§ 4.14 p.m.
§ Lord Gregson rose to move, That this House takes note of the Report of the Select Committee on Science and Technology on Hazardous Waste Disposal (1st Report, 1980–81, H.L. 273). The noble Lord said: My Lords, when this subject was chosen for inquiry by Sub-Committee II of the Select Committee, I was asked by a number of people whether I realised the complexity of the subject and the emotive reaction to the problems. I frankly admit that I did not, but the overwhelming response following our request for evidence very quickly convinced me, and by the time we had completed our review none of your committee doubted the importance of the inquiry.
§ Because of the complexity of the subject and the interest that it aroused, I make no apology for the length of the report or for the considerable number of conclusions and recommendations. On behalf of your committee, I must express our gratitude to the very many people and organisations who helped us with our inquiries, either by submitting written evidence or by giving oral evidence to the committee. It is a measure of public interest that, for the majority of the time when we were taking oral evidence, the public attendance filled the space available and on a number of occasions we had to delay while additional seating was acquired.
§ The attention of the Government was keenly focused on the problem of hazardous waste by the serious incident of the dumping of cyanide waste on open ground in Nuneaton in 1972. The Deposit of Poisonous Waste Act 1972 was passed as a temporary measure while consideration was given to more permanent legislation, and in 1974 the Control of Pollution Act was passed and is the basis for a large measure of this report. It must be of concern to Parliament that sections of that Act are still not in force. I should like to remind your Lordships that this inquiry came about because of the concern expressed by the people of Basildon, regarding one of the largest waste disposal sites in the country at Pitsea; and, of course, it is a site where co-disposal of hazardous waste and domestic waste takes place.
§ The problems at Pitsea have a long history and there is no doubt that there have been a number of serious problems in the past relating to this operation. There is also no doubt that the Pitsea site is acting as a waste 426 disposal unit for a large section of the South-East of England and, in smaller part, for other areas the length and breadth of the British Isles. Although I hope that our report has gone some way to reassure the people of Pitsea on the present-day safety, and the effect on the local ecology, of the operations now carried out at Pitsea, there can be no question that lack of planning by local government and by industry has resulted in the problem of the scale of operations at Pitsea. It "growed like Topsy", and your committee share the concern of the Basildon people that this should have been allowed to happen.
§ It will be apparent from the report that, although we looked in some detail into the Pitsea situation, the inquiry covered—and very carefully covered—the whole national scene and the problems on a national scale. Nevertheless, the situation at Pitsea highlights one of the principal concerns recognised by the committee as the inquiry proceeded, and that was the complacency of the organisations and many people involved in Government, local government and industry. There is a belief that because in this country there have been comparatively few major incidents, we can, without too much effort, maintain this position in the future. It is also the easy way out, because if you do not admit to concern there is no pressure to spend money.
§ This complacency is, at times, tinged with the arrogance that "We know best", and has probably given rise to a very serious loss of public confidence in the whole activity of waste disposal. There can be no question that, without public acceptance, waste disposal becomes an extremely difficult problem and hazardous waste may well border on the impossible, as instanced by some other countries in Europe and by the continuous outcry against waste disposal sites in the United States of America.
§ An effective waste disposal system, including hazardous waste, is essential for many of the functions of industry and therefore must underpin our economy. It is of the greatest importance that all necessary steps should be taken to redress the poor public relations surrounding waste disposal, and this can only be done if we have the best technology and a sound and logical control system.
§ In an island like ours, with a comparatively high density of population, all waste disposal is on someone's back door. Everybody, but particularly parents with young families, must be assured that such sites are applying the best technology that is available and that the controls applied are, first and foremost, based on the interests of the local residents. Case histories show that when public confidence is lost it is almost impossible to convince local residents that all is well. You have only to read the case history of mismanagement at Woodham in the evidence to bring home this point.
§ We must therefore apply the best practical and not the cheapest tolerable means of waste disposal. It is also iniquitous that within this country some of the cost of dealing with other people's waste, and particularly hazardous waste from industry and other parts of the country, should fall on the local ratepayers simply because, by accident, they have a waste disposal site in their vicinity. This must be corrected, on the principle that the polluter should pay, not the ratepayer. It is also essential that the public, and particularly the local residents, should be provided with all the information 427 that is available. This applies particularly to the publication of monitoring results. These must be provided and must not be withheld on the pretext of commercial confidence.
§ The last point I would make relating to public acceptance is that there must be a real attempt to plan. This must include the complete activation of Section 1 of the Control of Pollution Act 1974. It is no longer acceptable that accident and Topsy should be the main feature of site location. It is only equitable that each area of the country should provide its own facilities. One of the proposals put to the committee by witnesses, and particularly the Basildon council, was that waste disposal should be under the control of a national authority. The committee fully understand their concern, but because they believe that public acceptance is better sought within local government, particularly on a planning basis, it is right to base waste disposal authorities at that level. But in order to improve the capability of local government to deal with the problem, the committee have recommended regional groupings. I shall refer again to this later.
§ Well-managed disposal can be safe, provided that technology is continuously updated as industrial technology develops, and provided that disposal routes are selected for each waste individually and that the routes have been carefully chosen to suit the characteristics of each type of waste. This is important since mistakes are difficult, if not impossible, to rectify, as instanced by many reports of problems elsewhere in the world. Some wastes are safe for carefully controlled co-disposal with domestic waste. Some waste must be incinerated. Some waste can be chemically fixed and made safe for direct landfill. Some waste needs to be incinerated at sea or dumped in the deep ocean.
§ I repeat: we must use the best practical, not the cheapest tolerable, means. Furthermore, industry is continuously developing new materials which present new problems for waste disposal. This means that continuous research is essential to underpin the whole activity of the waste disposal industry. We are lucky in the United Kingdom to have at Harwell some of the best research facilities available and that their research, and other research carried out by the waste disposal authorities and universities, has been so well presented by the Department of Environment's waste management papers. The integrity of the research work is the essential stuff on which public confidence is based, and we would urge the Government to increase their efforts in these activities. I would particularly stress the need for additional and continuous research on the long-term effects of landfill, with or without hazardous co-disposal, since this is the mainstay of waste disposal in the United Kingdom, and we need to establish in the shortest possible time the absorptive capacity of domestic refuse to accept liquid waste.
§ We have said that well-managed waste disposal is safe and should be acceptable, but there is considerable scope for abuse. It is very easy, for the best practicable means to deteriorate, by commission or omission, to the cheapest in tolerable means. The only real safeguard that the ratepayer with a waste disposal site on his doorstep has is a well-managed and logical control system. The majority of the 34 conclusions and re 428 commendations in the report relate to that necessary control function.
§ I do not intend to deal in detail with all the recommendations, but I will highlight some of the principles. The control system is vested in the waste disposal authorities which in England are, of course, based on the county councils. In Scotland and Wales they are based on the district councils, or their equivalent. Control is exercised, first of all, by the planning function which controls the location and, most important, sets out the terms of the site licence. It tells the operator what he may or may not do, including what materials may or may not be disposed of on the site.
§ The second function of the waste disposal authority is to monitor the site, usually in combination with the operator and always in combination with the water authority. We believe that the county councils are the right body to carry out these functions and we make recommendations for improvements in this direction for Wales and Scotland. But because waste does not occur equally on a county basis and because of the geological differences from one county to another, problems of disposal arise which in the past have been dealt with by shifting hazardous waste from one end of the country to another.
§ Furthermore, hazardous waste is a complex technological problem and needs expertise in many disciplines. We believe it is difficult for a single county council staff to cover the spread of the technology. We therefore recommend that for planning and control reasons there should be a regional grouping, by the county councils themselves, in order that they could provide the best planning solutions relating to the geography and geology of the area and to enable them to call on the best expert staff that is available, both for planning and for control.
§ Your committee were aware that there is some voluntary collaboration between counties. It was also aware that it was the very diligent counties which tended to collaborate with their neighbours. Although voluntary efforts like this are to be applauded, with a serious subject like hazardous waste which must be covered on a national basis it is not sufficient for matters to be left to chance. We cannot afford even one disposal authority to fail to respond to the challenge. One incident is one incident too many.
§ There are very few functions that could affect public safety or public health in this country which do not have a national inspectorate, but this is not so in dealing with hazardous waste. With an area of activity where so many abuses can take place and where 'public confidence is at such a low ebb, your committee believe that a small, but expert, inspectorate is the least the public should accept or expect.
§ The Health and Safety Executive already have responsibilities for inspecting waste disposal sites. These relate to the people who work on the site but in fact also ensure the safety of the public relative to that workplace. The alkali inspectorate of the Health and Safety Executive also have responsibilities for certain emissions from the site, particularly related to the use of incinerators. Although the Department of the Environment have responsibility in an advisory function on the disposal of hazardous waste, they also have an appellate function, and it would seem to your committee that any inspectorate should be kept quite separate from the 429 appellate function. It is therefore the opinion of your committee that it is more appropriate for inspection to be carried out by the Health and Safety Executive. More than anything else, I believe that the establishment of an inspectorate will help to improve the public acceptance which is so necessary.
§ There are other reasons for this recommendation, but they are all clearly outlined in the report. One of the areas of great concern to your committee was the lack of accurate information regarding the quantities of hazardous waste, and it would appear to your committee that it is quite impossible to carry out a planning function with this poor quality of information. We have therefore suggested that hazardous waste producers should make a quarterly return on the waste they have produced and how and where it is disposed. Responsible companies obviously keep this information themselves, and it should therefore be no real burden to produce the information for the waste disposal authorities. If we are to correct the haphazard past, we must know what wastes there are and where they go.
§ During the course of the inquiry we heard a good deal, but learned nothing about the activities of the so called "cowboys" who operate at night or at weekends, and many people who gave evidence expressed their concern about such activities. It must be in the interest of the responsible companies in the business that all handlers of hazardous waste should be licensed, and we so recommend.
§ There was one area of activity that we inquired into; namely; the importing of waste materials, but we dealt with the question only briefly since during our inquiry we learnt that the Government were carrying out a review of all aspects of this problem and we do indeed welcome this Government review. We make a number of suggestions, but we await the outcome of the Government's work and I should like to ask the Minister, on replying, to inform us of their progress at the end of this debate.
§ Shortly after we commenced our inquiry the Government issued the Control of Pollution Special Waste Regulations 1980 under Section 17 of the Control of Pollution Act 1974 and these regulations came into force on 16th March of this year. At the time of their introduction there was considerable critical comment on the new regulations, both from the waste disposal authorities and from individuals. This was also reflected in the debates that took place in both Houses of Parliament. Your committee was asked by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution to have a look in some detail at these regulations since at the time the environmental committee was engaged upon another inquiry. This your committee did and in Chapter IV we report at some length. With regard to the discussions and comments at the time of the issue of the regulations, your committee feel that at least some of the fears were unfounded. Your Committee believe that this would have been better understood at the time had the Department of the Environment not been so late in issuing their explanatory leaflet. Your committee have made a number of comments and recommendations, the most important of which is that the burden of proof as to whether a material constitutes a special waste should be trans 430 ferred from the waste disposal authority to the producer of the waste.
§ It must be obvious that the producer, with his full knowledge of the chemicals involved and their effects, is in a far better position to propose the proof than the waste disposal authority who are dealing with waste products from numerous sources across the whole spectrum of industrial activity. In the Commons debate on 9th February the Government undertook to review the operation of the new regulations after 12 months and that this review would undertake to answer the questions that were raised at that time. I hope the Government will take note of your Committee's comments and we look forward to the outcome of this review.
§ Whatever changes may or may not be made in the regulations, effective control will exist only if sufficient staff of the right calibre are provided and your committee urgently request the Government, in connection with the local authorities, to ensure that such resources are made available. It is too important not to do so.
§ I said at the beginning of my speech that this is a complex subject with very considerable public concern and that your committee has produced a fairly long and detailed report. I have not attempted to deal with the report in detail, and I am sure that that is not what your Lordships would have wanted. I have confined myself to the highlights and to stressing some of the important questions. I look forward to the debate and particularly to the maiden speech to be made by the noble Viscount, Lord Dilhorne, and I also look forward to the Government's reply, although I realise that they will not yet have had time to answer all our comments in any detail. This is an important subject involving considerable public concern, and I request that when the Government do reply in detail they do so in a White Paper which would then be available for further discussion. I would also request that they produce the White Paper quickly and not drag their feet, as they have done in replying to your Lordships' Select Committee's report on forestry, which has gone unanswered for over 12 months.
§ In opening the debate I thanked the people who came forward with a vast quantity of evidence to be considered; in closing I should like to pay tribute to my colleagues on the committee for the inordinate amount of time they have spent in considering this mass of evidence and for their wise counsel. We are also most grateful to the two specialist advisers, Professor Isaac and Professor Warner, for their expert assistance, and last but certainly not least our thanks go to our clerk, Paul Hayter, and his staff, who bore the brunt of the tidal wave of paper and assisted us to produce the report, which I hope meets with the approval of your Lordships. I beg to move.
§ Moved, That this House takes note of the Report of the Select Committee on Science and Technology on Hazardous Waste Disposal (1st Report, 1980–81, H.L. 273).—(Lord Gregson.)
§ 4.37 p.m.
§ Baroness Robson of Kiddington
My Lords, I am sure all Members of your Lordships' House are extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Gregson, and his committee for bringing this report to the attention of your Lordships' House and giving us the opportunity 431 to debate a subject which is of such deep concern to the average citizen in our country. The noble Lord apologised for the length of his report and for the number of recommendations contained in it. He need not apologise for that: it is a problem which concerns us all deeply and which needs to be dealt with in great depth in order to allay the fears of the population. Many eminent speakers are taking part in this debate, some of them qualified by their connections with industry, others qualified by their connections with science, but as neither a scientist nor an industrialist I want to confine myself to just a few of the recommendations that I feel are of great concern.
