HC Deb 08 November 1989 vol 159 cc988-90
12. Mr. Alton

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment how many prosecutions have been initiated this year against companies responsible for pollution; and what is the total of fines imposed.

Mr. Trippier

Information on prosecutions in respect of offences under legislation controlling polluting activity is published annually in the Digest of Environmental Protection and Water Statistics and other sources. Comprehensive information for 1989 is not yet available centrally. I understand, however, that since one regulatory agency, the National Rivers Authority, fully assumed its responsibilities on 1 September this year, 53 court cases in relation to pollution offences have been heard and 83 similar cases are pending.

Mr. Alton

If the principle is that the polluter should pay, does the Minister agree that the fines that have been imposed during the past decade, and the number of prosecutions, have been derisory? Does the Minister agree that it is not right to allow 200 companies to pollute the River Mersey? That is crazy. For example, Shell recently discharged 150 tonnes of crude oil into the River Mersey. Does he agree that his Department should have initiated a public inquiry? The failure to do that showed that, in the face of big companies, although the Department talks green, they haul up the white flag.

Mr. Trippier

I have a great deal of sympathy with the hon. Gentleman's earlier comments. That is why we are toughening up legislation in the forthcoming green Bill and the powers we are giving to Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution. We are also giving greater powers to local authorities. I am sure that they will assume them responsibly.

The hon. Gentleman is sorry that we did not have a public inquiry, but I remind him that we had a full investigation by the Department of Energy and a full investigation by the National Rivers Authority, which decided to take legal action against Shell. I understand that, from Monday, the case has been transferred to Liverpool Crown court. Those are tougher measures than a public inquiry. In addition to that, Professor Bradshaw, an eminent scientist and expert in nature conservation from Liverpool university will study the effects of oil spillages, not only on the Mersey but in a wider brief. We shall all learn from that study. The combination of those three measures is effective and, in many ways tougher than the measures the hon. Gentleman is suggesting to the House.

Mr. Brazier

Can my hon. Friend confirm that the Government have implemented the bulk of the clauses relating to water pollution in the Control of Pollution Act 1974, in sharp contrast to the last Labour Government which introduced the law and did nothing with it?

Mr. Trippier

I could not agree more. If we in the Department of the Environment discover that some gaps remain in the COPA legislation, we hope to close them with the forthcoming Bill.

Mr. Loyden

Is the Minister aware that people on Merseyside felt that the Government's action, or inaction, over the pollution of the River Mersey by an oil spill left a lot to be desired? Should we not congratulate the local government workers who responded immediately to that problem and who probably reduced the effect of what must be the worst environmental problem that Britain has faced since the Secretary of State came into office? I was surprised that the Secretary of State did not make himself available on day one to make a proper assessment of the situation on the Mersey, and I have to agree with the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton), who said that the oil company ought to pay the maximum amount of money necessary for clearing up the oil spillage for the damage and for the money that has already been spent on cleaning up the Mersey basin.

Mr. Trippier

I would be the first to compliment not only the local authorities—both elected representatives and officers—but the workers, whom I had the opportunity of meeting, who cleaned up the oil spillage caused by the fracture of the pipe owned by Shell. Their.

Two Ministers of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, West (Mr. Hunt) and myself, paid speedy visits to the site. As the hon. Gentleman is well aware, we were effective in bringing about Professor Bradshaw's inquiry. As a result of the spillage, the National Rivers Authority decided to take the action that has now put Shell in court. I do not know what more the Government could have done we responded very positively.

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