HL Deb 18 April 1983 vol 441 cc413-20

3.46 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department of the Environment (Lord Bellwin)

My Lords, with the leave of the House I beg to repeat a Statement which is being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Sectretary of State for the Environment. The Statement reads as follows:

"With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a Statement about lead in the environment. The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution have today published their report on this subject, and copies are available in the Vote Office.

"In 1981 the Royal Commission decided that it would be timely to review the whole field of environmental pollution. They invited a wide range of organisations and individuals to give their views on the types of pollution which they perceived to pose the greatest threat to the environment and to comment on the Royal Commission's own provisional choice of topics for study. Environmental contamination by heavy metals was among those topics, and the response to the Royal Commission's invitation showed that the specific problem of lead was an issue of major and continuing concern to the public and to the scientific community.

"The Royal Commission therefore decided to complete and publish separately the results of their study of lead as soon as possible, and to report on the other matters later this year. The Government welcomed this decision, since we felt that the Royal Commission's independence and authority would be most valuable in clarifying the issues surrounding this complicated and difficult subject.

"I am most grateful to the chairman, Professor Southwood, and his colleagues in the Royal Commission for the prompt, thorough and comprehensive manner in which they have conducted their present study.

"In their report, before discussing a range of particular problems and possible measures to deal with them the Royal Commission reviewed the sources of lead in the environment, the pathways by which it enters living systems and its effect on man and animals. They stress that there is still uncertainty about the effects on individuals of the low levels of lead typical in the United Kingdom. They note that features of lead poisoning occasionally occur at blood-lead levels of about 50 microgrammes per 100 millilitres of blood; and that 'at present the average blood-lead concentration of the United Kingdom population is about one-quarter of that level'. They continue: 'We are not aware of any other toxin which is so widely distributed in human and animal populations and which is also universally present at levels that exceed even one-tenth of that at which clinical signs and symptons may occur'. They conclude: 'It would be prudent to take steps to increase the safety margin for the population as a whole'. "The Royal Commission's report contains a number of recommendations covering all the sources of exposure to lead, including water, paint, and food and drink. They commend the action already taken by this Government under the programme that I announced to the House two years ago. They now recommend further action in certain areas. For example:

  • early completion of our programme for treating naturally acidic drinking water to reduce its lead solvency and extension of the grants we offer for lead plumbing replacement;
  • a progressive reduction in the lead level of new household paint;
  • more publicity about the hazards of old leaded paint and how to avoid them;
  • and a tightening up on emissions from lead processing works.
We shall bring forward an early response to these recommendations.

"There is, however, one recommendation which the Royal Commission believe should be the subject of immediate action by the Government and on which an early announcement is desirable. This relates to future policy on levels of lead in petrol. I announced two years ago that we would require the compulsory reduction of the maximum permitted level of petrol lead from 0.4 to 0.15 grammes per litre by the end of 1985. This action, applying to every vehicle, was the most effective way of achieving the largest possible reduction in the shortest possible time. The Royal Commission strongly endorse this decision; and they now recommend that it should be regarded as an intermediate stage in the phasing out of lead additives altogether, with the requirement that from an early date all new vehicles should be required to use 92-octane lead-free petrol.

"The Royal Commission estimate that the cost of this change would be small in relation to the likely gains in fuel efficiency over the next few years.

"The Royal Commission believe that the motor manufacturing industry would have no insuperable difficulty in making the transition. But they recognise that the car industry which supplies our market is organised on a European basis; and Community Directive 78/611 lays down 0.15 grammes per litre as the minimum lead content that member states may stipulate in their own legislation. The change which the Royal Commission propose requires Community agreement, and they recommend that we initiate negotiations immediately with our European partners.

"I can now tell the House that the Government accept the Royal Commission's recommendations on lead in petrol. My honourable friend the Under-Secretary of State will be writing to our opposite numbers in the Community to set out the United Kingdom's position, with a view to opening formal negotiations as soon as possible. We shall also, of course, discuss with the United Kingdom oil and motor industries a timetable for the introduction of unleaded petrol.

"Mr. Speaker, typical blood lead levels in the United Kingdom are low and dropping. Substantial research efforts have so far shown no conclusive evidence that these typical levels have adverse effects on the health of children or adults. But it is, and has been throughout, the Government's policy to increase the safety margin wherever possible, and while lead in petrol is not the largest contributor to the average body burden it is the largest that is controllable on a national basis.