First, as has been mentioned, landfill is without doubt the cheapest disposal method, as well as being, in many cases, the best one. But there is a great danger, and we have experienced the great dangers inherent in landfill if segregation of waste material is not adequate. Some waste products decompose more quickly when exposed to the air, others require burial; then again we have the problem of the interaction on each other of different materials which, although in themselves not hazardous, when put together become hazardous. I believe that up to now not enough segregation has been practised on many sites, and therefore we welcome the committee's recommendations for better informed manpower on the site and for improved management of the sites themselves.
Secondly, the report recommends heavier penalties for fly-tipping, or the "cowboy", and that is very much welcomed. However, I believe that as long as the penalties are purely financial the practice will continue, because the occasional fine, set at whatever level, that one might have to pay when one is caught rarely comes up to the cost of properly treating the waste that is being deposited on the site. I believe that we must have an ultimate penalty of imprisonment for contravention of the law.
The recommendation for regional planning of waste disposal, as the noble Lord has said, is of the utmost importance, despite the fact that we acknowledge, as the noble Lord did, that the Association of County Councils believe it is unnecessary because there is already voluntary co-operation between some councils. But without a regional plan, in particular for the most difficult waste disposal problems, we shall inevitably dissipate the expertise and manpower that is available to us. Also I believe that we shall increase the cost of the disposal unless it is done on a regional basis.
Coupled with the regional plan, an improved advisory machinery to industry, as the report suggests, is of great importance. One does not have to go very far back in time to realise that there have been managers in industry who out of desperation have called on the "cowboys" to dispose of material because they were unable to find out where they should take their waste. I believe that regional planning, with a proper advisory service for industry attached to it, would go a long way to help solve our problems.
The committee's comments on incineration of waste, in paragraph 24 of the report, are particularly welcome, so long as emission problems are carefully monitored. It has three advantages. Ninety per cent. of the waste is destroyed, and by the use of relatively small in 432 cinerators, maybe on factory sites, transport costs of waste would be reduced and the risk of waste moving along our roads would be less. Thirdly, and not least importantly, the generation of heat in the incineration process can be exploited for energy uses. In Stockholm there is a waste disposal plant which has been functioning since long before the war and which in fact produces the central heating for a whole district of Stockholm. So using incineration would also help our energy problems. But, as I said, the control and the monitoring of the emission must be very strict.
We also welcome the committee's recommendation that the Health and Safety Executive should set up a hazardous waste inspectorate, particularly with a view to strengthening the safeguards, for which they are already responsible, for the people working on sites. Minimum facilities exist on many sites at present for the workers' safety, and these must inevitably be improved. But we believe that it is quite right that the research responsibility should remain with the Department of the Environment. In particular, research on the reclamation of waste land should be increased so that calamities such as that concerning the Ealing housing estate are avoided. It was built on a former refuse pit; the plan was to create 1,600 homes on what had previously been a highly poisonous pit. Scientists recommended that sealing with 500 mm of top soil would be an adequate safeguard. As it proved, families, children, became ill, and it obviously was not an adequate safeguard.
I believe much more research should go into how we can reclaim these pits that have been mismanaged in the past. It may be that we shall have to go to the length of actually physically removing some of the material in these pits to safer places, although this would he very costly. But I believe we need a lot more research in this field.
The statement made by the noble Lord, and by the report, that the cost of the control and management of waste cannot justifiably be levelled at the ratepayer is welcomed, particularly in view of the recommendation for regional planning. We should emphasise to industry that the industrial process is not complete until the cost of the disposal of waste has been taken into account. The cost of the disposal of waste is part of the production cost of any product. I think this might help to concentrate industry's mind and encourage them in the use of the waste productively. But there has to be a balance and we must not penalise industry; they have to remain competitive. Nevertheless, they will have to carry a large part of the burden.
For the future, therefore, the cost of reclamation of sites should be part of the cost of the licences. It was estimated in 1978 by a scientific committee that the cost of reclaiming contaminated land in that year was £40,000 an acre. No doubt in future, if we implement the recommendations of this report and the sites are better managed, the cost will be less, but it will still be there. Land which is a hole in the ground and therefore becomes a place for waste disposal has very little value, and the cost of licences would be very small unless the cost of reclamation was taken into account. The additional cost for licences that this would entail could then be used by the local authority to set up a contingency plan for reclamation which would be self-financing.
433 Finally, if, as expected, the chemical industry doubles its production in the next 10 years, the future demand for disposal facilities will increase enormously. We therefore need, as the report points out, a national geological survey of suitable sites, linked with present areas of already contaminated land, created largely prior to the 1972 Act. I do not believe it would be as costly to produce a plan or a national survey as some people fear. The National Institute of Geological Sciences have a lot of the information already at their disposal. The Department of the Environment already have knowledge of environmental wasteland, of which there are thousands of acres. Some effort at reclamation has been made, but the cost to local authorities is out of proportion. Land is our most precious national heritage, and the cost of reclamation, the need for which has been created by past mistakes, must be a national responsibility. We look forward to the Government's response to this very informed and thoughtful report which takes such a balanced view of the problems that face us.
§ 4.49 p.m.
§ Baroness Birk
My Lords, may I, too, welcome the Committee's report, and also the way in which my noble friend Lord Gregson provided such a clear exposition. The report, which has been referred to as a long one, was, I thought, considering the size of the problem with which it was concerned, succinct and really comparatively short, and—what was really a joy—written with simplicity and with clarity. In a world where so many millions are living in dire need and poverty it is a terrible irony that we should have the problem of waste, even if it is hazardous waste, disposal. Technological advance increases our problems all the time, and we are always having to try to keep a balance between the needs of industry and science and the protection of the health and environment of our community. I so agreed with my noble friend when he referred to the complacency which has acted as a cloud over this subject for so long. I welcome the recommendations and certainly would not dream of going through all of them. However, I should like to pick out a few which struck me.
I am very glad that the committee rejected the idea of a national agency. I think that the disposal being left primarily at local level with rigorous Government control is the right balance for this type of problem. The special waste regulations were debated, as my noble friend pointed out, on 19th January this year and, as someone who spoke from these Benches, I remember how annoyed and shocked we all were as it all appeared to have arisen very suddenly. It is true, as my noble friend has pointed out, that if the Department of the Environment had issued an explanatory paper rather sooner there would have been more acceptance of what those regulations were all about. However, I am delighted in view of those special regulations that the committee have recommended an annual review—this is a matter which worried many of us—so that there will be an annual list of special waste materials and any more that are classified as dangerous can be added to that list. Therefore, one hopes that the Government will be prepared, in the light of that, to make amendments to the regulations as they are needed.
434 I also think that the recommendation that the burden of proof must be transferred from the waste disposal authority to the producer, is absolutely right. Now it will be up to the producer to prove that a material is not dangerous rather than the waste disposal authority having to prove that it is dangerous. The proposal that the toxicity assessment should refer not to the 20 kilogram "child" body weight but to "human" body weight is certainly a very good move in the right direction, as I think noble Lords who were present or who read the debate on the regulations will remember the mixture of mirth and despair with which that comparison was greeted during that debate.
The proposal that some waste-creating long-term exposure hazards should be classed as special is an important addition to what we have at present. The review of the regulations themselves by the Government, the local associations and industry which I think was set up in the summer, is obviously something which we welcome. I wonder when the Minister replies whether he could say when that review will be completed.
I am delighted that the select committee's view that there needs to be more control on imported wastes is being taken up by the Government, and I hope that they will act in their review with as much speed as did the Select Committee. It is essential that this country should not be a dumping ground for other countries' toxic wastes, as we know what a big industry the waste industry has now become.
I turn now to points which are concerned more with resources. The basic one seems to me to be that the polluter should pay, and should pay for site licences, and that would enable the local authority to cover the costs of processing the licences. As my noble friend pointed out, why should people pay through their rates for the privilege of having the waste almost in their backyard? The site operator also should have to insure against damage to the environment. I think that that is absolutely essential.
Also, the penalties for illegal dumping should be substantially increased, and I entirely agree with the noble Baroness on that matter. The penalty must be high enough to act as a deterrent. If it were sufficiently high, it still could act as a deterrent before we reached the question of imprisonment, although with any fine, however low or high, there is always the alternative of imprisonment. That would mean that, if such cases are to continue to be heard in magistrates' courts, then the magistrates' courts limit of a fine of £1,000 would have to be increased.
It has also occurred to me that there may be a possibility of being able to take away a site licence from somebody who offends in that way and to that extent. I am not sure whether this side of the matter is mentioned in the report and, if it is, I must apologise for having missed it, but I do not remember seeing it. However, that might be a way in which offenders in this area could be dealt with. It is really equivalent to taking a driving licence away from somebody who has caused destruction on the road. In this case it is destruction to the environment and to the community.
One of the very major points of concern which I think will have to be discussed and which the Government—any Government—will have to take on to a very considerable extent is that so many of the recommendations involve, as they must, more public expenditure. For 435 example, there is the greater inspection of waste dumped at sea. There is the maintenance of research at Harwell which was mentioned by my noble friend, and the view that this should not be reduced in real terms but should be enough to meet the needs spelt out in the report. That means that there would have to be an increase in the finance for Harwell. To ensure the provision of specialist facilities, the public sector will either have to provide facilities or support them financially—for example, where disposal in an incinerator is considered absolutely essential or environmentally safer than infill, with the danger of leakage and the tying up of land, that will have to be paid for, and I cannot see that money coming from industry. The Waste Advisory Service will also have to be provided from the waste disposal authorities, who again will have to find the money. It is urgent that the Government should discuss resource demands with the waste disposal authorities to ensure adequate qualified staffing. I also agree that Section 1 of the Control of Pollution Act 1974, which for so long many of us have wanted to see implemented both under the last Government and under this Government, should now be implemented.
The small inspectorate set up within the Health and Safety Executive is at first glance certainly an attractive proposition. I would only raise the question: Is there a danger of getting too fragmented a control unless we are very careful as regards the way in which it is worked out? The Department of the Environment has a land waste division. The Association of County Councils believes that that should be strengthened with the separation of advisory and appellate functions. The Association of Metropolitan Authorities has not yet formed a firm view. What I think is probably agreed among us all is that there should be an annual report to Parliament; that it is important that there should be an inspectorate and that, whether it comes from one source or another, it should be independent of the waste disposal authority. It should have advisory functions, but it should not he another quango and it should not duplicate what is already being done. There must be a clear division of responsibility. However, if there is an inspectorate—it might be the Health and Safety Executive, and I can see why the Committee plumped for that, because it ties up with so many of the other responsibilities of that executive—I should like to know whether, apart from being advisory, it will have any teeth. I do not know whether it is fair to put the question now and whether my noble friend will be able to answer in his reply or whether it is something which is being thought about.
One of the problems which we are finding, certainly with the local government ombudsman, is that he can make a report and even say that he thinks that there has been maladministration, but, if the local authority—in this case it may be the waste disposal authority—turns it down or refuses to accept what he or she has said, then there is nothing that can be done. Whatever solution is accepted in this area there must be some power somewhere in order to implement the recommendations.
The question of waste disposal regions is another slightly controversial issue, where again the local authority associations have somewhat different views from those of the committee. I believe there is a fear 436 that, if it is put on a formal basis, there could be a duplication of scientific services and that there would have to be a division of the quite small number of public analyst laboratories—I believe that local authorities have 50 spread over the country—in order to service the regions. Again, it would be costly to have another at regional level, because we should still need the scientific services at waste disposal authority level. If it were formal, it would, of course, require new legislation. At the moment I find the thought of new legislation on anything rather distasteful anyhow, but, if it is necessary, that is another matter. If it were informal, it could be like the London Regional Planning Committee, which is a small group with a small staff in the social services field.
But I raise these more as questions to be thought about and debated, and I hope that when the Government produce their White Paper or their Green Paper on this it will be discussed further and more thoroughly. I do not believe that there are any rights or wrongs about the subject. We are simply trying to find the most effective and most economical procedure without being too loose and too negligent about what needs to be done.
Therefore, if there is an essential problem of resources, one wants to know what will be done about it. If industry wants the local authorities to pay, where can they get the money except by way of site licences? If site licences are to cover not only the cost of the site but also all the monitoring, care and maintenance, then the cost can be quite high. It is perfectly true that people's interest flags into apathy until a disaster occurs. Therefore, unless one conducts a very long and fairly constant educational and propaganda exercise, it is very difficult to expect the public to take a long-term view of this.
In this particular climate, where local authority expenditure is being very severely cut and where there is talk—the Bill has been published—of having a referendum on local authority expenditure, it seems to me that this is something which will inhibit action on the whole of this excellent report, unless the Government are prepared to take this as a very, very high priority.
I assure noble Lords that I am not trying to make a party political point, but, if you ask people whether they want their rates to increase or services to be cut, how can you explain, in a question which requires a simple "yes" or "no" answer, that you are not only talking about the social services, but about taking measures to protect them against some disaster, which may or may not happen in the future, in order not only to dispose of waste in the most economical manner but in the safest possible manner?
One can argue that money put into sites is a capital investment, as is the training of skilled men and women who will be needed to monitor sites—and we shall need more than we have at the moment—and who need to combine the skill of chemists with a variety of other skills in order to see what has been dumped.
I certainly agree with my noble friend Lord Gregson that public relations are absolutely essential. One can see what is happening in other countries. If you get a run of disasters, people become so scared that they do not even want to know about anything being dumped within hundreds of miles of where they 437 themselves live. This is not something that can be left to market forces. One cannot expect industry to take over the largest burden of what, if it is to be dealt with properly, is an enormous national undertaking.
