HL Deb 17 April 1980 vol 408 cc489-520

7.26 p.m.

The PRINCIPAL DEPUTY CHAIRMAN of COMMITTEES (Baroness White) rose to move, That this House takes note of the Report of the European Communities Committee on Water Pollution (Mercury) (38th Report, H.L. 187). The noble Baroness said: My Lords, before I take up the theme covered in the draft report that we are now to consider, I should like to add my congratulations to those who took part in the immediately preceding debate on three other reports of your Lordships' Select Committee and in particular to thank the noble Lord, Lord Walston, as chairman of the sub-committee particularly concerned.

In the 38th Report which we have presented to your Lordships' House during this Session we are discussing a proposed Directive dealing with mercury discharged by the chloralkali industry. This is the second in a series of EEC draft Directives concerned with the discharge of toxic substances to the acquatic environment. The first, as most noble Lords who are present tonight will recall, dealt with aldrin, dieldrin and endrin and was debated on 23rd October last on a Motion moved by the noble Lord, Lord Ashby, who will, I am happy to say also be speaking on the report we are discussing tonight.

Both these draft Directives are extremely narrow, in the sense that they deal with specific industrial uses only of the substances concerned. What is familiarly known as the "drins" draft Directive was confined to their manufacture and their use in moth-proofing, while this draft Directive on mercury specifies discharges from one industry only—albeit an important one—the chloralkali electrolysis process.

So far as the United Kingdom is concerned, there are, I believe, eight installations directly affected, of which one, on the river Rother, discharges to fresh water and the others to estuarial waters, in one instance via a canal channel into the Mersey and thence to Liverpool Bay. We were informed in evidence that over the past five years or so, some £20 million has been expended on treatment works to deal with this form of mercury pollution, with a significant reduction in its effects; one obsolescent plant has been closed down and further expenditure over the next year or so is firmly committed by the industry. So we have not been sitting back awaiting an EEC Directive before taking significant action.

Narrow as these Directives are, they are important in that they set the pattern both for other substances characterised by toxicity and persistence and hence included in what is known as List I or the black list, and for further Directives dealing with other uses of the "drins" or mercury respectively not included in the drafts which have so far come before us.

In the report which we are debating tonight, your committee has tried to spell out in a little more detail than usual some of the difficulties encountered by a Member-State which for geographical, administrative and, may I emphasise, scientific reasons finds itself in a minority among its European colleagues on matters of water resources management and pollution control.

I will not reiterate this evening the history of the earlier instances described by the noble Lord, Lord Ashby, in our debate on 23rd October, which we hoped had been settled by the agreement which was familiarly referred to as Environment 131, which became, more formally, Directive 76/464. But the very fact that the draft directive before us deals with only one specific use of mercury, a substance which is widely found in nature and which has other uses than in the chloralkali industry, is indicative of the difference between the two approaches: one a narrowly industrial one and the other a comprehensive approach which, where it can practicaly be applied, we believe to conform more fully and properly with both environmental and scientific needs.

The former approach, as we know, relies on uniform limit values for particular discharges of the substance concerned and the latter, known as the environmental quality objective, or the EQO system, is based on the quality of the receiving water after total pollution from whatever source has been taken into account. To call these two systems "parallel", as was done by the two leading spokesmen in the recent debate in the other place, seemed to your Committee to be mistaken. Accordingly, we have preferred to use the term, "alternative", as being in our view more accurate.

It is clear that if one relies on uniform limit values for particular discharges, an industry-by-industry approach makes good sense; but to try to fit EQO procedures into the industry-by-industry pattern, as both the "drins" and the mercury draft Directives have attempted to do, is in my view a Procrustean exercise which, with the best will in the world, is bound to lead to difficulties. I believe this to be a fundamental stumbling block which lies in the way of the better understanding which your committee certainly seeks with our colleagues in Brussels. As one of our witnesses pointed out, among other things, it leads to putting responsibilities for attaining certain standards on one section of industry alone for what may in certain locations be a multiple responsibility which should be shared by other users or sources of the substance concerned, even if they are only lesser culprits.

Such sources, of course, include sewerage systems as well as industrial direct discharges and in some cases agricultural run-off too.

If one tries to judge the two systems sdie by side, by what criteria can the alternatives be judged to be "fair"? As the noble Lord, Lord Ashby, forcefully pointed out in speaking of the "drins" draft Directive, the comparisons in that instance, as it came before us, seemed orders of magnitude out of true as well as appearing inconsistent with the Coin-mission's own water quality standards, established in other Directives, such as those for the abstraction of drinking water.

I must confess that we found it depressing that after long discussions with Brussels we still faced in the mercury draft directive which we are discussing tonight, in the part dealing with the EQO approach, a requirement for a separate programme dealing with indirect discharges of mercury. That this could have been so included in that section seemed to indicate either astonishing carelessness or, more probably, a persistent failure to appreciate the essence of EQO philosophy, which is after all to tackle pollution by a particular substance in its entirety in the area of water concerned. It does not really make sense to take "moth-proofing" or even chloralkali processes on their own, particularly in estuarial situations.

Properly to apply the EQO system seems to me to require a series of comprehensive directives, substance by substance, with a time-scale appropriate to each exercise concerned. Having said that, I should also like to record that in certain important aspects I believe our recent discussions with our colleagues in the Commission have been most helpful in putting certain matters into better perspective. In particular we have tried, in paragraph 30 of the report we are discussing tonight, to indicate what we take to be one of the major practical difficulties in attempting to reconcile our differences; namely, the situation in countries with significant trans-frontier supply and pollution problems, which do not touch our insular administration. We draw attention to the fact that in recent years our water administration in England and Wales has been reformed on a basis more consonant with natural and scientific principles; namely, with one authority responsible for water resources in each main river catchment area, including supply, sewerage and quality control. This is far from being the position in certain other Member-States; for example, in the Netherlands, where I believe there are some 600 water authorities in all in that small country.

We have been much interested to learn that what we call our "total" approach now seems to be finding favour in France, where I understand it is now being adopted—albeit possibly in a more sophisticated form—in one of the most important river administrations. I hope very much that my noble friend Lord Ashby will be able to elaborate on this, because I know he has been studying the problem. As I understand it, the rivers of France flowing directly to the Western seaboard are, like our own, free of trans-frontier complications and therefore can be administered more easily on what we believe to be the best environmental basis.