"Our acceptance of these recommendations of the Royal Commission, following the previous decision to reduce lead in petrol for all vehicles to 0.15 grammes per litre from 1985, represents the best possible route to achieve the earliest and most substantial reduction in petrol lead coupled with its eventual elimination."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Lord Bishopston

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord the Minister and the Government for a commendably detailed report, which goes far beyond the important aspect of lead in petrol and into other aspects of the environment. We welcome the report of the Royal Commission under the chairmanship of Professor Southwood, and thank him and the members of the commission for their work and recommendations, which we shall all study with interest—the report having only just become available.

We welcome, too, the Government's Statement in accepting the Royal Commission's report, which seems to represent a great step forward in Government policy if not (to put it more aptly, in motoring terms) almost a U-turn from their Statement of two years ago. There will be wide acceptance of, and a welcome for, the Statement's reference to the fact that the specific problem of lead is an issue of major and continuing concern, as the Statement made clear, of the public and of the scientific community. This applies in particular to the effects of lead on children, as was indicated in the recent debate in your Lordships' House.

As the Government's last Statement was to set out their intention to reduce lead levels by 1985, we should like to know whether the Government are yet able to say what specific steps they have taken towards the implementation of the report—including the possible cost factors and any grant aspects as well. I cannot, for obvious reasons, question the noble Lord the Minister on events beyond the next general election because then, of course, my own party will be acting quite decisively. So can the noble Lord say what discussions the Government have had with the motor and other industries, and also with local authorities and other authorities on the wider aspects of the Statement? Can he say, in the time left available to him in his responsibilities, what departmental action is likely and what kind of monitoring is likely to take place to check lead levels?

The Statement refers to the Government writing to our opposite numbers in the Community in order to open negotiations. That part of the Statement should indicate that the aim of the British Government is to go ahead quite decisively, regardless of other factors within the Community. Finally, on the question of reducing lead in petrol, let it be said that Britain was not only in the lead but that Britain led.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, we welcome the Statement that has been repeated by the noble Lord the Minister and the Government's belated conversion to the idea of lead-free petrol in particular. May I ask the noble Lord whether he does not think it would have been a good idea if this Government and their predecessor had listened more carefully to the advice that was given by the Conservation Society, of which I have the honour to be president, which has been recommending lead-free petrol ever since 1976? When we went to see the noble Lord's predecessor at the department, Mr Denis Howell, in 1978, we asked him to consider the evidence relating to the harm done by lead in the environment. We were told then that the department had no such evidence, and we had to supply a memorandum referring to some 100-odd learned papers in which this matter had already been discussed at that time. So the Government cannot say that they had no warning of the dangers of lead in the environment, and particularly of the dangers of airborne lead, which has only recently been recognised.

Do the Government now accept that airborne lead makes a higher contribution to body lead levels, particularly among small children, than the oil industry and the Government have been prepared to admit in the past? Will they cover this matter and the evidence relating to it in the letter which is to be sent to the department's opposite numbers in the Community, so that neither can they say that they have not had the scientific evidence drawn to their attention?

Will the Government also accept that, just because no clinical effects can be observed, that does not mean to say that behavioural disorders, particularly among children, and impairment of intellectual functions, are not occurring in the population as a whole—particularly at lead levels of 30 to 35 milligrammes per decilitre and upwards, and not as much as 50 milligrammes, as the report makes out? Does the noble Lord accept that there is no threshold below which lead in the environment and lead in the body does not cause some harm, even if it cannot be measured clinically? As I have said, we welcome the Government's belated conversion, and we hope that they, together with our partners in the Community, will get on with eliminating this poison from our environment as rapidly as possible.

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, I do not think that the noble Lord, Lord Bishopston, need worry too much about the responsibility for this falling upon his shoulders; I believe we can safely assume that that will not be the case. Nevertheless, I welcome the observations made both by him and by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury. I will pick up just one or two of the points they made.

This is not a U-turn at all. A few years ago we said quite clearly that lead-free petrol was always a desired objective. We said then that by moving as we did towards the 0.15 grammes per litre option by 1985, this would enable us to make a positive move to reducing by two-thirds the contents level which existed then, and that to go the rest of the way—the additional third—was something that we would want to discuss together with our colleagues and opposite numbers in Europe. Had we not done that, and had we set out two years ago to go for the whole of the lead-free position, we would have been waiting into the 1990s (and we knew not quite when) before there was any reduction of the kind which the two-thirds represents.

The noble Lord, Lord Bishopston, asked what specific steps would be taken to implement the proposals, and what the cost factors are. I am sure he will readily agree that these are very early days. The report is just out today, and obviously that information, and information as to grants, I do not have. But the noble Lord is quite right to make these points because they are relevant. Likewise, the noble Lord, Lord Bishopston, asked what discussions there had been with interested parties; and, clearly, these must now take place. I assure the noble Lord that that will be so. With regard to the monitoring of lead levels, this goes on all the time, and will continue. As the noble Lord knows (and he will know still more when he has read the report) a mass of information is available and is still being collected.

