HL Deb 23 March 1983 vol 440 cc1204-22

10.23 p.m.

Lord Ashby rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what steps they propose to take to introduce the principle of "best practicable environmental option" into their policies for protecting the environment.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, at this time of the evening I have to begin by thanking your Lordships for remaining in the House. I can be brief because I am really a curtain raiser for my noble friend Lord Flowers who can speak with much more authority than I on this matter. I am very glad that he has been able to partner me in putting this Question tonight and asking the Government to give some kind of reply.

I shall make only two points. Early in 1974 the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, under the chairmanship of my noble friend, decided to study the environmental effects of nuclear power. They had to postpone this because the Secretary of State requested them to make a rush job and to report if possible within a year on this remit: To review the efficacy of the methods of control of air pollution from domestic and industrial sources, to consider the relationship between the relevant authorities and to make recommendations". The reason for the hurry was that the Health and Safety at Work Bill had almost completed its passage through Parliament and one provision in that Bill was to transfer the Alkaline Inspectorate from the Department of the Environment into the newly created Health and Safety Commission to work under the Health and Safety Executive.

The Royal Commission urged the Secretary of State to hold up this transfer until they had reported. This advice was disregarded. When the Royal Commission did report 16 months later, they strongly argued that the Alkali Inspectorate, which by this time had been transferred, should be put back into the Department of the Environment. That was in January 1976, seven years ago. The response from the Government was silence. Despite the Secretary of State's request for a rush job, no comment was made, no action was taken. This was a discourtesy to a Royal Commission on which some Members of your Lordships' House served; but let that pass.

The delay caused unease in other quarters. In July 1981 the Secretary of State received a letter signed by the president of the CBI, the president of the National Society for Clean Air and the president of the Institution of Environmental Health Officers. They deplored the fact that the Government had made no reply in five years and they went on to urge the Government to remove the Alkali Inspectorate from the Health and Safety Executive and to bring it back to the Department of the Environment. Eighteen months later, last December, a response from the Government finally came but not in the form of a discussion document. It was in the form of one of the series of technical pollution papers which come from the Department of the Environment, many of them excellent. This was paper No. 18. It reaffirmed the decision to keep the Alkali Inspectorate under the Health and Safety Executive.

Why does it matter that the Alkali Inspectorate, which is now renamed the Industrial Air Pollution Inspectorate, should not work under the Health and Safety Executive? I suggest that the answer is very simple. To keep it there contradicts a principle of environmental policy which has been painstakingly developed over the last 120 years. The purpose of the first Alkali Act in 1863 was not to protect man from hazards in the environment; it was to protect the environment from hazards caused by man. That has been the principle of the Alkali Inspectorate's work ever since that first Act: to protect the environment—the farms and the woodlands in North-West England. I am sure that the alkali inspectors will continue, as they have for over a century, to show this concern for the environment as being their prime purpose, but now they have to do it under an organisation which has a totally different and sometimes conflicting purpose. They do at present retain their identity but there are signs that they may slowly become merged into the Factory Inspectorate.

The Royal Commission spelt out the danger of this very clearly indeed, and it is particularly disappointing that this dismissive document has come from the Department of the Environment in this case. Paragraph 254 of the Royal Commission's fifth report makes the point that there may be—indeed, there certainly are—many cases of conflicts of interest between a body whose chief purpose is to ensure safety and health in the working place and a body whose chief purpose is to deal with environmental quality. It is too late now to expect a Government to take the advice of a Royal Commission supported by the presidents of associations dealing with industry, pollution and health, so I make this point only to put on record a widespread dissatisfaction with this decision and with the way in which it was made.

But I have one question to ask. The Department of the Environment, evidently uneasy in its own conscience, has added at the end of Pollution Paper No. 18 an appendix with the title "Memorandum of Understanding". This is a memorandum of understanding between the Department of the Environment and the Health and Safety Commission and its executive. It sets out in a vague sort of way the conditions for co-operation. I ask the noble Lord who is to reply to this Question to tell the House exactly what is being done under the terms of this memorandum.

I now come to my second point, and it is my last point. It concerns the main recommendation which the commission made in its fifth report. It endorsed the flexible policy which has proved so successful in the control of industrial emissions to the air since 1863: the criterion of using the "best practicable means". The Royal Commission proposed that this principle should now be extended to cover the control of wastes going into water and on to land; indeed, that there should be a policy in Britain of choosing the "best practicable environmental option" rather than just the best practicable means in air, water and land.

How could this be done? It could only be done if there were some small expert body which would act as the Alkali Inspectorate has acted over the control of emissions into air; deciding the strategy for the disposal and recycling of wastes in Britain; deciding whether air, water land was the way in which they should be disposed.

The response to this very imaginative and carefully thought-out recommendation was seven years of silence, broken only by the publication of Report No. 18 last December. In this paper the Government accept the strength of the Royal Commission's argument. The logic, say the Government, is "unassailable"; the Government say that the best practicable environmental option is a concept, of considerable power and utility".