One important feature of our administrative system is that quality control is governed by the intended use of the water—a principle recognised by the European Community in a number of Directives which are already in operation. The general public are reminded of this principle in the current issue of the popular series called European File, and I refer to the April 1980 issue which is devoted to The European Community and Water. This refers on page 3 in the section on "Quality objectives" to the fact that, … following proposals from the European Commission … these vary according to the ultimate use of the water'.".

Following the reorganisation of our water authorities, each one has drawn up a scheme of designation use for the waters under its control. The quinquennial review of the quality attained in each river system is being undertaken this year and I understand the results should be available early in 1981. It is against this background of intended use that quality objectives are established for each area of water, and it is from these objectives that quality standards are devised for particular characteristics or substances. It is against the requirements of these standards that in turn individual discharge consents are formulated by the water authority for particular effluent emissions to the receiving water in any particular location. That these levels of consent vary according to the ultimate use of the water is obvious, but, properly administered, the system is logical and complete. I am sure, incidentally, that some misunderstandings could be avoided if we all were careful to use the terms "environmental quality objective" and "environmental quality standard" each in its proper sense and not, as sometime we carelessly do, more or less interchangeably.

However, it seems to some of us that even after all our cross-Channel dialogue we have not yet taken steps to make available to European colleagues, including of course Members of the European Parliament, a full description of the application of EQO methods which they can accept as truly valid. The problem arises among other things from our decentralised methods of administration, with each water authority making its own localised decisions on the standards it proposes to apply to meet its own chosen environmental quality objectives for particular stretches of water.

To those who have had no opportunity of studying the system in its detailed application, a system so described must appear to be excessively arbitrary and to offer considerable opportunity for leniency in certain situations. My colleagues on the Select Committee and I believe that the proof that the system is basically efficacious lies in the conspicuous improvement in water quality, which has been such a marked feature in British rivers in the past two decades or so. In particular, one cannot but be impressed by the spectacular work done on the Thames and, perhaps less dramatically, on the Tees.

Both efforts have been the result of carefully worked out programmes specifically designed to improve river quality with the most effective use of resources. Both water authorities have published their results, but such particular reports are not quite what is needed to secure a more general acceptance of the policy which we are advocating in the European context. The fact that the appropriate sections of the Control of Pollution Act 1974 are still not fully operational, and that the public registers of discharge consents are therefore not yet freely available, does not help our case, although we recognise that certain water authorities do publish consent details voluntarily. But if the noble Lord who is to reply to the debate on behalf of the Government can give us any comfort in this direction, we shall be extremely grateful to him.

I understand that the industries concerned with this draft Directive—in particular, the chemical industries—have themselves expressed the wish that, particularly for List I substances, the authorities in the United Kingdom should demonstrate that they are, in fact, exercising comprehensive control of all relevant receiving waters using the EQO policy, with its corresponding environmental quality standards. Can we not, therefore, have such an authoritative statement in a form which is intelligible to the interested lay person, and with sufficient illustrative detail to ensure that it carries conviction?

The need for such a presentation, geared specifically to the EEC situation, would seem to be urgently desirable. I would not go as far as some persons have been advocating in a recent publication, which I think many noble Lords will have seen. But I believe there is a point that we are still not making a sufficiently successful presentation to those who are not familiar with the way in which the British system works. I would particularly draw attention to the need to have material which can be of real use to Members of the European Parliament, whether they are from the United Kingdom or not, who are concerned with these matters, and who are expected to give their own opinions on the draft Directives which appear from the Commission and which go to the Council, particularly when they are all aware that there is one country—namely, ourselves—which is asking for a system to be approved which is different from those accepted by all our other partners. Therefore, there is a very real need, it seems to me, to make this case in terms which can be appreciated at a non-specialist level.

In any such attempt, we should make it plain that, while an EQO is primarily a tool for systematic water quality improvement over a period of time, it can where necessary allow for the control of specific substances in circumstances in which the general river quality may still be low; in other words, in the small proportion of our river lengths which are in our lowest river quality classifications. If this is not made clear, then it seems to me that there are bound to be doubts about our practices in the Class 4 lengths of our industrialised rivers, were the EQ0s may not at first glance seem to be adequate for the control of List I substances. I have had discussion on this matter with some representatives of the industries concerned, and I believe that they would not dispute that some such arrangements are desirable.

If I may deal with one or two of the more detailed points in the report which is before us tonight, as we mention in paragraphs 21 and 32 of our report, in the initial stages of drafting the Directives governing List I substances the Commission believed that the only distinction in conditions which it was empowered to make under Article 6(2) of the basic Directive 76/466 was between those applying to fresh and salt water respectively, and that other characteristics had to be disregarded. We understand that they have now been advised that this is not so and that, accordingly, they are free to adjust the conditions proposed, so that they may be compatible with levels which make good sense in an EQO situation, and which are also compatible with levels set in their own previous Directives.

With this in mind, your committee have made suggestions in paragraphs 33 to 36 for adjustments which would seem to them desirable, including the important one of distinguishing between soluble arid insoluble forms of mercury, which have very different environmental effects. These suggestions are necessarily tentative, in the sense that your committee is a scrutinising and reporting body, without executive responsibility. Nevertheless, we hope that they may prove helpful. In one particular respect, in paragraph 33, we have diverged from the views of the majority of our witnesses, in so far as we have expressed doubts about the adequacy of relying solely on fish sampling to test water quality, although such sampling undoubtedly has its uses.

I trust to my scientifically learned friends, who are to follow me, to elaborate on some of the more technical points which emerged from the evidence which we received. We hope that we have properly understood the apparent discrepancies of the proposed time-scales to which we refer in paragraphs 29 and 37 of our report. These worried us considerably in both this draft Directive and in the one on "drins", as our initial reading of them made them appear grossly unjust to those who pursue the EQO route. I trust that we are now right in believing that our initial reading was mistaken.

