HL Deb 29 October 1984 vol 456 cc354-404

3.10 p.m.

Lord Ashby rose to call attention to the Tenth Report of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, Tackling pollutionexperience and prospects (Cmnd. 9149); and to move for papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I should like to begin by thanking the noble Lord on the Government Bench who has allotted time for this debate and I am delighted that the report from your Lordships' Select Committee is to be considered also in this same debate.

This is indeed an opportune moment; it is just over ten years since the Control of Pollution Act 1974 received the Royal Assent. It was introduced into your Lordships' House as the Protection of the Environment Bill in November 1973 by the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham. In the course of his speech on 27th November he said that it was an important element in the Government's legislative programme. It was welcomed on all sides of the House, and it was taken so seriously that eight days were spent on the Committee stage.

The Bill then lapsed on the change of Government. It was promptly re-introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, under a fresh title, but it was the same child. The noble Lord pleaded for discussion to be brief so that the Bill could be sent as soon as possible to another place. This, too, was agreed willingly on all sides of the House. On Second Reading, the noble Lord, Lord Garnsworthy, spoke for the Government. He ended his speech on 21st May 1974 by saying (at col. 1405) that with goodwill and co-operation it would become an Act that will be regarded as a charter of the first importance in the history of this country".

The Bill received an equally warm welcome in another place, and on 17th June 1974 (at col. 114) the right honourable Lady who is now Prime Minister said from the Opposition Benches that the Bill is likely to have a greater and more lasting effect on the quality of life in many parts of Britain than most other measures. We shall do all we can to assist its passage to the statute book".

No Act could have had a more auspicious start. Has it fulfilled its promise? That is what your Lordships are asked to discuss this afternoon, as we note the Tenth Report of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution. It is a masterly document: readable, realistic and in places courteously but astringently critical. I have time only to select two or three items for discussion, because many of your Lordships will be able to elaborate in far more detail on what I am going to sketch out.

The first theme is that circumstances have greatly changed since 1974. Some people feared then that economic growth might outstrip resources: the fears now are that economic growth may not revive sufficiently to give us the standard of living to which we are accustomed. In the present economic climate some people assume that expenditure on pollution control can be regarded as a kind of optional extra that we cannot afford for the present. The Tenth Report shows this assumption to be totally false. It emphasises that public opinion still takes the environment very seriously. Indeed, politicians do well to remember that more people belong to environmental or conservation movements than belong to any political party in Britain. Zeal and pressure from these movements sometimes usurp the best judgment, and the Royal Commission issues a warning against that risk; for nearly all pollution, after all, is a secondary consequence of acts which benefit society. It is not a case of a good against a bad: it is a case of one good against another good, and it is not easy for governments to reconcile these conflicts by legislation.

The report describes how public agitation, amplified by the media, has influenced action (and in some cases inaction) over environmental policy in the last ten years. So has another new factor, and that is the environmental policy of the European Community. The Royal Commission believes that Britain has a reputation of obstructiveness over compliance with environmental directives from Brussels. It is true that the Government, and the Select Committee in your Lordships' House, have been critical of many of these directives—and rightly so. Some of them were shoddy in their scientific foundations and unreasonable in their rigidity. But I believe that these running controversies between Britain and the Community have led to much good, and each side has learned something from the other.

Criticism from Brussels has forced the water authorities to define exactly what they mean by "environmental quality objectives". It has also obliged Britain to adopt air quality standards for smoke, sulphur and lead. Criticism from Westminster, largely from your Lordships' Select Committee, has improved the quality of directives no end. This is evident from one of the recent directives on cadmium. Apparently that has even persuaded the Community that there is merit in what is really the linchpin of British environmental policy; namely, to use the best practical means to control pollution and—this is what is important—that this phrase includes economic and social as well as purely technical considerations. But the report does more. It warns that unless Britain is co-operative over the Community's environmental programme our undoubtedly good influence over the programme will be weakened.

At the head of one of the chapters in the Royal Commission's report is a quotation from Adlai Stevenson. It reads as follows: Government … cannot be wiser than the people".

My overall impression from reading the Tenth Report is that over the last ten years governments on both sides of the House have been less wise than the people. The pace for responding to the Royal Commission's recommendations and advice and the pace for the implementation of the Control of Environment Act have often been forced on governments either by public agitation or by the threat of censure from other member states of the Community.

The report presents a very fair balance sheet of achievements and failures. Air over Britain has become dramatically cleaner since the 1960s; there are fewer grossly polluted rivers; and there is better control over toxic wastes. Above all, in this report the commissioners vindicate the principles behind British environmental policy, such as our determination to take into account the capacity of the environment to disperse and degrade pollutants and so render them harmless; our emphasis on environmental quality objectives, rather than on rigid emission standards, when this is practicable; our preference, compared with that of our cousins in the United States, for negotiation over court conflicts; and our preference on the whole for voluntary agreements over compulsion.

But, that said, there is still no ground for complacency. Too many decisions by government have been acts of expediency. Indeed, there is ground for serious concern unless the Government commit themselves to a more vigorous effort and, even more important, to a coherent strategy. Let me give three examples to illustrate what I have just said. It is 12 years since the Royal Commission, in its Second Report, pressed strongly for a lifting of what someone at the time called "the Miasma of Confidentiality" that covers information about discharges into water and air and things dumped on land. The same theme—the warning that unnecessary secrecy feeds suspicion and weakens public confidence—was reiterated in the Commission's Fifth, Seventh and Ninth Reports. In this Tenth Report 18 pages are devoted to the issue. This means that over 40 royal commissioners over the last 14 years have asked the Government to do something about this. When is it going to be done?

There has, of course, been some improvement. There has been improvement in public access to information, but when you come to look at it you see that it has nearly all been informal and voluntary on the part of the organisations that have offered it. The obligation to have registers open to the public under the Control of Pollution Act will not become operative until 1985 and there is even, as yet, no guidance about the information to be put into these registers.

As to the officers of the Industrial Air Pollution Inspectorate, they do what they can, but since their regrettable transfer to the Health and Safety Executive they are prohibited, as they never were in their long history as the Alkali Inspectorate since 1863, from disclosing information. The Commission's criticism of this is blunt. It recommends that the Health and Safety at Work Act etc. 1974 should be amended, to remove the obsolete and unnecessary bar on disclosure of information.

Better still would be to return the inspectorate to the place where it really belongs—the Department of the Environment. I know that this is the view of the Confederation of British Industry and I suspect it is the view of most of the inspectors themselves.

This 10-year delay in implementing parts of the Control of Pollution Act, after the Act had had such an auspicious start, is an example of a flaw in the machinery of Government that the Commission deplores. I can do no better than quote paragraph 3.50 of the Commission's Report: The piecemeal and still incomplete implementation of the Control of Pollution 1974 is only one example of 'optional legislation', where ministers' unfettered discretion over commencement dates can effectively frustrate Parliament's intentions … the handling of this Act reflects little credit on successive administrations".

Parliament's intentions, so evident, so enthusiastic 10 years ago, have in part—not in whole—been frustrated.

Another cause for concern is the lack of formal coordination between the agencies responsible for managing pollution control. It does no good to abate pollution in one place only to increase it in another. Thus sulphur dioxide emissions—to mention something so topical—from power stations can be reduced by scrubbing with limestone, but for every tonne of sulphur removed four tonnes of sulphated limestone must be dumped somewhere else.

