HC Deb 14 March 1995 vol 256 cc809-16

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr. Burns.]

11.52 pm
Mr. Bernard Jenkin (Colchester, North)

I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss, in particular, the nitrate-vulnerable zone at Nayland which affects my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, South (Mr. Yeo).

I welcome my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment to the debate, but I do not envy him his position. Researching for the debate, I thought that I had uncovered a new and interesting topic in the implementation of nitrate-vulnerable zones, but it turns out that the saga has been running for a long time. My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State is responsible neither for the period in which his Department was sponsoring discussions on the relevant directive in the European Community, nor for the implementation of the directive, which is the responsibility of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Why on earth has my hon. Friend been put in such an invidious position, given that he has very little responsibility for what I am about to discuss? The problem with nitrate-vulnerable zones at Nayland and elsewhere is that they have unquantifiable adverse effects on land and asset values of farms. The important question that we should ask about the implementation of the directive is whether it is effective and fair.

The basis of the directive is simply to limit nitrates in rivers and water courses so that nitrates do not concentrate in the water supply during abstraction. Sadly, that was effectively rubbished in a debate on 1 November 1989. As soon as the subject of today's debate appeared on the Order Paper, colleagues who have been in Parliament for considerably longer than I started sending me all the material that had been available for many years. On 1 November 1989, my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Central (Mr. Lord) drew attention in column 434 of Hansard to a House of Lords report.

Nitrates are said to have caused blue baby syndrome and stomach cancer, but the House of Lords report said that blue baby syndrome had become virtually non-existent in Western Europe". In the past 35 years, there have been a mere 14 cases in the UK, the last of which was in 1972. The only recorded death was in 1950, when the nitrate level in the water was found to be 885 mg per litre. The directive sets a limit of nearly 50 mg per litre, but that did not trouble the authors of the directive.

The House of Lords report went on to rubbish the idea that a connection existed between nitrates in water and stomach cancer, pointing out in particular that, where nitrate concentrations in water are highest—that includes regions in my constituency and in east England—the incidence of stomach cancer is one of the lowest. Having been successfully rubbished in 1989, the directive subsequently became enacted as law, as is the way with the European Community legislative machine.

The pressure for the directive involved environmental correctness more than practical benefit. I want to consider the implementation of the directive, the methodology of which compounds the impracticality. It depends on regular measurements in water courses. If less than 5 per cent. of those measurements fail the test and show more than 50 parts per million in the water, a nitrate-vulnerable zone for the catchment area of the water course is not needed, but if the measurements exceed that number, a nitrate-vulnerable zone is needed. The tests in relation to the nitrate-vulnerable zone in Nayland were conducted in 1992. From the particular abstraction point used, the water failed the test on a number of occasions.

The techniques used to measure nitrates in the water are interesting. The National Rivers Authority and Anglian Water sampled the same water, apparently using the same method, at Clapham on the great River Ouse in 1992 and 1993. On several occasions, the difference in the measurements were substantial. On one occasion, they differed by 14 per cent., on another by 10 per cent., on another by 86 per cent., and on another by 10.6 per cent. Occasionally, one tester recorded a fail and another recorded a pass. Clearly, a problem exists in terms of the way in which the measurements are taken. Some statistical adjustment is needed to reflect the probability of inaccuracy in the information, but the implementation of the directive has not taken care of that.

Having established by that rather unreliable method that a nitrate-vulnerable zone would be necessary, the boundaries of the zone were drawn up. It is difficult to establish any causal link between the agricultural practices in the Nayland nitrate vulnerable zone, as it is being provisionally designated, and the nitrate content in the water courses because the concentration of nitrates in the water courses occur at unpredictable times—sometimes when the flows are high and sometimes when they are low. That means that it is difficult to be fair or objective about what the boundaries of the nitrate-vulnerable zone should be.

