HC Deb 26 July 1989 vol 157 cc1015-8
9. Mr. Adley

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what further steps he is taking to reduce environmental pollution.

Mr. Chris Patten

We are setting higher standards to reduce pollution; we have brought forward, and will bring forward, legislation to reform pollution control systems and to strengthen the powers available to control pollution at source and we have taken the lead in developing international initiatives on the environment.

Mr. Adley

I do not recall any hon. Member doing this so far, but let me welcome my right hon. Friend wholeheartedly to his new position—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] The whole House looks forward to his achieving the objectives that he stated in that answer.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that he now has the opportunity to stamp his mark irrevocably on the environment of Britain and that the internal combustion engine might be a good place for him to start? Does he agree that the oil companies and the motor manufacturing industry have for years dictated a slow pace of change in cleaning up the environment? Will he examine what is happening in California, where legislation is contemplated to eliminate the internal combustion engine by the year 2007 and to replace vehicles that use it with electric vehicles? Does he agree that, if we could do that here, the Patten Act, if it ever came to pass, would stand the test of time on the statute book?

Mr. Patten

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks. I should quite like to be in California at the moment—[Interruption.]—or, indeed, at any time. The hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) will know that in California there was a revolt against a tax based on the value of property rather similar to the tax that he proposes.

Let me answer my hon. Friend's question. California's problems are much worse than anything that we face here, partly because of the number of cars, partly because of the climate and partly because, as I understand it, meteorological factors trap pollution in the air at a lower level. That said, I think that we should examine evidence from other countries and be ready to learn from them when we can. The environmental problems that we face are global and we must co-operate in solving them.

Mr. Alton

I endorse the congratulatory remarks that have been made to the Secretary of State. As he goes about making his mark, will he give some thought to part II of the Control of Pollution Act 1974 and in particular to the way in which it is enforced by the water authorities? Is he aware that last year the North West water authority brought just 23 prosecutions against companies involved in pollution and that the average fine was £670? Given the scale of the problem, does the Secretary of State agree that that is a paltry fine to impose on those responsible for pollution and that fines need to be looked at again in accordance with the principle that the polluter must pay?

Mr. Patten

Whether deliberately or inadvertently, the hon. Gentleman has made a powerful case for the establishment of a strong new pollution control body, such as the National Rivers Authority proposed by the Government, which will enforce controls on a consistent national basis.

Mr. Marland

On environmental pollution, is my right hon. Friend aware that substantial efforts are being made by some private firms to rebottle CFCs from the back of old refrigerators and deep freezers? Bearing in mind that it is estimated that there are some 30,000 tonnes of CFCs banked in refrigerators, does my right hon. Friend think that his Department may be able to give some assistance in that vital development work in the interests of a cleaner environment?

Mr. Patten

It should be in the interests of industry itself to produce the technology to deal with the problem, although I shall certainly look into my hon. Friend's suggestion. It is, of course, difficult to deal with existing CFCs in the back of refrigerators, but it is a technology which must be cracked.

Mr. Tony Banks

Does the Secretary of State agree with me that perhaps the single most important step taken by the Government recently to reduce environmental pollution was to remove the right hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley) to the Department of Trade and Industry where he can pollute officially to his heart's content?

Will the Secretary of State, who is new to his job, look closely at the problem of acid rain which is causing so much concern not only in this country but in Scandinavia?

Mr. Patten

The great thing about the hon. Gentleman's jokes is that one can see them coming from the bottom of Victoria street. We are spending a considerable amount more on reducing emissions and the right hon. Gentleman—sorry, I was presumptuous—the hon. Gentleman——

Mr. Tony Banks

Don't worry, I can wait.

Mr. Patten

The rest of the House will join the hon. Gentleman in that.

We are spending £2 billion on reducing sulphur dioxide emissions from existing large plants and we will continue to give the issue the priority that it deserves.

Dame Peggy Fenner

Will my right hon. Friend accept that my delight at his new role is tempered only by my disappointment that he has left a role in which he could have been the first international Minister to try to do something about the destruction of the rain forests? Will he join me in commending the action of the Countryside Commission in establishing forests in this country, recognising that the rest of the world should follow that example to counter the destruction of the rain forests?

Mr. Patten

I agree with my hon. Friend that it is a bit thick for us in Europe and north America to lecture developing countries about the destruction of the rain forests when we have made such a fist in the past 200 years of destroying our own forests. The work carried out by the Forestry Commission is particularly important both nationally and internationally and we must consider issues such as reforestation from an economic as well as a topographical and ecological point of view. That is why I appointed today Professor David Pearce, the professor of economics at University college London and director of the London environmental economic centre, as a special adviser to provide me with economic advice on environmental matters.

Dr. Cunningham

With reference to the Secretary of State's remarks about taxes in California. I remind him that the poll tax is constitutionally outlawed in California.

With regard to safeguarding the environment, has the Secretary of State had time yet to study the paper produced for the Prime Minister by the energy technology support unit about global warming and the greenhouse effect? Does he recognise the force of the argument in that paper which points out that energy conservation can make a four times bigger contribution to reducing those problems than developing nuclear power? Will he therefore, in developing his policies to safeguard the environment, press for a major programme of energy conservation on which he will have the support of Opposition Members?

As the Secretary of State's predecessor said that it was the Government's intention to produce an environmental protection Bill in the autumn, will the Secretary of State consider discussions across the House about the nature and content of such a Bill? There should be a great deal of room for agreement on what such a Bill should include. I can tell the Secretary of State, as I told his predecessor, that the Opposition are willing to bring that co-operation to the House if there can be discussions.

Mr. Patten

On the first point, I totally agree that improving energy efficiency has a vital role to play in dealing with the problem of global warming and in dealing therefore with the associated problem of climate change. That is true of this country and of all developed and developing countries. With regard to the hon. Gentleman's second point, I want to make it clear straight away that I would not regard legislation that we might bring forward this autumn as our last word, or anyone's last word, on environmental protection.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

People are not very happy with the former Secretary of State's proposals.

Mr. Patten

That is not the point and I will get to that if the hon. Gentleman will allow me to.

There is an argument, which many people have put forward, that in addition to the legislation that we introduce this autumn, we should in due course publish a White Paper setting out longer-term objectives for the environment. I will want to consider that with my right hon. and hon. Friends.

I shall be happy at any stage, both in regard to legislation and in regard to any further statements of national policy that we produce, to talk to the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) and to his hon. Friends about how we can try to ensure that we meet the priorities of the environmental agenda as effectively as possible. It would help if, just from time to time, Opposition Members would not regard every environmental statistic from the Government as a provocation. It would be nice if, occasionally, the Labour party would recognise achievements when they are made.