The Royal Commission in its Fifth Report, under my noble friend Lord Rowers, recommended that pollution problems should be managed in a much more coherent way by expanding the principle of best practicable means to cover the best practicable environmental option. In their belated response to the Fifth Report—only six years after it was published!—the Government gave their blessing to this idea. So far, so good. But they reject the means for carrying out the idea proposed by the Commission and have proposed nothing to put in its place. The Commission's proposal was to have a Her Majesty's Pollution Inspectorate which would bring into one service the officials responsible for pollution control in air, water and on land. The Tenth Report of the Commission records its disappointment that the various inspectorates are still, as the Commissioners say, "fragmentary and insufficiently co-ordinated".

This brings me to the main cause of concern in the Commission's Tenth Report. It is that Governments, responding to piecemeal pressures as they are publicised, are deflected from having and sticking to a long-term strategy for Britain's environment. This has already been an embarrassment for industry. For example, procrastination over the implementation of Part II of the Control of Pollution Act has created difficulties for the petroleum industry in deciding about equipment for coastal refineries. The Commission therefore recommends that the principle of best practicable environmental option should be fortified with the principle of best environmental timetable for the allocation of resources for pollution control. I am sure noble Lords opposite will agree that it is not without precedent to expect this present Government to have a policy based on principles and to stick to it and to have no U-turns. All the Commission asks is that this practice now be extended to environmental policy.

The Government could demonstrate that they are in earnest about this by appointing a junior Minister in the Department of the Environment, with responsibility solely for the protection of the environment. In saying that, I want it to be clear that in no way is this a criticism of the present junior Minister who looks after environmental affairs. He earns golden opinions from everyone who has to deal with him. The point I am making is that he has other responsibilities and the fate of the environment is so important that it would be well if Her Majesty's Government would consider allowing him to shed the other ones he has, or appointing someone who can be responsible solely for environmental protection.

In addition to a phased programme for the deployment of resources for pollution abatement, there is need for a much more serious attitude to what the Commission calls "environmental time bombs" that may lie beneath some of our industrial developments, even in such unexpected places as the electronics industry or in bio-engineering. Your Lordships are already aware of the media publicity given to some of these themes: the long-term effects of low-level radiation; the possible long-term effects of intensive agriculture, not made any less dangerous because there is a section in the Control of Pollution Act—which I believe is reproduced in the code issued by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food—which virtually exempts farmers from getting into difficulties about pollution if they are pursuing what is described as "good agricultural practice", which I imagine any lawyer could use to his advantage in defending a farmer.

There are the dangers of the long-term effects of gases causing a change in the cloak of ozone in the upper atmosphere; and then there is the most ominous teaser in the pack, which is the possible effects on climate of something we know for certain is going on, and that is the accumulation of carbon dioxide from the burning of coal and oil. Only last week, in the scientific journal Nature, four books were reviewed by an authority on that subject. Every one of the writers of those four books takes a serious view of the long-term dangers that may—scientists will never go beyond using the word "may" in public—come from the accumulation of carbon dioxide. The commission warns, I think very rightly, that the social and economic consequences of climatic change which might be caused by this in the next century "could be very great indeed". Not much perhaps can be done; but something could be done now. The Government's disregard for this long-range problem is perhaps illustrated by the way the Commission on Energy and Environment has been put into abeyance at a time when it ought to be challenged with this very important possible future time bomb.

Finally, the commission do not overlook the obvious comment which must be in the minds of some of your Lordships while I am speaking; namely, that protection of the environment is good and that we all want it and like it but how are we going to pay for it, compared with other priorities like education, health and defence? Among these, what kind of priority can the environment expect? It is a mistake and shortsighted, say the commission, to think that a lowering of environmental standards will help to preserve employment or encourage enterprise. For one thing, high standards at home may help to sustain an internationally competitive pollution abatement industry. The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for the Environment made just this point last year. He said: If British industry in one aspect were to make Britain a laggard rather than a leader in environmental standards … British industry will in another aspect inevitably lose out".

Finally, as to expenditure on finding out how to defuse possible long-term environmental time bombs, may I suggest an analogy to your Lordships? We have no way to calculate the chance that we shall have to use the weapons financed by the defence budget. We are not confident that another war is coming, but we take the view that it is prudent to act as though a war might come. We are similarly uncertain about the environmental time bombs that may come from the emissions of man-made wastes. It is prudent to assume that there is some risk from these; and if that is accepted, it is prudent, as for defence, to invest money and resources in finding ways to defuse them. I beg to move for papers.

Moved, To call attention to the Tenth Report of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, Tackling pollutionexperience and prospects (Cmnd. 9149); and to move for papers.—(Lord Ashby.)

3.33 p.m.

Lord Nathan had given notice of his intention to move, That this House takes note of the Report of the European Communities Committee on Air Pollution (22nd Report, 1983–84, H.L. 265).

The noble Lord said: My Lords, may I, as a member of the Royal Commission, express my appreciation, which I know will be shared by all other members of the commission, including its distinguished chairman, Sir Richard Southwood, for the very kind comments which the noble Lord, Lord Ashby, has made about the Tenth Report? The present chairman is the fourth successor of the noble Lord, Lord Ashby, who was the first chairman and who set the pattern and the standards. It is good to know that the high standards which he set have, in his view, been maintained. I am very glad that the arrangements are that the Tenth Report of the Royal Commission shall be debated at the same time as the recent report of the European Communities Committee on Air Pollution, for they are intimately related.

Years ago, our prime concern over air pollution and other pollution was with growth visible pollution, but since then another factor has supervened. Now there is increasing concern—and rightly so—among the public about unseen, unsensed pollution. It may arise from radiation, the problem known as acid rain, heavy metals, hazardous waste or other causes. It is this which is causing increasing public concern, and I suggest that it is one of the factors which has resulted in the lowering of the threshold of risk which is now acceptable to the public. These factors are compounded, increased, when there is scientific uncertainty as to whether or not the unseen and unsensed pollution will have irreversible effects and be cumulative and whether the damage may take a long time to become apparent. These are causes of great worry to the public. We refer to this in the Tenth Report and also to the question: when should the Government act in circumstances where there is scientific uncertainty?

May I refer to paragraph 6.30 in the report of the Royal Commission where we condense much of what appears elsewhere in the report on the subject. We talk about the politician or manager who must decide what action to take now and to the fact that he cannot wait for the rigorous proof required by the scientist. We refer to the Government, who are responsible for the public well-being and also for the protection of the environment, and say that there may be a difference between what can be believed with confidence and what it is prudent to assume. This is a problem with which we were directly confronted in the Report of the European Communities Committee on Air Pollution, one of the subjects of the debate this afternoon.

I should like to refer to paragraph 102 of the ECC report on air pollution because it condenses, I believe, the problem and the solution which we arrived at when dealing with what is known as the acid rain problem. The Committee consider that it would be foolish and dangerous for no action to be taken to combat the problems of air pollution. The magnitude of the damage resulting, the length of time over which this might become apparent, and its widespread effects if the fears expressed prove to be justified, make it necessary to implement a preventive programme now, despite the scientific uncertainties. The problems and costs of such action, including the availability of suitable technology, must be measured against the danger perceived and the resultant damage".

We believe that the action we propose, as I shall mention in a moment, matches these criteria. I hope that in his reply the noble Lord the Minister will indicate what action the Government propose to take in these contexts and whether he disagrees or agrees with the steps we have proposed. I hope that he will not maintain the stance which has for so long been taken by Government: that we should wait until all uncertainty is dispelled.

The report on air pollution relates to no fewer than five documents issued by the Commission and I shall comment briefly on each. Other speakers will no doubt take up other points on these five documents. This debate, however, gives us an opportunity to express our thanks to the staff and to our specialist adviser for the assistance they have given in the preparation of the report and also to the witnesses for their help in providing evidence. In what follows I shall refer to the various documents by the abbreviated titles which we adopted in the report itself.