Finally, I should perhaps indicate that, while everyone accepts that mercury is a persistent toxic substance which, in the extreme conditions dramatised in the disastrous consequences to fishermen and their families in Japan, can undoubtedly be excessively damaging to human health, no one among our witnesses offered us evidence of specific deleterious effects having occurred from anything arising in our own water. I mention this, because I think that one should put these matters into perspective.

have tried to indicate with what attention your committee endeavour to pursue the trains of thought underlying the complex propositions which emerge from the Commission. But we do so willingly, in the hope that, ultimately, we shall achieve agreement on proposals which are both environmentally sound and will secure the optimum deployment of resources. My Lords, I beg to move.

Moved, That this House takes note of the Report of the European Communities Committee on Water Pollution (Mercury) (38th Report, H.L. 187).—(Baroness White.)

7.49 p.m.


My Lords, it falls upon me to follow the noble Baroness, Lady White, and to thank her for her admirable exposition in moving the reception of her report. I read it with great interest and I have listened to her speech with equal interest, and found both lucid, authoritative and, if I may say so from my knowledge of the situation, entirely correct. As she told us, it follows the precedent of the 17th Report on "drins" which we had here last October. At that time, by an accident of timing, I found myself sitting on the Woolsack while the debate was going on, so I had the pleasure of listening to it but could take no part in it. So I am glad to be able to remedy that situation now.

This 38th Report on the discharge of mercury is based precisely the same grounds as the "drins" report in October. I thought the exposition which the noble Lord. Lord Ashby, made then in his introductory speech was quite admirable and must have convinced anybody whose mind was open to be convinced on the soundness of the approach which we are making and prefer to make in this country, that of environmental quality objectives rather than uniform emission standards. I feel sure that it must have made some impression on the slightly resistant mind of the Commission in Brussels. In any event, the debate today gives me the chance to join in what I regard as a very important subject.

It was my responsibility to introduce the policy of river board quality improvement in 1978, when I was chairman of the National Water Council, and to introduce the concept to the regional water authorities of water quality objectives. We did that after very long and careful study and discussion. There was a good deal of resistance to it, because of course among other things it has committed all of the regional water authorities to defining precisely what the objectives are for the different lengths of river for which they are responsible, and in some cases that has meant that the standards which had previously applied to those lengths of river have had to be downgraded, because they were never observed and, I fear, for some years it will not be possible to observe them because of the nature of the industrial discharges into them.

Therefore, the whole basis of this policy was to deal with reality so that everyone in the country—all who are interested in rivers and the whole community—would know precisely what was the condition in our rivers and the regional water authorities were completely committed to those standards of quality being defined. That meant that every individual discharge into the rivers would be individually classified, monitored and controlled, and that is now happening.

That was the response of the industry to the 1974 Control of Pollution Act (which covered water), on a voluntary basis, as the noble Baroness, Lady White, has said. There are very great difficulties about which I am sure I shall hear from my noble friend Lord Mowbray and Stourton when he replies, to the implementation of the whole of that Act, but a great deal has already been done on a voluntary basis. The main water authorities concerned with industrial effluents in the North and the Thames are already conforming. They have classified all of the discharges; they have registers that are open to public inspection on a voluntary basis, and therefore they are doing precisely what we want. Some of the other water authorities may not have got quite as far as that, but they are near to it, so that the response to this lead has been entirely co-operative and has taken us a very long way towards obtaining a complete classification of every discharge into every river in the country, which will be known to everybody.

I should like to add that my experience with the water industry is not confined to the five years that I had as chairman of the National Water Council. For many years I was Chairman of the Thames Conservancy Board, which was responsible for the management of the River Thames. I suppose I could fairly claim that the River Thames is the best managed river in the world. It has to do so much for us as a country: most important, in supplying London with two-thirds of its water supply, in providing a notable amount of navigation—for pleasure nowadays, it is true, but for tens if not hundreds of thousands of people—and in receiving effluent from Swindon up at the head right down to London down into the estuary. Yet it is a river in beautiful condition, so it is a very well managed river, and the principle upon which we proceeded was that of river quality objectives. In those days we had rather tenuous powers under local Acts, but because we had a very long time to do it we made them work, and I am quite confident that this is the best system to operate, to get on the one hand improvement in the quality of the rivers and on the other hand conservation of what has already been achieved.

Therefore, I warmly commend the report which the noble Baroness has moved with such conviction, because I am sure it is the right way in which to go. My only regret is that the Commission's obvious preference for uniform emission standards is still there and there seems to be a strong bias against the RQOs in the timescale the noble Baroness mentioned; also, I would have thought, in the standards, but I do not propose to discuss the scientific aspects of this. The report does so admirably and the noble Baroness has called our attention to some of the main points.

I should like to conclude with a few words about the future policy in this field, and I was very glad to hear the noble Baroness speaking about this—I mean particularly the political, in the broadest sense, as well as the scientific policy. Here I should like to congratulate the noble Baroness and her noble friends the committee in the visit that they paid to Brussels to make personal contact with the officials there. I am sure that that was very wise and that it was an entirely helpful thing to do. I do not doubt that they were received by the Commissioner, Mr. Carpentier, with his customary charm and courtesy and I am sure that they recognise in him, as I do, a top official of super ability and integrity who is charged with a monumentally difficult job of trying to achieve the cotrol of pollution throughout all the Member States of the Nine, and a progressive programme of aquatic improvement. We all want him to succeed in this, and it concerns me just as much as it does the noble Baroness that we should find ourselves in any respect—even in minor respects—at odds with him; but I am quite sure that personal contacts must be helpful in achieving mutual understanding of our respective points of view.

I should also like to commend the contacts by Ministers and civil servants. I am sure that they are to be encouraged in every way as well in this particular field, and I should like to congratulate both Ministers and officials of the Department of the Environment on their close cooperation with the water industry and their skilful grasp and handling of these complex scientific matters. In this context, I notice that the Press release yesterday was critical of the way in which they have handled this particular matter, and I would only say that in my judgment that particular Press release was right off target. They could not be more wrong.

With regard to scientific contacts between the Commission officials, and the engineers and scientists of the water industry in this country, I thought the noble Baroness, Lady White, was most helpful and constructive in discussing the problems that still have to be solved on the presentation of what we do here. I believe we have a very good tale to tell here, a tale that no other country in the world can tell. In fact, we now have in this country a system of management for our water technologically in advance of that anywhere else in the world. We have a system where all the water, all the rivers, all the discharges, and all the treatments in this country are under 10 single managements through the regional water authorities. This gives tremendous advantages in achieving the best possible result with the resources which are available.