The Government have a responsibility to produce a strategy for waste disposal that takes into account changing public attitudes to landfill and the dangers generally of hazardous waste disposal, and at the same time to provide a framework which will not fetter industry to an extent which will hinder its growth and, therefore, that of the United Kingdom. This requires a partnership; a proper balance of public and private resources that reconciles society's aspirations with industry's needs. Above all, it needs a very high sense of priority; a realisation that this is not just a good report that can be buried for a time, but that it is something that is very urgent that will grow into a monstrous being in our society if wed? not do something about it. We need not only to give more thought to it, using this excellent report as a starting point, but action needs to be taken as soon as possible.
§ 5.6 p.m.
§ Viscount Dilhorne
My Lords, in making my first speech in your Lordships' House, I ask your indulgence for what I shall endeavour to make a brief and relevant contribution to this debate. I hasten to say that I am not a scientist, nor a specialist in these complex, technical matters; nor do I have any financial interest whatever to declare in this subject. It is, therefore, with a sense of some foreboding that I trespass into this field, and I hope that my trespassing will not be considered to be impertinent.
The wide terms of reference given to the Select Committee make it quite impossible for me to do justice to their report or to deal with all the matters that I would like to cover in this speech. I propose to consider two matters in some detail, neither being of a technical or scientific nature. I am concerned about the use of the words "waste" and "hazardous". Both enjoy a wide range of meanings; both are emotive and both can arouse passion, especially when the waste is to be deposited in close proximity to any person's property. I intend to show that the definition adopted for "waste" is unduly restrictive and too negative, whereas for "hazardous" it is technically unfortunate and far too wide.
The definition adopted is contained in paragraph 8 of the report. I shall not read it because I am sure that your Lordships are all familiar with it. Two pages later a further definition appears. It reads:Since matter is indestructible, all raw materials and manufactured products, when they have no further value for use or recovery, become waste".Without exception it is almost true to say that "what is one man's waste is another man's raw material". For instance, once these Order Papers have fulfilled their use here, they will be sent by barge down the Thames and will help to recover derelict marshland in Essex. In the course of time that derelict marshland will become agricultural land, recreational land or, indeed, an ecological habitat up to SSI level.
That is not all, for this paper may alternatively be used for engineering purposes by the Anglian Water Authority to protect the environment against flooding 438 of the River Thames—when I read this speech through the first time I unfortunately put a "c" between the "i" and "a" of Anglian and I am very glad to have avoided doing so now—and to assist in the construction of the barrage. This is a more positive use of the word "waste". It is one which goes beyond both definitions adopted by the Select Committee. Modestly, therefore, I submit that if the word "waste" is to be used its definition should give weight to such a positive effect. I would also submit that all waste is matter residing in the wrong place at the wrong time, and that definition helped me to formulate in very simplistic—perhaps over-simplistic—terms the problems as I saw them.
I read of course in great detail and with great respect this excellent and comprehensive report which, as has been said earlier on, was written with such clarity. The points are these: first, that the alleged detriment to the environment be identified; secondly, that all possible solutions be researched; thirdly, that an assessment should be made of the alternative strategies; fourthly, that an estimate be made of the proposed benefits to society and to the environment accruing from the particular strategy chosen; fifthly, that the cost of obtaining the best solution should be accurately estimated; and sixthly, that the cost should be weighed against the benefit. It is only then that a valid decision can be made. The report concentrated also on ways to obtain tighter control to increase the safety factor in disposing of potentially hazardous wastes. No estimate of the cost or the benefits that could arise from that expenditure were considered or even suggested in the 186 paragraphs and seven appendices of that excellent report.
I return to the use of the word "hazardous". It has caused considerable difficulty to all the experts to define it satisfactorily. An accurate and comprehensive definition, I submit, is important. One considerable difficulty I see arising if no such definition is forthcoming is, that if the recommendation of that committee is adopted requiring all producers of hazardous waste to register with their waste disposal authorities, this will, in my submission, cause the test of who should, or who should not, register to be a veritable legal minefield. This would lead in its course to increased costs through increased bureaucracy, increased documents to be filed, which would prevent the relevant statutory officers from overseeing the actual sites in the field, which is where and how the environment needs protection.
The report commended a formula used by the World Health Organisation to define "hazardous". It is contained in paragraph 12 of the report, but I shall not repeat it here. This definition is based, first, on the effect of material on the human body, and, secondly, on the long-term hazards. It would be more than presumptuous of me to say that such a definition is not entirely right coming from such an eminent body, but with great respect it seems to me to apply the wrong test. It is so general that inherently it is not entirely accurate. I submit that the better test is to define precisely the environment into which the material is going to enter. This is surely better than saying that the effect of the material should be judged solely by its own characteristics; for, my Lords, this takes no account of the fact that a substance can be hazardous in one circumstance 439 but not perhaps in another. That is the correct criterion, I would submit, that should be applied.
Before leaving the word "hazardous" I would submit that it is an unfortunate word to use as well, at least technically. For instance, I am sure that no one in your Lordships' House would disagree that petrol carried in a bottle is extremely hazardous and has unfortunately, as we have witnessed, an explosive power in our urban streets. But petrol and hydrocarbons if carried in a tanker are accepted as being safe even at the point of sale. It is, I understand, an accepted fact that approximately 90 per cent. of the materials and substances which are transported are less potentially hazardous than the refining and transportation of petrol or sulphuric acid wastes, yet the statutory requirements for construction of large tankers to transport these substances are more exacting than the requirements for construction of tankers for transporting petrol and sulphuric acid. Naturally, if follows that the higher specification demanded leads to higher costs of disposal.
Another consequence of using such a word is that when planning permission is sought the issues become more emotive than they need be. The consents are held up, frequently because there is a chronic misconception as to the nature of the hazardous waste in question. May I submit that the word" potential"should be added and should precede the word" hazardous", on the basis that if the disposal is properly carried out the land is not unfit for subsequent redevelopment? In other words, once the material is engineered satisfactorily to sea, to land or to air, the hazard from it becomes insignificant.
My final point is that the Select Committee's recommendations are aimed at making the risks still lower. On their findings, they consider that the present situation is satisfactory to a degree. My concern is simply that the recommendations should be costed so that it becomes possible to evaluate the reduction of the risk which it is hoped that the proposed measures will bring about. In this way it will become possible to measure the cost benefit which could provide the basis for appropriate legislative action. Finally, I consider that your Lordships' House should always bear in mind that there is always a point at which any further expenditure on pollution abatement will exceed the value to the community of the resultant environmental improvement.
§ 5.17 p.m.
§ Lord Ashby
My Lords, it is a great privilege to find one's name on the list next to a maiden speaker. It gives me the opportunity to be the first to congratulate the noble Viscount on making a valuable and charming—if charm can be applied to hazardous wastes—introductory speech. The noble Viscount observed that circumspection which is traditionally expected of maiden speakers, but I am sure your Lordships will have, so to speak, caught enough of a glint in his eye to realise that when he is freed from these restraints he will be able to speak even more forcibly and with great influence in this House. I know I am echoing the view of all your Lordships in this Chamber in welcoming that maiden speech and in hoping that we shall hear him many more times in this House.
440 It is also a great pleasure to pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Gregson, for so clearly introducing this complex report. He made one feel that it was not complex. I should like to add also tribute to the masterly way in which he managed the committee which has produced the report. This report is, I can assure your Lordships, one without a rival among reports on hazardous waste in both Britain and America. In speaking to one aspect of it, I am really underlining some of the points already made by the noble Lord, Lord Gregson. The Motion is to take note of the report. I hope the Minister will assure us that the Government will do much more than take note of it; that they will act on it and will not do as previous Governments have done with other hazardous waste reports—namely, let them lie on the shelf until some crisis has arisen which has obliged them to act—and I shall spend a few minutes of your Lordships' time elaborating why I make that point.
For anyone who is familiar with environmental policy there is in this report a surge of déjà vu. It is exactly 10 years ago since there was a great crisis brewing over the dumping of hazardous waste. Back in the 1960s there was adequate legislation to cover the environmental protection of the air and water, but there was no proper statutory restraint on the dumping of hazardous or toxic wastes on land. The only safeguard was the conscience of the contractor, and there was plenty of evidence that many contractors had no conscience in this regard.
Then in 1963 there was an incident, when some sheep and cattle and a foxhound died because there was leaking of fluoroacetamide which had come from rusty drums from a pesticide factory. That prompted the then Minister for Housing and Local Government to set up the Key Committee. The committee was set up in 1964 and it worked in a leisurely, not to say glacial, manner, and it did not report for six years, not until 1970, and it had only 20 meetings in that long interval. So obviously no pressure was being put on it by the Government to produce a quick result. Yet many of its findings were disquieting. It gave a list of 17 serious incidents of the dumping of toxic wastes and damage that had been done by them and it made a number of recommendations which—this is the ominous fact—reappear in the report before your Lordships today.
The Key Report got little attention from the press and no attention whatever from the Government. That was in 1970—a time when public opinion was beginning to be aroused about the environment. The Standing Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution was set up. It produced its first report one year later, in 1971, and in that report it expressed its great disquiet that nothing had been done to implement the recommendations in the Key Report. The Government's reason for delay was that they were preparing to reorganise local government, but that did not seem to the Royal Commission a proper reason for delaying action on what was a very dangerous practice.
Throughout 1971 the Royal Commission kept on bringing to the attention of the Secretary of State the urgent need for some kind of legislation to curb the dumping of toxic wastes and to give some kind of control similar to that available to keep the air and water from being polluted. All that the commission 441 was told was that more information was wanted by the Department of the Environment. The Royal Commission provided that information; it gave seven more examples of the dangerous handling of toxic wastes—and those, I emphasise, not by fly-by-night cowboy tippers but by employees of a nationally known wastage contractor firm. There was still no response from the Government.
Then, in November 1971, 10 years ago, the Royal Commission drafted a second report, strongly criticising the Government for the lack of action and making various recommendations, another one of which appears in the report before your Lordships today. The reply was that there was no parliamentary time for bringing in any more legislation. Then in January 1972 the news broke in the Birmingham Sunday Mercury that employees of that same nationally known firm of waste contractors were dumping wet waste and drums containing cyanide, chromic acid, phenol, caustic soda and other nasty things, some of them accompanied by delivery tickets describing them as innocuous. It was the Conservation Society which disclosed that.
On 22nd February 1972, a representative of the Conservation Society came to Parliament to see MPs to try to get something done. However, fate overtook him. Two days later, on 24th February, there was no more need for the Royal Commission or the Conservation Society to take any trouble, because that was the day when there were headlines about drums of cyanide—with the labels scratched off—being found on a waste piece of ground at Nuneaton where children played. A week after that disclosure, a Bill was hurried through Parliament; that was the Deposit of Poisonous Waste Act. The relevance of that story to this debate lies in a comment which appeared in an editorial in The Times under the headline "How to move a Government", and this was the comment:It is instructive to note what did and what did not prompt the Government to squeeze a Bill…into an already crowded legislative programme. The urgent representations of an official commission…moved by the 'disturbing cases which have come to our knowledge', did not".That was a quotation from the commission's report—Headlines about drums of cyanide waste on derelict land in the Midlands did".I hope we can prevent a repetition of that humiliating censure, and that is why I tell this story.
Today we have before us a report which is incomparably better than the Key Report. It contains far more information and comes to much crisper conclusions. It was written in one-ninth of the time, an argument perhaps for the services which this House gives to the nation which might be used for people who think this House might be abolished.
Much has been done since that hurried legislation 10 years ago, but much remains to be done before this dangerous gap in legislation can be closed. Your Lordships' committee makes recommendations which I believe it would be foolish to disregard. We all realise that to put before the Government at this time anything which would increase public expenditure would be unwise and unpopular, but there must be some exceptions. I would, however, pick on three of the recommendations, two of which the noble Lord, Lord Gregson, mentioned, because I believe that two of 442 them would not have involved expense, although one of them does not meet entirely with the approval of the noble Viscount, Lord Dilhorne; I imagine it is as unconventional for anyone to differ from somebody's maiden speech as it is to make a controversial maiden speech. However, I propose to differ.
Paragraph 185.10 says that producers of hazardous waste must register with the waste disposal authority. That seems to be a very simple provision which would not involve a great deal of expenditure and would enable us to know at any rate where the sources of hazardous waste were in the country. Paragraph 185.13, as the noble Lord, Lord Gregson, said, refers to the licensing of waste disposal contractors who deal with hazardous waste, with provision to revoke such licences if they are abused. That may mean a certain amount more documentary work, but I believe that the results of it would be enormously worthwhile. Disposing of some kinds of hazardous waste is still expensive, and there is a temptation to the contractor to do it more cheaply, even though that might now be illegal.
There is no doubt that the integrity of contractors has greatly improved since 1971—heaven knows! there was room for improvement—and this has been due to a code of practice drawn up by the National Association of Waste Disposal Contractors, but even it admits that its membership covers only 75 per cent. of the total activity. The association went on to say—and this is an extract from its evidence—that,there are hundreds of little people we do not have in our organisation and we could not tell you how many they are".Another responsible body, the Road Haulage Association, wrote in evidence over fly-tipping that,certain legislative and local authority arrangements are clearly inadequate …Consequently there are considerable hazards to the public".That is surely an irrefutable case for licensing all handlers of hazardous waste outside the place of production. Indeed, it is the neglect of such measures that costs money. In order to give your Lordships one example, I would point out that to decontaminate the notorious Ravenfield tip in Yorkshire cost over a quarter of a million pounds. If proper controls had been current before 1972, the cost would certainly have been far less, and might have been totally unnecessary. Then there is the far worse case in America of the Love Canal, near Niagara. It has been estimated by the Council for Environmental Quality that the whole of that waste could have been safely disposed of at a cost of 2 million dollars. The cost of remedial work has already exceeded 125 million dollars.