I shall start with the large combustion plant directive. This specifies an admission limit for plants with rated thermal output of 50 megawatts or more. It includes proposals for reductions in emissions of sulphur dioxide, oxides of nitrogen, and particulates; and these reductions shall be achieved by 1995 in each member state overall—that is, not plant-by-plant, but by each member state as a unit—by reference to 1980 data.

The reductions proposed are 60 per cent. in the case of sulphur dioxide and 40 per cent. each in the case of oxides of nitrogen and particulates. The proposals are expressed to be directly related to acid deposition.

So far as particulates are concerned, the committee have noted that control of the issue of particulates is well practised in the United Kingdom but they agree that it is right to reduce emissions to the lowest practical level. We had in mind that the standards adopted and practised in this country—particularly in relation to large power stations—are very high, and the cost of a substantial reduction will itself be high.

So far as oxides of nitrogen are concerned, we are advised that there is no known system of post-combustion control of oxides of nitrogen adapted to use in power stations, and that there is no prospect that such a system may shortly be evolved. It is against that background that we considered the proposals. These proposals are criticised by the committee on two main grounds. The first is that adoption of the 1980 reference base data throughout the community is misconceived because different measuring and monitoring systems were adopted in certain member countries in 1980—and in some, there was none at all. Secondly, no account is taken of steps to reduce emissions in any member state prior to that date. The proposals are, therefore, at least inequitable—and we believe unworkable. Of course, the percentages and dates specified are taken quite arbitrarily.

In the United Kingdom the only means of achieving the stated target reductions on emissions of sulphur dioxide by 1995 would be to equip the 12 largest coal-fired electricity power stations with flue gas desulphurisation, which I shall refer to as FGD, if I may. There are many disadvantages in FGD. First, there is a transfer of the disposal of sulphur dioxide from air to land which involves the use of some 4 million tonnes of limestone per annum and the disposal of some 7.5 million tonnes of calcium sulphate waste to land. Secondly, there is the factor of cost. To fit the 12 largest electricity power stations—that is, those which are coal fired—with FGD would, we are told, involve capital outlay of £1,430 million. On top of this, there would be additional expenditure of £560 million in the construction of new plant required to compensate for loss of efficiency directly due to the fitting of FGD. This further new plant would of course bum more coal and emit more oxide of nitrogen, and it would produce more sulphur dioxide—which would have to be treated by further FGD equipment.

There is a further consequence of this, as we see it. If such substantial capital expenditure is to be incurred, it is in all probability likely to result in demands, which will be agreed to, that there shall be long periods of amortisation of this cost. Thus, outworn equipment will be continued in action for this very reason, for a period long after it would otherwise have been taken out of commission. The running cost attached to the equipment of 12 power stations with FGD, we are informed, would be of the order of £350 million per annum. This, of course, is quite separate from the money to which I referred earlier.

Finally, there is the point that flue gas desulphurisation has no impact whatever on emissions of oxides of nitrogen. The committee accept that plant recently commissioned, which has expected useful life far into the next century, should be equipped with FGD for lack of any satisfactory alternative; and they propose that no fewer than two such power stations be so equipped.

The committee received evidence on the development of pressurised fluid bed combustors, which are a type of furnace presently under development at Grimethorpe by the CEGB and the National Coal Board with financial assistance provided by the EEC. We understand that that financial assistance is shortly to be withdrawn. We believe that this system should be fully developed for installation by 1999; that is the evidence we have received. Other evidence indicates that with enthusiasm and vigour that date could be advanced by a number of years. We regard the development of pressurised fluid bed combustors as a matter of urgent priority and propose that an approach be made to the EEC to continue its financial support.

The advantages of the pressurised fluid bed combustors can be briefly stated. First, it offers a 13 per cent. cost advantage over new conventional plant fitted with FGD. It is more efficient and therefore reduces the running cost and the consumption of coal for the units of electricity produced. It has enhanced environmental acceptability compared with conventional plant because the sulphur dioxide is captured in the course of combustion and the quantity of oxides of nitrogen should be substantially reduced. The notion that the sulphur dioxide is, under this system, captured in combustion reminds me of the Act of 1825, which came into force in Derby in that year under which it was prescribed that steam engines shall consume their own smoke; it is the same philosophy.

The preventative approach which we recommend seems to us to have many advantages over equipping all, as a crash programme, with FGD. It is surely far better to incur such additional costs as may be incurred by re-equipping plant early than equipping old plant with FGD and maintaining that old plant in existence beyond its normal useful life, which may well be, as we are told, around the end of this century.

Turning now to the framework directive, the proposal as originally presented caused us concern, as it did to witnesses, but it was amended, and it was agreed by the Council of Ministers on 1st March 1984 subject, in the case of the United Kingdom, to parliamentary reserve.

The proposals provide, among other things, for "prior authorisation" of new, listed plants and the gradual adaptation of existing plants. These provisions conform closely to the controls exercised by the Industrial Pollution Inspectorate under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, and the proposals effectively adopt the longstanding United Kingdom principle of "best practicable means." However, the plants listed in the schedule to this directive extend beyond the present responsibilities of the Industrial Air Pollution Inspectorate, and therefore fall under the local authorities, whose effective department is the Department of Environmental Health, the chief officers of which are, of course, members of the Institution of Environmental Health Officers.

We recommended in the Tenth Report of the Royal Commission that the powers of environmental health officers should be extended to come into line with those exercisable by the Industrial Air Pollution Inspectorate, both in respect of prior approval and in the application of best practicable means. We endorse that proposal in this present report on air pollution. It has to be remembered that at the moment, apart from one or two minor exceptions, an environmental health officer has no power except to act where there has been a public nuisance and that, therefore, he has no power to prevent these nuisances arising.

The Government announced in 1982, in response to the Royal Commission's Fifth Report—we are now dealing with its Tenth Report—a review of air pollution control legislation. The proposal which is now before us indicates that the Government should be asked to hasten publication of the proposals, and it is to be hoped that they will incorporate the modification of the powers of environmental health officers to which I have referred.

There is a nitrogen dioxide directive, about which I can be quite brief. This specifies environmental air quality standards for reasons of health. The evidence which we received from the Government's chief medical officer indicates that a somewhat higher standard would be acceptable for health purposes if we accept that advice. There are also proposals for extensive monitoring to ensure that these quality standards are maintained. We are told that the capital cost of that monitoring programme would be £1.5 million, and that the annual cost would be £2 million.

The committee received evidence, which it accepts, that the levels of nitrogen dioxide in this country are well below the limits proposed even by the commission, except possibly in certain high spots. Therefore, the committee proposes that there should be a pilot scheme of monitoring using transportable stations. Of course, the most effective means of reducing nitrogen dioxide at ground level would be by reducing vehicle emissions, and proposals put forward by the EC are at present under consideration by Sub-Committee G of the Select Committee.

The forestry regulation provides also for monitoring, but there we take a different view with regard to the monitoring proposals. The forestry regulation is concerned with establishing a scheme of monitoring acid deposition in forests, to be financed at varying degrees by the commission. The purpose of the regulation is to establish a Community scheme to provide forests in the Community with increased protection against acid rain. The evidence from the Forestry Commission to us is that no damage has been found to trees in the United Kingdom derived from acid deposition except from known point sources, but we regard this as irrelevant to a consideration of the monitoring programme in a scientific survey of this kind. We believe that it is just as important to ascertain that no damage is done in certain geographical, geological and meteorological conditions by a given quantity of acid deposition as it is to see that damage does result. We therefore support this proposal.