In the Nayland zone, it is evident that very little nitrate is being used in farming. A total of 50 per cent. of the land is used for purposes which do not require fertiliser application at all. The grassland is almost all managed within the Suffolk river valleys environmentally sensitive area, so there is no intensive grazing. There is no intensive livestock or pig rearing. Furthermore, for some years farming practice in the area has been conducted on the basis of the minimum appropriate nitrate application, with those applications being made at the time of maximum take-up of nitrogen by plants.

The high nitrate readings at the Langham intake—the abstraction point from which the samples were taken—are unlikely to he influenced by the imposition of the proposed zone, particularly bearing in mind that the code of good agricultural practice is already being operated by those who farm in the proposed zone.

That raises the question whether the directive is being implemented by designating this nitrate-vulnerable zone and, if it is not being implemented, what changes are likely to be required, either in the short term when the Government admit that the objectives of the directive are not being fulfilled or when the whole thing comes up for review in the future.

I can inform my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State that I took up all these concerns, along with representatives of the National Farmers Union and an agricultural consultant, at a meeting with my noble Friend Earl Howe, Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, kindly organised by my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, South. My noble Friend took on board our main concerns and acknowledged that there were difficulties with the directive. In response to a letter that I wrote to him, he replied: I can assure you that the Government does have a great deal of sympathy with your concerns about the Directive and that is why we tried to use"— I emphasise "tried"— the flexibility contained within the Directive to keep the designations to a minimum.

I am grateful for the efforts of colleagues at the Ministry to try to contain the damage caused Ey the directive. We went through the gamut of the problems with my noble Friend the Parliamentary Secretary and he listened sympathetically. However, I ask my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State to get in touch with his colleagues at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to ask about the latest timing for implementation of the Nayland nitrate-vulnerable zone. I should be grateful if he would ask whether there is any possibility that there will be changes in the criteria for implementation before the next four-year review. That remains a concern of the NFU in particular.

I am told that some recent letters to Ministers appear to extend the criteria to river catchments where the nitrate level could exceed—rather than has already exceeded—the threshold. That is contrary to the relevant paragraph of the proposal document and to the proposals themselves, where all 11 existing river catchments put forward actually exceeded the threshold in 1992. My guess is that the Government are having difficulty reconciling this minimalist approach with the overall objectives of the directive.

Then there is the whole question of what will happen when the matter is reviewed again in four years' time. When it emerges that there is no connection between farming in the nitrate-vulnerable zones and the effects on nitrate content and that there are still readings above the prescribed limit, we may well find that there is pressure on the Government to extend the zones further—to what effect, I am not absolutely certain, as it is extremely difficult to tell what connection there is between the nitrate content of the water and the farming practices on the land.

A note from the Library informs me: It is worth stressing that although fertilisers are based on nitrates, the problem of excess nitrates in drinking water in some areas does not, in a simple sense, derive from farmers using too much fertiliser which is washed away by rain directly into the water supply. Much nitrate leaching derives from the ploughing up of grassland years ago and there is little that can be done to prevent the nitrates from slowly trickling into the water supply. Indeed, research which has been done since the whole issue arose shows that it may take 20 years for the effects of changed farming practices to be reflected in the nitrate content of water courses.

What are the solutions to the position in which we find ourselves? The obvious solution would be to seek a change in the directive. I understand that my colleagues in the Government have already sought to change the target level of nitrates in drinking water and in water courses from an absolute limit of 50 parts per million to an average of 50 parts per million. That may well have been the original intention of the directive, as the World Health Organisation prescribes an absolute limit of 100 parts per million and is satisfied with an average of 50 parts per million in drinking water.

I return to the point that it may have been the European Commission's fit of environmental correctness which encouraged it to go for the highest standards of drinking water and river water in the world, albeit at disproportionate cost. I understand that my colleague the Member of the European Parliament for North Essex and South Suffolk, Anne McIntosh, has already tabled a question to the Commission on this subject and that the Commission has absolutely no intention of proposing any alteration either to the drinking water directive or to the nitrates directive. That leaves us in a bind.

