's debate allows us to discuss the important issues raised in the excellent report of the Select Committee on the Environment. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi) and his colleagues on the Committee on a worthwhile document. Not only have we studied it, but we have acted on it—in some cases before he even wrote the report. We must get this into perspective.

The debate enables me to do three things. First, I shall set out the major programmes under way for improving sewage treatment and disposal, which are already bringing major improvements to our rivers and coastal waters. Secondly, I stress that our water privatisation proposals, which I expect shortly to introduce to the House, will do a great deal to strengthen pollution control, particularly through the establishment of the National Rivers Authority, to safeguard and improve our inland and coastal waters. The Bill will be the most major piece of environmental legislation that the House has ever had to consider. I say that to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms. Walley)—who I know has had to leave us—because she expressed concern.

Thirdly, I will tell the House of the progress that we are making on implementing the ministerial declaration of the second conference on the protection of the North sea, of which I was chairman last November. It was not that the Government made concessions at that conference. It was that they led the pack to get all nations surrounding the North sea to take the necessary action, with great success on that occasion.

Mr. Allan Roberts

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Ridley

No, I will not give way yet.

Mr. Roberts

On the North sea.

Mr. Ridley

I am coming to the North sea. First, I am describing the menu for the hon. Gentleman. When he reaches a particular course, I will give way to him, but not a great deal.

Before spelling out these policies, perhaps I can put the subject matter of the debate into perspective. To judge by some of the comments, even today, one could think that conditions were bad and getting worse. The pessimists glory in looking each day for new evidence to confirm their worst fears, so let us look at the facts.

First, the Select Committee's report says of the overall quality of our rivers and estuaries: It is important to stress that river and estuary quality in this counry is generally very high. That is true. In the last survey, in 1985, over 90 per cent. of our total length of rivers in England and Wales was classified as being of good or fair quality. That means that the waters were suitable for drinking water abstraction, supported at least good coarse fisheries, and had some amenity value. I understand that the position in Scotland is even better.

It seems fashionable to denigrate ourselves as "the dirty man of Europe", but the facts do not support this. Only two countries in the European Community, the Netherlands and possibly Ireland, have higher proportions of good or fair quality rivers than the United Kingdom. Rather than "dirty man", I prefer to talk of dirty rivers: and there is no question but that it is the Rhine which is the dirty river of Europe.

Mr. Roberts

I accept that the Rhine is dirtier than the Thames, but does the Secretary of State accept that the Mersey is dirtier than both?

Mr. Ridley

I knew that it was a mistake to give way. I am coming to the Mersey. The hon. Gentleman is the best example of political pollution that we have in the House. Even within the Labour party he must be top of the red list of dangerous substances.

We can also be proud of the major improvements in our estuaries. Our estuaries used to be a disgrace. But over the past 20 years or so they have been a major success story. Their clean-up has been achieved mainly through large-scale investment in new interceptor sewers and sewage treatment facilities. The record speaks for itself.

The Thames has been transformed into what we believe to be the cleanest metropolitan estuary in the world. Over 100 species of fish have been recorded since the 1970s. Salmon once more go past this House. That is a far cry from the Environment Select Committee's comment that we used to hang up window blinds impregnated with chloride of lime in Committee Rooms to overcome the stench from the river in Victorian times.

Thanks to a major clean-up programme by Northumbrian Water, the Tyne has once again become one of our best salmon rivers. No salmon went through it for 30 years. In 1987, the catches recorded on the Tyne were the highest for 60 years. The Wear now has large runs of sea trout. Major improvements on the industrial Tees will once again enable the passage of migratory fish. The Humber is steadily being improved through programmes to clean-up the Trent and rivers in west and south Yorkshire. I shall come to the particular south Yorkshire questions in a minute. In total, some £600 million has been spent on better sewerage and sewage treatment for these estuaries. In Scotland, I understand that salmon are returning to the Clyde in increasing numbers.

The biggest remaining challenge is now the Mersey. In recognition of this, we established in 1985 the Mersey basin campaign to co-ordinate a £4 billion programme of investment over the next 25 years. The North-West water authority, local authorities, private industry, the European regional development fund and voluntary agencies will all be involved. The aim is to clean over 1,700 km of river in the Mersey basin by the year 2010 and to bring them up to at least class 2 quality. It is a longstanding and effective commitment to improving this, perhaps the worst polluted of our rivers. It is properly funded and protected so that the North-West water authority can go into the private sector with that programme secure.

Our very success has caused new threats to water quality. My right hon. Friend rightly drew attention to many of these problems and I propose to respond to several of the points that the Committee raised to eradicate the main pollution threats to the aquatic environment. First, I shall deal with substances which, because of the inherent characteristics, pose the biggest threat. These are the red list substances. This is a provisional list of substances ranging from heavy metals to pesticides which, on the basis of their toxicity, persistence in water, capacity for bioaccumulation and prevalence, justify particularly stringent controls.

My right hon. Friend asked for progress. We consulted widely on the red list during the summer and are now studying the responses. We shall make firm proposals for legislation and implementation. We intend to minimise the amount of these substances entering the rivers and estuaries from all sources, which include sewage contamination. In part, this will be done by applying technology-based emission standards to all significant industrial discharges of these substances. In future, we shall be looking to relevant industrial processes to use the best available technology, having regard to reasonable costs, as well as satisfying strict environmental quality standards for these substances in receiving water. Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution will have an important role in developing this new approach with industry. It will tie in with the parallel proposals we have made for an integrated system of pollution control for major industrial processes, designed to minimise the overall impact of discharges to land, air and water.

Many of the substances on the red list do not come from industrial discharges. They come from the wider use of substances such as timber preservatives, pesticides and cleaning agents—so-called "diffuse sources of pollution." To minimise the amounts of these substances reaching our waters may require action to control their use, which in some cases might be an outright ban. In the last 18 months, in response to evidence, we have already banned the use of organo-tin anti-fouling paints on small boats and we have also announced that the remaining agricultural and timber treatment uses in this country of aldrin and dieldrin, two of the worst and most persistent pesticides, are to be phased out.

The declaration that followed last year's North sea conference called for substantial reductions by 1995 in dangerous substances reaching the North sea via rivers and estuaries. Our action to control red list substances will largely implement that undertaking. We hope that continental countries will do the same. All that dramatic action has been taking place during the last year or two. It is in no sense something new that I announce to the House today.

The main source of pollution, however, in most of our inland and coastal waters is pollution by sewage. I fear that the House must agree on one matter at least: that no way can be found of ending the problem at source. The problem will remain with us, so long as mankind survives. It is in that area where most of our efforts this century have been directed. As a result, we are ahead of many other European countries over sewage treatment, but three objectives in particular remain to be achieved.

First, we have to ensure that we continue to reduce unsatisfactory discharges from sewage treatment works, which still put river quality at risk in some areas. Secondly, we must devise satisfactory means of disposing of sewage from seaside resorts. Thirdly, we have to decide how best to dispose of the inert sewage sludge that is the inevitable consequence of sewage treatment processes.

The Environment Committee rightly pointed to the unacceptable state of affairs arising from the large number of sewage treatment works still breaching their legal limits. The Government fully accept that. The major reason for it, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green pointed out, was the massive cuts in water authority investment under the previous Administration.

Mr. Allan Roberts

Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Ridley

In a minute.

That has led to a large number of works being overloaded and more prone to operational failure. Investment in sewage and sewage treatment was halved between 1974–75 and 1980–81, as my right hon. Friend's report clearly shows. The Labour party, with the help of the man from the IMF, was the dirty party of Europe. Fortunately, we are now remedying that problem.

The hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) was one of the sufferers. I acknowledge that there is much more still to be done to the rivers of south Yorkshire. The programme of spending by the Yorkshire water authority on those rivers is £24.8 million this year, £45.3 million next year, the year after that £48 million, and in the following year £70 million. That money is available and will be spent on necessary works by the hon. Gentleman's water authority, but I have to tell him that the reason for that taking so long to happen was due to the halving of water investment under the Administration that he supported.

Mr. Simon Hughes

Although the Secretary of State is right about the lack of investment since 1976 when the IMF had to be brought in, will he confirm that his predecessors in the Department have come to the House regularly to announce restrictions on borrowing, on external financial limits and the rest, which meant that until this year the reduction in investment continued—against the wishes of the water authorities, who protested about it? They would have made the investment if they had been allowed to do so by this Government as well as by the previous Government.

Mr. Ridley

I am surprised by the hon Gentleman's statement. I think he supported the Government who brought upon themselves the IMF crisis. That was the cause of the trouble. I admit that I have delayed water privatisation by insisting on having the National Rivers Authority in place. It means that the water authorities have not had access to the private capital market, as part of the private sector. Until they are in the private sector, they will never be allowed, by Governments of any colour, to borrow from the private sector. That has never been allowed, even by a Labour Government, for any nationalised industry.

Mr. Hardy

I acknowledge that Secretary of State's point, although I must point out to him that his Government had been in office far longer than the Labour Administration before this improvement took place. Many of us believe that one reason why this capital commitment has been entered into is that the Government know full well that that will be reflected in a much lower price for the water industry when it is sold. However, the Secretary of State has not yet addressed the point that although there may have been improvements in the urban rivers—improvements that could not have been delayed much longer—rivers such as the Tamar, home of Tarka the otter, are no longer able to sustain life and will not be able to do so until there has been a dramatic improvement in ways of dealing with agricultural pollution.

Mr. Ridley

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will allow me to continue with my speech. I am coming to agricultural pollution. There is no point in repeating it.

My hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Water and Planning announced to the House on Tuesday that total investment in the water industry will increase by 20 per cent. next year, following steady growth since 1980–81. On sewerage and sewage treatment and disposal alone, water authorities will spend £560 million next year, which is more than their total investment under the Labour party—an increase of more than one third, in constant prices, since 1980–81.

I am pleased to say that we are close to confirming with the water authorities an accelerated programme of capital improvement for sewage treatment works that will involve expenditure of about £1 billion over the next four years. That will bring almost all these works into full compliance with their legal limits by March 1992. I hope to make a more detailed announcement to the House shortly before Christmas. However, even now I can confidently predict that the extra investment that is to be approved will be good news for water quality. We shall look to the new National Rivers Authority to ensure that agreed programmes of improvement are properly implemented.

There are some 400 bathing waters within the scope of the EEC bathing waters directive. About 60 per cent. of them now meet the quality standards on sewage bacteria. We must bring the remainder up to these standards as quickly as possible. The water authorities have done a good job in drawing up improvement programmes. They are currently spending £70 million annually on schemes to improve beaches. We have recently asked them to assess whether these programmes could be accelerated so that all our bathing standards will be up to EEC standards by 1995.

I am afraid that 1995 is the very earliest that the improvements could be completed. Some of the very large schemes involve complex engineering, design and construction work, and some of those contracts can take up to seven years to complete because of the need to catch the tides and the weather. Most improvement schemes involve the re-sewering of seaside towns and the construction of long sea outfalls. These discharge three or more kilometres out at sea, where dilution and the effects of the sea and sunlight rapidly break down the effluent and kill off the bacteria. The use of long sea outfalls was strongly endorsed by the Royal Commission on environmental pollution, which concluded in its 10th report that with well-designed outfalls discharge of sewage to the sea is not only acceptable but, in many cases, environmentally preferable to alternative methods of disposal. That is the best international scientific advice about this matter. It is not possible to question it, as the hon. Member for Bootle (Mr. Roberts) has been doing sotto voce and from a seated position.

There are still those who, like the hon. Member for Bootle, argue that sewage discharges into the sea are wrong in principle, but the alternatives that they suggest, such as conventional inland treatment or disinfection, also have great drawbacks. Conventional treatment by itself does not remove all the bacteria—we still require the sea to finish the job. As far as we know, the sea will destroy all viruses that have been identified. There are concerns about the effects of disinfecting agents on marine life. Moreover, we simply cannot escape the fact that sewage has to be disposed of somewhere. For example, even if we were to rule out the use of long sea outfalls, and rely instead on conventional inland treatment works, we would then have increased amounts of sewage sludge to dispose of.

The House must appreciate that the end product of sewage treatment is sludge which has to be disposed of in some way, somewhere. About half of what we produce is currently spread onto land as a soil conditioner, one fifth is put into landfill sites, and one third is disposed of at sea. A small amount is incinerated.

Our policy on sewage sludge disposal is straightforward—to choose in each instance that means of disposal that is the best practicable environmental option in the area and in the circumstances of the case. In those cases where we send sewage sludge to sea—mainly from the large conurbations round some of the estuaries—we do so because we believe that it represents the best option. It may be that putting it on the land or burning it close to the big cities would prove, quite conclusively, to be much worse options than taking it out to sea. I heard the interesting and constructive speech by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Blackpool, North (Mr. Miscampbell), but I must not comment on the situation he described, because the application for works on the Fylde coast could be coming to me soon.