Finally, I come to the communication. This is a statement of aims and plans for the commission. It includes proposals (or, rather, ideas) in respect of which it will be putting forward proposals concerning the adoption of the bubble concept, as it is known in the United States, and the adoption of charges to support regulations in the control of pollution. We shall look forward to receiving those proposals in due course. The communication re-emphasises that preventative action is chiefly in their minds, and the integration of environmental policy in all fields of activity, including energy and industry. In doing so, of course, it reflects the major policy statement contained in the Community's third action programme, where it resolved to adopt an anticipatory and preventative policy. Integration of environmental policy into all other fields of activity is, of course, also a recommendation and firm view of the Royal Commission which was expressed in the Tenth Report at the end of the sixth chapter.

The Select Committee welcome the initiative represented by these five documents issued by the commission. They seem to us to indicate a determination to create a truly European programme. As such, we hope it may form an example which others will follow.

3.57 p.m.

Baroness Birk

My Lords, I start by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Ashby, for moving his Motion this afternoon and giving this House an opportunity to discuss this very important report. I sometimes feel that one of the reasons for sustaining the House of Lords and its survival is that probably these commission reports would never be discussed if it were not for this House. The noble Lord, Lord Nathan, also moved his report extraordinarily well. The two reports together have given us an enormous amount to chew on in one afternoon, and my noble friend Lady Nicol will be concentrating largely on air pollution.

I should like to join with the noble Lord, Lord Ashby, in his tribute to Sir Richard Southwood and his commission. They have produced a mammoth report offering a comprehensive survey of environmental pollution. If the recommendations in previous reports going back to 1972 had been implemented even in some part, the commission would not have been faced with such a vast and widespread task. Unfortunately, the story that emerges is absolutely appalling. Although clothed in polite language it is a penetrating critique of Britain's environmental policy in recent years and tackles pollution with concise commitment and strong purpose. Governments past and present share the blame for this.

When I was a Minister at the Department of the Environment I dealt from the Government Benches with the debate on the Royal Commission on Nuclear Energy. The Royal Commission was then chaired by Professor Flowers, who I am happy to see now in this House and who will be speaking this afternoon. Although they were not part of my departmental responsibilities, I spoke on environmental matters in this House, and I realised then that they are very much put on the back burners of Government policy. There appears to be a feeling that it is all very good stuff, but nothing is vital or urgent and other things are more important and require urgent legislation; that is the way such matters are treated. That is why we are getting a build-up of the non-results which are before us today and which have been increasing all the time.

The report shows an incredible record of noncompliance with legislative decisions. There has been an erosion of democratic powers, and the will of Parliament has been grossly thwarted. We can see a lack of planning, continuity and foresight, which has led to what the report calls: cycles of complacency alternating with panic". There is concern that that will lead to new pollution "time bombs", as the noble Lord, Lord Ashby, pointed out.

Unfortunately, there are so many examples that could be taken from this excellent report that, like other speakers, I can pick out only a few without hogging the whole debate. For example, the Minerals Act 1981 cannot be implemented because no regulations have yet been issued. The waste disposal plans which were drawn up in 1976 gave local authorities powers but no duties.

I have with me today a map that has recently been produced by the geography department of the London School of Economics. It shows in different colours those authorities whose waste disposal plan is in final form or with the Secretary of State or in draft. I can count only 13 plans which have so far reached a final form. Eight are with the Secretary of State and 13 are in draft form. I have not managed to count correctly the number of areas for which no plans are available at all. It is 50, or even more. The worst areas are, unfortunately, in Wales and Scotland, where the district councils are the waste authorities. Only a tiny minority of waste disposal authorities have completed their plans since the Act set no date for their completion, and the Government have not leaned on them. The reasons for that are not only environmental, but are also concerned with the problems of local government, which I shall come to later.

The noble Lord, Lord Nathan, referred to air quality monitoring. That takes up a great part of his report. Whereas in 1977–78 the amount spent on monitoring alone was £2.59 million, the figure dropped in 1982–83 to £1.3 million. That is in money, not in real terms. One would have expected an increase but certainly not a decrease.

Another example which concerns me greatly is noise abatement. It is not covered in the report, as I think it was felt that the next report would deal with it, but I understand that that is not so. It is of tremendous importance today and I believe that there are more complaints to the Department of the Environment on noise levels than on anything else.

We come to the problem of how all these matters can be implemented. The first problem is that it is the lowest tier of the local authorities which has discretionary (but not mandatory) powers to deal with these problems of noise abatement, air quality monitoring (at least in part) and waste disposal. The local authorities have powers but no duties; they have discretion but no money. Few have made use of their discretionary powers. Even where they have the will and scrape the barrel for meagre resources, they fear to act because they are worried about the cost of compensation, since firms all have the right of appeal.

The situation is getting worse since local authorities are being even more squeezed. There is rate capping; the rate support grant is an inadequate financial cover. The Government's attitude to local government finance means that many of the Royal Commission's excellent recommendations are quite unrealistic today. In view of the impossibility of local authorities being able to fulfil what are meant to be their duties, there must be another avenue of finance and resource from the Government.

The abolition of the GLC and the metropolitan counties will mean the splitting up of highly skilled expertise and experience in pollution control. In particular the Royal Commission refers to the "valuable expertise" of the GLC's scientific services, which it hopes will be retained after abolition. I read through all the statements on abolition that I could to try to find something that referred to these special scientific services, but I discovered that they are lumped together with centralised purchasing and left to the boroughs, which is not a happy situation. Added to this catalogue of disastrous decisions there is the abolition of the Clean Air Council and of the Noise Advisory Council. Both those actions are regretted by the Royal Commission.

We then come to the question of staffing. I believe the cuts in the Department of the Environment staff and in the inspectorate section are very serious if we are to hope for improvement and not see further deterioration in this field. Since the report was published, some of the cuts have been halted and to a very small degree reversed. But certain areas are seriously understaffed—for example, the Central Directorate on Environmental Pollution, where the staff levels are down 30 per cent. since 1980. That means that it cannot perform one of its most important roles—the anticipatory role. There have also been cuts in the National Environment Research Council, which performs a vital service. The Factory Inspectorate staff has been cut by 13 per cent. between 1979 and 1982. This whole area should be one of growth and not of shrinkage.

Where there has been implementation it has been forced on Britain by our EEC obligations. I think the noble Lord, Lord Ashby, said that some of the directives were "shoddy". Nevertheless, once they have been thrashed out—as he agreed—they are a great improvement, certainly, on doing nothing at all. Our negative attitude has resulted in a poor reputation for Britian and, as the Royal Commission points out, a failure to put Britain's, considerable experience at the service of the European Community". We are always in the position of dragging our feet and being behind.

For example, under the pressure of EEC directives, implementation of Part II of the Control of Pollution Act began in 1983, but the actual implementation procedure means that there will be no discernible improvement in water quality around our coasts and in our estuaries (with the occasional exception) until the late 1980s at the earliest—14 years after the introduction of that Act. One does not need to be a scientist or even an environmentalist to see what has been happening around our coasts and in our estuaries.

There is need for a positive Government statement that the extensive "deemed consents" that have been granted will be determined by water authorities by a fixed date, even if that is 1990. I hope that the Minister when he replies will be able to give an undertaking on this.

The situation is made considerably worse by the continuation of secrecy in dealing with environmental pollution. There appears to be in this country a sort of "Nanny-knows-best" attitude. That attitude from this Government is rather surprising because the Prime Minister usually takes an entirely contrary view to that kind of approach.

The noble Lord, Lord Ashby, in the report of the Royal Commission—which he chaired in 1972—and again today, twelve years later, pointed to this whole area of secrecy as one of the most crucial factors in prolonging pollution. The Fifth Report of the Royal Commission on air pollution, which was not responded to until 1982, recommended that controlling authorities should be able to release to the public, who I believe have the right to know, data on emissions. There has been no action.

