HC Deb 20 April 1994 vol 241 cc867-9
1. Dr. Liam Fox

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what progress has been made in environmental protection over the past year.

The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. John Selwyn Gummer)

A full account will be given in the third year report on "This Common Inheritance", which we will publish on 10 May.

Dr. Fox

In discussing that report, will my right hon. Friend make the strongest possible representations to the French Government over the proposals to extend the shooting season, which will result in the unnecessary and unacceptable slaughter of many British migratory birds? Is my right hon. Friend aware—I hope that he is—that many people in the United Kingdom will find that to be an arrogant and unacceptable proposal, and completely distasteful?

Mr. Gummer

I have already made it clear to the French Government that any consideration of the proposal to which my hon. Friend has referred must be in the context of there being no change in the present practice. They have assured me that they will take the scientific advice that has so far been given by Ornis, but there is more scientific advice to be obtained. I note that the European Parliament has declined to discuss the matter at this stage. The British Government have taken the clear view that the issue of migratory species is a matter of European Community competence, and we are determined to protect those birds that come to this country.

Mr. Simon Hughes

The Secretary of State's claims that he is protecting the environment look pretty thin when he publishes a 1993 report only in May 1994, when he drops his plans to set up contaminated land registers, when we still have not had before us any legislation on the Environmental Protection Agency and when there are no longer any long-term targets for limiting CO2 emissions. Worst of all, the Government and their friends have tabled more than 200 amendments and new clauses, which are clearly intended to wreck the Energy Conservation Bill being promoted by my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith). Is the Secretary of State aware that that measure would do more for the environment than anything that he is now doing?

Mr. Gummer

The Liberal party is utterly unable to make any such comment ever since it reneged on its support for proper taxes on energy consumption. The hon. Gentleman knows very well that his position is untenable. We have heard the usual Liberal demand for something for nothing. The hon. Gentleman is entirely wrong in all his other allegations. We are reporting for the third year running on these matters at a later date because of the publication of the report on sustainable development, which has been widely welcomed. Only the Liberal party would make such silly allegations.

Mr. Michael Spicer

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the River Severn was severely polluted last weekend. In the light of that experience, will he have a word with the water regulator to ensure, first, that the quality of water is properly monitored and, secondly, that when such pollution occurs, samples are taken and analysed quickly so that the public can be accurately and properly informed of what is going on?

Mr. Gummer

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to a serious incident. My hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment and Countryside was in the area yesterday. There was an immediate inquiry into the matter. The points that my hon. Friend has raised will be taken fully into account. As far as we can see at this stage, the measures to which my hon. Friend referred were taken. The inquiry will establish that. We shall naturally seek to learn as much as possible from the inquiry to ensure that there is no repetition of that incident.

Mr. Chris Smith

Will the Secretary of State acknowledge that, over the past year, the environmental protection record of local government has been better than that of central Government? The right hon. Gentleman is fond of pouring scorn on Labour local authorities. Why is it that of the 11 local authorities that have been specially invited by the Government to make a presentation on best practice to the Partnerships for Change conference, not one is controlled by the Conservative party? Of the eight district councils selected by the Government as examples of best environmental practice, seven were controlled by the Labour party. Will the right hon. Gentleman now praise the pioneering work of Labour councils on environmental protection?

Mr. Gummer

I am happy to say that up until now we have managed to praise the environmental work of a large number of councils of different political colours, and this is the first time that a party political division has been drawn into the matter. The hon. Gentleman should be ashamed of himself. The only party in the House that has no right to talk about the environment is the Liberal party because it has reneged on all its willingness to support those matters. The Labour party must remember that I have criticised only the fact that it has the vast majority of the councils which demand the most money for the least services. It costs £131 more to pay the council tax in Labour councils—[Interruption.]—and the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), who is trying to intervene, has had to admit that his figures are phoney—phoney councils, phoney figures, Labour councils.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton

Would my right hon. Friend think that it was making progress in protecting the environment if an application to establish opencast coal operations were granted at Towers Farm in Poynton in my constituency, in a most sensitive green belt area right on the edge of Cheshire and on the boundary of Greater Manchester, against the opposition of local residents, the parish council and the borough council and at a time when British Coal is closing coal mines as though there were no tomorrow?

Mr. Gummer

I do not think that the cause of environmental protection would be helped much if my hon. Friend were to receive an answer in the House of Commons to what is a properly constituted inquiry into the matter, in which the environment will play a major part. I hope that my hon. Friend will wait for the results of that properly constituted inquiry and my decision on it. As to his comments about the coal industry, that is a matter for the coal companies themselves.