I recognise people's sensitivities about the sea and the strong emotions that something so elemental can involve, but there is nothing scientifically or intrinsically wrong with sea disposal of sewage sludge, provided that it is done in the right way. People can be equally sensitive to disposing of it on land. The risks arise not from the sewage sludge per se, but from the amounts of contaminants, such as heavy metals that it contains. This was the worry expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr. Ward). It is right that we should take action to minimise, even to eliminate, the levels of contaminants in sludges, through the sorts of measures that I have described for red list substances. That is what we are doing. Having done it, I am convinced that the best scientific evidence proves that it might be the right action to put the inert sludge out into the deep sea, where the currents stir it away.

Mrs. Golding

Will there be an independent report into the relationship between sludge dumping and fish disease.

Mr. Ridley

I do not know what the hon. Lady means by an independent report. A great many scientific investigations are made into these matters and when we receive advice from the best scientists in the country, the Government make it public and we can debate what action should be taken. The idea that there is some independent person who can provide better advice than that which the Government receive and publish is wrong.

I want to consider the North sea conference, which was referred to by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North. We correctly recognised the distinction at the conference, which calls for action to reduce the contamination of sludges by persistent, toxic and bioaccumulable materials so that they pose no harm to the marine environment. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is implementing that part of the declaration as part of his overall responsibilities for licensing sea disposal. His officials are involved in detailed discussions with the water industry on the implications. He also intends to publish the results of the monitoring studies at sea disposal sites. However, to those who are against sea disposal I ask: "What is your solution?" Agricultural land is often not readily available near major conurbations. We are short of landfill sites and I guess that the public would not accept large-scale incineration plants near urban areas.

We have heard a lot about the allegedly polluted state of the North sea. It has been described as a dying sea and even as a dead sea. The North sea is a national and international responsibility. Touching almost half of our coastline, it is bound to be of concern to us all. The most comprehensive and authoritative report on the state of the North sea was last year's quality status report—a consensus report produced by scientists from all North sea states.

That report drew attention to a number of issues of concern such as the build-up of pollutants in areas such as the Wadden sea and German bight and the accumulation of nutrients along the coastal belt of the Netherlands and Denmark. However, the report also showed that there was no evidence of damage away from those limited areas. Given the concentrations of population and industry around the North sea, I think that those results are broadly encouraging. Certainly they do not bear out claims that the North sea is dying, let alone dead. No doubt I shall next be accused of complacency by the hon. Member for Bootle, (Mr. Roberts). However, I believe that scientists know more about this than does the hon. Gentleman.

The exaggerated tales about the condition of the seas around these islands have led some to the assumption that that was the cause of the virus epidemic that has killed so many seals. However, no direct links have yet been established between the epidemic affecting the seals and pollution.

Sir Hugh Rossi

If it is a virus that is affecting the seals, how do viruses survive in the sea when he told us a few moments ago that he was satisfied that the sea destroyed viruses?

Mr. Ridley

I was talking about viruses that are a danger to human beings which come from the sewerage system. I am now talking about a virus that is quite common among a number of mammals. It might interest my hon. Friend to learn that seals in Lake Baikal in central Asia appear to have a very similar virus which has decimated the seal population in a very remote area away from any industrial pollution.

Mr. Allan Roberts

Will the right hon. Gentleman admit that every piece of scientific evidence shows that, whether or not pollution causes a virus, in relation to food that fish, seals or humans eat, pollution will lower the animal's resistance and cause the virus to get a hold?

Mr. Ridley

I am afraid that there is no evidence for that. I commend the excellent and fully researched, scientific article written by Dr. John Harwood, the director of the sea mammal research unit which appeared in the New Scientist recently about the lessons to be learned from the epidemic. He makes it absolutely clear that, although every sort of research is being done to try to determine any such possible connection, there is at present no conceivable evidence. That just shows the dangers of jumping to conclusions about things such as the seal virus, based on ignorance and prejudice—as the hon. Lady who raised that point has done—and why it would be better to discover the facts from scientific analyses and research.

Mrs. Golding

It was not my concern, but that of the Environment Committee in its report to the House of Commons. It was anxious to have an independent report on the relationship between sludge dumping and fish disease. The Committee had, in fact, studied all the evidence that had been submitted to it and was not satisfied.

Mr. Ridley

I was referring to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North who has now left. However, I believe that I have dealt with that point.

Our action to reduce red list substances reaching the North sea via our rivers and estuaries will contribute to improvement both directly and indirectly through the implications for contaminant levels in sewage sludge. Similar action is now needed by other North sea states, especially since about half of all river-borne contaminants reach the North sea from the Rhine-Meuse. Eighty per cent. comes from continental rivers. We are also working to fulfil our North sea conference commitments on sea dumping.

The hon. Member for Wentworth mentioned the Irish sea. The most recent reports we have on the state of the Irish sea—produced by the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas—also suggest that the general quality of its water are good, although there are localised historic problems in areas such as Liverpool bay. It is worth noting in this regard that over the past 10 years we have cut radioactive discharges from Sellafield by 90 per cent. and further reductions are planned. Man-made radioactivity in Britain accounts for only one part in 1,000 of the natural radioactivity on land and in the sea.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green and other hon. Members raised the question of agricultural pollution and especially nitrate. I assure the House, that the Government are fully aware of the increasing nitrate levels in some of the groundwater sources in parts of central and eastern England, and it is a serious problem. We are urgently seeking a way forward. But it is a complex matter and the solutions will vary from area to area. The mix of remedies to be applied—which include blending of contaminated water with purer water, water treatment, and protection of water sources—must depend on the precise local circumstances. That is why my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and I commissioned a range of desk studies to examine in detail the various options for limiting nitrate concentrations in drinking water in a dozen or so localities, each with different geology, rainfall and farming patterns. We hope to publish the results of those desk studies soon. I believe that that would be the time to take the matter further. I must tell my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green that much thought has been given to this by my right hon. Friend and me. As I am sure my hon. Friend will accept, the problems are much more complex but by the time we take the Water Bill through the Committee stage I hope that the Government will be able to give a fully worked out plan on how to deal with the problem.

Other matters about agricultural pollution were raised today and we made it clear that we are worried about the rising tide of farm pollution. Many hon. Members have dwelt with the question of court cases and fines. To impose a fine for a single act of pollution, such as a farmer making a discharge, is the right way in which to deal with that sort of problem. We intend to leave the prosecution powers against water undertakings which pollute consistently. In those circumstances, fines, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green said, are not the right answer. The right answer is to have a programme of investment to bring water quality up to standard. For a particular offence the maximum fine is £2,000, but in the south-west—one of the worst areas—average fines amount to no more than £140. In common with my hon. Friend I hope that the courts will take care to ensure that appropriate penalties are imposed when a conviction is proved.

We are taking a number of further measures to tackle the problem. We have announced our intention to introduce regulations governing the construction of new or extended silage and slurry facilities on farms as well as governing the construction of oil installations of all kinds. In this context, it is worth mentioning that grant-aid payments to farmers building new waste storage and treatment facilities will continue at high levels. We also intend that the new National Rivers Authority should have powers to serve enforcement notices on farms and other sites where existing storage installations pose significant pollution risks. Of course, the powers to prosecute will remain against water companies whether statutory ones or, after privatisation, privatised water companies. That is what we are doing and I believe that we have a good record, but we shall not stop there. Further steps are needed to improve rivers and estuaries, which I have described at length. We shall press on and take those necessary measures.

I believe that the establishment of the National Rivers Authority will be a strongly beneficial environmental measure when it accompanies privatisation. It is perhaps, the most important step forward in the protection of the water environment that any hon. Member can recall.

The authority will be a strong pollution control agency responsible to Parliament for protecting the environment by regulating all discharges to water. At the moment, there is a conflict of interest inherent in our arrangements. Water authorities regulate industrial and other discharges, but at the same time, they are responsible for pollution, through discharges from their treatment works. As the Committee said, they are both poachers and gamekeepers. The hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding) should note that I believe that that has been one of the major troubles hitherto. It is an inherent and absolutely fundamental defect of public ownership that once an industry is publicly owned it is protected from arm's-length regulation. That is because the Government know full well that if they allow such regulations to be imposed, the bill will come back to the Exchequer and they are reluctant to see that. The biggest justification for privatisation is on environmental grounds.

Mr. Allan Roberts


Mr. Ridley

No. We cannot have pollution of this sort.

Bringing the water industry to the private sector has enabled us to establish the National Rivers Authority as the publicly accountable guardian of environmental quality, which I believe is vital.

Mr. Spearing


Mr. Simon Hughes


Mr. Ridley

In this report the Environment Select Committee called for an: independent regulatory body with clear objectives and timescales for improvement We shall offer just that to the House. The National Rivers Authority will also be conducting a new river quality survey in England and Wales in 1990 to provide us with an up-to-date assessment of the condition of our rivers and estuaries.

Mr. Spearing

What the Secretary of State has just said is vital to the whole country. Does he not recall that when the original water authorities were established, the Labour party's policy was that the National Water Council should have enough powers to survey and impose the very standards—with which I agree—that he is now claiming for the National Rivers Authority?

Instead, the Conservative party abolished the National Water Council and did not give it the powers that it should have had from the beginning. To obtain the standards that we all want, surely there is no need for privatisation. The right hon. Gentleman needs to establish a national water and rivers authority with teeth to enforce standards in the public sector.

Mr. Ridley

I do not know what good that would do when we had a Labour Government who cut and cut again because of their inefficiency and economic illiteracy, resulting in the need to halve investment in water. That is the evil from which all Opposition Members still suffer. It is no good coming to the House and complaining about the lack of investment in the water system when Labour presided over a policy of cutting and cutting again. The time scale on this matter is very long.

The chairman of the National Rivers Authority advisory committee, which is already in place—he is a most distinguished former Member of the House—has already said how he sees the authority operating in the difficult area of enforcement. It will be for the authority to develop its own policy, and to decide in what circumstances to bring prosecutions. Its immediate aims will be to establish good working relationships with all dischargers—whether industry or the water utilities. But I am equally sure that it will want to take firm action to ensure that legal limits on discharge consents are met and that unauthorised discharges stop. That new pollution control agency to protect the water environment will, I repeat, be the result of a major piece of environmental legislation.

Environmental improvements are often costly; the measures that I have outlined today will add to water bills. So we cannot afford to take decisions that have no clear scientific rationale. Through our proposals for integrated pollution control, we have recognised that the environment has to be treated as a whole; we have to be sure that our measures to protect our rivers and our seas do not produce worse environmental problems on land or in the atmosphere.

Mrs. Golding

Will the right to initiate private prosecutions remain after the establishment of the National Rivers Authority?

Mr. Ridley


What I have said underlines the importance that both I personally and the Government attach to the immensely necessary task of repairing the damage of past centuries, which our ancestors, including our political ancestors, have done to the river system and the cleanliness of the seas. This programme started several years back—it has not come about since the long recess. I do not believe that it can be criticised, except that it is sad that we have so much to do in such a short time. However, I commend to the House the dramatic and dynamic way in which the Government are seeking to clear up the dereliction that we have inherited.

12.13 pm
Mr. Allan Roberts (Bootle)

I welcome a debate on the rivers, estuaries and seas around our shores. I should not for one moment accuse the Secretary of State for the Environment of being complacent, as I did his Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Surrey, South-West (Mrs. Bottomley). He is not complacent; he knows exactly what he is doing. He knows what his free market policies mean. He is the buccaneering free marketeer of the Cabinet and he goes about his job with that in mind.

As a background to the debate, I look to three recent speeches. The first is the Prime Minister's speech to the Royal Society, where the blue was supposed to have turned green. The second is the Secretary of State's speech to the Conservative Bow Group on Tuesday 11 October, when, following the Prime Minister's speech, the Secretary of State sold out on the North sea declaration of Ministers. The third was the Prime Minister's speech to the Tory party conference, when she inspired the Secretary of State to announce two new environmental initiatives. The first was that he would make a series of speeches—which is perhaps why he, rather than the Under-Secretary, is speaking today—to be collected together in a pamphlet so that we can all read them.

The second major environmental initiative that resulted from the Government's conversion to the green cause was the announcement by the Secretary of State that everyone will have a nuclear power station in his or her back garden.

Today, we are discussing rivers, estuaries and sea pollution. Despite the Secretary of State's smoke—or acid rain—screen, no subject is better suited to exposing the Government's appalling record on the environment and the contradictions between the speeches made by the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues about that record.