Then we look at pesticide control. The Royal Commission's Seventh Report in 1979 recommended that information should not necessarily be withheld. Yet I believe there is some proposed pesticide control legislation, which is probably going to move towards the statute book and be announced in the Queen's Speech. It contains no proposals for dealing with an unacceptable degree of secrecy surrounding the hazard of the use of pesticides. Why is this so? Or is this not so and is there something in the legislation? Perhaps the Minister will answer that question when he replies. However, I understand the legislation was drafted even before the consultation period had finished. As I understand it, up to the time of this debate, certainly, no clauses dealing with confidentiality had been included.

Another circumstance in which confidentiality is extremely harmful is where the factory inspectorate are required to give information to employees at a plant dealing with potentially hazardous materials or processes but are forbidden to disclose this information to members of the public. In 1983 a local resident asked for information about levels of asbestos contamination occuring during asbestos stripping in Fulham Power Station. The information was refused him. He was refused the results of the monitoring. He was refused copies of the notice served on contractors and the contractors' methods statement. He was even refused results of sampling by the factory inspectorate. Yet this man could have been at greater risk than even the contractors' employees, who have the right to know. He was put in a position which, if it was not in many ways sad and possibly tragic, would be almost ludicrous.

I believe, as do many other people, including the commission, that industry's worries are overstated. Americans and Canadians are much more open in their exchanges over pollution control and what are very often considered here as industrial secrets. As has been pointed out, if somebody really wants to find out, he can find out by testing the substance itself without this tremendous curtain of secrecy. This curtain of secrecy is not only quite wrong from any political, civil rights and natural justice point of view: it makes the whole area of research more difficult and increases the cost because it is often difficult for researchers to obtain the known data. The onus should be on the firms and not on the public, so that the firms can argue their case if they feel they have a substantial one which they believe requires secrecy on their part. However, as the commission recommends, there should always be a presumption in favour of the public having unrestricted access to information.

Relating to this area of secrecy, I remember that during the passage of the Water Act through this House we fought very hard to have local representatives on the water authorities. But, although there are some ex officio members, it still was not written into the Act, and the Secretary of State is not under any legal obligation to find places for the representatives. I remember very clearly a very long and quite fierce discussion on the question of press and public being present at the meetings. However, this was not in the Bill and its inclusion in the Act was refused by the Government.

Secrecy is not only inexplicable to the public, who are quite rightly very suspicious of it, but it has a generally debilitating effect on all the positive work that is being done in this area. In debating this matter this afternoon, I think many of us—indeed, practically everybody who is speaking in this debate, from whichever part of the House they come—fear that there will be just a good debate on the subject but no action will be taken: that we will be soothed with flattering words while the action is pigeon-holed as it usually is. However, I am hoping that this afternoon the Minister will be able to give some answers about the various dates on which implementation will take place. I hope he will have something to say on the question of secrecy and also on this very important question of how local authorities are going to implement the duties that have been laid on them without their having the financial means of being able to do so.

I must apologise to the Minister and the House for my absence if the debate goes on after 6.30 p.m. We have had a bereavement in the family and I am afraid I shall have to leave then if the debate has not finished. I will then read the Minister's answers in Hansard.

Environmental pollution must be given a very much higher priority. It is an essential ingredient in the quality of life. It is difficult to understand quite why, with all the interest in local groups and membership of environmental groups, this is something that seems very easy for governments to push aside, and, as I said earlier, put on the back burners of their governmental activity. As we know, lack of funds is the usual reply. But many of these recommendations would generate employment as well as improving our national welfare. I hope that the Minister will be able to come forward with some very definite Government propositions which will put into effect the Royal Commission's final recommendation that: Pollution control policy and environmental policy generally should be accorded the priority and resources adequate for then-integration in the national decision-making process". This is the kernel of a great deal of what has been said and argued in the report. I hope we shall not have to wait the many years that we had to wait with the other reports to get any response at all, let alone any action.

4.19 p.m.

Lord Nugent of Guildford

My Lords, I am very happy to follow the noble Baroness after her stimulating speech. I should like to express my sympathy to her regarding the family bereavement which will take her away from us early this evening. I should like to follow those remarks by congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Ashby, on moving this Motion calling attention to the Royal Commission's Tenth Report and on the admirable speech which he made in introducing it. He has the distinction of having been the first chairman of the commission. Noble Lords on all sides will agree that his contribution to this House on scientific matters has been brilliant. We all very much value his presence here.

In the interests of economy of time my comments will be confined to water pollution because I want to make a brief observation about the Select Committee's report on air pollution after I have spoken about the Royal Commission. In the main this report concentrates on estuarial and coastal water pollution in the United Kingdom. So there is an implication, which I take as timely, that water quality in rivers is broadly acceptable, with the exception of a few black spots, which the last river pollution survey showed. That is, I think, confirmed.

I might, in passing, say a word of congratulation to the 10 regional water authorities on what they have achieved in 10 years in bringing the inland waters—the rivers of this country—up to a high standard and the massive effort that they have put into transforming 1,400 rural and urban sewage authorities into 10 efficient regional water authorities covering the whole country. A great deal of the equipment that they took over was inefficient and extremely incapable of doing its job.

I am, therefore, happy to say that the present water position looks good. What has happened in practice is that the water authorities have concentrated first on inland water, where there was a good deal of serious pollution 10 years ago, because that has the most immediate impact on human health, not least on account of the large element of re-use of water that exists in this country. They were right to give that priority. Thus, the coastal waters and estuaries with which this report particularly deals took second place, except for the two major estuaries of the Thames and the Tyne, which have been treated as national priorities at a very high cost but with exceptionally good results. In the meantime, some improvement has been made in discharges to estuaries and coastal waters, though inevitably constrained by the limits on water authorities' annual capital budgets.

Against this background I turn to the Royal Commission's recommendation 7.45, which asks Her Majesty's Government to set a date by which all—I underline "all"—crude discharges of sewage to the sea should cease or be disposed of by long sea outfalls. That is an admirable objective. The report does not state how many there are, nor what the estimated cost would be. The report approves of long sea outfalls with suitable comminutors as an acceptable method of disposing of raw sewage. In my humble judgment, provided that toxic wastes are removed from industrial wastes, I agree with this view. However, what I cannot agree with is an immediate commitment to deal with all coastal discharges in this way. Each one would cost millions of pounds. Almost every town and village round our coast discharges raw sewage through a short sea outfall, often not clearing low tide level. The fact is that our nineteenth century ancestors saw this as a cheap and simple method of disposal of sewage. There are hundreds, probably thousands, of them. Of course, the Royal Commission is right. They are insanitary and unpleasant. But the remedy will be a big, long-term programme, costing billions of pounds.

For us in Britain, I can only say that there are two consolations-for what they are worth. Our coasts are washed by powerful currents which, in the main, keep them clean. We are very lucky. In comparison, our fellow Europeans in France and Italy have at least as unpleasant a heritage as us, with the disadvantage that the Mediterranean coasts are virtually without currents and coastal pollution is much heavier.

I now turn to the Royal Commission's major related recommendation—7.39—that Part II of the Control of Pollution Act 1974, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, referred, should be implemented by July 1986. As the noble Baroness rightly said, all Governments have been guilty of procrastination here. In the event, Her Majesty's Government were pretty smart following publication of this report because they published in August of this year their intention to implement Part II by the end of next year, 1985. That is very good so far as it goes.

But, inevitably, in the publication letter the Department of the Environment has reserved power to grant deemed consents which, I should explain to the uninitiated, mean permission for dischargers to continue doing what they are doing and for discharges to continue at existing levels where they are considered justified. Obviously, a great many coastal and estuarial discharges will have to be dealt with in this way for some years to come. This is no more than a discreet acknowledgment that we cannot proceed faster in this field than our national resources will allow. That is reality. I must confess that in supporting this line I am being no more than realistic, but I doubt whether the Royal Commission would so accept it. I think that they will have something to say when they come to their next report.