As I say, most water authorities have already completed the classification of all their discharges. They have all established their RQOs now. In most of the water authorities the registers of discharges, with their classifications, are available for inspection. There is nowhere else in the world where these could be seen. I should have thought it would be immensely interesting to the officials from Brussels to make an inspection of these. They would learn how this operates in practice: what you can do and what you cannot do, how the monitoring works and how effective it is. This must be helpful to them and I should have thought that it would be quite impressive. So I hope they may feel inclined to do this. I hope also that they will respond to invitations from my friends in the water industry to demonstrations, seminars—anything which will show them that we in this country have quite a hit to show. We may not be in advance in every respect, but we have a very good tale to tell, and what we have to show we can be absolutely sure of.

In the context of scientific advance, I believe the Commission pay close attention to environmental and scientific progress in the United States. Especially, I understand, they watch the Environmental Protection Agency there. I hope they may have noticed that last autumn the President's Council on Wage and Price Stability, which is a very influential body, made a critical comment on the EPA's quality criteria for water, based on uniform emission standards. They said that they regarded them as inflexible and causing unnecessary costs—and The resulting inflexibility has the effect of imposing a national water quality standard largely independent of"— this is the important point— the stream's specific factors". That may not be very attractive English but we can understand what it means. They said that the stream's specific factors ought to be taken into account. This is a quite useful indication that leading thought in America on this matter is moving towards our river quality objectives. This, I hope, may well influence thinking in the Commission to move in the same way.

I hope that this little debate may move feeling in this country towards confidence in the job which the water industry does and may also move the Commission to accept the wisdom of the policy which we have adopted here. I hope, too, that they may recognise that we are trying here to make a contribution not only for ourselves but for the benefit of the European Commission as well.

8.3 p.m.


My Lords, there is a Salvation Army hymn which begins: "Tell me the old, old story". It would be an apt title for this debate because your Lordships will have heard all this before with, so to speak, a different text—on one occasion titanium dioxide, on another the "drins", on another water for fish, and now mercury. But, like the old, old story in the hymn, we have to go on telling this one.

I should like to join the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford, in thanking the noble Baroness for introducing this report, even though she is not arrayed like a Salvation Army lady. I know that the noble Baroness took an enormous amount of trouble over the drafting of the report in order to make it conciliatory without sacrificing accuracy. Sub-Committee G of the Select Committee is deeply indebted to her leadership, and we are delighted that she has now become chairman—not, as the Americans would say, "chairperson"—of the whole Select Committee. The noble Baroness has covered the material in the 38th Report so well that I have nothing to add to it, but I should like to detain your Lordships for a few minutes by trying to put this problem into a slightly wider perspective.

I am afraid that the Commission in Brussels regards reports from this House on the environment with a mixture of perplexity and irritation. Over environmental issues, Britain seems so often to be out of step with the rest of the Community; and, what makes it worse, we seem to give the impression that we regard the rest of the Community as out of step with us. There is a reason for this. The reason for our stubbornness is that we have been in the business of pollution control for very much longer than all of our European neighbours. We have been in the business for well over a century. Legislation, much of it initiated in your Lordships' House, has provided a philosophy of pollution control which works fairly well. It has its weaknesses, but it works well and we are very unwilling to give it up. But this philosophy is not the one which the Commission is trying to impose upon us. The Commission is dedicated to a vision of harmonisation.

If this harmonisation were as one finds it among the States of the United States of America, the British would, I think, be willing to comply with it—and would, indeed, be glad to. But the Commission is not asking Member States to act in harmony in that sense. It is asking them to act in unison, which is a quite different thing. That is why this case-by-case pragmatism of the British approach to environmental problems is constantly coming into conflict—conflict, as the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford, said, that is very courteous and very diplomatic—with what one might describe as the elegant Cartesianism of the Commission.

Which of the two attitudes is right? I think it is proper to say in this House that there is something to be said on both sides. The Commission believes that harmonisation of social practices, as well as harmonisation of laws and trade, is perhaps a first step on the long journey towards a United States of Europe. When we are pressed to comply with rigid environmental directives it is not because those directives would make our environment any cleaner than it would be with our own procedures. Often that would not be so. It is to achieve harmonisation. I like to think it is a step on this long and exciting journey towards a real European unity. All of us who are pro-Europeans sympathise with this aspiration, but this does not give us any reason to fail to criticise the Commission when we think it is not going about it the right way. And it is not.

The reason for this is fairly simple to explain. It is that even after 100 years the policies for the environment are still tentative. They are improving all the time. They are the outcome of trial and error, something which the sub-committee's expert adviser, Professor Edwards, called an "iterative process". This means you try a technique and you change it or adopt it, according to whether it is failing or succeeding. In an arrangement like that, where a process is evolving, the very worst thing you can do with it is to impose inflexibility and standardisation.

That is why we have to go on trying to persuade the Commission to adopt a much more flexible attitude towards environmental policies than it has up to the present. We have got to make the point that you cannot have a uniform environmental policy unless you have a uniform environment. And the environment between John o'Groat's and the tip of Sicily is not uniform. Member States have all got some advantages and some disadvantages. In the Mediterranean there is more sun and it is warmer; and they grow grapes and make wine. In Britain, we have short rivers, big tides and a west wind. Whenever Germany and Holland have legislation about water matters, they are preoccupied with the unique trans-national problems of the Rhine. To impose a single environmental standard and policy for all these conditions simply does not make sense. Nor does it make sense to impose a single standard which takes no account of the use to which the environment is put. That is why, as the noble Baroness said, Britain has to press for environmental quality objectives, set case by case, depending on local circumstances and taking into account the balance between the costs and benefits that would follow.

As the noble Lord, Lord Nugent, and the noble Baroness, Lady White, mentioned, it is encouraging that two other nations are clearly adopting the policy that we have followed for many years. In America the Council on Wage and Price Stability made the recommendation that the noble Lord mentioned and went on to make a statement that I should like to put on record because it shows the attitude of the Council towards the problem of use. The EPA—the Environmental Protection Agency—which is taken very seriously in Brussels should, the Council said, weigh incremental benefits and costs of clean-up for individual bodies of water and in doing so … provide criteria in the form of a range of values corresponding to different 'levels of protection' within a use level …". It is, like the one read by the noble Lord, a monstrosity of a sentence, but I think its import is quite clear.