Finally, I turn to paragraph 185.15, which recommends a small hazardous waste inspectorate. That would of course cost a little money, but I believe that the money would be recouped quickly by the beneficial results of the scientific advice that would be available. Indeed, if the Government had not neglected yet another report, the Fifth Report of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, the recommendation in the report now before your Lordships would not have been necessary. I say that because, in the fifth report, the Royal Commission recommended a very imaginative and important extension of the successful policy of using the "best practicable means". The commission recommended the use of the "best practicable environmental option"; that is, a policy of deciding whether to 443 dispose of wastes on land, in water, or in the air, under the guidance of a unified pollution inspectorate. The inspectorate would not be an enormous body, because it would really subsume officials who are already working in the Alkali Inspectorate and for regional water authorities. Next January, it will be six years since that important fifth report of the Royal Commission was published. Nothing has been done about its recommendations.
So I return to my opening statement. May we have at the end of the debate an assurance that this report from your Lordships' Science and Technology Committee will receive prompt consideration and adequate and public response?—I hope through a White Paper. We are already being criticised by our Common Market partners for failure to implement parts of the Control of Pollution Act, which is now eight years old. In this country we have every reason to be proud of our past record in the protection of the environment. But we shall weaken our influence in Europe if successive Governments do not consider, and sometimes seem not even to listen to, the advice given to them by the committees and commissions that are appointed to serve them. I believe that the report before your Lordships now presents an opportunity to repair this story of neglect.
§ 5.35 p.m.
§ Baroness Platt of Writtle
My Lords, it is with pleasure that I rise to support the recommendations of the report of the Select Committee of the noble Lord, Lord Gregson. As the noble Lord remarked, the inquiry originated as a result of an approach by Basildon District Council with regard to the Pitsea landfill site in Essex. We in Essex are very grateful for the objectivity of Lord Gregson's Select Committee and for its appreciation of the urgency of the problem of hazardous waste.
I should like to congratulate my noble friend Lord Dilhorne on his felicitous maiden speech and on painting such an attractive picture of land reclamation on Essex marshland by using your Lordships' waste paper. I look forward to hearing my noble friend speaking again about other attractive schemes for beautifying our county.
Essex has been involved in hazardous waste disposal for many years, and we endorse the Select Committee's first conclusion that:public hostility to hazardous waste disposal facilities is common and is too important to be ignored".We were pleased to see that the Committee agreed with Basildon District Council and Essex County Council that:Pitsea takes more than its fair share of hazardous waste".The question is: What needs to be done now? As the committee states, there is an opportunity to rationalise waste disposal patterns, but it,does not expect much rationalisation to take place as things stand".As the report states, the Control of Pollution Act 1974 provides the right framework for the close supervision of hazardous waste disposal and monitoring which is required. The difficulty is that this legislation has been brought into force only in part. A waste 444 disposal authority is at present under a duty to prepare a waste disposal plan under Section 2 of the Act, but because Section 1 is not yet in force it is under no duty to carry out its plan. The committee has recommended that Section 1 be brought into force. This is a most serious and urgent recommendation.
The Select Committee states that waste disposal responsibilities should continue to be the responsibility of county government, which I endorse wholeheartedly, and that in Wales and Scotland the responsibilities should follow the English model. The Association of County Councils pressed strongly for the transfer of the waste disposal function to the Welsh counties. The powers should be transferred as soon as possible, as the committee recommends.
A regional structure has been suggested by the Committee to co-ordinate waste disposal plans and the provision of facilities and to provide scientific services. The ACC has reservations about this suggestion, and I agree that it requires very careful thought. So long as the site licensing functions and the planning responsibilities stay with the counties, the idea of regional co-operation is worth exploring further. It is undeniable that waste disposal plans will have to be co-ordinated, and the committee puts forward a very attractive presumption that each region should be,self-supporting in the provision of disposal facilities".I hope that the Government will accept the regional structure in principle and that they will work closely with the counties and industry to see that this can be achieved at a minimum of cost and with minimum interference to the existing legal responsibilities. Perhaps one county in each region might be chosen as the "lead" county to co-ordinate the preparation of the individual counties' waste disposal plans, and something on the lines of the statutory children's regional planning committees might be investigated. The argument that regions should be self-sufficient stands up only if they can find sites for disposal. Obviously the ideal situation is that industry should have its own methods of disposal on the factory site, and this arrangement is becoming increasingly common. It reduces transportation costs to a minimum and reduces risks of disposal elsewhere.
An especially valuable finding of the Select Committee is,that for many liquid industrial wastes co-disposal with domestic waste is a valid disposal method, from which waste disposal authorities shy away unnecessarily".The committee were impressed by the evidence of Essex County Council and Redland Purle, which showed strong similarities between leachates from domestic refuse and hazardous waste combined. What this means is that a policy of sensible landfill is capable of exploitation over wide areas of the country, making the prospect of self-sufficient regions a practical proposition.
Much of the report talks about monitoring of sites, and this is absolutely essential to avoid mistakes. But monitoring costs money, and yet a site licence costs nothing. Essex spends £50,000 a year on monitoring sites, and well-qualified industrial chemists are appointed for the purpose. The Select Committee recommend charges for the service, and it would be a most valuable advance if these were introduced. The ACC have expressed deep concern about the avail 445 ability of adequate financial resources to strengthen the control of hazardous waste disposal in these difficult times, and charges for licences and for the monitoring services required as recommended by the committee are essential to ensure progress.
The suggestion that there should be a hazardous wastes inspectorate at the Health and Safety Executive is another point on which the ACC have sounded a warning note. They would prefer to see this inspectorate in a strengthened land wastes division at the Department of the Environment. The idea of an inspectorate makes excellent sense as it is an economic use of high-powered technical advice, and it would be a pity if the suggestion foundered on what could prove to be an academic argument as to what place in the administration is the best for it. Perhaps the placing of the unit could be looked at again.
In the area of imported wastes, where a potential conflict appears between a legitimate international trade in imported wastes and the prior conditions to make it acceptable, there have been serious problems. Serious difficulties can arise for a waste disposal authority if an importing company collapses, and it is, as the committee says, unacceptable in any event for the United Kingdom to be a dumping ground for the EEC. There will be need for further co-ordination of the tightening of regulations, and consultation with the counties involved is essential if the practical implications are to be fully taken into account. I await the publication of the Government review, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Gregson, with interest.
In conclusion, the noble Lord, Lord Gregson, and his committee have completed their difficult task in a most objective manner. It is important that no time should be lost in the implementation of their recommendations, particularly the bringing into force of Section 1 of the Control of Pollution Act 1974, and equally important legislation to allow waste disposal authorities to charge for monitoring and site licences to ensure the necessary financial resources are available. A few problems need further study, but their early solution is vital as the problem will not go away. It is a time for a positive lead from the Government, and the major recommendations should be implemented without delay.
§ 5.44 p.m.
§ Lord Newall
My Lords, I should like to add my congratulations to those extended to my noble friend Lord Dilhorne on his rather witty and instructive speech, and I am sure he will be able to improve on that, even, when he has full range. I should also like to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Gregson, and his committee on an excellent report, although I do not understand it all because I am not a scientist. I should like to apologise and ask your Lordships' indulgence, if I may have it, for having to leave before the end of this debate due to a long-standing engagement.
I have said that I am not a chemist in any way, and I rise to my feet to speak to your Lordships tonight only to give some first-hand knowledge of a toxic waste tip which is near my home. I have not in fact suffered from it myself, but there are about eight people in the Galleries of your Lordships' House who have personally suffered from this tip in Buckinghamshire; and I hope that the report from this committee may help others and 446 may prevent another area from suffering the same sort of fate.
The tip that I am talking about is known as Woodham Tip in Buckinghamshire. It is an 11-acre clay pit, the site of an old brickworks, with farmland all round it and some houses dotted about. In 1973 they began to dump domestic rubbish, and between 1974 and 1979 they started putting in liquid chemicals. By about 1975 there was an enormous mixture of rainwater, domestic waste, hospital waste and chemical waste; and it was about that time that the Thames Water Authority decided to stop the operator from pumping the liquid into the streams because it was extremely toxic and very dangerous. The pit itself was flooded, and there was a disgusting mixture of toxic liquids seeping into the nearby areas because it was too full and the site was a sloping one. So we now have a large pit full of rather unpleasant liquid which cannot be covered properly, as can be done in the case of domestic waste.
So it was decided to cut trenches into it, to try to get rid of some of the chemical liquid. They poured in the chemicals, and the problems of all the nearby people continued. The local residents suffered from enormous flies, in their thousands, which it was very difficult indeed to destroy; they got rashes, headaches, sore eyes, depression and giddiness; and, of course, they had this awful smell the whole time. There were three families who were advised to move; they were placed on the district housing list for council houses, and they moved.
I do not wish to exaggerate the problems here. Any normal tip has some smells, some gases and some fires, and we all know about that sort of thing; but in this particular case there was, in my opinion, gross inefficiency. I have no doubt at all that it was badly managed and badly supervised; and although there is no direct proof as to the results caused by the smells and the chemicals, there were some dogs which died in very strange circumstances, many more sheep than usual aborted and some women lost babies. I in fact saw and smelt what was going on, and in my opinion it was an absolute disgrace. What went wrong? We all know that in 1972 there was some emergency legislation to stop indiscriminate dumping, so this old clay pit was thought to be an ideal site. Sites had to be found quickly.
I should like to make just three points. The first point is that there was in my opinion very poor and inadequate supervision of the site. There was an apparent (and I am not an expert) lack of expertise in the knowledge of reactions of different chemicals with one another and of the reaction of chemicals with domestic and other waste. Absolutely everything seems to have been thrown into this large hole, which also filled with rainwater, which caused its own problems.
The second point is that there was a continuous ping-pong match between the district council and the county council, and within the county council committees, so delaying urgent action. There was the odd inspection and the odd report, but the residents continued to suffer over this long period of time. The third point is that there does not seem to have been any firm decision as to what to do now. There are still some fires and there are still many gases, some of which are poisonous. Pressures are building up; and 447 one expert has said that these processes will continue for several decades.
I have here a report from the environmental safety group of the Environmental and Medical Sciences Division of Harwell, written 18 months ago, and here the expert says about this tip that the liquids appear to be polluted; the crude gas venting system is inadequate; and there are safety hazards here, especially the fencing round the site, which does not prevent children from entering. Finally, he emphasised that remedial actions at the site were likely to be expensive and cannot ever be guaranteed to be completely successful, and that there is little experience to draw on of the effectiveness of restoration of flooded containment sites.
This has been going on for a long while, and I suggest that it is time these things were put to an end completely. Anybody who has read about the Love Canal, the story of an American city in book form, will know of the problems that can happen, and it is just as well that this tip was in an open area. Written evidence from the local residents was submitted in the committee, and I think it was appreciated because such evidence is sometimes not easily available. Normally only evidence from councils is available. I hope that noble Lords will read about this tip in Buckinghamshire. The suffering has been severe, and here again it is very difficult to get proof of all the problems. We must hope that action will be taken to restore the site. I wish it were an isolated case, but I fear that it is not.
§ 5.50 p.m.
§ Lord Darling of Hillsborough
My Lords, I should like to begin by adding the congratulations of these Benches to the noble Viscount on his maiden speech. I think that the best tribute I can pay to him is to say that I am sorry it was a maiden speech because I should have loved to join in the arguments he raised. But I will follow convention and postpone those discussions for another day. As a member of the committee, I should like also to thank the noble Lord, Lord Gregson, for the way he guided our deliberations. I do not know whether we should have got through that enormous pile of evidence—and on one occasion my wife measured it; it was a stack two and a half feet high—that we were then wading through without his guidance.
I hope that your Lordships will forgive me if I stir up a little the waters of this placid debate and try to make out a case for the phasing out of the landfill operations of disposal of hazardous wastes. There is no difficulty, I can assure the noble Viscount, about definitions. The noble Lords, Lord Ashby and Lord Newall, have given us evidence of the kind of tipping that goes on, the kind of tip mismanagement that causes difficulties and is objectionable to local residents, and so on. I think that there is implicit in the report and in the statement from the County Councils Association an understanding, a logical end to all this discussion. The logical end is that we have got to phase out the landfill operations.
The report says—and the County Councils Association supports it—that public hostility to hazardous 448 waste disposal is too important to be ignored. If it is not to be ignored, I would suggest that the objections must prevail and that there is an obligation, either upon the Government or upon the county councils, to make sure that if public opinion is against having a hazardous waste tip on their doorsteps, that public opinion prevails and that they do not get the tip. This is going to be very important if the kind of information produced in this report—because the noble Lord, Lord Ashby, has given us many examples of mismanaged tips, and there are other examples—goes around the country because then, I think, the opportunities that the disposal contractors will have for getting new sites into operation will diminish. But it will not apply to new sites. If public opinion is to prevail, it will prevail on the closing down of existing sites.
This is going on now. The Derbyshire County Council only two weeks ago decided that one of the most notorious tips in their county should be taken over by the county council and closed, that there shall be no more tipping there. I understand that the West Midlands County Council are contemplating similar action on some of their worst tips. I think this action will grow because, although we are getting information in this House today, about some of the worst tips, normally the information that we get comes only in local newspapers. Nobody is keeping a national register of complaints, of prosecutions for illegal tipping, of public protests. There is no national register and no national picture of all this. My local newspaper reading is restricted to the Sheffield Morning Telegraph and the Bucks Free Press. If the stories which appear in those newspapers are anything to go by, then I am sure there is a rising tide of public protest against the tipping of hazardous waste by landfill throughout the country. I do not think that those stories can be isolated ones.