Let us examine the Government's record on rivers, about which we heard again today from the Secretary of State. The Prime Minister told the Tory party conference: The Thames is now the cleanest metropolitan estuary in the world and £4 billion is now being spent on the Mersey…. We have led Europe in banning the dumping of harmful industrial waste in the North sea. Those statements are hardly consistent with the facts.

The right hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow) told me to go and jump in the Rhine. As I said earlier, I would rather do that than swim in the Mersey, but I would not like to jump in the Rhine or the Thames. The Thames is said to be clean, but many so-called grade 1 clean rivers are so classified on the basis of a test of dissolved oxygen, which is primarily a test of the absence or presence of sewage pollution. Seriously contaminated rivers are full of pesticides and chemicals but are still known as grade 1. Research shows high pesticide levels, PCBs and dieldrin in eels in more than 30 British rivers which are not taken into account in the Government's statistics. That includes the Thames, which is way over the safety limit for a so-called clean river.

Otters in Norfolk are dying from organochloride pollution in a so-called clean river. We are told that there are fish in the Thames. That is not surprising: they keep putting them in at one end so they can swim to the other. That is how the Thames water authority spends £60,000 a year. The hon. Member for Crawley (Mr. Soames) may laugh at that, but the river is being stocked with salmon because they cannot breed. They have to keep being replaced because their eggs are poisoned by chemical pollution. The Thames water authority is using oxygen bubbles to maintain artificial levels of oxygen when dissolved oxygen levels fall because of pollution.

This is the Government's record on rivers. Between 1980 and 1985, the condition of rivers in Britain deteriorated—the first such deterioration in 25 years.

Mr. Ridley


Mr. Roberts

That is the evidence that the Department of the Environment gave the Select Committee, in those parts of the report that the Secretary of State was reluctant to quote. The quality of 903 km of rivers has deteriorated since the Tories came to power.

Reported pollution incidents in rivers have risen. In 1980–81 there were 12,500 pollution incidents; in 1986–87, there were 21,095; and up-to-date figures for 1987–88 are 23,253—almost a doubling since the beginning of the decade.

Of course, the Secretary of State does not want to hear the facts and statistics. Why has all this happened? It has been partly admitted that it is a result of the escalation of farm pollution—farm slurry and silage leakages. There has been a massive increase in silage production from animal manure. The Select Committee on the Environment went to Holland, which also suffers from this problem. The Common Market has not only a beef and butter mountain, but a manure mountain, which is causing terrible pollution. It is the result of intensive farming and of the Government's support for certain aspects of agricultural policy. There are rows between the Department of the Environment and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, but that would be true whichever Government were in power.

These incidents do not take account of breaches of consents by non-water authority discharges, but they do take account of an increase in industrial pollution, as well as farm pollution, so we cannot get away with saying that only agricultural pollution is causing the problems. The figures reveal otherwise.

The Government claim that they are in favour of the concept that the polluter must pay. That is a joke by the Government and the water authorities. In 1986–87 there were 215 prosecutions of polluters by water authorities. That is an enforcement rate of 1 per cent. The report from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Water Authorities Association in 1986 said that polluters would rather pay the fines than undertake the necessary work.

The problem is not just the level of fines. The Secretary of State said that the maximum fine in a magistrates court is £2,000. If the Government were serious, they could help the water authorities to take polluters to the Crown court where the maximum penalties are two years' imprisonment and an unlimited fine. There have been rare examples of Crown court prosecutions. In 1987 the North-West water authority took Express Dairies to court for polluting a river with ammonia and killing 20,000 fish. That resulted in a £25,000 fine. A few more such results perhaps in the 1 per cent. of cases that I mentioned, as well as more prosecutions in the magistrates courts, might be a deterrent.

The enforcement of the Control of Pollution Act 1974 is woefully inadequate. In 1986–87, a total of 4,121 km of our rivers were still class 3 and class 4. That means that those rivers are biologically dead, yet the Government say that they have a good record. That classification applies to 10 per cent. of our rivers. The Government might claim that that means that 90 per cent. of our rivers are clean, but they are not, because they contain dieldrin. In the river Avon herons are dying from pesticide pollution, yet the Avon is a class 1 river and is supposed to be clean.

As I have already tried to make clear, river classification works on the basis of dissolved oxygen and does not take account of chemical pollution. Matters are getting worse, and 31 rivers in Britain exceed the Department of Health guidelines on dieldrin, including the Ouse, the Severn and the Trent. In addition, the water authorities are breaching their sewage works consents. That is not because of cuts in capital expenditure by a Labour Government. This Government have been in power for nearly 10 years and have had plenty of time to restore any capital cuts in water authority expenditure. However, they have made further cuts. The Government preach cuts in public expenditure. One could accuse a Labour Government of not wanting to cut public expenditure, but this Government believe in cuts and put that belief into practice. In 1987 more than 20 per cent.—

Mr. Ridley

We have a new consensus. The Labour Government did not want to make cuts but had to, whereas the Tory Government want to make cuts but bring about increases.

Mr. Roberts

If the Government are increasing expenditure they are not keeping to their manifesto promises. They cannot have it both ways. The Government cannot claim to cut public expenditure and at the same time increase it. They claim that they cut public expenditure except where it matters, but that is not true, because it certainly matters in terms of river pollution and drinking water.

In 1987 more than 20 per cent. of sewage works in England and Wales were in breach of consents. We have had discharges from sewage works on top of the storm overflow that takes place after heavy rain. Raw sewage comes over the storm overflows and the sewers cannot cope with the water going into them.

In 1986–87, industry was responsible for 39 per cent. of river pollution incidents. It is not just a matter for the water authorities, because prior to 1985 the Government relaxed sewage works consents so that the breaches that were occurring would not be revealed. That is an example of the Government's hypocrisy. In a parliamentary answer just before the register of pollution incidents was made public and the coming into force of the Control of Pollution Act, the Secretary of State clearly outlined the position. He said that 1,800 out of 6,600 applications for relaxation of consents for pollution discharges by water authorities into rivers were granted. The consents were relaxed so that the breaches would not show up on the new register. The Secretary of State conspired with the water authorities to thwart the provisions of the Control of Pollution Act 1974 by relaxing those consents so that the pollution would not be revealed.

Industrial compliance with consent licences is regularly breached under this Government, but only irregularly prosecuted. The section 32 provisions of the 1974 Act are scarcely used for breaches of consent. Most of the prosecutions, few though they are, are made under the section 31 provisions, which relate to one-off incidents of pollution. My hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) referred to pollution incidents in Yorkshire. In 1987, there were 2,325 pollution incidents and 763 breaches of consent. Over 20 per cent. of Yorkshire Water sewage works are breaking consents under this Government. The number of prosecutions was only 31, of which 20 were section 31 prosecutions for one-off breaches. That is an enforcement rate of less than 1 per cent. Only 11 of those prosecutions were section 32 prosecutions, an enforcement rate of 1.4 per cent.

Before the public register was introduced in 1985, as a consequence of the 1984 Act, North-West Water relaxed its consent conditions to industry with the Government's permission, so further control under the 1984 Act was counter-productive. If anything, it led to more pollution rather than less.

The river Mersey is the so-called feather in the Government's cap. It is one of the slowest and most polluted river basins in the country. The concept of dilution, in which the Government still appear to believe, whereby we solve our pollution problems by diluting the poisons in the seas and rivers, does not work very well because the river is so slow moving. In the north-west, over the past 10 years, 628 kms of river have deteriorated. Only 220 kms have improved, yet that is where the Government say they are concentrating their efforts.

In 1978, 16 per cent. of grade 3 and grade 4 rivers in the north-west were biologically dead. That figure has now increased to 21 per cent.—a 5 per cent. increase during the past 10 years. The north-west has the greatest length of seriously polluted rivers, canals and estuaries in England and Wales. In 1986–87, North-West Water reported 2,480 pollution incidents, yet there were only 22 prosecutions. That does not include the figures for breaches of consent. ICI broke its consent discharge levels in the Mersey 120 times between June 1987 and June 1988, but, although it received a warning letter, there were no prosecutions. It is very friendly towards the Government.

North-West Water's industrial strategy plan for August 1988—a so-called confidential document, although I have not stolen it—spells out the extent of the problem. The river Mersey is the most polluted river basin in western Europe, but the Government say that North-West Water and others will spend £4 billion on a Mersey clean-up campaign, the Government's flagship of pollution control. However, only £2.5 billion—the Secretary of State fails to mention this; perhaps his parliamentary private secretary will tell him—is being spent on the pollution and water clean-up in the Mersey. The rest is being spent on the development of riverside sites for industrial recreation, commerce and housing, but development is not cleaning up or pollution control.

The £2.5 billion clean-up scheme is a cosmetic sham, and the Government know it, for two reasons. First, they are taking out only the raw sewage and leaving behind the chemical pollution—the lead, cadmium, mercury and all the other heavy metals. The dangerous PCBs, pesticides, nitrites and nitrates are left behind to pass into the Irish sea.

Secondly, it is a sham because of what will happen to the sewage when it has been removed. A 50 km pipeline is being built, and it will pick up all the outflows of sewage in the Mersey. The sewage will be taken to Sandon dock in my constituency. It will be converted into sewage sludge and then dumped in the area whence it came, in the Irish sea in Liverpool bay. It will still be full of heavy metals and chemicals, but it will be put back into the water. It is unbelievable that that should happen.

The sewage vessels will dump the sewage in Liverpool bay, which, in the words of the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, is already a stressed environment. A few years ago the Mersey was being dredged to keep open the port of Liverpool. It was found that the mercury levels in the dredgings were extremely high and the port nearly lost its dredging licence. The levels of mercury in the fish were extremely high. It is licensed for 80,000 dry tonnes of sewage sludge a year, and it is clear that a vastly greater amount of sewage sludge will be created.

The Secretary of State has said—this was included in his speech to the Bow Group—that the Government do not think that there is a problem in dumping sewage sludge into the sea. In opposing the cautionary approach and attacking scientists and the declaration of the conference of North sea Ministers, which the Minister signed, he said: A third example is sewage sludge dumping in the sea. This material is inert. It consists of 95 per cent. water. We have been putting it into the sea for 100 years with no discernable ill effects. The alternative is putting it on the land, which may well be a worse alternative. How can the Secretary of State say that we are short of landfill sites in which to put sewage sludge when plenty of sites can be found for imported toxic waste? I say that that importing should stop, but can we use landfill sites for sewage sludge? There is a problem because the sewage sludge is poisonous. It is polluted. It is full of the chemicals, PCBs and heavy metals that the Government claim do no harm when they are dumped into the North sea.

There are problems in Liverpool bay and at Garroch bay in Scotland, where sewage sludge is dumped. It seems that about 15 per cent. of the sludge remains there. The bay is smothered and the sludge is killing the sea and its environment. The Government have had to move to another dumping ground as a result. There are sewage sludge and dumping problems in the Thames estuary and these are causing great concern. As I have said, once the sewage has been collected and treated at Sandon dock, the port's licence provides that only 80,000 dry tonnes of sewage sludge can be dumped into the Irish sea. There has been a search for other dumping areas because that limit will be exceeded. Wales, the Isle of Man and Cumbria have all refused planning permission when applications have been made to dump off their shores. The vessels that are in service cannot dump very far out from the coast. North-West Water will have to consider other options. If the sludge were clean, it could be put on the land. That would be one of the best ways of treating the soil. It seems that the solution will be incineration, irrespective of whether the Secretary of State wants that. Never mind the not-in-my-backyard argument. The incinerator can be built in the Liverpool docks. It is clear that the proposed operation at Sandon dock would stink out the entire area.

The sludge is full of pollutants because of the discharge of chemicals into the sewers of north-west England. This pollution is the worst in the country. Sewage sludge in the north-west contains the highest volume of trade effluent in the country. However, in his Bow Group speech, the Secretary of State for the Environment, referring to criticism of sewage dumping in the North sea, made it clear that he was totally complacent about the problem—even though it is mentioned in the North sea declaration, which he signed, that the Government would do something to stop sewage sludge dumping.

The Prime Minister told the Tory party conference: We lead the world in stopping sea dumping of industrial waste into the North sea. She must have got that from the Secretary of State, because nobody else believes it. Ours is the only North sea nation dumping sewage sludge into the sea; It is not a European problem but a British problem.

Consequently, 12 to 13 per cent. of people living in north-west England eat fish polluted by mercury in excess of the provisional tolerable intake determined by the Food and Agriculture Organisation and the World Health Organisation. ICI is one of the major dischargers of mercury. People are eating fish with mercury levels in excess of those that are good for health, and so are seals. Thus the whole fish and food chain is affected.