Then the government response goes on to suggest that in practice it would not be much use anyway. Let me read the relevant paragraph. It says: It is not easy to assess the real benefits that might accrue from its application … there is probably not a large number of situations in which major choices exist in practice regarding the forms in which pollution arises". This is something very familiar to those of us whose lives have been spent in the academic world. The response—I am far from convinced—means: I cannot find reasons to counter your argument but I propose not to vote for it. It says that there are no real benefits, or very few. Let me give one example.

The alkali inspectors have no legal responsibility or statutory power to exercise the best practicable environmental option, but in fact they are quietly doing so informally. For example, the Bankside and Battersea power stations were formerly washing sulphur dioxide out of their flue gases with water from the river and this was polluting the Thames. In consultation with the Alkali Inspectorate it was decided to abandon this process and to use tall chimneys on the grounds that this would be the better practicable option—neither of them good, but better than polluting the Thames. There are many other cases; for example, the incineration of certain nasty organic materials in which the alkali inspectors have deliberately chosen the best practicable environmental option not requiring people to dump them in the ground where they might be a danger.

It was to develop just such an overall strategy as that, that the Royal Commission made their proposal for Her Majesty's Pollution Inspectorate to determine the strategy. They underlined the fact that this inspectorate would in no way infringe the powers of the regional water authorities or the waste disposal authorities, but would consolidate the strategy of getting the best practicable environmental option. Report No. 18 turns that down. What do they put in its place? I shall read your Lordships their alternative: The Government therefore look to all pollution control authorities to take account of the principles enunciated in the Royal Commission's report … The Government will initiate discussions with representatives of the authorities concerned in order to provide a forum for discussion". It is a pretty example of Whitehall dialect, but hardly the way to ensure a national strategy. It is just as well, for instance, that the Government do not just "look to" the Army, the Navy and the Air Force to co-ordinate their defence policy. Noble Lords will note that the Government say that they "will initiate" discussions, after the commission's report has been in their hands for nearly seven years.

So I ask the noble Lord who will reply: precisely what steps have been taken by the authorities that the Government have already "looked to"? What discussions have been initiated? In brief, what is the Government's policy about protection of the environment? What are their principles when they come to discuss environmental policy with the European Community? These are the questions that I hope will be answered at the end of this discussion.

10.36 p.m.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, coming to this scene, I too was a little perturbed at the way in which a very thoughtful and hard working report was seen to be dismissed after such a long silence, really almost in an off-hand manner. The noble Lord, Lord Ashby, has, I think, highlighted the most important aspects of this. I have one very short question which I should like to put to the Minister. On the planning issues, in paragraph 51 of the response, the Government acknowledge the importance of planning contributions to pollution control, and in paragraph 52 the Government agree about the importance of consultation between planning and pollution control authorities. But they do not consider it necessary that consultation should be mandatory. The Question is: why not? There is no attempt to explain this. It is just brushed aside as a matter of small importance.

Authorities vary widely in their approach to pollution control according to the interests of their members, the training of their staffs and whatever happen to be the economic pressures and the employment pressures in their area at the time. Pollution is not a local problem; it crosses all boundaries, be they political, geographical or physical. To say that there need not even be consultation of all authorities at a regional level is just nonsense. Public disquiet about the long-and short-term effects of pollution is growing and this response does nothing at all to allay the fears. I hope that the Minister in his response to our questions tonight will do something towards that.

10.38 p.m.

Baroness Robson of Kiddington

My Lords, I hesitate to take part in a debate with two such leading experts on the subject, but I cannot refrain from mentioning one aspect which perhaps is not directly relevant to the introduction of the noble Lord, Lord Ashby; but I believe it is something, particularly today, about which we should think. For many years in my own political party I have been interested in environmental questions, and I was delighted when I heard of the setting up of the Royal Commission and when I read its findings. Like other speakers, I have been very depressed at the lack of action by successive Governments since the Royal Commission reported.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Ashby, that the Alkali Inspectorate had served this country well and that it should have remained independent of the Health and Safety at Work Inspectorate. I think we can give it credit for achieving enormous advances in pollution control in this country. We have managed to create reasonably clean air in this country. We have done it through the high stack policy mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Ashby. But in doing so we have created pollution in other parts of the world. We spent the early part of today on an economic debate on co-operation to get the world out of its economic problems, because we need co-operation, for we are all interdependent. The same applies to the question of cross-boundary pollution over national boundaries—not only over regional boundaries within our country. It is now fairly well known and accepted that the acid rain falling over Scandinavia, and particularly Norway, is to a large extent created in this country. It is estimated that 40 per cent. of the acid rain emanates from Britain and only 10 per cent. emanates from Norway itself, and the rest comes from central Europe.

It is natural in any environmental policy, or policy decisions, first of all to look at one's own country and try to clean up one's own surroundings. We happen to be fortunate in our situation in Europe. We are not exposed to the same pollution from other countries as the people in Scandinavia. We should therefore have a particular responsibility to see that we are not offenders. Despite the Alkali Inspectorate, we have failed to implement solutions that could help the Scandinavians in this way. Technical means are now available to clean air in a different way. The high stack policy has not helped to solve the problem European-wise, although it has helped us. The European Community is an excellent group of nations which can, between them, help to solve the pollution problem in Europe. I want to ask the Government why they are always so reluctant to take part in discussions and accept recommendations which come from the European Commission.

