HC Deb 24 May 1989 vol 153 cc935-6
2. Mr. Robert G. Hughes

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment at what date members of the public were given the right to prosecute polluters of rivers.

The Minister for Water and Planning (Mr. Michael Howard)

Members of the public were given the right to prosecute polluters of rivers by sections 31 and 32 of the Control of Pollution Act 1974 which were brought into force by the present Government on 31 January 1985.

Mr. Hughes

Will my hon. and learned Friend confirm that all the extra measures contained in the Water Bill will be implemented fully by the Government whereas the measures brought in by the Labour Government were never implemented? When we combine that fact with Labour's total opposition to the Water Bill, it is difficult to see the Labour party as the friend of people who want clean water. Labour is on the side of the polluters.

Mr. Howard

I can indeed confirm that the rights of private prosecution will continue under the Water Bill, which is designed to achieve substantial improvements in our water environment and will help to correct the mischief from which we are still suffering as a consequence of the lack of investment in the industry under the Labour Government.

Ms. Primarolo

In view of the Minister's reply to the main question, may I ask what steps the Government intend to take against the South West water authority, which has now polluted rivers for the third time, this time with aluminium sulphate?

Mr. Howard

The incident to which the hon. Lady refers is certainly regrettable, but it did not affect the quality of drinking water in any way. The South West water authority has substantially reviewed its procedures since the Camelford incident and is reviewing the incident to which the hon. Lady refers.

Mr. Key

Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that hon. Members on both sides of the House and Members in the other place who care deeply about the purity of our river systems should not be hoodwinked into believing that there is a simple answer to pollution? While it is clear that sometimes the worst polluters are the water authorities themselves, the ecological balance of our river systems is extremely delicate and a great deal more research needs to be carried out by bodies such as the National Environmental Research Council and the Freshwater Biological Association.

Mr. Howard

My hon. Friend is quite right. However, the National Rivers Authority will have a crucial role to play in ensuring that we have the highest possible river standards in this country. I am sure that my hon. Friend will be pleased to know that 95 per cent. of the rivers in the United Kingdom fall into grades 1 and 2—the highest proportion in any member state of the European Community.

Mr. Matthew Taylor

Does the Minister accept that the pollution incidents in the South West water authority area —there have been three within 10 months—are serious public problems and not private ones? Will he initiate a proper independent inquiry to discover why South West Water has mishandled things in such a way as to allow aluminium pollution to occur three times in succession? Will he do something to ensure that the privatisation of South West Water does not go ahead until that proper independent inquiry has taken place?

Mr. Howard

I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that those three incidents are an advertisement for public sector control of the water industry. The latest incidents need to be seen in perspective. Neither of the two more recent incidents affected the drinking water supply, but a thorough investigation of both is being conducted by the authority.

Mr. Harris

I accept what my hon. and learned Friend has to say about South West Water but how many times have water authorities prosecuted themselves for the pollution of rivers or water supplies? I appreciate that he may not be able to answer that, but does he not agree that one of the great benefits of the Water Bill is that the prosecution role will be taken away from the water authorities and given to the National Rivers Authority?

Mr. Howard

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is most unsatisfactory that under the present system water authorities combine the roles of gamekeeper and poacher. We are moving away from that. The National Rivers Authority will be responsible for prosecuting under the new system which is being put into place and which I expect to bring a substantial improvement in standards.