After being rather critical of the Royal Commission's recommendation in this respect, I am glad to be able to support two minor recommendations with regard to coastal waters. Recommendation 7.47 is that the selection criteria for the classification of bathing beaches in Britain should be reviewed. I agree. At present only 27 of our beaches have been classified as bathing beaches. Even the Netherlands, with its short coastline, has classified 60. We are in danger of looking ridiculous unless we carry out reclassification.

Secondly, in recommendation 7.56, the commission recommends that the United Kingdom should support the European Commission's initiative for an international survey of North Sea pollution. In paragraphs 4.96 and 4.97 they express particular anxiety about the dumping at sea of sewage sludge, especially by the Thames Water Authority. In fact, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Thames Water Authority monitor very carefully the dumping of sewage at sea in approved dumping grounds. All the evidence shows not only that there is not growing pollution in that area, but that there is an improvement in the quality of the water and fish there. I heard from the Thames Water Authority today that it would welcome an independent international survey. The authority is sure that the record will show that what it is doing is good and right and that it is not doing any harm to anyone. I hope that my noble friend will be able to say that Her Majesty's Government will agree to give full support to it. I believe that this would give confidence to everyone's credibility.

I conclude my comments on this aspect by saying that my recognition of the Royal Commission's invaluable role as a national watchdog to warn us against present and impending dangers is absolutely invaluable. Indeed, in the context of water pollution generally, inland as well as coastal, I strongly support the Royal Commission's contention that water authorities need more capital spending. My remarks are almost in line with those of the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, on this matter. Without some relief from the present financial stringency, not only can the admirable improvement achieved in inland waters—in river water quality—in the past decade not be maintained, but in some places pollution will begin to increase and quality will be lost. Unless some relief can be given to water authorities' capital budget, I fear that this situation will begin to show in the next national river pollution survey. I am sure that the Royal Commission is aware of this trend. They will probably comment on it in their next report. In the meantime, I hope that my noble friend will hear the message and heed it.

I should like, if I may, to add a brief comment on the Select Committee's Report on Air Pollution, as I am a member of that Select Committee. I should like to begin by paying a very warm tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Nathan, who has been such an admirable chairman of that committee, and has dealt with a particularly difficult subject in what I think was a brilliant way, and to thank him for his comprehensive speech this afternoon. I feel that I should say a word on the emotive subject of acid rain, for two specific reasons which I will deal with as I proceed. Of course, I share in the common wish for a reduction. Our report discusses this matter in detail, analysing the present state of scientific knowledge.

It is clear that the phenomenon known as acid rain is very complex and not yet completely understood. It follows, therefore, that cure and prevention cannot at present be precisely defined. In our report we recognise that man-made emissions of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide make a contribution to acid rain and that therefore the Commission's proposal for a reduction would be in the general interest; our final recommendation takes account of this. What we could not accept—I am repeating some of what the noble Lord, Lord Nathan, said because I believe it is of absolute, cardinal importance—was the statement in the Commission's explantory memorandum, at page 19, that there is a linear relationship between the levels of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions and the quantity of acid depositions.

Our report, in paragraph 104, which I commed to noble Lords, deals with this point in detail. We give convincing scientific authority for our view that the linear relationship between sulphur dioxide emissions and acid rain is not confirmed. Very important consequences flow from this conclusion as to what measure of money and resources should be allocated to the reduction of sulphur dioxide emissions. Our report shows that, as the noble Lord, Lord Nathan, has explained, there are broadly two forms of action to reduce these emissions; one is preventive and the other is remedial. We describe in detail the implications of these alternatives for the Central Electricity Generating Board who are the main emitters for this purpose.

It is obvious that the remedial measures are greatly to be preferred, except for their long time-scale. They consist of the introduction into steam boilers, which are coal fired, of these pressurised fluid bed combustors about which the noble Lord has told us. This can be done only in new power stations which are not programmed until the turn of the century. They are both cost-effective and energy conserving, and substantially reduce sulphur dioxide. They do everything we want.

The preventive measures, which can be introduced to existing generating stations within the next few years, are the flue gas desulphurisation process which the noble Lord also explained. This is costly in money and wasteful in fuel consumption. I confirm entirely the figures which the noble Lord, Lord Nathan, gave. The Central Electricity Generating Board told us that to fit 12 large stations would cost about £2 billion in capital sums. Add £350 million a year to running costs and 5 per cent. to electricity charges and one sees that this is formidable.

Our report concludes that this very heavy cost is not justified when it is not certain to what extent the reduction of SO2 emissions will reduce acid rain. However, we recognise that a reduction of SO2 emissions would be generally beneficial, including probably some reduction in acid rain, and therefore we recommend retrofitting FGD to two main generating stations, achieving a 30 per cent. reduction—that is far from what the Commission proposes—plus the commitment to perfecting the pressurised fluid bed combustors, if possible getting them started before the turn of the century.

In making this recommendation we have also borne in mind the Commission's policy to encourage the use of indigenous coal as a source of energy and the continuing need for the maximum economy in the use of energy. Both of those are in conflict with the FGD fitting. I have dealt with this in detail, although the noble Lord has done so, because our recommendation is a modification in an important way of the Commission's proposal and also because, since our report last June, the House of Commons Select Committee on Environment has published its report on this important subject and has recommended adopting the Commission's full proposal involving retrofitting of FGD in 12 main stations; despite, I should add, acknowledging in its report, at paragraph 130, that the linear relationship is problematical.

Obviously it is a matter of judgment, at a very high level, as to where one should come down in this very emotive issue of acid rain. But I felt glad to see, as I am sure my noble friend Lord Nathan did, that the Royal Commission's Report, in paragraph 5.96, after saying that they had given only a brief study to it, came down on the same recommendation as we did—that the right thing would be to fit two stations as we have recommended and achieve a 30 per cent. reduction. I hope that our report will be an assistance to Parliament, an assistance to the Government, and indeed to the Commission, in dealing with this very complex subject.

4.36 p.m.

Lord Flowers

My Lords, everyone who has ever been a member of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution—there are about 40 of us by now—owes a tremendous personal debt to the noble Lord, Lord Ashby. The noble Lord, Lord Nathan, has said that it was my noble friend who provided the initial leadership and who charted a course that has been followed ever since, under different chairmen but with remarkable consistency. He also set standards of eloquent exposition that have been extremely difficult to follow, as they are today.

The simplest thing for me to do in these circumstances would be to say that I completely agree with what my noble friend has said to your Lordships, and to sit down. There are, however, one or two points where I should like to add a little emphasis to what my noble friend has said. The first of these concerns the concept of "best practicable means" which underlies the whole British approach to pollution control. It is not the easiest thing in the world to explain to the uninitiated and especially to those who are more accustomed to the idea of statutory controls, because its starting point is the effect that actual emissions actually have on the actual environment rather than the theoretical effects they might have in hypothetical conditions; and it calls for the exercise of judgment in deciding whether a particular method of control is practicable in all the circumstances of a particular case, including the likely costs of adopting it. It is a flexible approach made possible only because the pollution inspectorates and the industries concerned are mostly willing to work in partnership to keep pollution within reasonable bounds. It is a pragmatic approach and, as the Tenth Report makes clear, it has been justified by results.