On 15th March an unusal international treaty came into force in the shape of a Geneva convention on transboundary air pollution. I found that out by reading the third leader in The Times. This convention was set up for the purpose of achieving a reduction in the high levels of pollution in rain experienced by some countries in the world. But both Germany and Britain were insistent on watering down what might have been in that international treaty. Britain was reluctant to accept, for instance, that even reports of new installations and of an increase in the sulphur emissions from country to country should be compulsory. In the end I believe it has been agreed to. Germany was equally at fault. But since Germany now has a problem of its own from the acid rain, and the forests of Germany are endangered, they have become more co-operative. This country and this Government should show the rest of Europe that although we do not suffer in this way we are co-operating to the fullest by installing the kind of cleaning arrangements that can now be installed in sulphur-emitting plants.

It is disconcerting, when one's concern is with the environment, to find, first of all, that not only on the international level but also on the national level a report such as the Royal Commission's report has not been taken up and the advice accepted by the Government, particularly that relating to the Alkali Inspectorate and to the best practicable environmental option. One becomes disheartened and feels that the Government are not a hundred per cent. behind an environmental policy for this country and for Europe—and, for that matter, for the world. I hope that the noble Lord will reassure us that Britain will co-operate in the European Community and in the Geneva international treaty.

10.45 p.m.

Lord Flowers

My Lords, I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Robson of Kiddington, will forgive me if I do not follow her speech, except to say how important was the point that she raised about acid rain, but at the same time to add how misleading it is to try to discuss it unless one also refers to the enormous cost of replacing the high-stack policy to which she referred with a policy which removes the sulphur pollutants at source.

I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Ashby for tabling this Question and for setting out so cogently some of the principal recommendations of the Fifth Report of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, and for commenting on the Government's disappointing response to them. My noble friend was the founder chairman of that Royal Commission and he enunciated many of the principles that it has tried to follow ever since. It was a tremendous challenge to succeed him as chairman in 1973. It would be even more so today, because in the meantime he has become the leading authority on the history of clean air legislation and on air pollution control. That was, I believe, evident from the way in which my noble friend put his Question.

Briefly, my noble friend's case is that the Government have accepted the objectives set by the Royal Commission but have failed to provide the tools. They have agreed that the concept of "best practicable means", which has served this country so well for the control of air pollution, should now be extended to the "best practicable environmental option" for the unified control of pollution which more generally may affect water and land as well as air. But the Government have denied the means to carry out this generalisation; namely, a unified pollution control inspectorate—Her Majesty's Pollution Inspectorate, as we called it, or HMPI, as it is known for short—under the aegis of the Department of the Environment. That would have been modelled on the highly successful Alkali Inspectorate in the field of air pollution, but with responsibilities extended to cover all forms of emission from works which present difficult problems of pollution control. I shall not spell it out; my noble friend has already done so with great clarity.

Is it not ironic, though, that what we proposed for England and Wales already exists in Scotland, in Her Majesty's Industrial Pollution Inspectorate, as it is called there; and that the Government accept the rightness of these superior arrangements north of the Border, while confidently rejecting them to the South? Do they think that the thistle needs more protection than does the rose, or the leek, or that other countries with their environmental protection agencies have got it wrong? No, I suspect that it was another border that was involved—the border between the local authorities responsible for waste disposal, water quality, and environmental health, and the national inspectorates; the one not wishing to surrender powers to the other, as they may have seen it, despite our efforts in the fifth report to show that there was no real conflict of interest.

The Government wish to replace the unified inspectorate by a vague system of consultation between the various authorities concerned with the determination of the best practicable environmental option. With my noble friend, Lord Ashby, I beg leave to doubt whether that will work, except in trivial cases for which it is not really necessary. But I do not despair; the history of pollution control is a long one. I believe that HMPI may yet have its day when we have more experience of the best practicable environmental option in action, and I was interested to see that the Government leave open that possibility.

I should like to add a few words about standards in the sphere of air pollution, because there has been much confusion about this point, especially in the context of the European Community. Do we want emission standards or air quality standards? Behind that question lies a confusion of means and ends. In the Fifth Report we made a clear distinction between emission to air, which is what goes up the factory chimney or escapes through the roof, and air quality which results from the emission returning to earth. Although the one is obviously the cause of the other, the two should not be confused. The link between them may be difficult to establish in circumstances where the air quality in one locality may result from many sources of emission or may be affected by topography or weather.

The object of air pollution control is to produce an acceptable level of air quality. The means for bringing this about is control of what is emitted from the works and the manner in which it is emitted, such as the chimney height. After exhaustive examination we upheld the Alkali Inspectorate in its determination—and I will quote the famous phrase, if I may— to use the best practicable means for preventing the emission into the atmosphere from the premises of noxious or offensive substances and for rendering harmless and inoffensive such substances as may be so emitted. We pointed out, however, that this presupposes, for example, in determining the height of a chimney, some idea of the levels of air quality desirable on the ground. We did not believe in air quality standards as a means of control, but we put forward the concept of air quality guidelines to indicate whether the practice of best practicable means is falling short of what is desirable by way of air quality or, on the contrary, is subjecting industry to unnecessary restrictions and expense.