The only alternative would be to challenge the matter in the European Court. I reckon that there are two grounds on which the directive may be challenged. The first is subsidiarity. On what basis does the international application of the directive justify itself when we are dealing with rivers on our side of the North sea and rivers on the other side of the North sea? Hon. Members may be interested to learn that the North sea is the issue of concern. Concern has been raised about the incursion of excessive nutrients into the North sea, which is affecting pollution there.

To be realistic, the River Stour, which runs through my constituency, represents a rather minor element of pollution in the North sea. Some figures from the Library on the River Rhine, which is obviously a very large river, show that although its total nitrogen content is very low, it is estimated that the Rhine and the Meuse between them contributed about 50 per cent. of the total nitrogen load, compared with about 10 per cent. from all the UK rivers which run into the North sea. Unfortunately, although subsidiarity was used—possibly—as a test to justify the directive, we find that the directive is being driven by the concerns of other continental countries which do not apply much to us. That would explain MAFF's minimalist interpretation and implementation of it. That first challenge would probably fail because of the concerns of other countries.

The other challenge that we could mount is a test of proportionality. From speaking to MAFF officials and others, it is clear to me that the directive is right out of proportion with what it seeks to achieve. The 50 parts per million limit is disproportionately expensive compared with the objective that we are trying to achieve, and the means of achieving the objective are disproportionate and inappropriate to its achievement.

We are rather undermined in any challenge in the European Court because, despite what some MAFF officials have attempted to lead us to believe, the Government were not outvoted on the directive. It was not imposed on the Government—we supported it. It was agreed unanimously. That was made clear to me in a letter from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. Whereas my right hon. Friend seems enthusiastic about the flexibility that we gained during the negotiation of the directive, MAFF is finding that the interpretation of flexibility is fraught with difficulty and results in unfair, discriminatory and arbitrary practices in respect of some farmers, which the Ministry finds it extremely difficult to justify.

I remind the House that once a directive has been agreed to by unanimity it can be changed only by unanimity. That puts us in an extremely invidious position. I regret dragging my hon. Friend the Minister to the Dispatch Box on these issues, for which he was not responsible. He is not responsible either for the way in which policy is being implemented. I hope that he has heard my concerns sympathetically and that he will take them to the heart of government. If we are to avoid the over-regulation of business and farming and loss of jobs, we must tackle the problems that stem from the heart of Europe.

12.10 am
Mr. Tim Yeo (Suffolk, South)

I am grateful to have the chance to contribute briefly to the debate. As my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, North (Mr. Jenkin) has said, some of my constituents are affected by the Nayland nitrate-vulnerable zone. I endorse everything that he said about the specifics of the zone.

My hon. Friend was right to draw attention to the lack of any proper scientific basis for the directive. It is seriously flawed in that respect. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to give us an unequivocal assurance that his officials are pursuing with the Commission the urgent need to revise the directive. In view of what my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, North said about unanimity, I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will confirm that he is contacting all the other 14 members of the Council to get their support for urgent and overdue reform.

I hope also that my hon. Friend the Minister will talk to his colleagues in MAFF to get them to agree to defer any action to implement the directive at Nayland and many other parts of the country. I look forward to hearing my hon. Friend's assurances.

12.12 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Sir Paul Beresford)

I wondered whether I was to hear a dissertation on hobby-horse riding. It seems, however, that markers have been set for consultation. We are in the first stage of that consultation.

I think that we can all accept that maintaining and improving the quality of water by setting quality standards is an essential element of the sustainable management of our water resources. Such an approach is essential for safeguarding our drinking water supply and for protecting aquatic life. It is also important that standards should be respected. Elevated levels of nitrate can lead to problems. That is mainly where the water is used as drinking water, or if putrefaction occurs.

When there is a risk that water for potable water supply exceeds the nitrate ceiling set in the drinking water directive, there are three options. First, the water could be cleaned up. That means that the water companies would remove the nitrates at their customers' expense before the water was used for public supply. That is being done by several water companies, in instances of nitrate-polluted sources. Secondly, the nitrate could be reduced at source. That is where our measure to reduce nitrate pollution from agriculture comes in. Nitrate-vulnerable zones are one strand of a package of measures to reduce nitrate pollution from agriculture. The third option is a combination of the first and second. That reflects the current situation in the United Kingdom.