It was in the Fifth Report, as my noble friend has reminded us, that we generalised the basic concept of "best practicable means" which had been originally introduced in the context of air pollution, to "best practicable environmental option" in order to deal with cases in which the effect of pollution control may be to transfer the pollutant, as we have already heard, from one medium to another—for example, from smokey air to dirty rivers or from polluted water to toxic solids—and where it is therefore the total effect upon the environment that has to be considered. It was a natural extension of the original idea, one that I am glad to see the Royal Commission has continued to build upon. It has largely been adopted by now, even though the Government have so far declined to make its implementation as effective as it might be. I shall continue to hope that the industrial air pollution inspectorate, in spite of its name, will gradually assume the broader mantle we envisaged in the Fifth Report. It is difficult to see how it can do its job otherwise.

Now, in the Tenth Report, we find a further extension of the concept in the guise of the "best environmental timetable", and I shall be interested to hear how the Minister reacts to it. As I understand it, it is essentially, something of extra guidance on what is meant by "practicable". In spite of my admiration for the way in which pollution control works in this country, I sometimes have my doubts about how long it takes to bring it about. If the concept of a best environmental timetable can be used to reduce delays, that will be a very good outcome. If it proves useful, it will probably be as a result of industrial firms being encouraged to make investment decisions that take proper account of pollution control from the beginning—in other words, to plan ahead. Planning is meaningless unless it takes place within a well-defined timescale. On reading their report I therefore wondered whether the Royal Commission could not have conveyed the essential idea in the still broader concept of a "best planning timescale". That is a concept that is being explored further at the present time by the Nuffield Foundation in a study of the town and country planning system.

My second point concerns energy. The Tenth Report speaks kindly of the work of the Standing Commission on Energy and the Environment, and I am grateful that my noble friend has also lent his support. It is a matter close to the heart of the noble Lord, Lord Nathan, although I hope that he will forgive me if today I do not contribute to the discussion of his Select Committee report. It was originally recommended that the Standing Commission on Energy and the Environment should be: a high-level independent body to provide advice on energy strategy, taking account of economic, social, technical and environmental considerations". It was set up, albeit with narrower terms of reference (reasons for which I shall not go into now), and it produced a report on coal and the environment that some have said should be compulsory reading for those engaged on either side in the present coal dispute.

The Government, it seems, do not much care to look at matters of policy in such a broad context; so that commission is defunct, at any rate for the time being, when it happens to be needed. In the Tenth Report the Royal Commission recommend that the Standing Commission on Energy and the Environment should be reconstituted with the terms of reference originally proposed, saying that no existing body, including themselves, or inter-departmental machinery within Government, can adequately carry out the task.

If your Lordships will bear with me for a few moments longer I should like to mention a few of the ways in which this lamentable coal dispute has implications for the environment. They are not perhaps the most important implications, but they will illustrate the point that the Royal Commission is making. In the coal report we recommended that, wherever possible, coal should be carried by rail instead of by road and that power station sites should be chosen with that in mind. It was a recommendation with which I think few would have quarrelled. The first result of the pickets however was to drive a lot of coal back onto the roads. When the strike is over, I doubt—although I wish it could be otherwise—whether power station and steel works operators will ever again be willing to forgo the relative flexibility and security of road transport. The consequences for our major roads and for all those who use them or live near them will be very great.

After examining all the evidence, we considered that pollution controls and available technology were sufficiently good that we could give positive encouragement to the increased use of coal by industry. It was a means of conserving oil supplies and of reducing costs. It could even lead to a reduction in the level of sulphur dioxide emissions. There was a big campaign to burn more coal, and the beginnings of a flourishing trade in modern coal-burning appliances. Now our power stations are once again burning oil, and a few weeks ago I read in the Daily Telegraph that 1,000 industrial firms have already turned back to oil. Once again, I doubt—although I wish it could be otherwise—whether it will be possible to reverse that trend. The environment will be the loser, together with the miners.

Great Britain is densely populated and resplendent with sensitive and beautiful countryside. It is not the sort of place where opencast mining can be allowed to develop without the most stringent controls. We recommended that as the older, more unprofitable and less environmentally acceptable deep mines are closed and more efficient and profitable operations take their place, the volume of opencast mining should be allowed to decline. In the face of the miners' action, the civil engineering contractors who carry out opencasting are straining to produce as much coal as they can. The environment, as well as the miners, will be the loser.

One of the most difficult issues of environmental policy is the place of nuclear power with all the uncertainties that surround it in the public mind. I well remember the days of which the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, has spoken. For many years the miners have strongly opposed the expansion of the nuclear industry. Of course, one is entitled to suspect that their motives had more to do with the preservation of their jobs than with the concern for public health on the basis of which they pressed their case. No matter. Few things could have been better advertisement for the nuclear industry than the steadfast reliability it has demonstrated in recent months in the face of a strike that was intended to paralyse our electricity supplies and bring our economy to a halt. However much anxiety is displayed at Sizewell, that is a record of achievement that the public are unlikely to forget when the future of the electricity industry is next debated. In this case the environment will be the winner, in some respects at any rate, because nuclear power at least does not produce sulphur dioxide and carbon dioxide.

Finally, we were at one with the Royal Commission which, in its Fourth Report, had declared that land dereliction should be regarded as a form of pollution. Dereliction resulting from subsidence and spoil tipping has been one of the more frightful side effects of intensive deep mining techniques as practised in the past, especially in the coalfields of South Wales and Yorkshire. Most of it is associated with pits that can by no stretch of the imagination be regarded as economic. It is just these pits that have to be closed for environmental as well as economic reasons. But these are also the pits around which have developed the tightknit communities that are the public image of the industry and have precious little to offer by way of alternative employment. We were careful to stress that the social problems of such communities, faced with almost total unemployment, would have to be treated with great sensitivity. They were not, and the resulting hostility, appalling though it is, was a predictable result. In this case it is the whole nation that is the loser.

It was that incomparable physicist, Albert Einstein, who said that the environment is everything that is not me. It is impossible to consider environmental problems narrowly, and I hope that my little excursion into a topical problem may at least have illustrated that. Discussions about energy policy have to be broadly based, particularly because of the immensity of the problems that they raise, the social costs of dealing with those problems, and sometimes because of international implications. However, energy is only one of the great issues of the day. Sir Richard Southwood and his fellow commissioners have amply demonstrated the need for vigilance and for painstaking scholarship in assessing the condition of the environment in all its many aspects. We are greatly in their debt for the clarity and courage with which they continue to spell that out.

4.50 p.m.

The Earl of Cranbrook

My Lords, it is a privilege to follow the noble Lord, Lord Flowers, himself a past chairman of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, of which I am a present member. As a present member, it is gratifying to note the quality and number of your Lordships who are contributing to the debate this afternoon. I should like briefly to pay a personal tribute to the leadership of Sir Richard Southwood, the Chairman of the Commission, who has played such an important part in tracing the course of the compendious report which is the subject of this debate tonight. I am also grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Nathan, for his able chairmanship of the report of the European Community's Committee, of which I am also a member.

As a member of both these bodies I feel that I have had what could be regarded as a very adequate chance to say my piece, and I do not think it is appropriate to enlarge at any great length on these reports. I want to devote a few moments simply to one particular topic that has already been raised several times, and not least by the noble Lord, Lord Ashby, in introducing the debate this afternoon; that is to say, the present position of the Industrial Air Pollution Inspectorate, the IAPI.

The report of the Royal Commission at paragraph 3.31 says: none of our latest findings appears to us to call into question the view expressed in the Fifth Report that the transfer of responsibility for the Alkali Inspectorate from the Department of the Environment to the Health and Safety Executive was misconceived. If we pause to parse, or try to translate that into some other European language, I think we shall all agree that the editorial red pencil could more usefully have been applied to this statement. I think that it is perhaps because of the contortions of the phraseology that I note that this statement has been misinterpreted as excessive mildness in some quarters. Therefore, it is worth while to spend a few moments discussing briefly the present arrangements for the administration of the IAPI and stressing the commission's opinion that there is a need for review and the probable transfer of the IAPI back to the Department of the Environment.