France, too, as the noble Baroness said, is adopting a flexible approach similar to our own in its six Basin Agencies. Each agency, like our own regional water authorities, has a good deal of autonomy, but they are all committed to a strategy of the kind we have been urging upon the Commission for the last five years.

Again, I should like to put on record a passage from a pamphlet on Water Management in France, published by the French Ministry of the Environment. This is the way in which quality of objectives is decided: beginning with the use of the stream"— and note the word "use"— they set the maximum waste flows which are compatible with this objective and then supply the regulations to ensure compliance". In another passage the political aim of this policy is made very clear: it is to match the strictness of control to the benefits that one will get from it. There is one passage in the report which discusses the discharge of phosphates into rivers and the report says this—why compel the whole of French industry to abate this kind of pollutant in places where it is not doing any harm? It is to be hoped that, although Britain has not, so far, persuaded the Commission to relax the inflexibility of its Directives about water pollution, the examples from America and France may help the Commission to change its mind.

Meanwhile, I believe it is vitally important that we stick to our philosophy of pollution control: to set objectives depending on use and to fix standards which will then achieve the objectives. To depart from this philosophy would simply be a futile waste of money and resources. The Department of the Environment and the National Water Council I believe are to be congratulated on defending this policy in Brussels with great patience and some success. I emphasise this for the reason referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford. A body called the Environmental Data Services yesterday released a misconceived statement saying that the faults for the misunderstandings that we have been talking about: appear to lie with our negotiators in Brussels and those who brief them". This charge is completely unfair and absolutely unworthy of the other publications from that body, and as a body called Environmental Data Services it is very short of data because it has omitted several important statements, including one from the National Water Council on future objectives. If a data service cannot produce data one cannot have much confidence in anything else that it produces.

In France there is one decision of the Basins which I should like to emphasise because, as the noble Baroness pointed out, the negotiators of both the Department of the Environment and your Lordships' sub-committee when we go to Brussels, find ourselves labouring under one disadvantage. This disadvantage is, I believe, the fault of Her Majesty's Government. When Britain's case for flexibility and pragmatism is made in Brussels we are reminded that the Commission might have more confidence in our case if our own Government had implemented the whole of the Control of Pollution Act which was passed six years ago, and in particular the section giving public access to the evidence that we are controlling river pollution.

It is a very great encouragement to hear from the noble Lord, Lord Nugent, that regional water authorities are doing this voluntarily but the French and other members of the Latin races are not convinced so much by what people do as by what the legislators have determined they ought to do. Therefore, if Section 42 of the Control of Pollution Act could be implemented I think it would give very much more confidence to the French that what the noble Lord, Lord Nugent, said was being done voluntarily is in fact being done; because the French themselves say that information about the degree of pollution of their rivers—and I am quoting again from the Ministry's report— is at the disposal of any person who wishes to consult it, at the Prefecture, the Basin Agency and the Ministry of the Environment". But Section 41(2) has not yet been implemented by our Government.

I realise that there are great difficulties (and I am sure that the noble Lord who is to reply to this debate will tell us what they are) in implementing Part 2 of the Control of Pollution Act, but it would be helpful for us to know whether this particular section could be implemented so that it is known and it is part of the law of the country that the records should be open to inspection by the public free of charge and at all reasonable hours. It is not that we have anything to hide. The Department of the Environment has just published a Digest of Environmental Pollution Statistics, which gives a refreshingly frank overall summary of the state of Britain's environment. But it is no substitute for the implementation of a law that we passed six years ago.

I come back, at the end, to mercury. As the noble Baroness has made clear to your Lordships, the assessment of mercury in water is a very complex matter and it is better for the policy to control mercury to err on the side of caution. That is quite evident from the figures published in the Digest of Environmental Pollution Statistics to show the amount of lead which is going into Liverpool Bay and the mercury content of some of the fish there. But the most efficient way to carry out this policy is to set quality objectives based on a rational foundation, and one rational foundation is the longterm health of people and fish and then to rely on water authorities to set standards which would guarantee that these objectives are met. But I believe that the credibility of our style of pollution control would be greatly strengthened if we could, when we go to Brussels, point to the Control of Pollution Act passed six years ago and say that it is now the law of Her Majesty's Realm.

8.19 p.m.


My Lords, one advantage of being the last speaker before the noble Lord, Lord Mowbray and Stourton, replies, is that I have had the great advantage of listening to three speakers who know a great deal about the subject. In consequence, over the last half hour or so I have been able to learn something about this question, which gives me an advantage that I would not otherwise have had.

The noble Baroness, Lady White, has given us a very clear outline of the recommentations of the report and the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford, has backed it up with intimate experience of the water industry. As for the noble Lord, Lord Ashby, when I have listened to him I always feel why else, after this, should one dream of talking about a scientific matter without listening to him first. He has explained the whole business so skillfully and well. I have little to add but I should like to make just a few comments.

In the first place this word "pollutant" is used. It is put down here as water pollution of mercury. A pollutant is an excellent thing in the wrong place. There is nothing wrong with mercury. It is an extremely valuable and important substance, but it so happens that if it is present in certain forms in certain places it can be dangerous.

I think a certain degree of confusion arises whenever one gets a Directive. A single word, mercury, is covering a lot of different things. One has liquid mercury, which is largely innocuous. One has mercury in what is called the mercurous condition, which is also largely innocuous. In fact, calomel has often been prescribed for internal administration. But the mercuric form is poisonous, and some of the organic forms in which mercury can occur combined with organic matter can be very deadly. So it is not just mercury we are talking about. It is all lumped together here. It is not just mercury; it is certain forms of mercury which are serious and dangerous.