There is no paradox here, although I know that it sounds a bit complicated. Adopting the best practicable means implies the control of emissions, and it is expected to take into account economic, social, national and local circumstances. The air quality guidelines are intended as one of the indicators of local circumstances; namely, a measure of the air quality actually being achieved. In no sense, however, should air quality guidelines—or even air quality standards—be confused with emission standards, which have no regard to local circumstances and which are favoured by the European Commission on the grounds that they provide fair competition for industry. They do indeed—but at the expense of quite unfair variations in the local environment. The polluted should be treated fairly as well as the polluters.

We were thus in favour neither of uniform emission standards, nor of air quality standards as a means of control. We favoured control over emissions according to the best practicable means, having regard to the levels of air quality actually achieved relative to those that are desirable for the locality.

I was relieved to find that, broadly speaking, the Government accept the Royal Commission's views about standards and the superiority of best practicable means. Naturally, they have been influenced in their actual response by the Community directives on air quality. On the whole I would say that in matters of pollution control the United Kingdom and the Community are closer together than was the case 10 years ago, and I am glad if the Royal Commission's efforts have contributed towards that reconciliation, as the Government seem to believe is the case. I also note that it is the Government's intention in the light of these and other developments, and of our more detailed recommendations, to conduct a comprehensive review of air pollution control legislation. Perhaps the noble Lord the Minister will forgive me if I say, "And about time, too!" Perhaps he will tell us when he hopes that review will be completed.

The Fifth Report makes 94 recommendations, and we cannot deal with the Government's response to them all today, especially at this time of night. The last 20 of them, however, deal with the relationship between pollution control and the planning system, and I should like to say a few words about that. We recommend that local authorities should embody pollution policies in their structure plans and develop them in subject plans; that they should consult with each other in order to establish a broad expertise; that the Government should issue suitable guidance for this purpose and that specific responsibility should be laid on local authorities to conserve and improve the environment.

Once again, broadly speaking, the Government have accepted the principle, but have denied the means to put it into practice. They are apparently willing to issue some guidance to local authorities. They are also in favour of voluntary consultations between all and sundry, but they want nothing to be compulsory, as the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, has already emphasised. Of course, when everybody is behaving intelligently there will be a great deal of voluntary consultation in any case—for instance, between an industrial developer, the local authority in which the development is to take place, and (where appropriate) the alkali inspector.

The question is, what to do when not everybody is behaving intelligently?—and we saw many examples of this in the course of our inquiry. Those were usually the instances that had given trouble. We came across the case—I swear it is true—of a large petrochemical works which, very sensibly, had been built well away from human habitation because of the likelihood of its giving rise to substantial air pollution. Some years later a housing estate was built close to the plant for the convenience of those who worked there. But the pollution turned out to be quite heavy and the eventual occupants of the estate naturally complained about it. There ensued the usual difficulties. We discovered that in the local authority those responsible for housing and those responsible for pollution control had not consulted each other about the housing development. When we asked them why, they replied that there was no regulation that required them to.

I can only hope in these circumstances that the Government's new guidance will be quite precise, because it should not be assumed that it will invariably be accorded intelligent interpretation. In particular, I would have thought that in a case like the one I have just described, a buffer zone around the plant within which consultation had to be compulsory would have had distinct advantages; but, alas, the Government will have none of that.

A further example of the need for compulsory consultation concerns a district which is approaching its total pollution capacity, perhaps due to the combined emissions of several polluting works—one can think of many examples in the industrialised North. What happens when application is made to develop another polluting works? Especially if air quality standards are imposed, the application must either be rejected or some of the existing works will be put to some trouble and expense to lower their hitherto acceptable emissions to make way for the new development. I am glad to see that the Government recognise that the problem exists, although they appear to deny the means to deal with it.

I will not say any more about the relationship between planning and pollution control. Many of your Lordships will know better than I how complicated the planning system of this country has become. It was one of the wonders of the world when the first Town and Country Planning Act was introduced in 1947. Since then the planning system has had to be adapted and extended to meet many new demands. Pollution control is only one; but both the fifth report and the Government's response to it suggest that all is not well with the planning system.

It may therefore be of some interest that the Nuffield Foundation, of which I am a trustee, has recently announced a major inquiry under my chairmanship into the whole of the town and country planning system—what its objectives were, to what extent they have been achieved, how it has been adapted over the years, what the objectives should now be and whether there should be some consequent revision of legislation. I should be surprised if the Nuffield inquiry does not explore further the interaction between the planning system and pollution control. I would say that the well-tried concept of "best practicable means" is an essential feature of that interaction at present, and that the extended concept of "best practicable environmental option", which I am delighted to know the Government have accepted, will imply a development of that interaction, and perhaps some modification to the planning system itself.

11 p.m.