This raises important issues. It has been mentioned already that the output of the chemical industry, according to the chairman of ICI, is going to double over the next 10 years. For the sake of this argument, I will assume that what the Government say about the economic revival coming, and that they can see the light at the end of the tunnel, is correct. Therefore, I will assume that the expansion of the chemical industry will go ahead and this means that we have got double the amount of waste to get rid of. This will mean new sites, because many of the existing sites have only a short life. This is unlike Pitsea which, we are told, has another 18 years—if the public will allow that site to continue for another 18 years. But most will close down within five or 10 years and perhaps less, so that double the amount of waste will mean that we must open more and more tips. It will be difficult to find them and to get the geological circumstances right. This also means overcoming public opposition. I do not think that sites can be found on the scale that they will be needed if one must rely upon landfill.
But there is no reason why we should rely upon landfill. There are alternative methods of dealing with waste. All chemical waste—we had the technical information in front of us in the committee—can be treated, can be incinerated, can be made inert, leaving a small residue, perhaps of low toxicity or perhaps not poisonous at all, that can be disposed of easily. Or waste can be recovered, recycled. A waste exchange 449 was set up, not a very good one—it was ill-conceived and not well managed—but in the bulletin that they put out of wastes that were available presented by firms for processing, there were about 1,000 chemical wastes mentioned in each bulletin; so that firms producing the wastes, and informing the waste exchange that they had them, knew that the waste could be processed. I am quite sure, from the information we received and from the questions that we asked and got answered, that a great deal of toxic waste, and the hazardous waste that we are talking about, can be recovered and recycled.
The argument against doing it is an economic one. We are told that landfill is the cheapest method of disposal and that, if market forces are going to prevail in a free economy, then landfill will continue. When talking about market forces operating in a free economy, one assumes that it is a fair economy, that there is no unfair competition. But in this market, it is unfair; it is a distorted market. It is distorted by an element of public subsidy that comes in for the landfill operations. If that element of public subsidy were removed, if the disposal contractors had to pay the full cost of the monitoring, the planning, the licensing and of the looking after of the site after it has been recovered for a period of 10 or 12 years to make sure that nothing goes wrong, then the difference in cost between landfill and other forms of treatment or recycling would be reduced.
Let us take it a stage further. The financial question that we are considering is not the difference between landfill and other methods, but what difference would be made to the final products of the manufacturers if they had to pay for the cost of treatment instead of landfill? The committee had the greatest difficulty in getting any information about costs. One would have thought that the chemical industries and the other industries producing waste who wanted to make out a case for the continuation of landfill would provide us with the information about comparative costs.
When we did get some information from the large chemical manufacturers, the conclusion that I came to was that if they had to pay the full costs of landfill on the one hand or went in for recycling, processing or treatment—whatever the chemical required—on the other, the effect on the price of the finished products that the manufacturers were going to sell if they disposed of landfill and went for treatment and processing, would be insignificant.
Obviously I have to boast about South Yorkshire, and my local patriotism can be discounted, but that area is mentioned in the report as doing a first-class job. It has an advisory service for its smaller manufacturers and it runs a waste exchange, not on the scale that is needed, but a waste exchange is there. I am convinced from the information that I have that if that kind of county council advisory service and the local waste exchange operation went on all over the country it would be profitable to many of the companies to get their wastes recycled.
I do not accept the argument that because landfill at the moment is apparently cheaper this is something that we ought to continue. In any case, as I said, we are going to have difficulty in finding new sites if we carry on with landfill. The sooner that we look at the alternatives, inquiring into them, getting all the facts 450 and information about comparative costs and everything else, the better it will be. We shall get a picture that will give us a national policy to work on. Therefore, I plead with the Science and Technology Committee to take this further inquiry on board. It is a natural follow up, if I may put it like that, of the inquiry that we have undertaken into the most difficult job: the depositing in landfill of hazardous wastes. I fully support all the conclusions and recommendations in that report, obviously. But it is an incomplete report. It was not within our terms of reference to take it further into the alternative methods. This is something that I think should be done and I hope that it will be taken over. I hope that a new inquiry will take place.
However, here I had better venture a word of warning. If it became known that the Science and Technology Committee were going to go on with this further inquiry into waste disposal, I am quite sure that the Department of the Environment would suggest that the job would be better done by a departmental committee. That should be rejected. It would be the kiss of death. They would set up a representative committee which would produce the usual thing: a lowest common denominator report with reservations from the independent members—no unaminity, therefore no action.
I speak from experience. Like the noble Lord, Lord Ashby, I should like to refer the House to a report. I was a member of the Waste Management Advisory Council from its beginning until its death. For the first year I was chairman of its policy committee. We sat down to produce an outline policy for the development of making use of waste of our resources. It was a very good report, although I say it myself.
There were 35 recommendations made in it. Although I am not going to go through them all, I should like to refer to the first one, which says that more information is needed about the volume, nature and distribution of waste and that sections of the Control of Pollution Act 1974 should be brought into force as soon as possible. This is dated January 1976. Nothing has happened. This report had very little publicity and then it received what the two departments, Environment and Industry wanted. They killed it. This is what would happen if there was a departmental inquiry along the lines that I have suggested.
I have one more point to make if the House will forgive me. We have said in the report that landfill disposal is acceptable if it is properly controlled. We are talking about co-disposal with domestic waste. In effect what we are saying is in order to get an acceptable method of landfill disposal, we must pour into holes in the ground to provide the sponge for the hazardous waste enormous quantities of valuable raw materials: steel, tin, aluminium and other metals—all the other things that we can extract from domestic waste, the material that is being extracted unfortunately by only two plants in this country: the one at Doncaster and the one at Byker by mechanical means.
We are also depriving ourselves of a large supply of cheap, low-grade fuel, which we need. Enormous quantities of it could be produced by the kind of plants that we have at Doncaster and Byker if we had domestic refuse separation plants of that kind all 451 over the country, I want a further inquiry to look into this. I hope that the result of this report and our discussions on it will lead to that desirable end.
§ 6.9 p.m.
§ Lord Lucas of Chilworth
My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Darling, I too was a member of Lord Gregson's committee. I should like to pay a tribute to him for his energy and persistence in keeping us at the particular task. I should also like to pay tribute to our two specialist advisers, Professor Isaac and Professor Warner, and our clerk who did so much to help us.
At the outset of the report it is stated that the committee did not like what they found. I suspect that some nine or 10 months later there can be few members of that committee who feel any happier about what they found out during the course of the inquiry. Harwell said in evidence that they did not know what hazardous waste was being produced; they did not know how much there was, where it was from or what happens to it. Indeed, in so much of the evidence that we heard there was a degree of complacency that was almost indescribable. On the first occasion the Department of the Environment gave evidence in December 1980 the complacency was so marked that I and another noble Lord on the committee were obliged to comment upon it. Happily, in contrast, when the department was represented by the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Mr. Shaw, in May, the position was somewhat reversed. Perhaps his appearance on that occasion made good the deficiencies on the first occasion.
But it was not only the department whose attitudes were complacent: so indeed were those of a number of the professional witnesses and of the not so professional witnesses. I believe that at the beginning there was something hidden. I do not believe very much is now hidden. I believe the committee managed to uncover most of what there was and it gives rise therefore to the 34 recommendations contained in the report.
In that report we set down in paragraph 119 a number of incidents which have occurred in recent years. Indeed, it was the noble Lord, Lord Ashby, who gave a fair chronicle and my noble friend Lord Newall who detailed quite expertly one particular incident. I refer to these matters in terms of "incidents" rather than "accidents" because, happily, in the waste disposal industry there has been only one fatal accident though there have been a great number of quite serious incidents. The fears of the members of the public are increased by these incidents and by mistakes which happen. The fears are seldom allayed by any story of success, and I wonder quite what the industry and the local authority are going to do about those incidents prior to the 1972 Act, which will emerge more and more. We had a report which was referred to earlier this afternoon with regard to the site at Ealing.
I believe that one of the most important recommendations is number 24—that of forming the whole of the waste disposal authorities into a regional organisation. There are currently 165 waste disposal authorities—some good and others patently indifferent. We had quite a lot of evidence about that, which is set down in the report. Many of these waste disposal authorities have 452 totally different interpretations, but there are few who can claim to have sufficient resources to enable them to discharge their responsibilities in the manner in which they would like to.
I believe the real objection of the Association of County Councils is that they are unwilling to give up any of their controlling interest. I believe they have a voracious appetite for keeping control and can see something slipping away if waste disposal decisions go into a regional set-up. We heard information to the effect that the informal liaison between one authority and another is good so far as it goes, but in my view it does not go very far. Therefore, I believe it would be far better if we concentrated what little skills there are into larger units, where those skills can be far better deployed. Make no mistake about it, my Lords: there is a dearth of knowledge and skill in this business. There is not yet any diploma, any career structure, or anything that is going to encourage people to come into this business.
We comment about the amount of notifiable waste, three-quarters of which goes to landfill. This is variously estimated—nobody really knows—at about 5 or 6 million tonnes per annum. The bulk of it is handled in the private sector and, as we have heard this afternoon, the NAWDC have in membership about 75 per cent. of those engaged in this work. I have to say I am not totally satisfied with the evidence I heard about the control that body can exercise over its members. After all, they rest largely on a code of practice, with no sanction at all. I do not believe that is good enough.
Therefore, I would refer to Recommendation No. 13, which sets out an area of licensing. To me there is no doubt that licensing of all people involved in the train of disposal of hazardous waste is necessary. I do not believe there was any noble Lord who spoke on this subject who disagreed. But, even so, I wonder whether the public would be totally satisfied, because they will not need an annual report to Parliament to keep their interest alive. Indeed, my noble friend Lord Newall said that for some time the sights, sounds and smells of the tip near where he lives will keep the public's mind concentrated on the problem.
It surprised me to learn during the course of the inquiry that the Department of the Environment set up a co-operative programme of research in 1973. It took five years for the report to be published and at the end of it they say:Sensible landfill is realistic and an ultra cautious approach to landfill of hazardous and other types of waste is unjustified".That may be what the Department of the Environment thought at that time, but it is certainly not what the public think at this time; and it is those people who have to be considered. I was appalled—absolutely appalled—at the degree of insensibility by the operators at Pitsea with regard to the public concern. Three times I asked a simple layman's question of the company. I did not understand a word of what they told me in response; but then I am not a scientist or a waste disposal technologist. How the people could understand I do not know. They did not, and the acrimony, the bitterness and ill-feeling that has grown up in Essex is well understood. It will take many, many waste disposal site operators years of work and a great deal of effort to make good that deficiency.
453 We have the recommendation in No. 16 that publicity should be given to the results of monitoring, which we consider to be essential. It may be that if the cards are laid uppermost on the table sooner or later people will believe. But that takes me to the role of the independent inspectorate which we recommend, because with such an independent inspectorate there can be a greater surety of those cards being laid face up on the table when they are laid.
I have a note here:Landfill is more widely used in the United Kingdom than in other industrialised countries".Why? It is because it is the cheapest method. I can do no more than agree with all that the noble Lord, Lord Darling, had to say on this matter. I shall not repeat it, but he must be right. I do not often agree with the noble Lord, but I must on this occasion.
There must be also a continuing responsibility by site operators. It was the noble Lord, Lord Ashby, who referred to Ravenfield's £¼ million-plus cost of restoration. I draw your Lordships' attention to what Thurrock Borough Council said, which supported what the noble Lord, Lord Darling, said. They said that the social costs of landfill have been totally ignored. I say, as the noble Lord does, that if those costs were brought in, the huge cost-advantage of landfill would soon fade away. That may be desirable but a far greater benefit would accrue, and that is that the alternatives would be further investigated and used.
We have an almost totally inflexible mind over waste disposal. Because it has already gone on for so many years and nothing really serious has happened, and because we now have the 1974 Act and the 1980 special waste regulations, everything must be OK. That attitude is not good enough and it has to be changed by Government—by central Government, at the top, and then by local government. People can no longer cocoon themselves in city, borough and council engineers' departments, saying It is all OK. We have it in mind", because we have evidence that some of the waste disposal authorities' monitoring and inspection falls far below what is desirable.
At the end of the day, it will cost more. We just have to decide where the balance of cost should be. It will fall on the waste disposal authorities and, to an extent, the ratepayers. It will fall on the site operators, which is where I believe it should fall. That they will pass it on, as the noble Lord, Lord Darling, suggested, there is little doubt. But their profits may well have to be contained. I believe that alternatives from other sources will emerge, which will enable a producer to choose his role, so prices may be slightly more competitive. Indeed, on that score the producers themselves may be induced into in-house disposals which, over the long term, will greatly reduce their costs. One was surprised to learn how much foul water is carried around the country, the expense of which we attempted to set down in the report.
I could not possibly end a speech on this matter without referring to transport. Although we have a small number of sites, they are fairly big and that encourages long transportation. It was said by witnesses that the average is 50 miles distance, but we know that very much longer hauls are involved and they are all by road. It is a sad thing that British 454 Rail have not found this to be the kind of business in which they should engage, and I suggest that they should look at that. However, having said that, Harwell's emergency service confirm that with the Hazchem system of marking, and other precautions which are taken, there is no record of serious incident, or indeed accident, in the carriage of hazardous waste by road.
Perhaps I might close by saying that, at the end of the day, I believe that this is a Government responsibility. It was the noble Lord, Lord Ashby, who said that he hoped that my noble friend Lord Avon would not just take note and that there might be some action. Perhaps I might remind my noble friend of what his right honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Department of the Environment said to the Committee in his absolutely closing remarks in May 1981. He said:The review of the regulations we have in hand will, l am sure, be helped by the observations your Committee sees fit to make".I hope that those observations which are contained in the report, and the observations made by noble Lords this afternoon, will, indeed, be taken into account when regulations are framed and when they are brought before Parliament quite quickly for approval.