As the noble Lord, Lord Ashby, has correctly pointed out, it is what you are going to do with the water that matters. There may be a whole lot of purposes for which it is not very important whether there is mercury contamination or not; the level may not matter. And let us remember that the chance of getting mercury somewhere in this country is very high indeed. I see the figure which is given in this report is that the average annual discharge of mercury from the chemical industry amounts to about 18 metric tonnes, which is a very large quantity of mercury, but that of course is spread over all the various rivers into which discharge takes place. A lot of it is liquid mercury which will settle out fairly quickly and will not be so serious as a contaminant. But a certain amount of mercury is almost inevitable, and this of course is recognised in the Directive and it is recognised in this report. You cannot set a nil figure for the quantity of mercury in water. That would be a ridiculous figure to set. You just cannot do it; you could not hope to achieve that.

The Directive which we get from the Commission puts in also methods of analysis, and one method of analysis is referred to in paragraph 27 of the recommendations of the report. It says: The proposal lays down a 'reference method of analysis' for analysing samples to check compliance with the directive. The Water Research Council commented that it was 'so vague as to be almost worthless', and was not a reference method but a reference principle. The restriction to a single method could have the dual disadvantage of preventing the use of better methods which may exist or be developed, whilst failing to ensure that results quoted by different authorities are directly comparable". This is quite a serious matter, and I pick this out because my attention was called quite recently to a very peculiar but rather gross error which occurred in a Directive which came from the Commission; the Directive is an old one; I believe it goes back to 1963. There a method of analysis for a fungicide on citrus fruit was quoted. I happen to have had my attention called to this through the Royal Institute of Chemistry because a firm of analytical chemists in this country trying to use the method described in the Directive found that the method just could not work. They took a lot of trouble to find out why it could not work and they finally published a scientific paper in which they pointed out that the method could not work but explained how you could modify it to make it work. This was brought to the attention of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in this country, but they could not get the Commission to take any action on the matter. Whose fault that is, I cannot say.

It was not until I was able, through the intervention of a friend, to get access to Brussels that it turned out, after nearly two months' inquiry in Brussels, that there had been a mistranslation from the French. The Directive read in English that you had to heat up the material without boiling. You cannot analyse it without boiling it; it is only by distilling that you can analyse it. This was a mistranslation of the French word "cuisson" and that word is really used for baking or firing bricks or anything like that. It really meant avoiding the clotting of the material. It was mistranslated as boiling, and consequently for a period of several years no effective analysis could be carried out in this country simply because of this very easily made mistranslation. This is where, when we are examining Directives, very great care is required, especially when they touch on matters such as this.

This question of analysis of mercury is not an easy matter, and I think it is extraordinary of the Commission to attempt to lay down one single method of analysis. It is perfectly clear to me as a chemist that any good analytical chemist would use more than one method in order to be sure that he was getting dependable results. Therefore, all methods ought to be regarded as reasonable and a degree of harmonisation rather than unison is required in this matter. My Lords, I think this report is an extremely valuable and important one, and I hope your Lordships will agree with that.

8.28 p.m.


My Lords, it is once again my pleasure to speak on behalf of the Government in a debate on a report of Sub-Committee G of the Select Committee on the European Communities. We have all been here once before quite recently, as has been mentioned. We debated in October the "drins" proposals. These two sets of proposals have much in common, and many of my remarks will be of dual application rather than specific to the mercury text. First, let me pay a warm tribute to the Select Committee for this report, and in particular to the noble Baroness, Lady White, as also for the admirable way in which she introduced it this evening.

I said in the earlier debate that the authority and quality of their reports is well established. This one, like the "drins", is no exception. The Government welcome this 38th Report, on mercury. It is a most thorough and efficient assessment of these proposals clearly and lucidly expounded. I congratulate again all those concerned. I hope and expect that the report will be widely read, particularly in Brussels and the other capitals of the Community. I should also like to pay tribute to the quality of this debate. As with the "drins" debate in October, it has been most impressive to hear the range and eloquence of the various contributions. I am glad the noble Lord, Lord Nugent, was not immured on the Woolsack this time and was able to give us the benefit of some of his vast experience. We have even had a useful short lesson in French from the noble Lord, Lord Wynne-Jones.

The noble Lord, Lord Ashby, said, "Tell me the old, old story". I agree with him that many of those present during the "drins" debate will already have had a feeling of deja vu in the proceedings today. I may not be able to avoid contributing to that during my own remarks, although naturally I have some different things to say about mercury and about the negotiations in Brussels. But much that was said in the previous debate about drins remains relevant to the draft mercury Directive.

As has been said, mercury is the second "offspring" of the parent Directive, passed in 1976, dealing with water pollution by dangerous substances. The drins and mercury proposals were prepared together and published last year within a few weeks of each other. The issues of principle and precedent highlighted in the drins debate apply to mercury—as also, I am afraid, do many of the problems. The committee's 38th Report is critical of the mercury proposals, as it was of the drins, and rightly so. The Government broadly agree with the committee's criticisms and have been pressing similar arguments in the negotiations in Brussels.

The House may like to know that, in the current negotiations under the Italian Presidency, the "drins" and mercury texts are being run together. The Government believe this is a sensible approach. It has enabled the negotiators to identify key issues in the implementation of the parent Directive—for that is essentially what we are now engaged upon, with these first two "offsprings"—and, hopefully, will allow solutions agreed to the various problems to be readily applied, where appropriate, to both of the texts.

Your Lordships will know of two developments in the negotiations, from the supplementary memorandum submitted to Parliament by my right honourable friend Mr. King, the Minister for Local Government and Environmental Services. For both mercury and the "drins" there are now single draft Directives, covering both methods of pollution control, instead of the two separate tests for each substance considered by your committee. This change is, in fact, foreseen in paragraph 8 of the report before us. The second development concerns the scope of these proposals, which I will deal with in a moment.

Mercury, as has been said, is a widely-used substance, which also occurs naturally. Its potential dangers as a pollutant are well known, although it must be said that we have not experienced any significant incidents in the United Kingdom or in the Community. For implementing the 1976 parent Directive, mercury was rightly given priority by the Commission and the publication of draft Directives was formally welcomed by all Member-States.