Lord Mottistone

My Lords, it is a privilege to follow the noble Lord, Lord Flowers, particularly when one sees his name in large print on the front of the fifth report. Before addressing your Lordships, I consulted the CBI and will give you, as briefly as I may, industry's view of the matter that is the subject of this Question. The noble Lord, Lord Ashby, has explained well the basis of the Question and the noble Lord, Lord Flowers, has enlarged on most of the more important points. I shall turn my attention to one or two particular administrative points, upon which industry has a strong view.

But perhaps before doing that, I might give your Lordships industry's view of what is meant by "best practicable environmental option". We do not see it as meaning the best technology or the same technology for one or more similar industrial plants, and the CBI believe that the definition must embrace local environ mental circumstances, age of plant and financial and economic factors. I am sure that that is the general view, as expressed in the report, but I think it necessary to state it again. Flexibility must be preserved to avoid wasting valuable resources and choices.

The number of processes where removing one form of emission gives rise to another type of waste is clearly large, but these transfers are generally easily managed and do not often require additional expert advice or enforcement. What industry sees is needed, is independent technical advice, embracing all forms of pollution control—and I stress the word "advice". This would help both with any residual problems, as suggested, and with presenting co-ordinated advice to Ministers, to control authorities and to industry. As industry sees it, we do not need a control inspectorate with executive powers solely to oversee the implementation of the "best practicable environmental option", but an advisory body.

As explained by the noble Lord, Lord Ashby, the Royal Commission recommended for this sort of purpose a new national pollution inspectorate, which would subsume what was then called the Alkali Inspectorate—now, we understand, called the Industrial Air Pollution Inspectorate. While agreeing with that, in principle, I suggest an alternative title—to emphasise what I believe to be its main purpose in an advisory role—of the National Pollution Advisory Council. The Royal Commission also advised that what is now the Industrial Air Pollution Inspectorate be restored to direct control by the Department of the Environment. That has been mentioned by other noble Lords and I strongly support that obviously sensible move. I cannot see why, for all the explanation made, the change was made in the first place.

From that, it is recommended that a small advisory unit be established within the Industrial Air Pollution Inspectorate, which could form the core of the proposed new National Pollution Advisory Council, together, for example, with an advisory element of the recently proposed Hazardous Waste Inspectorate. I suggest that the size of the National Pollution Advisory Council be kept as small as is consistent with covering all necessary engineering and scientific disciplines; for example, water engineers, industrial engineers, chemists, botanists, meteorologists—you name them, but still keep it small. The council should be established as independently as practicable, and I should have thought it might have been on the lines, as we have been discussing recently, of the new data protection registrar, who is given the maximum possible independence, about whom any of your Lordships who are interested can hear on the Third Reading of the Data Protection Bill tomorrow. This new body should be subject to parliamentary control through the Secretary of State for the Environment. Not only would it provide advice to industry and to Government and to other controlling bodies on the best practicable environmental options in the United Kingdom but it could provide such advice in relation to appropriate EEC proposals and actions.

I agree most strongly with the noble Baroness, Lady Robson of Kiddington, that the EEC is all too much neglected in this area and can, in its own way, be a considerable threat to us in proposing unnecessary actions which are not applicable to this country. The need for such a body appears to be so obvious that I am puzzled about why successive Governmentrs have failed to act on the particularly well informed Fifth Report of the Royal Commission. In this context I would not entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Ashby, if I heard him aright, that it is too late to expect the Government to act. The mere fact that we have had to wait for seven years does not mean that the Government will not act. I am sure there are many examples of where a little prodding and pushing gets governments to act, even if the report in question was made more than seven years ago.

My belief is that this delay is perhaps because there have been thought to be no pressing pollution problems in the last few years. But this cannot always be so. Lead in petrol has been mentioned. Acid rain has been mentioned. The dumping of waste at sea and on land also spring to mind. There is no doubt a host of other subjects which might reach more serious levels of importance, for which the Government will need the best co-ordinated and independent advice that they can get. This might apply whether it happens in this country or in the European Community. I hope, therefore, that my noble friend will say in reply that action on the lines I have suggested will be looked at with the greatest possible care with a view to its implementation as soon as practicable.

11.7 p.m.

Lord Melchett

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Mottistone, that some of the previous speakers took a rather gloomy view of the prospects of getting some movement out of the Government, although I am afraid it would be unrealistic of us to expect very much movement from the noble Lord on the Front Bench opposite this evening. However, I certainly agree with Lord Mottistone that this is not something upon which we should give up. The logic of the case is so strong, as the Government themselves admitted in their response, that sooner or later, it seems to me, they will have to give in to it. Indeed, everybody seems to accept that the best practicable environmental option is the most sensible way forward.