Unlike the Government, the Labour party and previous Labour Governments accepted scientific evidence and produced radical policies. We all used to believe—and the Government still do—that anything could be dumped into the sea or rivers and be safely dispersed. That is not true. Nuclear discharges from Sellafield remain in the sediment and accumulate. Subsequently, worms and other creatures digest the sediment, the fish eat the worms, and then we eat the fish. That is true of mercury, chemicals, heavy metals and sewage sludge dumped in the North sea.

Giving evidence to the Select Committee, the North-West water authority's chief scientist, Eric Harper, stated that the Control of Pollution Act 1974 has not resulted in any improvement in industrial pollution. Against the advice of the Select Committee and of the Nature Conservancy Council, the Government still refuse to implement section 46(1) and (3) of that Act to protect plant and animal life in rivers. That is a measure of how concerned the Government are about our rivers and river pollution.

There remains the myth, believed by the hon. and learned Member for Blackpool, North (Mr. Miscampbell) that anything can be dumped because the sea is so vast it can absorb almost anything. That is the hon. Gentleman's attitude to the dumping of waste, but there is terrific opposition to the Government's long outflow policy of sticking raw sewage sludge in the sea. Why bother turning sewage into sludge if there is nothing wrong with dumping it raw? Of course there is something wrong about dumping raw sewage; it is even worse than the sewage sludge.

There is a proposal, which is just one of many, for a three-mile pipe from Russell Point, Fleetwood, for dumping raw sewage, in addition to sewage sludge, straight into the Irish sea. I understand that the hon. Member for Wyre (Mr. Mans) has written to the Secretary of State asking for a public inquiry. His right hon. Friend is reported as answering that the hon. Member for Wyre must await the pollution inspectorate's report.

Mr. Keith Mans (Wyre)

The hon. Member for Bootle (Mr. Roberts) is mistaken. I wrote to my right hon. Friend asking for an independent assessment by the pollution inspectorate, not for a public inquiry.

Mr. Roberts

I did not say "public inquiry", I said "inquiry". My evidence comes from the hon. Gentleman's local press, in which I am sure he is keen to be reported. Obviously he is concerned—and if he is not, his constituents are—or he would not have written to the Secretary of State.

Let us consider the North sea in more detail. The Prime Minister says that we lead the field. The sayings of our Conservative elders and betters need to be examined. Our present Government generally govern by disaster. They wait for the King's Cross fire and then consider what they might do; they wait for the Piper Alpha disaster and then decide that they might do something about safety on oil rigs; they wait for Karin B and then think a bit more seriously about their policy of allowing massive imports of toxic waste. In the same way, they wait for seals to die before pretending to be concerned about North sea pollution—and later deny that pollution has anything to do with the deaths, although the eating of polluted fish obviously weakens the resistance to any virus.

The Secretary of State does not like the truth. He must be one of the most ill-tempered, insulting Members of the present Parliament, but he cannot take it himself. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Crawley (Mr. Soames) from a sedentary position, says, "Speak for yourself." I am speaking for myself and for the Labour party, and I have spent the first half of the debate being insulted by the Secretary of State and other hon. Members. I think that I have the right, without insulting other hon. Members, to make the position clear.

In his Bow Group speech on 11 October the Secretary of State attacked the cautionary approach, saying: Another example is … some scientists think that it is possible that the virus affecting seals in the North sea is caused by pollution.' There is no evidence at present to support that assertion. The evidence, such as it is, is that the seals have a killer virus disease, that is typical of viruses that attack animals whose population begins to exceed the food supply necessary to sustain them". I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that the seal population has not increased that much, so the food supply must have decreased. It can have done so only for one of two reasons, overfishing or pollution, both of which are the result of the Government policy.

Of course the Secretary of State does not want to accept the reality that pollution has anything to do with the problem because he might have to take action, not to avoid the North sea declaration of Ministers but to implement it. He has probably forgotten, but he said in his Bow Group speech: This is a precautionary approach. But that is necessary much less often than is sometimes thought". The idea is to act in advance of the problems caused by pollution on the basis that it may be the cause. But, says the Secretary of State, that is necessary much less often than is sometimes thought, and there is always the risk of taking the wrong action. Attacking the precautionary approach, the right hon. Gentleman says that the best approach will usually be to analyse the facts first and then take the appropriate science-based action. But he signed the declaration of North sea Ministers at a conference where he says that he took the lead, with the words: Accepting that, in order to protect the North sea from possible damaging effects of the most dangerous substances, a precautionary approach is necessary which may require action to control inputs of substances even before a causal link has been established by absolutely clear scientific evidence". What has changed since then? All that has changed is that the Prime Minister has made a speech in favour of the environment. Now the Secretary of State is repudiating the "precautionary approach" declaration that he signed.

Of course the right hon. Gentleman does not want to listen to what I am saying now. He is the most ignorant man in Parliament as well, and has turned up in place of his Under-Secretary. At least last week she had the courtesy to listen to what was being said by Opposition Members. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Crawley must be thick, or he would not have been the Secretary of State's PPS.

Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman did not read the declaration before he signed it. This is what he said to the Bow Group about the problems in the North sea: The North Sea is generally in good health although there are some black spots on the continental side. He repeated that today. Page 38 of the North sea scientific and technical working group report, which is the background to the declaration that the Secretary of State signed, states that the highest levels of contaminants were consistently found in United Kingdom coastal waters of the North sea. What has that to do with black spots on the continental side?

The results of the 1985 baseline study on contamination in fish and shellfish in the north Atlantic, which was conducted by ISIS in co-operation with the Oslo and Paris commissions, were available in summary form in June 1987. They confirm the previous information on the distribution of contaminants in fish and shellfish in the area studies. Areas were identified as being more contaminated than others where concentrations in samples were found to be above the upper quartile. In the North sea such areas include for cadmium, the Firth of Forth; for copper, the Humber estuary and the central North sea; for lead, the southern bight of the North sea, the German Bight, and the north-east coast of England; for zinc the Firth of Forth and the north-east coast of England; for mercury the Oslo fjord and the Humber estuary; for arsenic—not exactly a nice substance for fish which we then eat—the Belgian and Netherland coasts, the German Bight, the central North sea and the Firth of Forth; and for organochlorine pesticides, the German Bight, Oslo fjord and Humber estuary. Yet, according to the Secretary of State, the North sea is generally back "in good health, although there are some black spots on the continental side". What hypocrisy. The facts show that the opposite is true.

Britain pollutes the North sea with massive river inputs: 2 million tonnes of colliery waste—we are one of the few countries which dumps such waste there—5 million tonnes of sewage sludge—we are the only North sea country that dumps it—and toxic liquid waste—all countries but Britain will comply with the directive on toxic waste and waste from the titanium industry by 1999. What have the Government done? What about the long pipe outfall? What is the Government's answer to titanium pollution in the Humber estuary? They give permission to extend the pipeline so that it goes into the North sea instead of the estuary. Toxic waste from sewerage systems flows through our rivers to the North sea, and there is pesticide and fertiliser pollution of the North sea.

There is a big row between the Department of the Environment and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food on nitrates and nitrites. The Department of the Environment wants some nitrate-free areas declared, as recommended by the Select Committee, but there is a row.

Mr. Ridley

Total rubbish.

Mr. Roberts

If there is not some conflict between MAFF and the DoE, why have these measures not been implemented? Why can the Secretary of State not declare areas where nitrates and nitrites are outlawed? It is because of the farmers' lobby and MAFF. If that is not the case, it must be because the Government do not care about the environment and are reneging on their commitment in the declaration of the North sea conference. The Secretary of State should announce the areas. He has had 12 months since signing the North sea report. Why is he not announcing those areas?

Nitrates and nitrites get into the ground water, rivers, our drinking water and the North sea and other seas around Britain. Because they are fertilisers the photo-plankton overgrow, flower and take oxygen out of the sea, killing fish and animals. That is another reason why seals find it difficult to exist in that hostile environment.

We dump massive amounts of industrial waste by ship every year and we incinerate 6,000 tonnes at sea. We shall continue to do so until 1994—long after other countries stop incineration at sea.

Mr. Ridley

Absolute rot.

Mr. Roberts

That is not rubbish. Again today the Secretary of State argued that we must have absolute scientific proof before we can take action, despite the precautionary approach that he put his name to. He argued that about emissions causing acid rain and refused to take action on that. Atmospheric inputs of sulphur and lead are the biggest source of pollution in the North sea. That pollution comes from power stations and industry in the United Kingdom, because the Government refuse to adopt a precautionary approach by joining the 30 per cent. club and doing anything about pollution. Britain is the only country that dumps fly ash from power stations into the North sea. We are the worst polluters of the North sea yet, to quote from the Secretary of State's speech to the Bow Group: Our commitment"— notice the audacity of the Secretary of State, who represents this Government— goes far beyond just protecting British interests in our own environment but, more importantly, taking the lead in getting the other Governments in the world to accept their responsibilities. That is rich, coming from this lot. They want to preach to the Scandinavians and to the rest of Europe about pollution of the environment.

A reasoned opinion was sent to the United Kingdom because the quality of water at Blackpool fell below EEC standards. On 10 June 1987 the European Commission began infringement proceedings under article 169 of the Treaty of Rome against the United Kingdom in 22 cases. It was decided to send a formal letter in 16 cases. These may, and some will, eventually lead to proceedings in the European Court of Justice, but the Secretary of State says that the United Kingdom Government intends to ensure that the other Governments of the world accept their responsibilities.

A reasoned opinion was sent to the United Kingdom because the quality of water at Formby and Southport falls well below EEC standards. A formal letter has been sent to the United Kingdom because of beach pollution in Cornwall and failure to designate Cornish beaches. Another formal letter has been sent to the United Kingdom regarding the absence of binding national legislation on drinking water. Excessive concentrations of nitrates and lead are measured only in three out of 12 months. There is a long list of cases where the Government have contravened EEC directives and legislation. They are way behind other countries. However, the Government say that they intend to ensure that all other Governments in the world accept their responsibilities.

I referred to the fact that the Government have announced two new environmental initiatives. First, there are the speeches of the Secretary of State for the Environment, which we can all read. They may help the paper recycling industry. He tells us that there is to be a nuclear power station in everybody's back garden—probably over the dead body of the Secretary of State for Energy who does not seem to agree with his right hon. Friend.

The other major environmental initiative, which is not new, is the Government's proposed privatisation of water. Compulsory metering trials are already taking place. The metering of water is a tax on bath time. It represents a tax on large families. [Interruption.] Conservative Members do not seem to realise that paying for water by meter will deter the elderly in particular from using water, in case they run up large bills. it will also deter large families from running up large bills. Conservative Members do not live in the real world, but that is the likely consequence of compulsory metering. It will be a tax on cleanliness and a tax on bath time.

Mr. Tim Devlin (Stockton, South)

The average pensioner uses very little water in his home, whereas neighbours with children, several cars and other domestic appliances use a great deal of water. Therefore metering would be greatly to the advantage of most pensioners.

Mr. Roberts

Metering may save water but that does not mean that it will save money. The cost of installing pipes from reservoirs to houses is very high. Water is easy and cheap to supply, but it is expensive to distribute, unlike electricity which is expensive to produce but cheap to distribute. So if one uses twice as much water as someone else, it does not cost the water authority twice as much. It costs much the same, once the pipes have been laid and the taps put in. Therefore it would be wrong to charge people for water in the way that they are charged for electricity or gas, on the basis of how much they use. If people economise and stop using water to keep their bills low, it will not be long before, under this Government, there is a standing charge so that people can be got in the other way. We can be sure of that. There have been pilot schemes on metering in 11 areas and in only one area is there a Labour—

Mr. David Porter (Waveney)

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Is the imposition of water metering, which is to be debated in the next Session of Parliament, a proper subject for today's debate?

Madam Deputy Speaker (Miss Betty Boothroyd)

I must say I was looking at my notes. The answer is no, it is not the subject of today's debate.

Mr. Roberts

If it is not the subject of the debate now, it should not have been the subject of the debate when the Secretary of State was talking about proposals for water privatisation.

The Secretary of State spoke at great length about the National Rivers Authority. It is a company made by selling off water authorities—a move which will give the private sector a licence to print money, especially if we have compulsory metering as a result. What the Government have done, and they have heralded it as a great initiative, is to introduce a major proposal for nationalisation in order to facilitate a major proposal for privatisation. It is strange that Tory Back Benchers are accepting the National Rivers Authority, which is the equivalent of a water Property Services Agency, and a nationalised body and an organisation to control pollution and water undertakings—something that the Labour party has advocated for many years.