§ 6.26 p.m.
§ Lord Molloy
My Lords, I, too, wish to commence by congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Gregson, on the able way in which he produced this report. I should also like to pay my compliments to the noble Viscount, Lord Dilhorne, on his maiden speech, which I thought was both informative and extremely interesting to listen to and—what I always welcome—was spiced with humour.
I want to turn to the quintessentials of what I wish to say, by pointing out that there are many useful suggestions in the Select Committee's report and much of the evidence is very well worth reading. The terrible tragedy is that its major contribution is in pointing out that, despite the millions of pounds that are spent in educating our clever men, our scientists have poisoned the rivers, have poisoned the seas and have poisoned the oceans. Now that they have finished doing that, they are poisoning the earth. as well as cluttering up the atmosphere with vulgar and misguided missiles, in addition to the evil form of fall-out which will shower down on us one day. So mankind seems to be intent—indeed, to be hell-bent, rather than Heaven-bent, which is where we shall all arrive one day unless sanity prevails—on poisoning the earth. We must stop what we are doing in horrendous ways, and we must prevent the other forms of hazardous waste which is floating around this earth.
Quite suddenly, one comes down to earth when one reads this report. I refer your Lordships to the opening phrase on page 40. It is not a massive statement from the United Nations. It is a little phrase which reads:The Committee's inquiry originated with representations from Basildon District Council".In my judgment, that is the level that counts. The report goes on in paragraph 115:Secondly Basildon cast doubt on the scientific adequacy of landfill disposal and stress the degree of hazard involved".In short, in spite of all the wonderful things that 455 science can do in polluting the earth and the heavens, no one is really confident that we can defend ourselves! That is not only a truthful comment to make; it is a frightening one.
I want to concentrate for a while on the level of ordinary people; that is, the problems that afflict a number of council tenants in the London Borough of Ealing. It is a matter of equal importance to the one that we are discussing. There is a road known as Willow Tree Lane—a beautiful name—which is part of a council estate. It is in Northolt, Middlesex, and the problem involves both the London Borough of Ealing and the London Borough of Hillingdon. It is particularly relevant to what we are discussing today.
As the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, said, the tragedy is, perhaps, that we do not yet have adequate science or discipline even to tell us whether or not dangers really exist, let alone how to cure them. I agree with the noble Lord: that is how serious the issue is. Scientists, medical people—folk with letters after their name—have assured ordinary people that there is nothing to worry about. I do not take their word for granted. I am reminded of when we in this country disgraced ourselves—the first atom bomb test over Christmas Island. Months later the fall-out came on to the Welsh hills and affected cows and sheep. The distribution of milk had to be stopped. Then it continued. It was stopped because the scientists said that the radiation and the iodine levels had reached their limit. Why, then, did it continue? Because the scientists raised those levels. They put them up a little higher. I do not believe that scientists are to be entirely trusted.
Let me carry on with my factual account of what has been taking place in the London Borough of Ealing on one council estate. All this is relevant. In 1975–76 there was a condition of soil examination. This was carried out because the site had previously been used for making bricks, for tipping household refuse, for the incineration of refuse and for the disposal of residues. That examination was carried out by a joint working party consisting of officers from both councils, as well as analysts and consultants. In 1977 they reported that the ground water was acceptable—though they did not say why—and that it was free from significant toxic metals. What are insignificant toxic metals? That is what ordinary people ask themselves. There may be a very good answer, or they may not know what the answer is. This phraseology does not frighten people but it causes them concern. There was no evidence, either, of methane generation. None was detected. However, a limited area of soil contaminated by heavy metals was removed. They removed six inches of the top soil. No remedial treatment was required other than the provision of six inches of good top soil to replace the six inches which had been removed. I do not believe that you could convince a bunch of junior caps that that was a totally scientific answer, let alone your Lordships' House or any serious minded scientist. I hope to demonstrate why later.
Before the construction of the estate the then existing thin layer of top soil was removed by the contractors. The digging for drains, sewers and foundations went down seven feet. To be fair, I have to say that there is no record of workmen having suffered any form of 456 illness. In March 1979 the plan to build the 2,000 homes which were urgently needed was proceeded with. The agony is that we have hundreds of families in the queen of the suburbs, the London Borough of Ealing, living in the backs of motor-cars and that they might be safer living there than in modern council houses.
The estate was completed. Then in July of this year the chief officer of health for Ealing learned that two families were suffering from rashes and sores which those families attributed to the soil. In the public interest the matter was pursued by our local newspaper, the Ealing Gazette. Local authorities are like all politicians. When local or national newspapers say something nice about us they are wonderful journals, but when they say something nasty about us they are horrid "rags". However, we all know, deep down inside us, that it is a good job that newspapers exist in order to lay open, even if they exaggerate, certain serious issues. The Ealing Gazette has not been backward in coming forward. I knew from my own observation that there was anxiety among the residents. People wore concerned about rashes and headaches which they had never had before. They knew a little about the history of the land. They wanted to try to find out if they could add to that history.
The local authority countered, not unjustly, that they had received no reports from local general practitioners. This seems to be a very strong point. I do not believe, though, that it is totally infallible. There were no reports from general practitioners in Wales when the iodine fell but when a report was eventually produced it was, as we all know, very frightening. It was some years later that the iodine had an effect on human beings. So we cannot believe the general practitioners. If doctors had examined those people there a couple of weeks after the fall-out they would have found there was nothing wrong with them, but if they had examined them 18 months later they might have found that there was something very seriously wrong with them. As the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, and my noble friend Lord Darling of Hillsborough have said, it is this aspect which is of concern.
It is also true that at this moment there is an outpatient at Ealing Hospital who is suffering from a skin condition. However, it has not been confirmed that this is attributable to contact with the soil. Yet this individual had nothing wrong with him previous to living on this estate. In the case of all the other people, both young and old, the rashes and the irritation did not occur until they went to live on this estate. So I believe that it is reasonable for people to be concerned, on the simple, sane, common-sense ground that prevention is better than cure. If there have been just a few skin rashes which might he trivial, we ought not to ignore them and wait until something deadly serious occurs. That is the kind of arrogance which sometimes sweeps over all forms of bureaucratic investigation.
The result of later analysis of the soil shows that the levels of heavy metal are normal and acceptable. I should have thought that the only thing that is normal and acceptable is that there is no evidence of heavy metal, methane or anything else. That ought to be the norm—not trying to find out what degree of poison human beings can sustain. Despite that analysis, there has been an increase in diarrhoea and skin rashes. 457 These problems are persisting. There are still cases of people with rashes on this estate in Northolt, in the London Borough of Ealing. One resident has spoken of a most peculiar thing happening while he was digging in his garden: there was a sudden emission of a white power out of the ground which went into his face. He had a coughing fit for a number of minutes. Naturally enough, he was disturbed.
I believe that the local authority have taken every possible step to reassure both themselves and the tenants that all is well. They are concerned about a panic. I, too, am concerned about a panic. The only way to stop a panic is to make sure that people understand that there is no need to panic. But they will not accept that there are certain acceptable levels of poison, as they are told by people who would not dream of living on a council estate. That is a form of arrogance which is not going to be tolerated much longer. Therefore, I say to the noble Earl who will be replying to the debate that people on this estate have seen things which nobody could have made up better if it were an apocryphal story to underwrite this report. It would be hailed as a touch of literary genius to underline this report in an apocryphal manner. My Lords, it has actually happened.
I believe the local authority have done their level best to give the assurances and have gone through every piece of correct procedure that exists. I believe that the Ealing Gazette has done an extraordinarily good job in bringing to light—I do not think they would have been brought to light otherwise—the fears and the apprehensions of ordinary people. But, despite all these reports, the folk that I speak of are not satisfied, are apprehensive and are unhappy. I hope that the noble Earl may find it possible to let the Department of the Environment know of the grave apprehensions that exist, and that perhaps then they will make their investigations, if only on the simple basis that they accept the dictum that it is far better to be sure than sorry.
§ 6.42 p.m.
§ Lord Mottistone
My Lords, I, too, should like to open my remarks by extending my warmest congratulations to my noble friend Lord Dilhorne. Humour, certainly, and perhaps he will let himself go a bit more next time because there is a lot of humour there. Profundity, very much, and I trust that my noble friend on the Front Bench will take some note of what my noble friend Lord Dilhorne had to say.
I am advised on what I have to say by the Confederation of British Industry and I shall attempt to convey to your Lordships the views of industry in relation to this excellent report. Perhaps I may start by congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Gregson, and his committee most warmly on this very thorough report. There are some points which industry particularly support and which I shall briefly tell your Lordships about, and there are some points on which you will no doubt expect me to say that they have some reservations. I shall touch on them, but in the main the report is both thorough and fair, and that is first class.
The recommendations that are strongly supported include the proposal for a national policy, which is in Recommendation No. 34. I am speaking of the 458 recommendations as numbers and they are sub-paragraphs too, of paragraph No. 185. The acceptance that landfill and, where appropriate, co-disposal of industrial with domestic waste are appropriate methods for dealing with hazardous waste is in Recommendation No. 6. The third point is the call for the early implementation of Section 1 of the Control of Pollution Act of 1974 and for the acceleration of production of plans under Section 2 of that Act, in Recommendation No. 31.
These strategic responsibilities are an essential balance to the regulatory controls on waste disposal authorities. Full implementation will stimulate closer working links between industry and local authorities and will give industry much-needed assurance that there will be means available in the future for the safe and effectively monitored disposal of its wastes. When I say that, of course, it is mentioned in the report that about half the hazardous wastes are looked after by industry itself, so we are only talking about the half which needs to be disposed of external to its own properties. The recommendations of the committee on which industry has reservations include—in order of importance three particular ones, all of which have been strongly supported by the members of the committee who have spoken on this matter, but I have reasons for opposing them.
The first is Recommendation No. 15 proposing a hazardous waste inspectorate within the Health and Safety Executive. The second is Recommendation No. 10, proposing registration of hazardous waste producers, and the third one is Recommendation No. 27, recommending charges for site licences and bonding. With regard to the proposed hazardous waste inspectorate, industry can see merit in a technically proficient unit to advise on difficult hazardous waste questions but for the reasons so clearly set out in paragraphs 254 to 257 of the Fifth Report of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, it believes that such a unit should be part of a comprehensive central advisory group, itself part of the Department of the Environment. The CBI will be writing shortly to my right honourable friend Mr. Tom King to recommend this.
I was interested in the remarks made by the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, in this respect, because it struck me that what she was saying was not dissimilar from what I have just said. She agreed that there should be this technically qualified body but was not entirely sure whether it should be part of the Health and Safety Executive, and it is that point that we question and that point which is so clearly dealt with in the Fifth Report of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution.
With regard to the proposed registration of hazardous waste producers, such a register would not provide the waste disposal authority with any more information than they can obtain by other means. Indeed, the compilation of such a register would tend to give a false sense of security to the public that something had been done. As is made clear by the committee itself in its paragraph 139, what is required of the officials of waste disposal authorities is supervisory action rather than extra paperwork, and I should have thought that this particular suggestion of registration would really turn out to be paperwork. Industry would 459 strongly agree that we want action from officials rather than that.
With regard to what I suspect, from what other noble Lords have said, are the most contentious of our doubts—namely, the proposed charges for site licences and bonding—industry would question the fairness of this proposal in an otherwise very fair report. Notwithstanding the remarks of other noble Lords, including in particular the noble Lord, Lord Gregson, the licence system has been introduced for the benefit of the community as a whole. As the committee itself makes clear in its paragraph 71.g, there is scope for waste disposal authorities to cover their costs commercially rather than by a form of additional taxation, and perhaps we could expand somewhat on paragraph 71.g, which makes interesting reading, particularly when one reads the detail to which it refers. It would seem to me that West Yorkshire has been very enterprising in this area, and perhaps other local authorities should take note of that.
§ Lord Lucas of Chilworth
My Lords, would my noble friend allow me? Before he leaves the question of licensing, does he really think it is fair that a waste producer, many of whom are in the Midlands, should be able to take advantage of the ratepayers in a totally different area from that in which that producer pays rates, to look after and monitor the effects of his waste, without paying anything towards the costs other than the transportation costs?
§ Lord Mottistone
My Lords, what I am really saying is that it is paying for a licence to which one is taking exception. Paying for the cost of disposal, or paying a reasonable share of the cost of disposal, is perfectly reasonable. What I am suggesting is that there is no need for the local authority to make its money by collecting money from the licences, which is a form of indirect and rather broad-brushed taxation rather than being precise. It can probably be very well dealt with by the waste disposal authority itself tackling the problem commercially, as has been done by West Yorkshire.
§ Lord Mottistone
My Lords, I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Darling. I was not quite sure whether South Yorkshire was an independent authority these days; since 1972 it has all changed. As to bonding, this is using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Adequate protection of the environment and restoration is provided in the site licences and modern planning permissions without resorting to bonding.
Finally, to conclude, there is much value in the Select Committee's report, which is welcomed as making an important contribution to the study of how the handling of hazardous waste should best be administered. I would add my own remarks to those of other noble Lords. I think this excellent report will be very much wasted if the Government do not take much earlier action on it than is normally the case with Government departments, which seem to take their own terribly slow pace to react regardless of the party 460 in power. I am sure the noble Baroness would feel as strongly on this point as does, I hope, my noble friend on the Front Bench. I think that when you get an excellent report like this, and it is based on legislation which clearly needs bringing up to date, there is really no reason not to go ahead and do something, if only produce a White Paper, and then get weaving on the next stage.