The Government's response says that the logic of the approach is unassailable, that the Royal Commission have identified a genuine problem and, indeed, that there are almost certainly cases where the optimum control of pollution from a works has not been realised. Therefore, even if one takes the case on the Government's terms it is an extremely strong one, although, as the noble Lord, Lord Ashby, said in opening the debate this evening, the Government's response to this unassailable case is extremely dismissive in the document which they published last year. Indeed, it is not just dismissive of the best practicable environmental option, the concept put forward by the Royal Commission, but, as my noble friend Lady Nicol said, it is extremely dismissive about something which the Government agreed was important; namely, consultation between the planning and pollution control authorities. And in what must be just about the most unsubstantiated assertion ever to appear in a Government document, the same paragraph, paragraph 52, goes on to state that the Government do not consider it necessary that such consultation should be mandatory. As my noble friend said, there is not a word of explanation of why that should be the case or what the Government intend to do about it in the absence of any mandatory requirement.

It seems to me to be clear that the concept of "best practicable environmental option" is not something that is being argued about, but the means of achieving it, is. The Government's argument seems mainly to be that it will be wrong to change something that was set up in the mid-1970s; a quite extraordinary argument, and one that I do not believe the Government would apply to many other matters on which they have legislated, if indeed they have applied it to anything that was set up in the mid-1970s.

In the foreword, which is in some ways the most interesting if the vaguest part of the document, the then Secretary of State for the Environment, Mr Heseltine, stated that the Government, will encourage the various existing pollution control authorities responsible for clean air, rivers and the safe disposal of wastes to land or sea to work together to achieve the best practical environmental option". How they will achieve that is difficult to discover from the document, unless it is meant to reside in what the noble Lord, Lord Ashby, called the vague appendix. I must say that I could not put my finger on it there. This is in the face of difficulties which the Royal Commission identified in a particularly telling way in paragraph 265 of the Fifth Report, where the Commission said: Most of the Alkali Inspectors and Environmental Health Officers we spoke with had no contact with their opposite numbers in water and waste disposal authorities, nor had they recognised the need for it. An argument they advanced in discussion on this matter made a virtue of this lack of contact". It is not just that there is no contact but that the people concerned actually think it is a good thing that there is no contact. In the light of that attitude of those on the ground, the Government seem to be relying on exhortations contained in a foreword written by the then Secretary of State—and clearly, that cannot be good enough. I hope that when the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, replies to this debate he will be able to take matters a little further in that respect than does the Government's response.

Reading what the Royal Commission had to say about this, it seemed to me rather as if the Government were suggesting that it would he a good idea when a firm came to the Government with a new project—let us say for opening a new factory involving a multinational based in another country—for the Government to deal with this by telling the firm, "Go to the Department of Employment and discuss your manpower requirements. Go to the Department of Industry and discuss industry schemes and what is available in terms of investment. Go to the Department of the Environment and elsewhere to discuss planning and other matters. But we will make sure that none of these departments speaks to each other. None of them will consult with each other. Indeed, we see it as a positive advantage that they do not, because then the multinational will bid one department against another, in the hope of getting a better deal; this is a sensible way of dealing with the matter". Clearly it would not be a sensible way of dealing with the matter in that case; and clearly it is not in the case of the problems identified by the Royal Commission.

I want briefly to take up a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Robson of Kiddington, about acid rain. I noted, again, that in the foreword, written by the then Secretary of State, contained this statement: We no longer face acute air pollution in the United Kingdom but we still have significant problems". I place emphasis on the words "in the United Kingdom" because it does seem that there is now increasing concern in Europe, if not in this country, and certainly among many of those concerned with the environment, about the problem of acid rain. It seems to me that were the "best practicable environmental option" approach to be adopted, and were the Government to provide the means to ensure that it could be, this should include looking at problems created in other countries as well as making a sensible balance, as the Royal Commission suggested, between problems that might be created by disposing of waste in one way rather than in another; in the air rather than in the river, or what-have-you.

If there is not to be a unified inspectorate, I wonder who is going to do this. The noble Lord, Lord Flowers, mentioned the enormous cost of dealing with the problem, and clearly it would be expensive. But at the moment we have not even reached the point of working on the cost. I hope the noble Lord, when he comes to reply, will confirm this. As I understand it, no one is obliged at the moment to consider the effects on other countries outside the United Kingdom. The memorandum which is in the appendix to the Government's response does not seem to me to make any reference to this, and one would have thought, given the controversy and the hot water which the Government have managed to get this country into over this issue, that that might be something which could be referred to in the memorandum.

On this issue, this country, I believe, is now seen as one of the worst air polluters in Europe—certainly the least caring. It is seen by many people as being largely responsible for the lack of progress in Europe, and, at home, by those who are concerned about it, it is seen simply as interested in cutting the research budgets of those who would be doing work on this in this country, rather than, as it should be, increasing those budgets. I hope the noble Lord, if he cannot go further than the vague and inadequate Government response to the Fifth Report of the Royal Commission, will at least be able to give us some information about what the Government are doing to deal with the problems of acid rain which the noble Baroness and others have referred to.

11.16 p.m.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, at this time of night I feel, not for the first time, as though I am answering an examination paper set by the noble Lord, Lord Flowers, after having completed five years of tutorial on Sub-Committee G by the noble Lord, Lord Ashby. However, I am delighted to have this opportunity to respond for the Government to the important points made by various noble Lords about the Government's response to the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution's Fifth Report on Air Pollution Control.