The Government have not acted for environmental reasons. I challenge the Secretary of State to deny that they could not have sold the water industry while the functions that are to be given to the National Rivers Authority were left with the water authorities. No capitalist or investor in his right mind would buy responsibility for cleaning up the Mersey or Blackpool beach, for flood and sea defences, or for navigation. All the environmentally necessary functions carried out by the water authorities and which do not make a profit have been hived off and nationalised so that the flotation of the water authorities—the right to print money and to meter—is an attractive proposition to the private sector.

Buying a water authority would not be an attractive proposition if the water authorities were too rigorously controlled by the National Rivers Authority. Having taken away the disincentive by setting up the authority, the Government will not reimpose it by giving the authority the powers and resources that it needs. In Committee, we shall be strengthening the National Rivers Authority to make sure that it does its job properly. That will mean that water privatisation is not as attractive a proposition as the Government imagine. The Government decided to set up the National Rivers Authority because they knew that they could not privatise water without taking that decision. It had nothing to do with their so-called concern for the environment.

12.58 pm
Mr. Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet)

Whenever I am fortunate enough to catch the eye of the occupant of the Chair to make a contribution in a debate about the environment, I like to, and am usually able to, say a few words of appreciation to the Opposition Member who has spoken before me, because I know that there are Back Benchers on both sides of the Chamber who are deeply interested in matters environmental. It gives me no comfort to say this, but I would be overstraining my goodwill and overstretching my imagination if I could find one word of approbation to utter about the contribution from the hon. Member for Bootle (Mr. Roberts).

It deeply saddens me to say this, because we were both members of the Select Committee on the Environment, which looked into this matter and prepared and delivered this report. During those discussions, there was all-party co-operation, and even the hon. Gentleman must realise that in our report we have made criticisms of Government and departmental policies, but we have also been balanced and recognised some of the great progress that has been made.

One of the most heartwarming things that we can all appreciate is that the public and politicians are taking a deeper interest and concern in our environment. When we are talking about the environment there can be no more important issue than pollution. Central to any Government's environment policies must be the containment, reduction and elimination of harmful pollutants. It was a privilege to be a member of the Select Committee on the Environment and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and 'Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi) for bringing a combination of chairmanship skills and previous ministerial experience to the Committee. That Committee is fortunate to have him as Chairman.

There are three problems which must be faced when we discuss and determine policies to tackle pollution. First, it is essential to establish the indisputable facts and to get experts to agree on what is harmful. Even the experts disagree on that. While we should err on the side of caution and say that if the experts are undecided we should at least take precautionary measures, it may be easy for Opposition Members to say we should spend more money which might subsequently be wasted. That is not good enough. For example, disagreement has arisen over the discharge of sewage into the sea. Some experts claim that it is acceptable and environmentally preferable to discharge in that way.

Secondly, we have to agree what levels of pollution are acceptable. There again, experts disagree. For example, with regard to the European Community quality of drinking water directive, some experts claim that the level of 50 mg per litre standard for nitrate in drinking water is unnecessarily low. Subsequent research has shown that nitrates are not a possible cause of stomach cancer as was thought to be the case some years ago. I am not an expert, but I believe that politicians must consider those points.

The third problem is epitomised by the North sea. It is absolutely essential to get international agreement and co-ordination in plans to tackle pollution. Eight countries are particularly concerned about the quality of the North sea and they all have different perceptions. We must understand that the circulation of water in an anti-clockwise direction in a relatively shallow basin like the North sea means that we can export our pollution while pollution from continental countries largely remains in their part of the North sea. The British Government must understand why some continental countries are exercised by the problem. I was comforted by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State's comments on that matter.

Since the Select Committee reported 18 months ago, events have moved on. There has been a general election, and last November there was the impetus of the second international conference on the protection of the North sea. We have also heard the Government's somewhat belated response to the Select Committee report and I share the view expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green about that. However, the conference and the Government's response are encouraging.

Of course, environmental groups outside the House claim that progress is too slow. Some people would say too little, too late. To say, "Well, they would wouldn't they?" would be a knee-jerk reaction. I want to pay tribute to some environmental groups which have helped us to give the environment a higher profile on the political stage. However, we must accept that some of the alarmist statements have proved to be unfounded at least so far as we can tell from the expert information available to us. For example, an international scientific and technical working group said that some of the criticisms were far too alarmist. However, there is a substantial difference in attitude between that of our country and that of the other continental countries, which are affected by the pollution in the North sea. We tend to advocate the environmental quality objective route in assessing the level of pollution but the other seven North sea states tend to go for the uniform emission standard. If we are to tackle those problems in a harmonious and effective way, we must try to reach a standard base from which we can monitor the various policies.

I believe that the Government policy and framework for international co-operation must be based upon three themes. First, we must ensure that there is adequate research and continuing monitoring of our rivers, estuaries and the seas around our isles. I welcome the announcement last Wednesday by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State, the Member for Surrey, South-West (Mrs. Bottomley) that there will be further funds for research into matters relating to the North sea. I shall make several points to back up my first theme. We need more research to find out whether there is a relationship between pollution and fish disease or, to be more precise, at what level that pollution becomes harmful. We need to discover more exactly the effect of sewage and sludge that is put into the sea, because experts disagree on the effects. We need to continue to promote research into the possibility of converting the sludge into fuel oil, animal feedstuffs or into products for the building industry, although I accept that incineration would still appear to be the best option for disposal. We need to discover whether there is an overall build-up effect of pollutants in our rivers, estuaries and seas. More research needs to be carried out into the deleterious effects of the build-up of the enormous increase in nutrients—nitrogen and phosphorous—in our rivers. We certainly need better monitoring of and more accurage statistics on oil pollution from ships and oil rigs.

The second theme that must form the framework of our policies is unambiguous management plans. I welcome the action already taken on the Thames, which has undergone a considerable clean up. No one is saying that the water flowing through the Thames is absolutely pure, but there has been a dramatic improvement in our home estuary. We must continue with that policy in every river and estuary, as well as in the North sea. The hon. Member for Bootle is being churlish in condemning or criticising what I believe are imaginative and committed plans to spend £4 billion in cleaning up the Mersey basin on a rolling programme, which must inevitably take a number of years. I hope that at least in 20 years' time we shall see the benefits of that programme.

Mr. Allan Roberts

They are not spending £4 billion in cleaning up the Mersey, they are spending £2.5 billion. The remaining amount is being spent on various sorts of property development or environmental improvements. They are not spending it on cleaning up the Mersey, but on taking out the sewage. I welcome that, but it is being turned into sewage sludge and then dumped back from whence it came. That is not solving the problem at all.

Mr. Chapman

The hon Gentleman's intervention beggars belief. OK, £2.5 billion is being allocated, but what was the commitment of the previous Labour Government, if he wants to trade party political insults across the Floor?

Mr. Roberts

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Chapman

No, I shall not give way again.

I will correct the hon. Gentleman, too, on his other point, because some of the £1.5 billion that will be used for cleaning up the land—the hon. Gentleman talks about property development—will also have a beneficial effect. If taking sewage out of the Mersey basin will not make a contribution to cleaning it up, I frankly do not know what will. I cannot agree with him on that matter.

Mr. Roberts


Mr. Chapman

No, I will not give way again.

In short, we need co-ordinated and publicly understood plans to conserve our marine environment and to improve river quality. In the past, legislation has been far too piecemeal. It was generally unknown to the public, if not to the authorities, and it was ineffective.

It would be churlish not to welcome the Government's response to the Committee's report published in June. Frankly, of all the reports that I have read and of all the Committees on which I have sat, I believe that the Government's response to the Environment Committee's report was one of their most positive and least defensive.

There must be a programme to tackle the increasing pollution from farms and sewage works. It is unsatisfactory that, in 1987, 20 per cent. of sewage treatment works breached their discharge consent conditions and incidents of agricultural pollution increased by 13 per cent.

To continue their programme the Government must ensure adequate funds to deal with sewage treatment. They will need to impose greater statutory controls on agricultural pollution. They must have more adequate regulations to control industrial discharge and oil and chemical storage. They must also encourage the designation of water protection zones to control nitrate leaching from farmland. I also believe that details of discharges from sewers should be entered on public registers.

I congratulate the Government on taking immediate action to deal with the decimation of the common seal population as a result of a virus. My mind has boggled as I have tried to discover how the Government could be expected to activate section 3 of the Conservation of Seals Act 1970 before the virus took hold. We did not know about it until it happened. Research must continue to understand why that virus occurred.

I am grateful for the opportunity of making what I hope was a modest, but constructive contribution to this debate concerning a most critical aspect of our environment.

1.11 pm
Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

I am grateful that we are having this debate and, before the hon. Gentleman for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi) escapes, may I say that I am grateful to him and his Committee for their work, which was well done. The report has ensured that the environment is now on the political agenda. I agree that it was sad that we did not have this debate more quickly after the report was published.

As a constructive suggestion for the Minister to consider, I believe that it would be extremely good if, as a matter of practice, we had an annual day or series of days, in Government time, to debate environmental issues. We have a series of days of debate after the Queen's Speech and after the Budget. I believe that it would be helpful if the Government gave an annual statement on the condition of the national and international environment. During such a debate, we could also discuss the appropriate Select Committee reports. That would ensure that time does not pass by with matters being neglected and put on the shelf.

If we had such a specific debate, certain matters could be interlinked. Last week we debated nuclear waste and today we are debating the sea, estuarial and river pollution. What we do about regulatory authorities and pollution control inspectorates relates not only to marine and river matters, but to the land. I hope that the Under-Secrtary will consider that as a positive suggestion—she has heard me say similar things before. In conjuction with the Leader of the House, the Department of the Environment could arrange our business in such a way for the coming year.

Whatever the Secretary of State or Ministers may say, the background to the debate is our reputation as the environmentally dirty man of Europe. I trust that all hon. Members agree with me that that is an unfortunate reputation and one which we should not have. That description is not used only by the Opposition parties as an attack on the Government. The outgoing European environment commissioner, who is British, criticised Britain for dragging its feet in comparison with the other 11 Community states.

I am not over concerned about going over the past 10, 20 or 30 years, but I am concerned that we make the best of the political opportunities that we have and try to deal with what is still defective in our system of improving and regulating the environment.

I want to alert the House to some matters that I believe to be the most important items on the agenda. The first point, which is general, is that when we pass legislation, we must not fail to implement it year after year. The Control of Pollution Act was passed in 1974 but, as the Select Committee stated—the point has been made often—some of its provisions came into force belatedly. For example, the provisions on the regulation of water and the water environment came into force in 1985. Some provisions are still not in force. I ask the Minister to ensure that the remaining provisions of that Act are implemented.

I was in Southampton a week or two ago, discussing the environment of Southampton water, which is affected substantially in two ways. First, there is the discharge into the water of sewage from the boating, sailing and trade activities on the water. Secondly, there is the proposed building of Fawley B power station. The provisions in the Control of Pollution Act that allow control over the discharge of sewage from private sailing vessels have not been implemented. The result is that all the vessels moored in the marina in Southampton water—which is now called Ocean Village—are allowed to continue to pollute the water regularly. Great use is made of Southampton water, but the beaches along it cannot be used because they are filthy as a result of domestic sewage discharges—although that has been stopped recently by Southern Water—and discharges from vessels. We must ensure that legislation that we intend to be implemented does not remain unenforced.

Since the second world war, Governments of both parties have not considered environmental issues to be matters that need to be given prominence. We may be moving into a new age, as is happening elsewhere in Europe, and I welcome the possibility that environmental matters may become prominent. However, there is anxiety when regulation is increasingly handed over to combinations of public and private agencies, rather than being left with the public sector. The thrust of the free market economic climate is that people who are out for profit will often seek to take short cuts to maximise profits. Enforcing environmental controls does not increase profit.

The Select Committee makes that clear in its conclusions and recommendations, of which I shall read one example, dealing with the control of polluters. Recommendation 11 states: It would give us cause for very real alarm if the present water pollution inspectorate (or a new unified and independent regulatory body) were not given adequate staffing, resources and the necessary powers to oversee the activities of a privatised water industry. I shall read one more appropriate quotation on the same subject from a report given to the Department of the Environment in 1986 by Professor Littlechild. It says: the level of environmental standards prescribed will directly affect the prices charged and-or the proceeds of flotation. The inevitable truth of privatisation is that as environmental standards become the responsibility of privatised companies, the cost of compliance becomes higher and it becomes more difficult to sell the product.

In our last debate on water pollution before we debate the water privatisation Bill I ask the Government not to go back and reduce the commitments that they want the privatised companies to make. I am opposed to privatising water—I make no bones about that—but I say to the Government that if they are determined to go ahead and to introduce legislation—and it is likely to succeed—we must ensure that the people running the water industry pay the cost of ensuring that it is run properly. It is not acceptable to allow them to make profits at the expense of our environment.