The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, with much experience in this field—I remember when I made the Statement two years ago he was raising certain points on it—welcomed the Government's belated conversion. As I said, it is not a conversion. I think that this is now an opportunity. There have been advances in technology in the last two years which have enabled a move that certainly two years ago was not so possible. He is quite right when he says that the Conservation Society recommended lead-free petrol, but as I have said, the Government have always felt that as an end objective that was always desirable; it has hitherto been a question of how and when to overcome the difficulties, and now we are seeing the possibilities in front of us.

The noble Lord asked about airborne lead pollution. Research has shown no adverse effects at typical UK levels. Airborne lead pollution is still a minor problem. Studies in the United Kingdom have shown that water and paint are more important as part of that problem. I understand that the commission say that the air pollution problem is 20 per cent. of the total lead intake; some one-fifth of the pollution comes from the air. Of course, the noble Lord is right when he says that there are no levels below which there is not some harm. I do not think that one would quarrel with that. The commission's report—which I am sure he will read with great care, as will we all—put the matter very much in perspective. When they produce the next stage of their report we shall have even more what I am sure we shall all agree will be very important and very useful information.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, it is a pleasure to be able not only to thank the Minister of State for repeating the Statement made in the House of Commons but also to welcome the content of the Statement. We on these Benches think that it is an excellent Statement. There is only one place in it where words from the bad old days stand out like scar tissue, where it says: There is no conclusive evidence that typical lead levels have adverse effects. Well, nobody is worrying about typical levels; it is atypical levels that have given rise to the worry. But it is a good Statement.

If I may ask the noble Lord one or two questions, first, when the Secretary of State writes to other European countries proposing a timetable for lead-free petrol, what timetable will he propose, given that the United States, Japan and the Soviet Union are already years ahead of us, some of them are actually there and even Australia is a little bit ahead of us? There is a lot of time to be caught up in Europe.

Secondly, are the Government going to raise the provision in the existing Community directive which prohibits member Governments from compelling oil companies to sell lead-free petrol? This is a minor point but I think it is interesting. I have no reason to suppose that our oil companies will need compelling to sell lead-free petrol, but it struck me as an odd provision that the Government should not be allowed to compel them to do so.

Lastly, I believe we now have a complete slate of all the four Parliamentary parties in this country committed to lead-free petrol as soon as possible. This is a great advance, and all the other parties welcome the Government among their ranks.

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, I am grateful for the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, and thank him. He asked me will the Government compel the oil companies to sell lead-free petrol. Obviously, we are some way from that; I am quite confident that, once this is agreed, as I am sure it will be, there will be no need for the Government to compel them to do so.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, I did not put a complicated point clearly enough. I was not suggesting that the Government might be thinking of compelling the oil companies to sell lead-free petrol. At present the Government are not allowed, by Community directive, to compel them. Are the Government thinking of asking the Community to change that directive so as to leave the Government free to compel the oil companies to do this just as they are free to compel them to do various other things?

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, I hope the noble Lord will enjoy reading that in Hansard as much as I am sure I will. But I think I know what he means. I have little doubt that once the decision is taken, there will be no problem as to how it is implemented. The noble Lord makes a very fair point about the timetable. Clearly, this has to be worked out. We are anxious that there should be no more time lapse than need be. I can assure the House that it is the Government's intention to press forward with this, and, if I do not give any firm dates, the noble Lord knows that I cannot do that. The commission are talking about 1990. We shall have to see. If it could be before then, why not? Clearly, there are factors about which I cannot comment today.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that there is considerable concern in various parts of the country about the need to replace lead piping? This is specifically referred to at page 138, paragraph 8.29 of the report. Specific recommendations are made in paragraphs 6.7 to 6.9. Is the noble Lord aware that the House welcomes certain steps that the Government have taken in assisting local authorities to replace pipes, but that a great deal more needs to be done? Is he conscious that this is a step which could be taken quickly by the Government? In view of the fact that the report states that lead levels in tap water were unacceptably high in over 10 per cent. of British homes in 1975, this is a measure which should be taken as quickly as possible.

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, for that observation and have no quarrel at all with it. The noble Lord will know that about 12 months ago the Government agreed to include in the HIP allocations funds for this purpose. It is very much for the local authorities themselves to decide what priority they give to this work. I should not have thought that resources would be a problem. If local authorities really felt that it was so, they would let us know, and I have not heard that. They would certainly pick that up today. I would also remind the noble Lord that local authorities do have access to other funds, if necessary, by way of capital receipts and so on. I do not think that it is a problem. I entirely accept that this work should be given priority wherever there is any doubt at all about the requirement.