I think that this is quite important because we are talking about a very specific subject. This is the first occasion when the subject has been debated in your Lordships' House, or indeed in another place, since our response was published last December. This Fifth Report was as clear and unequivocal as the Royal Commission's seven other most authoritative reports to date. It was unfortunate that, for reasons at least partly beyond the control of this Administration, the Government response took so long to prepare. Virtually every noble Lord has commented on this. I hope that they will believe me when I say that we regret this as much as they do. But I can assure the House that we have not simply put the reports to one side to gather dust on the shelf.

The recommendations made in all the reports of the Royal Commission can be relied upon to go to the very heart of our systems of pollution control. They have required careful consideration and much discussion and consultation with other interested departments. In the case of the Fifth Report there was, as we know, a change of Government at about the time when a response might have been expected. I hope that noble Lords will feel that our prolonged deliberations have eventually been worthwhile, Nonetheless I do, of course, accept that they have taken too long.

In our response we were able to accept a great many of the recommendations which the Commission had made. In particular, we welcomed its support for the basic features of our system of air pollution control—namely, the "best practicable means" principle, and that for maintaining a sensible division of responsibilities between local authorities and a central inspectorate. And we endorsed enthusiastically the emphasis on the need for an open-minded approach to pollution control, in which pollution control authorities would seek to achieve the "best practicable environmental option" for the disposal of pollutants. Indeed, in his foreword to the Government response, the then Secretary of State for the Environment—who, I must say, has been slightly maligned this evening—highlighted this as the most important contribution of the report. Clearly then there is nothing between the Government and the Commission in terms of the overall objective. The difference lies in the means to be adopted to achieve that end.

It was the specific organisational proposals which caused us some difficulty. We fully accept that there are cases where the reduction of pollution in one form can give rise to an unacceptable increase in another—for example, if a requirement for a solid smokeless fuel plant to reduce its pollution of the atmosphere is met at the expense of an even less tolerable effluent flow to a river. But, having considered the issue very carefully, we decided against setting up a central inspectorate to prevent such things from happening. Our response set out in detail the reasons for this. They boil down to four.

First, we are not convinced that the extent to which there is a real choice between methods of disposing of pollutants is sufficient to warrant the establishment of a new tier of administration. We recognise that it is technically possible to dispose of many pollutants in various ways. The noble Lord, Lord Flowers, mentioned the disposal of sulphur. These ways can be to land, water or air. But the decision is often dictated by the nature of the local—and I stress the word "local"—receiving environment. This is not to say that, where a choice does exist, no action should be taken. As I have stressed, we strongly support the principle of best practicable environmental option, and I shall explain how we propose to carry the approach forward.

Secondly, the Royal Commision's proposed solution was a central inspectorate with the emphasis on the "central". We consider that the situations where a choice of routes for pollution disposal exists are essentially matters for local decision—indeed the BPEO solution to a pollution problem in one area may not be the same as it is for a similar problem in another.

Thirdly, there are already in existence a large number of local panels or committees which provide precisely the sort of co-ordinating function which the Royal Commission has indicated is lacking in many areas. The Industrial Air Pollution Inspectorate, for instance, is represented on such local committees up and down the country, of which the most well-known example is perhaps the Coventry Pollution Prevention Panel. We feel that bodies such as these are best placed to make decisions about BPEO in given circumstances, although it is of course important that their membership is broad enough to represent adequately all the relevant interests.

Finally, the existing organisational arrangements for pollution control have only recently become fully established. In spite of what the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, says about Governments of a different persuasion overturning the decisions of other Governments, in this particular case we do want to give them a chance to work.

It has never been the policy of this Government to have a centralist control body of the sort that we understand is suggested, but I freely admit, on consideration of tonight's debate, that we may have got it wrong. We shall have to consider the speeches made by noble Lords tonight with great care. When we read the Royal Commission's report we had more than an impression that there was suggested in it a centralist control body. We do not feel that the report makes a good enough case for this as yet, if indeed that is what it intended to do.

That is why we announced in our response our intention to initiate discussions with the pollution control authorities in the first instance. This, I am glad to say, is well under way. We have been in touch with the local authority associations, the National Water Council, and the Industrial Air Pollution Inspectorate. I am delighted to say that the responses received so far are unanimous in welcoming the conclusions of the Fifth Report, and specifically the principle of best practicable environmental option. But they have also pointed out that, although important in principle, the option approach may be of comparatively limited application in practice.

The next step will be for a meeting, which I hope can be arranged in the near future, where the different options for co-ordination can be discussed at greater length. I should tell my noble friend Lord Mottistone that we shall naturally also be involving industrial interests in our discussions before reaching a final decision. I have good reason to believe that a practical consensus will emerge from the discussions. I think we would all agree that we should not try to achieve any objective by rigorous central control, with all the shadowy remoteness that it inevitably implies, when the same goal can be achieved by voluntary local co-operation. The noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, cast some doubt on whether this was a feasible possibility. The Government are determined to try. We have not in our reply, or our reply this evening, firmly closed the door on what the Royal Commission was suggesting.