The Select Committee's report makes clear, however, that this is, in a sense, a limited proposal. It concerns only the mercury discharged by the chloralkali electrolysis industry. The Commission sought to make an early impact on the problem of black list substances and chose this industry as the largest single source of mercury discharges in the Community. It was the first on their list of mercury-using industries to be covered by proposals under the parent directive. There are chloralkali plants in all Member States, except Ireland and Luxembourg. My information is that in this country four different companies in a total of seven plants—the noble Baroness said that she thought it was eight, but we shall not argue about that—produce about one million tonnes of chlorine a year. Our industry's capacity represents approximately 20 per cent. of the Community capacity. The Commission plans to publish another draft Directive this year dealing with the other main sources of mercury discharges. We expect there to be perhaps five or six different industries, including paint and battery manufacturers.

Your Lordships will appreciate that we face here one of the many examples of the differences in approach between ourselves and our European colleagues. Controlling discharges of blacklist substances on this industry-by-industry basis is not our way. Our approach is based upon environmental quality objectives (EQOs). This means that our main concern is with the quality of the water, which may be affected by various discharges of mercury and also by some natural or background levels. We should therefore prefer Directives dealing generally with each dangerous substance—whatever the source of discharge.

The present approach of taking different industries in turn is obviously based upon the uniform emission standard or limit value system used by the other Member States. As that is the majority view in the Community, we can accept it and cooperate with it. But we believe that the EQO option in these Directives must be more comprehensive. Quality objectives and standards should encompass all the mercury in the water and not just that discharged by a particular industry. So, we consider, as the only Member-State adopting the EQO option provided by the parent Directive, that it would be wrong to restrict the application of the quality objectives and standards agreed for mercury to the chloralkali industry.

This is the second development referred to in our supplementary memorandum. Your Lordships will, I am sure, agree that not only does this comply with existing United Kingdom practice but it also represents more comprehensive and effective environmental legislation. For EQOs, only one Directive is needed to lay down the appropriate standards and procedures for controlling each black list substance like mercury.

Many other criticisms, some of them detailed, can be made of the mercury proposals now before us. But most are effectively made in the committee's report. They were very well summarised in the opening speech by the noble Baroness, Lady White. I just want to mention one point of disagreement between the Government and the committee, which concerns paragraph 33 of the report. It may appear to the House a detailed point, but it is an important one on which I ought to clarify the Government's position. Briefly, the committee agrees with the Commission that for seawater there should be a quality standard for the water itself. This would be in addition to the standard based on mercury in fish, which the Commission proposed on the basis of original United Kingdom research and monitoring. The Government's thinking here is as follows. The prime objective in controlling water pollution by mercury must be to protect human health. The main danger to health lies in eating fish which have absorbed an excessive amount of mercury. Most of the fish we eat in this country comes from the sea. It is therefore essential that we control mercury discharges to estuaries and to the sea and that we monitor the condition of fish caught round our shores. We have proposed a standard for acceptable levels of mercury in fish which must not be exceeded; this particular standard is, as I have said, agreed by the Commission and appears in the draft directive now before us.

In the Government's view, fish are a very effective "sampler" of mercury in the water and a reliable indicator of the condition of the water. There is therefore no need for an additional standard of water quality. It would entail extra monitoring, which would be unnecessary and costly. We therefore intend to resist it. It is unusual for the Government to have any disagreement with the committee on matters of this kind and I hope they, and the House, will understand why we take a different view in this case. I mentioned earlier the differences in approach between the United Kingdom and other Member-States in water pollution control. These differences are not surprising, given the contrast in circumstances, conditions and traditions, as has been so clearly mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Ashby, and the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford. Our system of water pollution control is well-established and based upon our own particular circumstances. As the noble Baroness, Lady White, said, we are not concerned at all with the problems of transfrontier pollution in rivers like the Rhine; but we recognise that this is a major pre-occupation for countries like Germany and France, and even more so the Netherlands. So, it is not easy to draft and agree Community Directives in this field and the Commission deserve some sympathy in their task.

The House will know, however, from our previous debate, that in these particular proposals we are on very firm ground in seeking appropriate provision for the United Kingdom system. These differences in approach and attitude were adequately taken account of in the agreement contained in the parent Directive. That provided the so-called "parallel approach", or the "alternative approach" as Sub-Committee G and others would prefer to call it. The 1976 Directive provides that its offspring Directives covering blacklist substances must specify both uniform emission standards and quality objectives and these are alternative options for Member States to use.

Our major difficulty in the current negotiations has been that the Commission and others took a different view of what the parent Directive provided. Their interpretation is reflected in the draft directives we are considering. The EQO system was to be adapted for the supposed special needs of blacklist substances. In the case of mercury, quality objectives and standards were to be based not on the use of the water, as in the practice in the United Kingdom, but merely on a distinction between freshwater and seawater. There were to be stringent minimum standards, taking no account of variations in local conditions and needs.

There are two points I want to make on this important issue. First, the Government have taken the view from the outset that there was no legal justifiction for this very narrow reading of the parent Directive. That Directive contained a compromise achieved after complex negotiations; each side could use its own system to achieve the same end, the elimination of water pollution by dangerous substances. The Minister then responsible, Mr. Denis Howell, strongly confirmed that this was the original agreement in a speech on this subject in another place on 19th February. I am happy to say that our interpretation of the parent Directive has also now been confirmed in a written Opinion by the Council's Legal Services.

The second point I would make is a practical one. What is the justification for modifying our existing practice and procedures to deal with blacklists substances under a Community Directive? As has been said, water authorities in this country have been dealing with such pollution problems effectively for many years; I think that the noble Lord, Lord Ashby, said for over 100 years. I believe that that is certainly so. There is, of course, always room for improvement, and, with substances like mercury, vigilance and care must be eternal. But a costly and substantial modification of our system of the kind envisaged in these proposals is neither necessary nor acceptable. And I would point out that we are not seeking in the negotiations any basic modification of the alternative system used by other countries, even though there are patently flaws and dangers in it. So, the United Kingdom position is absolutely clear. The parent Direcitve 76/464/EEC specified both methods of water pollution control. The United Kingdom was enabled to deal with blacklist substances like mercury in its traditional way, using environmental quality objectives. What we now seek in this Directive is realistic quality objectives and standards based upon existing theory and practice in this country. That is not what we find in the present text. So, the Government's official negotiators have, as the committee mentions in paragraph 32 of its report, made counter-proposals in Brussels for a range of EQOs by use for a mercury Directive.