We broadly welcome the Commission's proposal in the directive to reduce nitrate pollution from agriculture. The directive was published in 1989, which was slightly before my time. It was in line with the Government's policies on protecting the quality of our water resources. However, several aspects of the proposal caused concern. During negotiations, many of those aspects were addressed and amended. The final text incorporated many of the amendments, as we would have wished.

The Government signed up to the nitrates directive when we were content that it represented what we wanted in terms of providing a balance between maintaining a viable and efficient agriculture and protecting and improving our environment. Within its overall objective and deadlines, the directive offers discretion on how to achieve the requirements, and we have taken advantage of that where appropriate.

Mr. William Cash (Stafford)

Is my hon. Friend aware that the Hatton groundwater scheme is the basis on which the prototype Government decision was taken? Yet the Staffordshire farmers examined the matter extremely carefully and came to the conclusion that, having regard to the realities of what the Hatton scheme has demonstrated over the past 90 to 100 years, the European directive was completely out of order.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, North (Mr. Jenkin) said, that question has been considered over a period without any satisfactory result, so I do not expect my hon. Friend the Minister to answer it directly now. But will he be good enough to take the matter back for the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to reconsider?

Sir Paul Beresford

I should certainly be happy to take that question forward and to ask for a response from MAFF. But as my hon. Friend understands, as it is predominantly a MAFF question, I could not be expected to be able to answer it this evening.

Our approach has resulted in proposed vulnerable zones covering 650,000 hectares, compared with the 2 million hectares initially estimated in the negotiations. For example, there are far fewer surface water vulnerable zones than was originally expected.

My hon. Friends will know that we have set up a consultation process to seek the views of those likely to be affected by the proposed vulnerable zones. It is worth regarding tonight's debate as part of that package. The intention is to confirm the accuracy of zone boundaries before their formal designation, using farmers' local knowledge.

The Government's response to the consultation document published last year will address the main issues raised by farmers and other consultees. We shall do that either in our response document, which we expect to issue soon, or in the individual responses being sent out to all the letters received.

Mr. Jenkin

Is my hon. Friend saying that he believes that the basis of the directive is still sound, or is he simply saying that we have to carry on implementing it because we are stuck with it, as it was agreed by unanimity and that is that, because of the way in which the European Community works?

Sir Paul Beresford

Neither, in effect. I am saying that there are elements involving good agricultural techniques which in a few areas—considerably fewer than originally expected—may have to be statutory.

A key part of the Government's response will be our decisions on the boundaries and locations of the proposed zones—I emphasise the word "proposed"—and those will be made known in the form of amended maps of the NVZs.

Mr. Jenkin

Where there is clearly no logical provable explanation involving connections between the levels of nitrates in the river and agricultural activity, as in Nayland—the implementation of the Nayland nitrate-vulnerable zone will result in no change whatever in agricultural practice—will my hon. Friend ask for those nitrate-vulnerable zones to be reviewed and dropped? If not, the directive is proving a complete farce.

Sir Paul Beresford

I think that I was making it clear that we are in the process of consultation, that there will be amendments, shifts and changes, and that nothing is set in tablets of stone.

Farmers who are dissatisfied with the Government's decisions on the boundaries and locations of the proposed NVZs as set out in the response document, in individual responses or in the amended maps will have the opportunity to present their case in writing to the independent review panel to be jointly commissioned by the Department of the Environment, MAFF and Welsh Office Ministers. The independent review procedure will ensure that our vulnerable zone proposals will have been objectively assessed prior to designation.

Following our initial consultation, we shall undertake another public consultation on the measures that might be introduced in the zones before their formal establishment. The resulting reductions in nitrate leaching in vulnerable zones will add to the reductions already taking place because of recent changes in agriculture and voluntary applications of the code of good agricultural practice for the protection of water issued by MAFF and the Welsh Office Agriculture Department.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nineteen minutes past Twelve midnight.

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