I think a particularly encouraging factor is the low accident rate, reported in paragraph 120. One is very sympathetic to the attitude of the general public in this area, though I suspect that it varies around the country and some areas are more conscious of the apparent hazards than others. But however that may be, if the accident rate is low that is encouraging, and I hope it can be kept that way. As has been pointed out, the only important criticisms of the report relate to the few recommendations for unnecessary additions to the bureaucratic processes, which will hinder rather than help the development of safe methods of handling hazardous waste.
§ 6.54 p.m.
§ Viscount Ridley
My Lords, I probably know a great deal less about this subject than any noble Lord who has already spoken. My only personal experience came as chairman of my planning committee when I was referred to the ombudsman over an application to deal with hazardous waste. During the very courteous but inquisitorial methods of the ombudsman I learned a great deal about him but not very much more about hazardous wastes. I should perhaps add that I was totally acquitted on all counts afterwards.
I want to welcome very sincerely this report of the sub-committee on behalf of the Association of County Councils, who are the waste disposal authorities in England and who feel very strongly that this is an excellent report and would like to see it adopted by the Government. I will not go over ground which has been covered so well by your Lordships this afternoon, in view of the time. But I want to draw attention to one or two of the matters which have already been discussed, particularly the conclusions, which are repeated several times, that the control of hazardous waste disposal by waste disposal authorities needs to be strengthened, and that adequate resources are necessary for this to be done.
This goes together with implementation of Section 1 of the Control of Pollution Act, mentioned so many times this afternoon. Waste disposal authorities would, I think, very much welcome this implementation and this necessary strengthening, but I must make the point that it will require quite a lot of extra expenditure and that the Government must help with this. It is no good, as I have said before in your Lordships' House, putting further duties on local authorities and then complaining that they are overspending and are unable to manage their affairs.
It is important that the extra requirements are recognised. New qualified staff will be needed to monitor all these sites. I quite agree with the Select Committee that it is quite wrong that the local ratepayers should pay for this. The cost of this, I am certain, should fall on the polluter, whoever he may be. I hope the Government will be able in due course to introduce economic charges for applications for site 461 licences and recurring charges to cover the monitoring costs. And unlike my noble friend Lord Mottistone, with whom I very seldom disagree, I feel very strongly that a bond should be taken out, as indeed the Select Committee has recommended, so that site developers should cover any damage after the site has closed.
There are so many examples of companies going bankrupt and being unable to meet the cost of pollution arising many years afterwards. Indeed, I have heard of a case which would not be covered by this or any legislation, in which a borehole was sunk into chalk in Norwich to provide a water supply. After a period the water became unusable. It was subsequently discovered that this bore had been sunk on the site of a gasworks built in 1815 to produce gas from whale oil; the gasworks closed down in 1830 but the pollution remained active until 1950. Although I do not suppose Lord Mottistone's CBI would be prepared to wait that long, or even to pay for it, it does not seem to me unreasonable, as in the ACC submission, that a 10-year after-care period should be suggested and agreed to.
I must refer to the regional aspects of the recommendations, which are perhaps the ones where I most seriously disagree with the sub-committee. The new regions which are suggested in recommendations 23 and 24, and Appendix 6, seem to me to have several disadvantages. It is imposing rather too rigid a structure on the country, on England particularly, and I think it ignores two important facts. Quite a number of counties wish for good sound technical reasons to belong to more than one region. I think, for example, of Cumbria which is very much involved with waste disposal matters in the North-East of England and again in the North-West of England. I think also of Lincolnshire, which is connected with the Humberside problem as well as East Anglia.
To divide the country into a rigid regional system would be wrong. Furthermore, I think the report rather ignores what a lot has been done in regional groupings already throughout the country. Far more than the 11 suggested by the sub-committee are already in existence, and in some cases have done a great deal towards identifying sites and planning. In other cases, no doubt, it is less good; it is always better in the area for which one speaks. It is indeed, I believe, much better in the North than elsewhere. But even so, think time should be given for those regional bodies to get together in their own interests, rather than to impose a new Quango on them at this stage. I hope the Government will move rather slowly on this aspect.
One can see the new regional waste disposal authority setting up its office, with a chairman, a chairman's secretary, a chief executive and a whole new tier of bureaucracy, to which will be added, I am afraid, the Health and Safety Executive inspectorate, further suggested in this report. Like other noble Lords, I believe that this matter will be best left with the Department of the Environment. I agree with the necessity of having it, but I think it wrong to put another spoke in the wheel and create a tangled bureaucracy on top of what I have already mentioned. I hope again the Government will move cautiously on this Health and Safety inspectorate suggestion. With those few criticisms, my Lords, I very warmly welcome the report of the sub-committee. I hope your Lordships' House 462 will give me some credit for reducing the average length of speeches in this debate.
§ 7 p.m.
§ The Earl of Avon
My Lords, I should like to begin by welcoming the report of the Select Committee on Science and Technology and the opportunity for this House to have a full debate on a subject of very considerable significance as we have discovered this evening in the environmental field. Any industrial country produces a wide range and a large volume of wastes. Those wastes must be managed with the same rigorous attention that characterises the manufacture of the goods that give rise to them. The Government are most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Gregson, and to his sub-committee for preparing a report of the highest standards and also to the noble Lord, Lord Gregson, for introducing it today so clearly and in such detail. The Government recognise the work and thought that have gone into it and that it makes important and challenging recommendations.
It is my happy duty also to congratulate my noble friend Lord Dilhorne on his entertaining speech and to say how much we hope to hear him more often in this House from now onwards. I do not believe that he confessed to his legal leaning although it came out fairly forcefully in his remarks. I hesitate, therefore, to take up his description of "hazardous", but I feel it does call for some small comment. He referred both to the use and abuse of the terms "hazardous" and "waste". So in this debate and for want of a better definition of "hazardous waste" my remarks are addressed to what used to be called "notifiable waste" when the Deposit of Poisonous Waste Act was in force. I am sure that my noble friend will be following me if nobody else is.
The crucial point is what is done with the waste. Strictly we are talking about waste which is potentially hazardous—and I am using the same word as my noble friend did—to public health or the environment if it is mishandled or disposed of in a wrong way or in a wrong place. Incidentally, I note that a better working definition of "hazardous waste "—a matter which has bedevilled this subject and foxed international experts for some years—is the one item which the Select Committee did not in fact offer us, although to be quite fair it did spend some time on the subject and endorsed the World Health Organisations' description, although I had some vague feeling that the noble Lord, Lord Darling of Hillsborough, may have slightly differed in some of those tantalising remarks which he made a few moments ago.
The noble Baroness, Lady Birk, in her excellent analysis said that she found the report very easy to read and knowledgeable and she said that she understood it very well. I, too, found it readable, but I confess only with the aid of a dictionary beside me. Even the dictionary which I had was fooled once or twice and I had to go to some more learned source. When you discover words like "matrix" in the middle of it and you pick up a dictionary and discover that it means "a womb" it gets you on very speedily towards the end product.
It is now 11 years since the last thorough report on this subject was produced by the Key Committee. We have seen some significant developments since then: 463 in particular, the introduction of explicit controls in the Deposit of Poisonous Waste Act of 1972, to which the noble Lord, Lord Ashby, has already referred. Then there followed their development in the Control of Pollution Act through the licensing system which covers all sites where industrial, commercial or domestic waste is deposited. Then there was the introduction of the special waste regulations which this House debated in January.
The noble Lord, Lord Darling, slightly pulled our legs, I think, as regards the slowness between the 1976 report and the ultimate laying of the egg. But of course not only was there a lot of consultation to do during this period, but there was also much changing of the scenes of waste itself and, finally, of course, the change of Government. None the less, it was time for an authoritative appraisal of what had been achieved. And, as others have done today, I should like to pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Gregson, and his committee for providing such clear, authoritative and wide-ranging recommendations for the control of an activity where the protection of public health and the environment must continue to improve.
I have listened with great care and interest to what has been said. The debate is an important opportunity to reflect on the position we have reached and the impact of the changes over the past decade, also to consider what still needs to be done. I propose this evening to outline the Government's initial views on several of the report's recommendations and at the same time I hope to answer some of the points that have been made in this debate.
The report's main general recommendation is that the people of this country must be able to feel confident that there is real control over hazardous waste and that the best practical means, not the cheapest tolerable means, is the overriding principle governing its disposal. That is the conclusion in paragraph 186. As a consequence of this, the committee endorses the case-by-case approach, which may be defined as "each site, and each waste, on its individual merits". The committee pulled no punches when it saw good reason to draw attention to the need for improvement, whether in the control system, or in the practices or performance of central government, local authorities or private operators. At the same time it took care to conduct a close examination of the basis of the control system and came to the conclusion that:The Control of Pollution Act 1974 provides the right framework for the close supervision of hazardous waste disposal and monitoring which are required".That appears in paragraph 185.9. The committee also examined the special waste regulations, whose introduction earlier this year aroused some controversy. While I realise that the Department of the Environment might have acted rather swiftly with these special waste regulations, I do hope that the House might be slightly more generous in future in trusting the Department of the Environment not to pull the wool over anybody's eyes.
The Select Committee made some valuable comments and felt that the joint review now in progress should result in some modifications and they approved the basic approach and the record-keeping requirements. That appears in paragraph 185.19 and 185.22. 464 I cannot preempt the results of the joint review. We are only two-thirds of the way through the period it is to cover. But I have yet to hear evidence that the gloomy prognostications which were made in this House have as yet been substantiated in any way. The committee also looked hard at landfill as a disposal route for hazardous wastes. They found that on the basis of present knowledge landfill—including co-disposal—is an acceptable method for a wide range of wastes provided that the suitability of the site is judged on its own merits in each case, and that appears in paragraph 185.6. They had many other comments on the importance of the management and research aspects of landfill and the Government will be considering those in detail with the local authorities, the disposal industry and waste producers.
But I believe that the committee's findings on the framework for controls, the approach to the most difficult and dangerous wastes and on what is, in terms of volume, the major disposal route used in the United Kingdom, provide in themselves a significant degree of reassurance for the public that we now have, in operation, the right system of controls across the United Kingdom. Not all industrialised nations can make that claim or can produce an independent authoritative examination to support it.
It is at this point—the point where we know we have good grounds for continuing with the current system—that I must stress as strongly as I can that the Government see no grounds for complacency with leaving things exactly as they arc. I had the word "complacency" in my brief before the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, produced it himself. The committee has come to a similar conclusion about the adequacy of our system. That is only as it should be. Our position today must be treated as a springboard point. We are fortunate that the last 10 years have given us a firm foundation and all in the public and private sectors who have been associated with the achievement can be congratulated. We must now look to the future and the committee's recommendations on it.
At present, as we have heard, about 75 per cent. of so-called hazardous waste, in the broadest sense of the term, is disposed of to landfill sites. The Department of the Environment has commissioned and conducted considerable research into landfill—over £3 million has been spent to date—and the programme is planned to continue at about £½ million per annum. The Government are very much aware of the need, emphasised by the committee, for continuing research in this area and the dissemination and application of the results to ensure the knowledge gained is applied in practice. This is necessarily a scientific subject but it has a very real practical application. I should like to describe briefly the aims and objectives of the department's landfill research programme and the further use that it is proposed to make of its results.
The objective since 1973 has been to identify and describe the mechanisms controlling the generation, movement and attenuation of leachate within the landfill itself and beneath the site. A major survey of some 3,000 sites found in 1972 that only about 50 were worthy of further investigation. Nineteen were chosen and some of the guidance in waste management papers has been based on the results of the 465 continuing—and I emphasise the word—work. It is important to note that to date the research has not confirmed a serious threat to any exploitable aquifer. The guidance we have developed has already covered a number of problems.
A significant part of the research programme has concerned landfill management techniques, which include the co-disposal of domestic and suitable industrial wastes; the collection and treatment of leachate; the use of permeable attenuating lining materials in order to widen and improve the use of some landfill sites, and many other factors.
In order to make the results of these research programmes more readily available to interested bodies such as the waste disposal authorities, water authorities and waste disposal contractors, the department is preparing concurrently two new documents in its series of waste management papers, which deal largely with industrial wastes. The first will he concerned with basic landfill management techniques including hydro-geological appraisal of sites and attenuating mechanisms; the second paper will provide advice on the co-disposal of certain industrial wastes with domestic wastes; it will be based on results obtained from the investigation of landfill sites, and backed up by laboratory-based research. I believe that this information will please the noble Baroness, Lady Robson of Kiddington, who spoke along these lines.
The department has taken steps to diversify further its sponsored research activities among contractors in the private sector in addition to those carried out by Harwell, the Institution of Geological Sciences and the Water Research Centre. It is appropriate here to recognise the committee's views that the landfill method of disposal is only one way, and that it should not be allowed to blight the development of other technical means of waste disposal. The committee makes some fairly wide-ranging recommendations for arrangements which would sustain the development of those other means.
Some of these would involve Government interference in what is at the moment a fairly free market, although strictly controlled. These recommendations will require a good deal of study, and the House will not expect me to respond to them tonight. While the Government recognise the importance of other, non-landfill, means of disposal, they also recognise the advantages of landfill and the possibilities of continued landfill based on the research which I have just described.
The committee has also commented on two aspects of hazardous waste disposal which are currently under separate review. I have already mentioned that the committee approved the approach and record-keeping requirements of the special waste regulations. The Government welcome their conclusion that they are a valuable supplement to site licensing control. The Select Committee addressed its comments on the special waste regulations to the review and the points that they made will be carefully considered in that context. The review is being carried out by a joint committee of the Government, local authority associations, industry and environmental interests.
Detailed information has been sought from all waste disposal authorities, and a sample of waste producers, carriers and disposers. A general invitation to 466 submit evidence by 31st January 1982 has been issued. Therefore, in a definite response to my noble friend Lord Lucas, the special waste regulations were introduced this January and will be reviewed early next year, together with a recommendation in this report. So the Government are actively progressing.