Examples of people making profit in the private sector and of the enforcement mechanisms not working are legion: the dumping of toxic waste at sea and the dumping of liquid industrial waste are prime instances. We dump 250,000 tonnes a year. We have discussed dumping on land in the past, too. Fly tipping is incredibly difficult to regulate; it is done by private companies that try to avoid enforcement. I have taken that up with the Department previously. On land and sea the private sector will often try to avoid control, and there is no point in merely appealing to it to be responsible. Often, it is not.

Like the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mr. Chapman), I pay tribute to the help we receive from international and European standard setting. One of the inconsistencies in the Prime Minister's approach is that although she spoke about climatological matters she maintained that we cannot have more directives from Brussels, yet the bathing waters directive and the directive on the amount of nitrate in water have helped us pull our socks up and improve our standards. Without the European Community and its legislation we would not have such good targets.

The same applies to intergovernmental activity, although it is not quite the same. We were all challenged by the North sea conference—London was the second; there is to be a third—to do better. That is good. We must not set our face against the imposition of standards from abroad. Other nations often have far higher standards than ours.

I want to say two things about the forthcoming privatisation of the water industry. Although it is better than nothing, I have always been sceptical about whether the National Rivers Authority will be the appropriate way of regulating that industry. I have always thought it better to strengthen the existing pollution inspectorate. The division of responsibility between the two agencies may contain a danger. Pollution control would be better off in the hands of one regulatory agency with all the necessary resources. We need to ensure that these agencies have the necessary resources and that all the other pollution control agencies do, too. Their numbers, facilities and opportunities to do their job properly must not be cut. We need a better-funded group of officials in all these agencies—however they are established—so that the standards that we set in law are observed in practice. It is no good falling short of what we say we shall do.

Our agricultural pollution is a good example of the deficiency; many instances of it have been given in the debate. There is clear, indisputable evidence of it. Sadly, our farming industry—for industry it is—has been increasingly guilty of pollution, especially of water pollution. I am sure that the Minister has read the evidence and accepted the failures pointed out by the Select Committee. Last year, after that Committee reported, farmers were responsible for 60 per cent. more serious pollution incidents than in the previous year, when the then Minister of State at the Ministry of Agriculture, the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) said that farmers would have to be brought to heel. Yet still there is not enough regulation, control, enforcement, inspection and monitoring. It is not good enough for farmers or industrialists to go on discharging liquid sludge, sewage or anything else directly or indirectly into our water. They must be held responsible for their actions.

There has been a tradition in Britain of expecting a good environment in certain parts of the country but going along with a less good environment in others. People in some parts of Britain have suffered bad environments, including marine ones, for too long. I refer to our industrial areas, some of the old traditional ports and some areas that are due to be developed.

I was brought up in south Wales and know the area well. When I was there a few weeks ago people complained to me that that was where the Karin B might have landed. The Minister is aware of that. There is still all sorts of unauthorised marine activity in the docks and harbours around Port Talbot. Much of that involves the discharging and loading of toxic material, some of which inevitably gets into the water of the harbours, ports and estuaries.

We must make sure that every area of Britain is entitled to the same good standards. That means enforcement by Customs and Excise and the provision of proper resources, and harbour commissioners must do their job properly. When I was in Teignmouth in Devon I saw a prospective development which would kill off mussel beds that are among the most productive on the south coast. It would also ruin some of the best fishing on the south coast. Commercial exploitation brings in its wake commercial degradation.

We must be careful not to spoil our marine environment by the current trend of exploiting every opportunity for a marina or a development site. We must guard against that, whether it is in Cardiff bay, the London docklands, a development corporation area elsewhere, or at smaller harbours and ports. Such developments often have harmful effects on the marine environment and on its productivity.

Thirdly, sea pollution is still horrendous. Although we may now be getting to grips with the problem in the North sea, the Irish sea is severely polluted. In the summer I restrained myself from making any comment about the link between the seal deaths and pollution. I did not put out a statement during the summer recess, because I was not satisfied that pollution was the cause of the deaths. However, it is clear that the more polluted the water the more endangered are the species in the water. People have a great sympathy for creatures that live in our marine environment and they have a need for the fish. We have a duty to push forward speedily to improve the standard of our seas.

Just after the seal epidemic, the London dumping convention met and the Danes proposed a ban on toxic waste incineration at sea. They wanted that ban within a year but, sad to say, Britain and the United States argued that the ban should not come into force until 1994. We must not always argue for the longest time. We should argue for the shortest, and if industry has to adapt, so be it. Just after the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for the Environment made their speeches in Brighton, we read that water pollution rules are to be relaxed for privatisation. I do not know whether that is still the policy of the Department, but it was reported less than a month ago, that the Department of Environment intends to tackle the problem by introducing 'temporary variation consents' for the sewage works which are at fault. This will mean giving the offending works a dispensation from current performance standards, removing any liability to prosecution. The reprieve is expected to stand until the end of 1991.". It is not acceptable in the interests of a short-term gain to prejudice our maritime environment in the medium and long term. I hope that the Minister can assure us that there will be no such relaxation in order to gain a better price for the sale of the water industry.

Although in general we have clean and good quality rivers—that is clear from the report—in the last few years river quality has declined. It has declined not phenomenally but noticeably and clearly, and that is obvious from analytical assessment. River quality standards are well monitored and the figures are well known. Sadly, we have seen a slipping back in river quality over the country as a whole. That must be reversed, as must the damage to our beaches, which is often a consequence, as the Secretary of State rightly admitted, of inadequate control of the discharge of sewage. As he also said, the problem will not go away and, like nuclear waste, it must be dealt with.

We must first ensure that we comply with the best international standards and do not always seek to delay their implementation or seek derogations as we have done in the past. We must be seen to be up front and arguing for the best standards for this country. Secondly, the Government must provide the financial resources for research, monitoring, inspection and enforcement. Without those, our comments here and any legislation that we pass will be as nothing.

Thirdly, as the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Golding) and other hon. Members have said, if people are given licences to carry on activities with the potential to pollute, we must ensure from the outset that they do not cause pollution. It is too late to pay when the damage is done.

I hope that this will be our last piecemeal debate about a belated Select Committee report. I hope, too, that the environment issue will be put in its proper central place in the business of the Government and the House. I hope that we can debate the state of the environment with the proper facts, up-to-date statistics and Government responses at our fingertips, and so do a better job for our environment in the future than, sad to say, the Government have done in the past.

1.31 pm
Mr. Michael Lord (Suffolk, Central)

As one who made the environment one of the main topics of his maiden speech, in 1983 I am delighted to see it so firmly on the political agenda now, and not a moment too soon. In 1983, I said that our generation, with with the industrial processes and waste products that we have created, has in its power, as never before, either to preserve and enhance our environment for future generations, or, possibly, to ruin it beyond repair." —[Official Report, 4 November 1983; Vol. 47, c. 1120.] We are all aware of the environmental deterioration that has occurred, ever since 1983, on so many fronts, and the present intiatives are welcome.

The environment is a huge subject and even the title of today's debate is quite wide-ranging, but I want to confine my remarks to our beaches and seas. I must declare an interest. Like many other hon. Members, I have a deep and abiding love of the sea, established during childhood, and, as a family, we holiday in Anglesey. I spend a great deal of time in the Irish sea. I spend time swimming in it and sailing on it, and, as I sail a small dinghy and am not a small man, I frequently find myself in it yet again. The Secretary of State did not mention swimming. Swimming is important because no other activity brings one into quite such close contact with the sea. It is a recreation enjoyed by all, both young and old, and is one of our great national traditions.

My contact with the sea has made me acutely conscious of the condition of our beaches and seas. In an ideal world, man would not put any of his waste products into the sea, but we must accept that, at least for the foreseeable future, much of our sewage will have to be disposed of in that way. However, we do not have to accept beaches contaminated with sewage simply because of the old Victorian systems involving outfalls which are too short and treatment which is inadequate. The Secretary of State said that outfalls were two or three kilometres in length. That is fine, but I am talking about those outfalls which I know well and which are at most 200 to 300 ms in length. I can assure hon. Members that they do not do their job adequately.

I look forward to the day when imaginative measures can be brought forward so that we do not have to put our sewage out to sea. It is immensely expensive and causes many difficulties if we keep our sewage on shore but, if we put our minds to it, I hope that the day will come when we can avoid putting our sewage into the sea. This should be given the highest possible priority. I welcome the Government's initiatives and I urge them to press on with them as hard as they can.

Certain problems beset the North sea and I wish to consider the solutions that are being proposed. One of the principal problems is the contamination that is being caused by heavy metals—including mercury, cadmium, lead, chromium, zinc, copper, nickel and arsenic—that are deposited in the North sea from a variety of sources. Rivers are the most important single source, but the metals come also from the atmosphere, direct discharge, dumped dredgings, industrial dumping and sewage sludge. To reduce the quantities of these metals in the North sea, a number of important measures were agreed upon at last year's North sea conference. I shall dwell on these measures for a short while because I wish to express some doubts and concerns about precisely how they will work and possible side effects. It is not my purpose to be critical of them.

It is proposed that there should be a reduction of about 50 per cent. in the dangerous substances entering the North sea through rivers by 1995. How do we control the dangerous substances that enter rivers in the first place? Some can be identified at source in, for example, a factory, and others can be removed at sewage treatment plants. However, many of them find their way into our rivers via a variety of routes, including domestic and agricultural ones, that are impossible to control.

Is it our intention to remove 50 per cent. of each metal or 50 per cent. overall? Some metals are more dangerous than others, and that is a most important consideration. Our difficulties are compounded when we find that only one eighth of cadmium, an especially nasty metal, comes to the North sea from rivers. The vast majority of it comes from the atmosphere. If we reduce the quantity which arrives from rivers, we reduce the total by one sixteenth. I am not saying that it is unimportant to do what we plan to achieve. I am merely trying to get things in perspective.

We plan to end the dumping in the North sea of harmful industrial waste by the end of 1989. That is excellent news for the North sea, but how and where do we plan to dispose of that which is now being dumped in the sea? Similarly, it is planned to end the dumping of incinerated waste in the North sea by 1994. This is welcome news, but what alternative routes and measures will be used? It has already been stressed by many of those who have contributed to the debate that an overall plan is needed. It is no good merely transferring a problem from one area to another.

A ceiling is being set at 1987 levels for contaminants in sewage sludge. Why is it being set at 1987 levels? Surely they are too high. Are we not authorising unacceptably high levels?

I am conscious that the questions I am posing may not be met by simple answers, and I do not expect them to be answered today. Other hon. Members have asked important questions and these need properly to be addressed if we are eventually to solve the problem satisfactorily. We need to know precisely what substances are polluting and in what quantities from precisely which sources. We need to know which sources can be controlled and which cannot. It is important that we should know which sources or industrial processes are vital and which are not. Are people prepared to change their life styles and purchases, if need be, to reduce pollution? That question leads us on to bans, for example.

I have mentioned already my relationship with the Irish sea. I shall be lighthearted for a moment, although this is a serious topic. I swim daily when on holiday, and I have heard the Irish sea described as the most radioactive sea in the world. I wondered for a while whether I was going to add a new meaning to the expression "a healthy glow".

Much has been done at Sellafield but much more needs to be done. I welcome the suggestion that a detailed report should be prepared on the condition of the Irish sea overall that identifies further action that may need to be taken. Above all, it is necessary that there should be a new spirit of determination—a mental leap—among all concerned not to consider the problem in terms only of how much our rivers and seas can tolerate before we do them too much harm, but, on the other side of the coin, how we can make them as fresh and clear as they were years ago. That is surely something at which, in this day and age, an affluent society such as ours should be able to aim.

I hope that I have not sounded critical of the Government's initiatives because that was not my intention. I greatly applaud them, and I am delighted and relieved that we are now addressing these crucial topics so vigorously. There is much still to do, and many of us will closely follow with great interest the progress made.

1.40 pm
Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley)

I am glad that we are having a debate on the Select Committee's report. As a member of that Committee, I have said on a number of occasions that the report should be debated. I pressed the Government for an indication of when they would make the response that the Committee's chairman said today was taking rather longer than was wished.

When I commented that the report was good, the Secretary of State for the Environment, in his normal way, commented that he would determine whether or not it was a good report. I was glad that when he spoke today, he went further and called it excellent. As for the Secretary of State's performance, I have often advised him to take up painting, believing that he is a better painter than he is a Secretary of State. As yet, he has not taken my advice.