I am happy to repeat to your Lordships the assurance given by my honourable friend Mr. Fox, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, in another place, in last February's debate on the drins and mercury proposals. There must be changes in the present mercury tests—especially in providing realistic quality objectives—if the United Kingdom is to be able to agree a Directive. The Government are seeking those changes in the negotiations in Brussels and are firmly resolved to achieve them—as the noble Lord, Lord Ashby, said—in a spirit of harmonisation.

The noble Baroness, Lady White, asked me whether paragraphs 29 and 37 of the committee's report are, in the Government's view, correct. As noble Lords will be aware, these proposals deal with the tricky use of the time-scales within which the different standards in the Directive would come into force. I can say that the committee's observations are broadly in line with our thinking, but I would stress that the question of appropriate time-scales is very much a matter for negotiation.

The noble Baroness, Lady White, also asked whether the Government could give her any comfort about the implementation of Part II of the Control of Pollution Act. We are considering how and when this very desirable step can be taken. I hope that there will be an announcement before too long. As the noble Baroness can probably guess, I am afraid that the main problem is the availability of resources.

Baroness WHITE

My Lords, if I may interrupt the noble Lord for one moment, he will have heard confirmed by the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford, what I had already briefly referred to in my own remarks, that as we understand it, a number of the water authorities are already voluntarily complying. If the major water authorities, including the major industrial ones—as I understood from the noble Lord, Lord Nugent—are already doing this on a voluntary basis, then the disparity in resources cannot be all that large.


My Lords, local water authorities have autonomy in managing their own affairs. If they can do it without charging their customers too much, we shall not stand in their way. But in the present circumstances, unless we can see our way ahead financially, we are averse to ordering people to do it by bringing the Act into operation at once.

The noble Lord, Lord Ashby, stressed the desirability of implementing in particular Section 41 of the Control of Pollution Act. I can assure the noble Lord that we are aware of this, and I shall draw the attention of my right honourable friend to what he has said; I promise him that note will be taken of what he has said.

Reference has been made by the first three speakers in this debate to the recent criticisms of the Government's conduct of these negotiations. I was very glad to hear this article in a certain publication made by a company called Environmental Data Services Limited described by my noble friend Lord Nugent as right off target. The noble Lord, Lord Ashby, suggested that it was an ill-named company to be called a data company when so patently it was lacking in data. I do not know how the company obtained the material that it published, or how it drew its particular conclusions. It is a pity that it did not take the trouble to check its information with us before publishing it, as it would have discovered how wide of the mark were its criticisms.

I should like to make one or two comments in response to this point. There is a central and vital falsehood in these criticisms. Our problem in the negotiations has not been that the Commission and other Member States have misunderstood our position, but that they disagree with it. This is, of course, a wholly different issue. Commission officials have frequently visited the United Kingdom and know our system. Our EQO counter-proposals were carefully explained, but, as I mentioned earlier, the Commission in particular took a rather unique view of the EQO provisions in the parent Directive. I am glad to repeat that this view has been refuted by the Council's legal services and we expect a reassessment of the Commission's position.

We shall assist that reassessment with all the information and explanation that is necessary. Our proposals are already on the table. If the Government negotiators need any help, they will not hesitate to call further upon the united front which already exists, comprising all the organisations and companies affected by these proposals. The representatives of the National Water Council, the CBI, the Chemical Industries Association, and all the chloralkali companies have been closely and frequently consulted by the Government since negotiations began. Their help has been invaluable, and I can assure the House that we shall continue to make the most of it.

I can only end by commending the committee once again on this 38th Report and thanking them for an excellent critique of these mercury proposals. The Government endorse their conclusions, save on one particular point, which I have identified and explained. We are also grateful for this very useful debate, and I can assure all your Lordships that careful note has been taken of the various points made. There is very strong and widespread support for the Government's policy on these draft Directives from all the interested bodies and industries in this country, and I am very happy to see that reflected here, once again, in this House.

8.50 p.m.

Baroness WHITE

My Lords, I should like to thank most warmly the select band who have contributed to this brief debate. It is not a subject which arouses great popular concern, but it is important, particularly for the industries—both the water industry side and the industrial producers in this country—that we try to get these matters as correct and as workable as possible. Nevertheless, I think that there is a case for the plea that I put forward that was not in fact touched upon by the noble Lord; that is, for something which one could hand, for example, to the MEPs.

We have there a new dimension in this situation, and there really is not, so far as I know, a convincing document that you can give to what I call the intelligent lay person who has an interest in the matter. We assume a great deal. We assume that people understand that our system works. You have to do more than that if you are going to try to convince a Member of the appropriate committee of the European Parliament who is not himself acquainted with the way in which we try to administer our system, and that applies equally to the majority probably of the United Kingdom Members as well. I believe there is a case for trying to prove that what we are doing is fully justified and defensible.

If you consider after all the point that I mentioned—the rivers which are categorised as Class 4—it is not easy to explain that you are really playing the game when each separate water authority, under a certain amount of pressure, let us face it, from the industries in its own catchment area, takes its own decisions, sets its own objectives, and follows them up by laying its own standards; and the third step in the process, the actual consent conditions for the particular remission of discharges. You have to be able to prove that the right course is being taken. It is like justice: it has to be seen to be done.

I do not believe that we have paid enough attention to the presentational side of this. I therefore ask Her Majesty's Government not to be put off by what they feel to be quite unjustified criticism, but to recognise that there is a real point of presentation here which could be taken more seriously than we have done so far.

I was most grateful to the noble Lord for the kind things he said about the work of the committee and about our report. He picked on one point, to which I had drawn attention, where we differed from the majority of our witnesses. I assure him that we have taken some advice on this not only from our specialist adviser. There are different views among biologists, as among other people, on what may be necessary in these circumstances.

It is partly a question of how widely one takes the obligations for protection of the environment, which includes rather more than simply human health, even though that may be the predominant consideration. If one looks at the originating Directive, there is a wide obligation to environmental conditions as well as to the health of human beings. We may decide that we cannot afford to look after the environment, that we have enough to do to look after our own wellbeing. But we have had some serious consideration about this, and if that is the only point of difference between us, I do not think that we need worry unduly. I very much thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate.

On Question, Motion agreed to.