HC Deb 20 April 1994 vol 241 cc877-9
9. Ms Quin

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment when he next expects to meet his European Union counterparts to discuss the implementing of EC environmental directives.

Mr. Gummer

The next formal Environment Council will be on 8 and 9 June. The agenda has yet to be determined.

Ms Quin

Will the Secretary of State be discussing the implementation of EC water quality directives? Will he confirm that it was the Conservative Government who signed the drinking water directive in 1980? Will he give an estimate of the number of jobs that would have been created if the Government had honoured their commitment and improved water quality as they said they would? Will the Government also confirm that a green dowry was given to the water companies at the time of privatisation specifically to bring our water quality up to EC standards?

Mr. Gummer

The hon. Lady is right to draw attention to the importance of those standards. I am concerned that we should reach those standards in the most sensible, cost-effective way. There is no doubt that many of the costs associated with reaching those standards are considerable. Some of the legislative measures—not only in the directive, but others—are prescriptive. We want to achieve the standards sensibly. In the post-Maastricht period, it might be more sensible to regard drinking water standards as matters of subsidiarity to a greater extent than they were viewed in the past. It is reasonable to treat them in that way. I do not see why the subject should divide the House.

Mr. Steen

Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is no point in being part of Europe if the other European countries do not play by the rules? Will he ensure that, for every European environmental directive, each country embarks on a compliance-cost assessment? That would ensure that every country knew how much the directive would cost before it embarked on it and how much it would cost to enforce it. Britain should not go it alone and follow the directive until every other country has done the same, and there must be cross-border enforcement.

Mr. Gummer

The manifest advantages of our membership of the European Union are enhanced if we ensure that EU countries undertake a cost-benefit analysis before decisions are made. I want to go one stage further than my hon. Friend suggests—I want the Commission to produce figures in advance of making the proposition in the first place. That would be sensible government—it is what we would expect in this country and certainly what we would expect in the European Union.

Mr. Kilfoyle

When the Secretary of State meets his European Union counterparts, will he discuss objective 1 funding, which partly covers environmental needs and designates Merseyside as one of the poorest areas in Europe? Will he explain to them why the Government choose to pump millions into rich, Tory-controlled boroughs in the south of England at the expense of areas in the north which, by the Government's own definition, are deprived?

Mr. Gummer

I will certainly explain to them that the system by which we provide money to different parts of the country is based on an objective system worked out by the largely Labour-controlled council associations. They may have misread a statement by the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), who was special adviser in the Department of the Environment when Labour found that Westminster's need per head was £486.47 and Liverpool's was £326.95. The difference was 49 per cent. in Westminster's favour. While the Conservative Government have been in power, it has been 33 per cent. We can see the truth of the hon. Gentleman's slurs.

Mrs. Gorman

Will my right hon. Friend take time when he next meets the European Environment Commissioner to discuss the latest directive proposing to phase out chlorine from industrial activity? Is he aware that chlorine is a basic component of bleach, which every housewife needs to clean the loo and to bleach shirts and sheets? Is he aware that chlorine is a basic component of PVC and clingfilm, which every housewife needs to wrap up scraps before putting them in the fridge? Is he aware that Britain has the two largest PVC manufacturers in the world that provide thousands of jobs, which will go if the directive is implemented? There are at least 250 manufacturers of packaging material based on PVC. The directive will create an enormous vacuum and many job losses.

Mr. Gummer

I find it difficult to agree with my hon. Friend's suggestion that those jobs are done only by housewives. I hope that they are done by both sexes in the home. For environmental reasons, we need to look extremely carefully at the use of chlorine. Although it is a most useful chemical, it should be used in a way that is not detrimental to the environment. The Department is determined to ensure that our children's future is put first. Therefore, if it is possible beneficially to restrain the use of chlorine, that is what we shall do.

Mr. Dafis

Has the right hon. Gentleman discussed with the EU Environment Commissioner chapter 10 of the White Paper on competitiveness and growth? If he has, does he agree that it shows a new understandmg of economic policy and the fact that economic success and job creation are both compatible with and strengthened by environmental sustainability? Will the Government support the principle of that chapter, which is to shift the burden of taxation away from jobs and people on to the overuse of resources and pollution?

Mr. Gummer

I am sure that it is right to accept that environmental protection is a spur to competitiveness and to industrial success, rather than the opposite. Therefore, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will join us in supporting a major example of putting taxes on the overuse of energy —I refer, of course, to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor's imposition of 17.5 per cent. VAT on fuel.

I note that the hon. Gentleman's party, like the Liberal Democrats—not to the same extent, but in the same direction—speaks in generalities about these matters, but is never prepared to put its name to the cost of delivering green policies. The Conservative party is prepared to pay the cost and deliver the policies.