The report deals with many important matters, but the Select Committee deliberately avoided becoming involved in the privatisation issue, which we shall anyway debate at length when the new Session begins later this month. Nevertheless, some of the problems confronting water authorities could have been tackled without going in that direction. I welcome the establishment of the National Rivers Authority and the separation of responsibilities that it will bring, and which would have been necessary even if the water industry had remained in the public sector—which, as one totally opposed to privatisation, I should have preferred. One can argue about the NRA's functions and whether it will have sufficient powers and be adequately staffed, but the principle is sound and it will improve the situation.

Finance is at the root of the problems facing the water industry. I believe that that could be tackled by the industry remaining in the public sector. Chart 1 on page 17 of the third report shows, using constant 1985–86 prices, an expenditure peak of about £850 million in 1975–76, and thereafter a fall. One expected the Secretary of State to pounce on that aspect and to question why expenditure had dropped. In examining the period between 1974 and 1979, one must look back a little further to the previous four years and to some of the financial problems that the then Labour Government inherited, which had been stoked up by the immediately preceding Conservative Government between 1970 and 1974.

However, it is no use just looking back. If we look forward to 1990–91, we see that the comparable figure will have reached about £600 million annually, so we shall still not be spending as much. Yet this week we heard the Chancellor speaking in glowing terms of the country's economic prosperity and well-being. Water authorities also have problems involving mains and sewer pipes, for instance, which require much more expenditure.

In the annual report for 1987–88, the chairman of the North-West water authority said: Contrary to some national and regional speculation, after a financial re-structure North-West Water PLC will have the scope and strength, progress record, resources and capability to ensure a successful future alongside the world's best water service businesses. I have my doubts. I do not say that because I am a critic of the water authority; in many respects it does an excellent job, but it has not the freedom to borrow on the commercial market. It must deal with its finances on an annual basis, and it suffers from the Government's apparent difficulty in differentiating between capital expenditure and revenue expenditure, and their failure at times to accept that capital expenditure has revenue implications for future years. The report seems to have been largely an attempt to achieve publicity in preparation for privatisation. If it had examined some of the problems facing the water authority, it would have presented a very different picture. A report from the water authority about the sewage works, published by the chief scientist's department, shows the problems facing the authority and the large sums needed to put them right.

Agricultural pollution is a major problem in some parts of the country. The Chairman of the Committee put it mildly when he said that we were disappointed at the response from the Ministry of Agriculture to our questioning. We are still concerned. When I asked the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food about nitrates and protection zones only the other week, he replied: We have not yet reached any conclusions and before we do we shall consult various bodies. We look forward to finalising those conclusions in the relatively near future."—[Official Report, 20 October 1988; Vol. 138, c. 992.] That is only one aspect of the problem, and we should like more positive action. Silage and slurry, for instance, must be dealt with as rapidly as possible.

We all know why the North-West water authority has the biggest problems in the world and the Mersey basin is the most polluted river basin in Europe. The problem is historical; the industrial revolution happened in that area, and we have not done enough to deal with the problems over the years. The failure to deal with them is, of course, just as much the fault of the Labour party as that of the present Government, but the Government now have money coming in like mad, as the Chancellor was able to tell us earlier this week. If we wanted to tackle the position we could, but the Government have an obsession with cutting public expenditure rather than dealing with the massive problems in the North-West water authority area.

We all want the Mersey basin project to be completed, but it will be some years before the work is done. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bootle said, we visited the work at Sandon docks where there is no final stage of treatment. If the works were built at Manchester and the waste was to be disposed of at sea, there would be another stage of treatment. It is unacceptable in 1988 that there is no final stage. It may be provided—the position will be monitored—but, for financial reasons, it has not been provided. We must consider closely the whole question of dumping at sea.

The hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mr. Chapman) made interesting comments and positive proposals. He was always positive in his approach to problems during the Select Committee's inquiry. North-West Water has recently been taken to court by Derbyshire county council about pollution in the river Goyt. The right hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow) said that we did not want to see authority after authority taken to the courts as a solution. But if the problems are not tackled that is how we must apply pressure. We want action taken to deal with the problem.

We shall oppose privatisation. We recognise that the majority of Conservative Members are heedless of the consequences, but if the legislation is forced through, it is vital that we write protection of quality and supply into it. I hope that hon. Members will at least unite on those important aspects. We can argue and we shall divide like mad on the question of private or public ownership, but surely every hon. Member will be anxious to do everything possible to ensure that we reduce pollution and provide the best possible quality of water.

The danger with privatisation is that the lower the standards, the higher the price that the Government can make from privatisation. When we consider these issues I hope that we shall all recognise that if water must be privatised it is crucial to ensure that the regulatory powers and all provisions dealing with these important matters are drawn as tightly as possible, so that by the end of this century we shall have removed the problems of pollution from which we have suffered for too long, certainly in our industrial regions, and we shall have the best possible quality of water supply.

1.53 pm
Mr. Keith Mans (Wyre)

I have a few remarks to make about the control and disposal of sewage and, more specifically, our intensive use of disposal at sea.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi) said, we are becoming increasingly isolated in Europe in using the sea as a way of disposing of sewage. There may come a time when that form of disposal is no longer acceptable. That point bears heavily on schemes which are coming up soon for just such disposal and I have a particular interest in the subject.

The hon. Member for Bootle (Mr. Roberts) mentioned the scheme that North-West Water has come up with for cleaning up the Fylde beaches and disposing of the sewage there. It is welcome that the proposal has been made. Wyre borough council and other local councils in the area have applied pressure for many years and I am pleased that, after extensive consultation and much research, the water authority has made the proposal.

Unfortunately, the long sea outfall proposal is controversial for two reasons. There is doubt about whether sufficient treatment will be given to the sewage before it reaches the pipeline. It is also controversial because it is a sea disposal proposal, rather than a proposal to dispose of sewage inland. Moreover, it is one of the first major proposals to be made, following publication of the Select Committee's report.

It is important that the pollution inspectorate should carry out a fully independent inquiry into the proposal. The hon. Member for Bootle referred to public and independent inquiries. I use the word "independent" because I want the scheme to go ahead sooner rather than later, but I am a little apprehensive about the public inquiry procedure. It goes on for too long. If there were to be a public inquiry, the proposal, which is very important for the Fylde, might be delayed. I want an indepenent inquiry, but I also want the scheme to go ahead as soon as possible.

It is important that the inquiry should be seen to be independent. That will reassure my constituents and others who live elsewhere in the Fylde that North-West Water's proposals have been looked at by a separate body and that the words and evidence of North-West Water have not been taken just as they stand. My constituents want the evidence to be scrutinised.

The inquiry ought to address specific issues, including whether the sewage is being sufficiently treated before it goes into the pipeline. It must also analyse carefully North-West Water's tidal surveys, carried out when it first made the proposal. I know that it conducted extensive work on tidal surveys. There is a highly sophisticated computer model to prove it, but the survey evidence that North-West Water accumulated to construct that model needs to be closely considered.

The independent inquiry should also examine the effect of pollution on fish. Fishing is very important in the Irish sea. We must ensure that the pipeline does not result in a build-up of bacteria. I hope that the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green about the effect of viruses in the sea and the fact that not all of them may be killed off straight away will be taken into account.

The inquiry should take into account, too, the effect of heavy metals. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Blackpool, North (Mr. Miscampbell) made the good point that it is important to find a way to prevent heavy metals getting into the sewerage system in the first place. Once they are there, it is difficult to get rid of them before they are deposited in the sea.

The inquiry ought also to consider alternatives to the sea pipeline scheme. Various inland alternatives have been suggested by North-West Water, but they suffer from various disadvantages, one of which is that sooner or later the effluent will have to be deposited in a river—for instance, the river Wyre. That may eventually prove to be a less desirable alternative than the sea outfall pipe. The proposal should be analysed by an independent body, as should any other scheme or combination of schemes that might be put forward.

The assessment should take place under the new guidelines for the assessment of long sea outfalls. I understand that the pollution inspectorate wrote this document recently. I urge my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to make it available in the Commons Library so that those who are involved in this scheme and others will know exactly under what guidelines long sea outfalls will be assessed.

Privatisaton will have an effect on the functions that I have mentioned. There will be much more public awareness of the fact that water authority schemes will be assessed independently after privatisation. It will not be a case of one public authority looking at another public authority's way of doing things. It will be a case of a properly regulated authority looking at something that a company in the private sector will do, and that will be a much more effective way of ensuring that what goes on in the private sector is correct and in the best interests of consumers generally.

Furthermore, privatisation will encourage our water authorities, companies or plcs—whatever they become—to market their proposals more effectively, to inform the public in their area of the various aspects of their policies in terms that the public can understand. It has been noticeable with recent privatisations how much more aware those recently privatised companies have become of the need to inform the general public of what they do. British Airways and the British Airports Authority are just two shining examples of how companies can work much better after privatisation.

Pipeline proposals of the sort I have mentioned are controversial. Therefore, it is important that even greater scrutiny of them is made when a decision is taken by a water authority to use that method to dispose of sewage. Any assessment must be made under the new guidelines that the pollution inspectorate has recently drawn up. The Select Committee's report makes it clear that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Department of the Environment need to demonstrate, by public report, and through thorough investigation, the best practical environmental option for sewage sludge and sewage disposal before a scheme can go ahead. I sincerely hope that that will take place with the North-West water scheme and with any future schemes.

2.2 pm

Mr. David Hinchliffe (Wakefield)

As a Yorkshirewoman, Madam Deputy Speaker, you will probably know the old rhyme, The girls of Castleford are so fair, Because they wash in the Calder and rinse in the Aire. That has not happened in recent times. Any young woman who did such a thing now would be bathing in class 4 toxic mixes of effluents, chemicals, bugs and other items that I would not like to mention.

I have lived within a few hundred yards of the river Calder for most of my life—in fact, it runs at the bottom of my garden. I am deeply concerned about the way that I was brought up, which was to regard the river as something to fear, and as a river that one should not bathe in, nor even go near. It was odd that it was described as a river, because it was a mix of filth going through the centre of Wakefield. That complacency, that acceptance of the state of rivers is becoming, fortunately, a thing of the past. It encourages me to talk to many young people in my area, who are deeply concerned about environmental issues and the pollution of rivers.

The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi) and the Secretary of State both spoke about the crucial "poacher turned gamekeeper" point. This was brought home to me vividly when, as the chairman of the local economic committee on Wakefield council a couple of years ago, I visited a factory in the Castleford area. This company is a major polluter of the river Aire, and I asked its management about consents and they openly admitted that they breached consent on a regular and frequent basis, with the knowledge of the Yorkshire water authority. They told me that the Yorkshire water authority was a far worse polluter of that stretch of river.

I am concerned to highlight one or two points about Yorkshire Water that are of deep concern to the people in my area. The record of the water authority needs to be mentioned. In its area, the extent of the problem is serious, with 300 miles of class 3 river and 90 miles of class 4, including that running through my constituency.

The important point, which has underpinned much of today's debate, is that only five of the 25 major water treatment works run by Yorkshire water authority meet European Commission standards. The pollution problem stems largely from the Yorkshire water authority. I have more up-to-date figures than my hon. Friend the Member for Bootle (Mr. Roberts). They show that last year the Yorkshire water authority broke the pollution inspectorate's consents at sewage works 83 times. YWA waterworks broke consents nine times and there was a staggering total of 811 known breaches of consent in the Yorkshire water authority area last year. That is very worrying because the complacency underpinning the present arrangements can be seen from the figures that I have quoted and from those referred to by other hon. Members today.

I am concerned that nationally 1,000 sewage treatment works breached consents on more than 5 per cent. of the occasions on which samples were taken. A quarter of the main sewage works in England and Wales failed to meet the legal standards. Yet, according to a parliamentary answer that I received in May, there have been no prosecutions of water authorities by the Department of the Environment. My hon. Friend the Member for Bootle gave the latest figures, which were supplied to me in a written answer in July. That showed that only 35 convictions nationally were obtained for breaches of consent in 1986, which is the last year for which figures are available. Total fines for that year were a minimal £20,000. The £2,000 maximum was used only once.

My point is that the polluting companies are laughing all the way to the bank. They have the money and they are making the profits at the expense of our environment in areas like Yorkshire. The Secretary of State's response was very interesting in relation to the poacher-gamekeeper concept. Is it good enough for the Government to claim, in defence of the position, the kind of case presented by the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment the hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Mr. Moynihan) in a written answer in July when he told me where major investment is involved, it takes time to bring works up to standard and, in the Government's view, there is little to be gained by prosecution"—[Official Report, 25 July 1988; Vol. 138, c. 56.] If a baker sold poisonous food and made people ill, would we accept as an excuse the fact that he did not have the money to invest to bring his bakery up to proper standards? The Government's response is nonsense.