Pollution control is a prime example of the sort of problem where the local man really is in a better position to judge what is right for a particular area than the expert, however well-qualified, who spends his days in a tower block in the centre of London or wherever. The former can see what is best for the local environment, and he or she, I would suggest, is far more likely to get it right.

I note that the form of the Question before us asks how we propose to introduce the best practicable environmental option into our policies for protecting the environment. I have concentrated in my response so far on the application of the option to pollution control, but I am sure that all noble Lords who have spoken will agree that we should endeavour to bring this approach to all aspects of the environment. We try hard to do this, believe it or not. I cite as my example the original decision on Belvoir last year, which seems to me to have exactly that approach in mind. But the Royal Commission report has given the concept authority, and I am sure that it will become of much wider application in our policies generally. The pollution control authorities have already drawn attention to the point and it is among the subjects which we shall be discussing with them shortly.

The matter of the review of air pollution control legislation is very much in the minds of all of us. Noble Lords who have spoken in this debate will need no reminding about the complexities here. We have not only to consider the adequacy of our national legislation, in particular in relation to the powers of local authorities; we have also to consider the arrangements for control in the United Kingdom in relation to new requirements emerging from Brussels, a question which has been raised this evening. You may be reassured, my Lords, that we instigated this review on publication of the Government's response to the Royal Commission's Fifth Report and are pressing on with all due speed.

The noble Lord, Lord Ashby, has told us that the Alkali Inspectorate was transferred to the Health and Safety Executive in 1975. We recognise that emissions from scheduled processes can be damaging to the environment, but there is no question of the Industrial Air Pollution Inspectorate acting in total isolation from the Department of the Environment or contrary to its wishes. The inspectorate is physically located in Romney House, the same building as most of the Department of the Environment officials who are concerned with air pollution policy. There is frequent contact between the two, and the definition of responsibilities that relate to their air pollution functions has now been formally set out in a memorandum of understanding appended to the Government response. The inspectorate serve the Secretary of State for the Environment in relation to the wider environment, as well as the Health and Safety Commission in relation to the work place and its immediate surrounding.

We think it desirable that the professional groups that deal with industrial health and safety should work as far as possible within a common organisation. It makes it easier to establish a consistent basis for pollution control both inside and outside a works. We regard this as a convincing argument for retaining the present arrangements, underpinned, as I said, by the new memorandum.

The problem of acid rain was referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Robson of Kiddington. As was pointed out by the noble Lord, Lord Flowers, this is of course a truly international problem, not least because all countries emit sulphur and most countries have their own air, as it were, polluted by emissions from other countries. The Government are participating actively in the work of the Geneva Convention and work in the Community to develop effective and equitable solutions to the acid rain problem.

I mentioned rather sketchily the Memorandum of Understanding referred to earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Ashby. The memorandum is governing relations between the Government and the inspectorate itself. The commission have consulted environment Ministers about their plans. As I have already said, the Industrial Air Pollution Inspectorate is located in the same building as the Air Policy Directorate of the Department of the Environment. Frequent contacts and exchange of views between the Department of the Environment inspectorates therefore can and do take place.

The noble Lord, Lord Ashby, in introducing his Question this evening, I felt answered the Question himself. The Alkali Inspectorate has for years been practising "quietly"—his own words, not mine—what the Royal Commission have been asking for in this report. So we do not need a new body, whether advisory or otherwise, for this purpose. But the question is rather whether, as the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, has said, we can really rely on local co-operation. As I have said, we shall see.

I was also asked what steps have been taken by the bodies consulted on the "best practicable environmental option". I regret that I cannot report on any tonight, not because no steps have been taken but because these will be spoken about in the discussions which I have already announced are about to be forthcoming. I would not like to prejudice anything along those lines.

The noble Lord, Lord Melchett, who knows—although he may have forgotten—the Department of the Environment rather better than I do, will know that, so far as international affairs and pollution are concerned, we have a branch concerned with international relations in environmental matters. Countries rarely take account of pollution in other countries. This problem is at the centre of a number of Community arguments, and there have in the past been many in Sub-Committee G, and I have no doubt that there will be many more to come.

In conclusion, may I say that this has been an excellent debate on a subject which we can ill afford to overlook. The Royal Commission have made a valuable contribution to this and, like the Royal Commission, we in Government are determined to make a success of the "best practicable environmental option". We differ from them only on the means to achieve that end. As our response makes clear, and as (if I have done nothing else this evening) I have made clear, we have not finally closed the door on their preferred solution, but we feel that we may have found a better way.

I have no doubt that this subject will arise in your Lordships' House before very much longer, and that I or one of my noble friends will be asked to report on this well within the next five years.

Lord Flowers

My Lords before the noble Lord sits down, would he agree with me that the unified inspectorate proposed in the fifth report was modelled very closely on the working practices of the Alkali Inspectorate, which, centralised or otherwise, in principle has as its most important officers the individual alkali inspectors in the field who operate with a very considerable amount of authority, and therefore in a rather decentralised way?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, yes, but they have, if you like, a decentralised approach from a central body which is already in existence. What I am still not convinced about is whether we need a new central body as well as the Alkali Inspectorate.

House adjourned at twenty-six minutes before midnight.