HL Deb 11 December 1969 vol 306 cc665-71

3.47 p.m.


My Lords, if this is a convenient moment, I should like to repeat a Statement which is being made by the Prime Minister in another place in reply to a Question. The Statement is as follows:

"With regard to the responsibilities of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Local Government and Regional Planning, I gave full information to the House on October 13. The House will also recall that I asked my right honourable friend to go urgently into the question of environmental pollution in all its forms and to make proposals to me on how the problem should be dealt with.

"He has now reported. He is setting up a permanent central unit, composed mainly of scientists, on his own staff, to assist him in his co-ordinating role on environmental pollution. Through his staff he will maintain close relationships with the Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government and with the Research Councils and other institutions concerned with the problem.

"Following on my right honourable friend's report I have recommended, and Her Majesty the Queen has been pleased to approve, that a Standing Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution should be set up with the following terms of reference: 'To advise on matters, both national and international, concerning the pollution of the environment; on the adequacy of research in this field; and the future possibilities of danger to the environment.' "It is intended that this shall to a Standing Commission able to take up any problem relating to pollution so that the benefit of the best possible advice will be available to Government Departments responsible for executive action.

"One aspect of this matter which has caused particular concern is the problem of noise. My right honourable friend proposes to establish an Advisory Council to deal with this, on the lines of the Clean Air Council.

"Concern has also been expressed in the House and outside about the use of pesticides. I should therefore inform the House that the Agriculture Ministers are already engaged in consultations about the preparation of legislation to replace the existing voluntary system of control on the use of pesticides. Proposals will be brought before the House.

"On the general question of environmental pollution, the Government intend to present to the House a White Paper next year. This will show how much has so far been achieved under the existing arrangements, which our new proposals will greatly reinforce."


My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord the Leader of the House for repeating to your Lordships' House this Statement. I have no doubt about the importance of work on environmental pollution, but is the noble Lord aware that many people are very doubtful about the value of Standing Royal Commissions? Is he aware that many people feel that the direct responsibility of Ministers to Parliament may achieve more effective action than if these matters are referred to standing non-Parliamentary bodies? May I express the hope that the Advisory Council on the subject of noise will prove to be as valuable as the Clean Air Council were certainly to me when I was Minister on clean air questions? May I finally ask about the strange timing of this action. How is it that the Government are proposing here and now to set up a Standing Royal Commission on environmental pollution, and next year to present to both Houses of Parliament, presumably, a White Paper on the subject? Will that express their views or the Royal Commission's views?


My Lords, I, too, should like to thank the noble Lord the Leader of the House for repeating this Statement. It seems to us to be a very important Statement, one extremely welcome and indeed possibly well overdue. The whole problem of pollution is a very complex one, but there were two major strands to it. The first is the scientific—the diagnosis of pollution—and the second is the cure, which often involves serious economic problems, such as the allocation of costs. There is no mention of the economic side in the Statement, and I should like to ask whether it is suggested that economists should work on and with the Standing Royal Commission, because certainly we on these Benches think it would be a very good idea if they did.


My Lords, I am a little surprised that the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Cumnor, gave this Statement quite such a cool welcome. If I may say so, with respect to somebody of his great experience and judgment, I do not think he has quite grasped the implications. But that is always a difficulty with Statements. The fact is that responsibilities rest with Ministers; there is no doubt whatever that it is Ministers who will be responsible for executing policy. In the past a large number of Ministers have been involved and that is bound to continue, because you cannot just take a problem that affects the whole environment, take it away from twenty Departments and put it all within the responsibility of one, because it is still the responsibility of the others. Departmental Ministers deal with problems that arise in their own field. But the important decision which was taken previously was that one Minister should take on the main responsibility; that he should consider the problem as a whole, set up the necessary machinery to consider and keep it under review and recommend action, and co-ordinate the large number of bodies who are involved in this field, so that problems are looked at synoptically. This is what my right honourable friend is proposing to do, and the Statement makes clear that he will have the necessary advice to achieve this.

In addition, this is an area where external opinion, whether it be scientific, the general public, those interested in natural history, or whatever it may be, will be able to give advice and guidance and to publish this, so that Governments may take account of it—and I think that nationally we have been, and indeed all nations have been, slow to face this problem. I have debated this subject often in this House over many years, and I am particularly gratified to see that at last really firm action is being taken. The Standing Royal Commission will provide an important sounding board and focus for consideration of problems. They will tender their advice to the Government and will be able to publish that advice, and I feel that this is a very important step forward.

The noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley properly pointed to the great economic difficulties, and it is of course the economic consequence of either coping with pollution or failing to cope with pollution that needs proper assessment. He is absolutely right; and although I have no precise information it seems to me inconceivable that economic advice will not be available. Clearly, one will have to arrive at the right sort of cost estimates in dealing with this matter.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord whether in appointing the members of the Advisory Commission, he will bear in mind the desirability of including representatives of the water undertakers, local authorities, and other classes of undertaker who have a very wide experience in questions of pollution?


My Lords, I should stress that this Royal Commission is not a representative body in that sense, and if one were to put every interested group on it I think it would be very large indeed. It is intended to be a well informed, mainly scientific group; but of course it would be quite absurd if it was not to obtain the advice of the local authorities, water undertakers, and others who have such a vital interest in this field. So whereas I cannot suggest that there will be specifically representatives from these bodies, I am sure that their views will be very much taken into account. It is worth pointing out to the noble Lord that this responsibility has been placed in the hands of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Local Government and Regional Planning, which does bring local government right into the field. I should also tell noble Lords that my noble friend Lord Kennet, who is deeply interested and is heavily involved in local government also, is especially concerned with this matter.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord whether this will cover Scotland as well as England?


My Lords, I understand that it does.


My Lords, may I ask whether the Confederation of British Industry will be represented on the Royal Commission, as they feel strongly about this matter?


My Lords, I think I have answered that question. Obviously the Commission will need to take account of advice from everywhere, and particularly industry, which plays a large part and has in the past been responsible for much of the pollution.


My Lords, could the noble Lord clarify one point? Since the Natural Environmental Research Council is concerned at points with the behaviour of pollutants, would he explain a little more clearly what is the relationship between the Standing Royal Commission and this Research Council?


My Lords, the Natural Environmental Research Council plays a crucial part and, as the noble Earl, with his geographical land planning interests will know, they have been in the forefront. However, looking at it from the point of view of their own responsibility, the Natural Environmental Research Council—or, before it, the old Nature Conservancy—have not had the wide remit that this Royal Commission has. If I may stress it again, the responsibility will be on Ministers collectively and the Minister particularly responsible for co-ordination, and the Natural Environmental Research Council will, of course, be fully consulted and no doubt will contribute. For all I know. they may even have some Commission members on some of the Committees that they may set up.


My Lords, since on the last occasion when the question of the Minister's responsibility for questions of pollution was raised, I put forward the importance of the question of noise, may I say how glad I am that Her Majesty's Government have set up a body to deal with this extremely important matter?


I am much obliged to the noble Lord. We always listen with great attention to what he has to say.


My Lords, can the noble Lord say whether oil on beaches will be included within the ambit of this Royal Commission? Recent legislation has failed to cure this menace completely, and would not the noble Lord agree that much more stringent methods are needed to combat it?


My Lords, the Royal Commission will be responsible over the whole field of pollution. But again I must stress that the agencies who deal with this matter may be spread over a number of Departments, and the noble Earl, Lord Jellicoe, and I, who have both been particularly involved in this—he succeeded me as chairman of the Oil Pollution Committee—are well aware that a number of people are involved. But clearly this is another example of pollution.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that my noble friends and I are extremely anxious for executive action in this field, and we are faintly suspicious that this announcement may be a matter of "window-dressing"? The noble Lord did not answer my question about the White Paper. The Government are proposing to set up a Standing Royal Commission, presumably to advise the Government, and simultaneously promise a White Paper on the subject next year. Will that White Paper contain the Government's views or the Royal Commission's views?


My Lords, I see that the noble Lord is doing his best to blur the issue. I repeat: the Government are responsible, but, because they think this is a matter of such importance, they want a body of power and of status and of influence, but also a non-executive body, to tender advice and to provide a focus for all the different interests that may be raised.

On the subject of the White Paper, it may surprise the noble Lord to learn that this Government believe in getting on with the job; there has been quite a lot of work going on already and quite extensive studies. The Government propose to publish the results of these studies, and no doubt they will from time to time, in the executive field, publish this sort of information independently of the Royal Commission, which is an independent body and will no doubt chase Governments. I suspect they might have to do more chasing if there were a Conservative Government.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that no Ministers have taken a more active interest in clean air than Mr. Duncan Sandys and myself? Will the Royal Commission be consulted about the contents of this Government White Paper?


My Lords, I think the noble Lord is pressing it much too far. He is really doing his best to play this down. I fully acknowledge that individual Ministers, and particularly Mr. Duncan Sandys in certain aspects of the environment—and I acknowledge the part played by the noble Lord—have been very active. We just think that we need much more pressure, much more co-ordination and much more action, and these proposals are designed for that purpose.