After years of financial constraints, water authorities are moving rapidly towards privatisation. I have taken a close look at Yorkshire water authority's record on pollution control. I was interested to note that YWA recorded almost a 40 per cent. increase in after-interest profits last year, making £81.5 million. Is not that surprising, when we consider the lack of investment in areas in which it should be investing? The reason why the Government place such emphasis on the returns is that they are making the authorities attractive to investors after privatisation. Is it nonsense for the Secretary of State to claim that the authorities are public bodies. We all know that in areas such as Yorkshire the authorities are run as private companies.

It has been common knowledge for some time that, behind the scenes, water authorities have been urging the Government to go easy on the pollution question to ensure a smooth passage into private hands. I believe that the pollution of our environment is too important an issue to be left to simple party politicking. I hope that we all accept that. If anyone believes that selling off water will do anything other than markedly worsen the pollution issue, they are living on cloud nine. That is like claiming that the privatisation of the pits will improve safety. We all know that that is nonsense. It is ironic that the principle of a National Rivers Authority was effectively imposed on the Government by the European Commission because of its deep concerns about the lack of provision for pollution issues within the Government's proposals. I firmly believe that we share our environment with many other species. The rivers and the streams are the veins and the life blood of the earth, and it is in our interests, and those of future generations, to look after our waterways. We poison them at our peril.

2.9 pm

Mr. David Porter (Waveney)

Locally, we have a great affection for the North sea, a fear and a respect for it, but nationally we have a kind of love-hate relationship with it. We use it, exploit it and abuse it, but suddenly the loss of a trawler, the Piper Alpha disaster or the floods of 1953 remind us quickly and dramatically of its power and impact. There is at present a feeling among the public that the North sea is becoming a toxic time bomb, which at some time in the future will again remind us of its devastating power. That opinion may be given without scientific evidence, it might riot square with the comments made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, and it is a sort of knee-jerk reaction, but it is felt by people throughout the country. Their confidence must be regained. I welcome the statement by my right hon. Friend, which I hope will go a long way towards achieving that. However, what was missing from his statement was a proposal to have a more combined departmental approach, because the North sea involves some 20 agencies and Departments of State, including MAFF, Energy, Environment, the DTI and Employment.

The use of the North sea encompasses so many facets of our lives. The public expects to be able to have confidence in the food chain. One would have to travel far to enjoy better value and a more nutritious meal than North sea cod and chips. Of course, with quotas as they are, one may have to go a long way to find British cod, but that is another argument. Housewives, fishermen and my constituents must not lose any confidence in that cycle of marine food or they will never come back.

The people who holiday, use our beaches and swim in our seas—as my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Central (Mr. Lord) has mentioned—must not lose confidence. My hon. Friend the Minister responsible for tourism assured me in Parliamentary answers last week that there is no evidence of a loss of confidence. I hope that that is right, but the warning bell has been sounded. A diving group in Waveney has expressed concerns, as too have shore anglers and swimmers. I hope that my hon. Friends understand that confidence is the key—confidence in action based on facts. We have debated already today the danger of knee-jerk legislation without scientific evidence, such as the argument that seals died this year, whales will die next year and, therefore, we must legislate. As we cannot legislate against the viruses, we legislate against every person who uses the North sea. It is the same with any natural disaster. There are those who always want a man-made scapegoat for it.

We must also recognise that pollution comes in many different forms. The garbage washed on to our beaches is very often due to the historic practice of tipping overboard from ships all the filth that they cannot dispose of.

A significant part of my constituency's economy, besides fishing, revolves around the gas and oil industries—the bringing ashore of these vital resources—and the standby industries that serve them. The platforms that they require are part of the furniture of the North sea, but what happens when they are finished with and abandoned? Derelict rig legs will kill fish and people. They are a form of pollution. Industrial dredging destroys parts of the sea bed and changes other parts—another form of pollution. One cannot take out 15 to 18 million tons a year of sand and gravel from the sea bed and say that it has a zero impact. Our waters are crowded with shipping, the skies overhead are full of helicopters and NATO exercises are carried out.

I add my weight to the support for the Environment Ministers' conference held last year, but the next one is not until March 1990 in Holland. Surely, it should be earlier than that and it should not be at ministerial level, but at Prime Ministerial level—the highest possible level. We have learnt in the past few months—triggered by the seals dying in the summer, by the greenhouse effect, by the fear of rising tides and by the loss of rain forests in other parts of the world—that this is a global problem, and we are part of the global village. People are better informed now, many as armchair experts. The subject is no longer just a recreational activity. People take part in clearing bombs and litter from beaches and saving natterjack toads. It is now a major part of our political agenda. People need to be informed, as their survival instinct depends upon it. We do not need to reinvent the wheel. We know that there is a cost penalty attached to resolving the problems, which we all accept will be high. There are signs that we are ready to pay it and will have to pay it. There is already evidence that industry and business are being market-led in an environmental as well as an economic direction.

We do not have long. I accept that national lobbies, such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth have had a part to play, but local groups are also forming. Waveney district council is establishing a maritime pollution information forum of local authorities in Suffolk and Norfolk. That is a useful response to the worries that have been expressed about the marine incineration of toxic waste. It may be a politically motivated group, but it strikes a chord of public concern.

I welcome all the measures that the Government have made and the steps that have been taken to restore confidence. Commentators are calling the environment the issue of the nineties. We do not have long to get to grips with it, but I am sure that we would all agree that failure is not an option.

2.15 pm
Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

I am glad that the Secretary of State is present to hear the closing speeches, because I found his speech partly encouraging and partly extremely disappointing. The right hon. Gentleman and I have had our differences over the years and no doubt we find in each other elements of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

The right hon. Gentleman spoke about the need and justification for privatisation. He sold it on two grounds. The first was that it was only in this way that adequate cash could be made available, especially for the disposal of water and its purification. His second argument, which had some justification, was that the new National Rivers Authority will provide some control that apparently does not exist at present. In an intervention I sought to illustrate that control would be possible if it was approached in the right way. I shall explain how cash has been available in the past and, therefore, why it should be available in the future. I believe that the Secretary of State's philosophical and political justifications for the water privatisation Bill have been shot out of the water.

Of course, the Secretary of State displays some Dr. Jekyll traits. We are aware of his abilities and of his feeling for the aesthetics of life. I believe that his qualifications as a civil engineer have imposed an understanding of the need for the National Rivers Authority. That authority will be concerned not only with the water in the rivers, but the water in the aquifers and underground.

The right hon. Gentleman's constituency is near the headwaters of the Thames; my constituency is at the other end. The largest purification works in the country is based at Beckton, which is responsible for putting sludge into the North sea. From what I have heard I believe that that sludge is pretty good, but I would not say that it is beyond reproach.

Paragraph 2.19 of the Government's reply to the Committee's report states: The Government remains of the view that sewage sludge disposal at sea does not significantly affect the marine environment. I am not sure that that is correct. I should have thought that the Government would say, "need not necessarily affect". I am sorry that the Government appear to have published something that is scientifically unsustainable. Perhaps the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi) will want to comment on that.

In paragraph 2.20 the Government say: The Government is in consultation with water authorities about the list of substances to be regulated in this way and the practical implementation of the ceiling on the amount of these contaminants reaching the North Sea in sludge". That refers to the red list, which the Secretary of State rightly mentioned.

I know that the Secretary of State cannot reply now, but we need to know on what basis and on what criteria such substances will be allowed into the North sea—whether in sludge or in any other form. Will such substances be concentrated in the North sea? No doubt under EEC regulations that is allowed. When such substances are disposed of is the amount dictated by a figure that happens to suit the financial arrangements of sewage—sludge purification works? The Government have not made it clear. That is one inadequacy of their reply to the report.

I shall now speak about the river Thames because, as many hon. Members acknowledge, what has happened to the Thames in the past few years is an example nationally and internationally. I am not quite as complacent as that, but I must point out to Conservative Members and to the Secretary of State that the improvement of the Thames has been achieved largely by massive public expenditure—not private expenditure. Since 1906, the dominant water supply agency in the Thames has been the Metropolitan water board, which sustained, to an extent, Thames Conservancy, and the two ran the Thames well. London county council was responsible—sometimes belatedly because of the war—for capital expenditure on purification. We cannot achieve that ecological balance in the water cycle without public expenditure and research.

In 1948, under the Labour Government, the department of scientific and industrial research began a report entitled "Effects of Polluting Discharges in the Thames Estuary". It was published in 1963 after 15 years of work and it was 600 pages long. Without such work and reports, the improvement of the Thames would not have been possible. That improvement came from public money and investment in scientific research.

The Prime Minister is a disgrace to scientific research. She is supposed to be a scientist. Despite that, scientific research throughout the country is at sixes and sevens. The work that was carried out to improve the Thames would not be possible today. In the past few days, the Prime Minister has donned a green dress, but her heart is still blue—and it may be a darker colour than that. That is illustrated by the Government's proposals, which will be brought forth in the Queen's Speech, for the privatisation of water purification services.

I concede to the Secretary of State, because I cannot deny it, that there has been relatively non-harmful private enterprise activity in supplying water. There have been some good private water companies and some indifferent ones. Until now, they have operated within statutory controls and controls on the water cycle laid down by regional authorities. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) said, that position will probably change because we do not know who will own water supply companies in future.

Mr. Hardy

The French.

Mr. Spearing

It may be the Germans, the Belgians or even the Australians, with some early morning raid on the stock exchange. What is to prevent that? The Government have not told us that there will be anything to stop that happening.

That is bad enough, but the same situation will apply in the disposal and purification of dirty water. When people talk about the public ownership of water, they think of taps and purified water, but in terms of public health, it is the disposal side that is important and it takes a great deal of public money, because it is difficult to carry out. We have talked today almost entirely about the purification side. Private enterprise will find it almost impossible to deal with that.

In 1860, when curtains were pulled in the Committee Rooms against the stench outside, the Victorians, for whom the Prime Minister has such respect, did not set up private sewage companies in Wandsworth, central London and the Isle of Dogs. The set up the Metropolitan Board of Works.

Outside this House there is a vast sewer that takes water from the west to the east of London. The idea of its being owned by an international company with shareholders around the world is almost incredible, but the Government are trying to allow that. The Prime Minister has not gone green on this vital environmental matter, and nor has the Secretary of State. If they had second thoughts and said that they would privatise only the water supply, keeping its disposal in public hands, that would be another matter, but they are not saying that. They are risking the environment and what private enterprise can sometimes do. They will make whoever runs these services charge the public enormous and occasionally arbitrary sums by means of water meters to pay for costs that should fall on us all through and by public ownership.

London dealt with the problem by public ownership in the past; I see no reason why the nation should not do it the same way in the future.

2.26 pm
Sir Hugh Rossi

With the leave of the House, Madam Deputy Speaker, I rise to speak again.

The less I say in the little time I have about the speech made by the hon. Member for Bootle (Mr. Roberts) the better. What I heard of his speech I found painful and I can only regret that he did not learn from his service on the Select Committee that environmental solutions are best found by an open-minded, non-partisan approach. Apart from his contribution, such an approach has distinguished the debate.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and his Department on the action being taken. Whether it was stimulated by our report and the line of questioning that the Committee pursued or whether it would have happened in any case does not really matter. The important thing is that action is being taken.

Although I found my right hon. Friend's speech excellent in other respects, I must express disappointment about his attitude to discharges into the sea. He says there is no scientific evidence that dispersal and dilution in the vastnesses of the oceans encircling the globe are not the best options available. Certainly they are easy, cheap and have the merit of "out of sight, out of mind". But there are scientists who have serious misgivings about all this, and I urge my right hon. Friend to ask his advisers to study their writings a little more closely—

Mr. Ridley

I have.

Sir Hugh Rossi

I remind my right hon. Friend that it has taken five years and two Environment Select Committee reports to persuade the Government that the vastnesses of the atmosphere encircling the planet are not enought to absorb the emissions from the burning of fossil fuels indefinitely without damage to the environment. I suggest that my right hon. Friend reflects on whether the oceans are vast enough to absorb all the activities of the millions of people who inhabit the world. I urge him to study a little more carefully the alternative options to discharging and dumping at sea. They may not be so easy to implement. There will be problems with establishing land-based sites. Nevertheless, we must bear in mind the long-term effects of our actions on generations to come.

This has been a useful debate in which the contributions have shown that these matters are of grave concern in all parts of the House, and I hope that the Select Committee's contribution in working on the inquiry and producing the report will be of value to the public debate on these matters for many years to come.

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