Another area under review is the importation of waste. My department's examination of the need for new controls in this field is nearing completion and its results will be announced shortly. Again, the views of the Select Committee were addressed to the Department of the Environment's review. While this is not yet completed, as it was raised in particular by the noble Lord, Lord Gregson, perhaps I should say something today about this. In principle, the international trade in industrial waste is acceptable to the Government, provided that it is properly controlled and undertaken in the full knowledge of the proper authorities. There has to be a legitimate reason for its export and, as we have seen, the commercial basis for traffic has to be sound. There has to be full and proper information available to the authorities to enable them to exercise proper control. We are not prepared to he a dumping ground for anybody's waste, and this includes our own. That means that in practice there shall be no direct line from the port of entry to landfill unless circumstances are very unusual indeed.
The position in practice remains much as it is now. A very small trade takes place. It is under the eye of the waste disposal authorities, who have full details and advance warning. It is imported for treatment and/or disposal at the more specialised facilities. In that way the traffic benefits the international community and our interests, with no harm to health or the environment.
I should like now to move on to a number of the substantive recommendations in the Gregson Committee Report for strengthening the present system of controls on hazardous waste disposal. The basic control on hazardous waste disposal is site licensing, and it is here that I shall start. The site licensing system is designed to be a comprehensive control. All sites taking industrial, commercial or domestic waste, whether hazardous or not, must have both planning permission and a licence drawn up to suit the nature of the site. The nature and quantities of the waste they may or may not take w e set out in conditions set by waste disposal authorities—as we have heard, they are the county councils in England—and it is an offence to dispose of any controlled waste anywhere other than at a site licensed for the purpose. This reflects our basic principle that all these kinds of waste need to be controlled. Any waste can be hazardous if wrongly disposed of. Even builder's rubble can create a hazard. This licensing system is so comprehensive, and so responsive in its operation, that it does much of the job which, with any other system, might require a multitude of additional regulations.
The Select Committee have endorsed that system of control. But they have also expressed concern that its enforcement by waste disposal authorities is not always as effective as it might be. The committee have therefore suggested that a small hazardous waste inspectorate should be established, 467to encourage adequate and consistent standards of control throughout the country".The Government accept the principle of a stronger central advisory function to support local authorities in their duty of control—and here I speak with some confidence though I must choose my words carefully. I am not able today to set out in detail how this should best be achieved in the machinery of Government or how the job should be defined, or who should do it. I am sorry at this stage that I cannot satisfy either the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, who said at first glance that she agreed with it but it had no teeth, or my noble friend Lord Mottistone, or the noble Lord, Lord Ashby. But I hope that the sub-committee will recognise in those remarks that I am going as far as I can. The department will wish to hear the views of others concerned, and awaits the letter from my noble friend Lord Mottistone. There are, of course, constraints which prevent us blithely accepting at once that this is an additional job which can be taken on tomorrow. How ever, we recognise the weight of the report's recommendation, and regard this as a point for action.
Closely linked with the proposal for an inspectorate in central government is the committee's major recommendations on the machinery for ensuring that planning for hazardous waste disposal is adequate. This suggests that waste disposal authorities should be formally grouped into waste disposal regions. As the committee recognised, there are already considerable informal links between WDAs at regional level. This system is developing, although it has some way to go and needs some encouragement. In the North-West, for instance, the WDA officers meet together regularly. Following a report published in 1979 by their regional body anticipating a shortfall in liquid waste treatment capacity, three new treatment plants have recently been commissioned in the region. I give that as an example. This is the sort of practice which needs to be better developed across the country to meet the gap in the planning at the regional level that the committee rightly identified. I hope that to some extent that will act as a reply to my noble friend Lady Platt of Writtle.
The Government favour a continuation and development of such informal links rather than the setting up of any formal new regional structure. Both the co-ordination of facilities and plans and the pooling of expertise can be, and in many cases is being, done through the existing links between authorities. Another layer of bureaucracy is going to put a strain on resources at a time when they are already stretched.
So it is clear that we must obtain the benefits that will come from more systematic co-operation between waste disposal authorities and waste producers' bodies such as the regional branches of the Confederation of British Industry, without imposing the burden of another tier of authorities. The Government believe that this can be achieved with the aid and adaptation of the existing regional machinery based broadly on the standard Government regions. Working out the details will, again, require discussion with the local and water authorities and the waste producers' representative organisations. The Government accept, however, that the committee has laid stress on a point that must be met.
468 The committee's other recommendation on planning suggests that Section 1 of the Control of Pollution Act, which would give waste disposal authorities the responsibility for ensuring that the arrangements for disposing of waste in their areas are adequate, should be brought into force at the earliest possible opportunity. The Government appreciate the reasons for this view. The Government, however, take the opposite view on a question which admittedly has something of the chicken and the egg about it but which also has a rather indeterminate financial commitment. I think it is important, given the progress that is being made, that WDAs progress further with the preparation of their waste disposal plans before bringing in Section 1.
WDAs will need to have their plans available before they can properly assess whether facilities in their areas are adequate. All the indications are that at the current rate of progress reasonable coverage of the country with plans will be achieved by about the end of next year. The department will discuss the matter further with the local authorities and industry, including the question of expediting completion of these plans, and of course bearing in mind Lord Gregson's remarks today and also those of my noble friend Lady Platt.
I turn now to two participants in the waste disposal industry, the producers of waste and the handlers of waste. The committee has recommended that all producers of hazardous waste should have to register with their disposal authority, that they should identify the person within the company responsible for hazardous waste management and should make a quarterly return on the disposal of their hazardous waste to the WDA. A similar proposal is made for the handlers of hazardous waste. The committee recommends thatAll professional handlers of hazardous waste should have to be licensed by their waste disposal authorities".The aim of this recommendation is to tighten up on the so-called "cowboys" of the waste disposal trade. These are people who contravene the law, for example, by dumping waste on unlicensed sites. These proposals would represent a significant additional element of control and their introduction would mean an extra burden on public funds to administer, plus additional costs for the private sector to comply with them. The Government are not announcing a conclusion on them today. There will he consultation with all concerned before we do.
I think that both the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, and the noble Baroness, Lady Robson, raised the point of penalties for fly-tipping. Perhaps I should say a word on that. We are sympathetic to this point but penalties perhaps are not the whole answer. Already the worst offence carried the possibility of an unlimited fine and a period of imprisonment. There are three other strands to ensure that the disincentives are as strong as they can be. The first is the nature of a defence. Is it arrestable? Is there a requirement to give names and addresses, et cetera? The Home Office is looking at this generally in its consideration of the report on criminal procedure.
The second is policing and the willingness of witnesses to lay information. There is also scope for improvements here, and I do not deny that it is not always easy to achieve results. The third point is the nature of a legitimate option. It must be as simple and flexible as possible, and while economics must not 469 override environmental considerations, costs must be kept down by avoiding the burdensome requirements of the perfect system which will simply encourage abuse. A strengthening of the disincentive in all four areas is what we shall be aiming to achieve in responding to this report.
I have endeavoured today to cover what the Government consider to be the main recommendations in the report of the Select Committee, and I have set out the initial response which I hope is indicative of the Government's determination to build the current system of control into a more comprehensive vehicle for ensuring that the United Kingdom is able to deal effectively with its disposal needs as they develop. The House will understand that I have not discussed each of the many recommendations, but I hope it is very clear that in the discussions to come we shall be seeking ways and means to implement most of them.
Of the 34 conclusions the Government are able to agree unreservedly with 19 of them, in part with eight of them, and four will be the subject of further consideration and consultation. For anybody whose arithmetic is quick, even on the three remaining ones the Government are able to say that they disagree with it today but that that disagreement is qualified. While formal regional authorities are not accepted, the principle behind the recommendation certainly is. Whereas we do not yet feel it is time to implement Section 1 of the Control of Pollution Act, as I have described, we have it in mind. And Recommendation 33 is concerned with a possible need in the future to protect specialist disposal facilities through intervention in the market. It is couched in tentative terms. We must therefore wait for the results of our other work, especially on the economic side.
My noble friend Lord Ridley produced a point about bonds. This is a complex subject although the idea has its attractions. It has to he considered in the context of ensuring proper operations and monitoring responsibilities after a site is closed. It is relevant to the storage of waste, particularly of imported waste. It is another of the economic and financial matters that need careful examination. It may be of interest to the House to know that something called environmental impairment insurance is available in this country already.
Remarks were made about Pitsea. The committee of course heard a great deal of evidence about it, and I gather also visited the site. The report conies to two conclusions. That it was responsibly operated with due regard to public concern and safety; that there was cause for concern at the quantity and proportion of the national hazardous waste arising disposed of at Pitsea. The Government consider that the second conclusion has some validity in general terms. There is scope for endless argument about the precise amounts of waste that can be taken at a suitable site, constrained of course by the site's capacity and judgments about the optimum operating life and other factors such as traffic on the local roads.
The licensing system and planning requirements already provide for these questions to be resolved at county level. As to Pitsea itself, I understand that the latest figures from the company indicate that it is only taking about 100,000 tonnes of so-called hazardous waste, which is under half its licensed rate.
470 My noble friend Lord Newell produced the subject of Woodham. The Government are aware of the complaints about the Woodham site from its own work and from evidence provided to the committee. My department provided advice on the operational problems in recent years, and the operation has, I understand, been virtually completed. However, there are matters outstanding relating to the restoration conditions which prevent me from commenting further in detail.
The noble Lord, Lord Molloy, gave me notice that he was going to raise the question of the Willow Tree Lane estate, although he did not tell me that he was going to talk about missiles and atoms as well, so I hope he will forgive me if I stick to the site itself. He also called that delightful place the Ealing Borough Council the queen of the suburbs, but I feel as a Lord in Waiting and a resident of a Royal borough that I might call that slightly lèse-majesté.
Contamination problems at Willow Tree Lane estate: the Department of the Environment was consulted in 1976 on the contamination found then at the Willow Tree site. At that time the conclusion was that the Ealing site could not be described as seriously polluted, and the remedial measures being proposed were considered appropriate and adequate. I am using these words. I know that the noble Lord used "acceptable". I am not quibbling. The Government are taking the current concern over the site very seriously. We are aware of the steps Ealing Borough Council are taking to establish the extent and nature of the pollution, and officials of the Department of the Environment are ready to help by providing professional advice at any time.
We are also aware of Harwell's recent investigations carried out for Ealing, and the results of the tests so far have confirmed that there is no significant contamination of the soil. We shall of course study too the remarks of the noble Lord this evening which he has so cogently expressed. My remarks today are not, therefore, a complete Government response to the report, although I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Ashby, will find encouragement in my speech. But it is clear that this is an authoritative report which marks a new stage in the development of the United Kingdom disposal policy and practice. I am sure that the influence of the report will he felt in future environmental protection work, and in legislation—for instance, on charging for disposal licences which the Government are already committed to—the local and central administration of controls, and the research effort that underpins the system. That influence will not be limited to hazardous waste alone, for reasons which the committee itself noted. The Government will therefore be promoting a series of steps in response to the report.
We shall need to work out the implications of each step, consult with those concerned, and consider in what way we can best move forward. Some steps will call for a technical publication, usually in the series of waste management papers. Some will call for regulations under the powers we have in the Control of Pollution Act. Some may have to await an opportunity for new primary legislation. In the context of a White Paper, it is too soon for the Government to commit themselves, and I hope the noble Lord, Lord Gregson, will agree that, if progress is good, a White Paper could be counter-productive.
471 From all the remarks I have made, I hope noble Lords will see that there is no intention on the part of the Government to let the report lie on the shelf. Indeed, when a matter of this sort comes to your Lordships' House, that moves the Government to action. In all steps that are taken in the Department of the Environment, we shall often find ourselves returning to the report; I am told that the copies of it in the department are already well read, and I am sure that the Official Report of today's debate will be similarly studied.
The constructive speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Robson, and the forthright and authoritative speeches—if there was perhaps a slight ring of dissension—of the noble Lords, Lord Darling and Lord Lucas, will be read with interest, along with the views put forward by my noble friend Lord Mottistone. We are also happy to have general support from the noble Viscount, Lord Ridley, and the Association of County Councils. I apologise for keeping the House so long, hut this has been a very good debate and I would end as I started, by saying that the Government welcome the report and this constructive debate today.
§ 7.32 p.m.
§ Lord Gregson
My Lords, it would be easy to start another debate in the light of the many points that have been raised, but I have no intention of doing so. I am grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part. This has been a wide-ranging, helpful and authoritative debate; in fact, this has been your Lordships' House at its best, and that is an important aspect which is not fully understood by the general public.
I wish also to congratulate the noble Viscount, Lord Dilhorne, on his maiden speech. In view of some of the technical problems we discovered from our inquiries, I would only comment that if all the paper from the Houses of Parliament was sent to the Essex site, I am afraid there would be disaster on the way. The GLC dispatch their domestic and commercial waste down the river in open barges, the result of which noble Lords will have seen in the newspapers; it spreads along the banks of the Thames on its way down. When it arrives at Pitsea, it is lifted out of the open barges by grabs and is distributed all over the Basildon area. I would suggest to the noble Viscount, therefore, that he could be encouraging further degradation of the environment in that area by shipping paper there from this House. We have in the report made a comment on the point, criticising the GLC for this archaic method of shipping waste around the country. Nevertheless, he made an amusing and helpful contribution.
I would only say in closing that I hope that on this occasion the Government will seriously consider publishing a White Paper because it would be a useful reply to your Lordships' Select Committee and would give the opportunity for even further examination of the problems in this extremely important area.
§ On Question, Motion agreed to.