The evidence which I received personally as a member of the Royal Commission has been brought sharply into focus by the News Release of the Health and Safety Executive dated 13th September 1984. This was drawn to my attention by the National Society for Clean Air. I know that the National Society for Clean Air membership and executive share some of the anxieties which I express.

That is not in any way to criticise this News Release from the HSE. It is in fact a valuable document, and it points to a considerable achievement in combining a previous diversity of inspectorates into a common executive for the protection of people in the workplace. The Health and Safety Executive has successfully united the Factories Inspectorate, the Mines and Quarries and the Nuclear Installation Inspectorates, the Agricultural Inspectors, the approval service for electrical equipment in flammable atmospheres, and, of course, the Alkali Inspectorate, on the IAPI.

It cannot but be clear that the IAPI is the odd man out in this list. It is the only inspectorate which is not in fact directly concerned with the health of people in the workplace. It is concerned with the health of the environment outside the workplace. As I read the News Release of the HSE, I see that the rationale being followed is clearly that which was laid out in a 1980 memorandum used by the HSE called the Health and Safety Executive Future Organisation. May I say in tribute to the Library service of your Lordships' House that this was retrieved for me today by the Library despite the fact that once again the GLC scientific computer is down or out, or whatever computers are when they choose not to compute for you. This had to be abstracted manually by old-fashioned techniques of looking through lists and hurrying to a shelf. I am grateful to the librarians of this House for finding this paper for me this afternoon.

This memorandum speaks in terms of matrix management, a common system of recruiting, a common grading structure, common geographical areas of responsibility, and it is clear from the News Release that this is what has successfully been operated in the HSE. But this raises some anxieties. However desirable it may be to have a common grading structure in organisational terms, is this going to function to maintain the special expertise of the IAPI within the Health and Safety Executive?

If, as it appears from the recent memorandum, the HSE has moved substantially towards an administrative structure in which there is a common grading system and a unitary promotions ladder, the position of IAPI staff seems to me to be in danger of becoming anomalous. The skills required by their service are not necessarily those of what we can conveniently call the "workplace arms" of their executive; and, of course, the converse is equally true. Therefore, I should like to ask my noble friend on the Front Bench, not necessarily to reply today but to at least feed into the system and to consider these questions. What safeguards exist to prevent the dilution of IAPI expertise within the system that has evolved? Will senior personnel be forced to move out of the IAPI into other arms in order to achieve the promotions that they deserve?

I should like to ask my noble friend in more detail whether it is a fact, as has been rumoured, that two recent recruiting drives for the IAPI have been disappointing. Can this failure to attract the right quality of candidate be attributed to a state of somewhat low morale within the inspectorate? I should also like to ask my noble friend whether it is true, as I have heard, that the next chief inspector, who is of course due to take over in February of next year, is likely to come from the Factory Inspectorate rather than from within the IAPI itself.

It is agreed by all parties, including of course the Health and Safety Executive, that in the field of air pollution it is the Secretary of State for the Environment and the other environment Ministers who depend on the IAPI for relevant expert advice in the field of air pollution. The Government's response to the Fifth Report of the Royal Commission (Pollution Paper No. 18, 1982) in Appendix 1, included an elaborate "Memorandum of Understanding". This outlined the mechanisms by which the Health and Safety Commission would exercise its perceived responsibilities to the environment Ministers.

To someone like myself, who has no direct experience of the workings of the Civil Service, the mechanisms proposed seem quite archaic and potentially obstructive to the direct and ready communication between the Ministers and the inspectorate that is needed to provide the information and the skills in confronting the complicated and ever changing problems in the real world of air pollution. Looking at these various documents, I cannot but believe that it would not be far simpler and far more effective to return the IAPI to the Department of the Environment.

The noble Lord, Lord Ashby, has stressed that the BPEO must be the major concern of future pollution control programmes. It was gratifying also to hear him commend the latest brainchild of the Commission, the best environmental timetable, which I cannot believe is widely divergent from the best planning timescale of the noble Lord, Lord Flowers, though perhaps this would be an interesting subject for debate over a number of lunchtimes. Environment Ministers in the future must have secure and ready access to the relevant expertise. This must be provided by the simplest and least devious route.

4.59 p.m.

Lord Davies of Leek

My Lords, it has been a fascinating debate to listen to. The information given and the scientific understanding of the problem have been great. I want to pay tribute to noble Lords who have contributed, but I want to shunt this debate into another area of discussion so far as pollution is concerned. What is the debate about? It is a debate on the Tenth Report of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, and on the problem of tackling pollution, experience, and prospects.

Shunting this debate into that field I am going to take it briefly into areas brushed over about the mining industry, the miners, and the place of pollution in their lives, I shall not weary the House by speaking for a long time. I never have done that.

It is interesting, too, that we seem to have a mania for road building. I note in passing that Churchill, when advocating public ownership of the railways, said: I contend that they should be considered from the military point of view, too, as part of our security and defence, particularly because of our immolation on the railways—sacrificial victims of the internal combustion engine". The internal combustion engine is already accused, and rightly so, of having killed 50,000 people in America in 1978, and 2,300,000 were hospitalised; and we are talking about pollution. There can be no greater pollution than the quick death of some of our people from man's own inventions. I do not want to be a Luddite and say that we must stop that technical progress; nevertheless we have to consider the situation for human beings.

Our road safety record in Britain is one of the best in the world: 5,900 people were killed here in 1982; 11,626 were killed in Germany; more than 8,600 in Italy; 12,400 in France; and as I have said, 50,000 killed in America and 2,300,000 were hospitalised. There cannot be greater pollution that that—right to the death. We seem not to take any notice. Yet we say that we cannot do anything but privatise the railways. We must build roads. So we have a mania for building these deathtraps which we call the highways and roads of Great Britain, and they are polluting the country as much as anything can.

The Command Paper 9149 is only one of many over years of work that have been presented to this House and the committee. Able, assiduous and persevering people have for many years presented us with their findings. The findings have been great, the knowledge has been deep, the erudition has been visible. But there has been paucity of action over the years. Why?—because of the cost. We take the economics of the cost—not the social economics; just the profit and loss account. We consider the balance sheet and forget the social cost in tackling pollution.

In many respects we in Britain are the laggards compared with some of our European friends. This is particularly true of our meagre effort to limit the maiming, and sometimes deadly, effects of exhaust emissions and the consequent brain damage to our children from the vapours from the exhaust pipes of our internal combustion engines. At Spaghetti Junction, where there has been an analysis of pollution, children have suffered from lead poisoning. We do nothing about it because it is too expensive. We work it on the basis of a balance sheet, rather than the social costs to society.

Since our accession to the European Community we have been obliged to increase our efforts to cope with the growing menace of pollution. In 1970 we appointed a standard body to deal with and advise us on home and foreign pollution of the environment. This body was to be an independent body not circumvented by—those were the words—or influenced by any departments. I asked how far that caveat would apply to the military. Immediately one comes not to a permanent stop, but to a halt for more thinking.

When dealing with nuclear weapons and the possibility of pollutants of carcinogenic effects and the propinquity of it, will the plea that an increase in nuclear defences is essential to our security prevent caution? Are we cautious, or will our independence be limited?

Many of the artefacts of modern man can in themselves be a danger to all plant, animal and river life. Our teeming oceans have become dumps for death-dealing waste of all kinds. It is no good talking rubbish about increasing the number of nuclear power stations and denigrating the fellows who cut coal. The more power stations we have, the more radioactive waste we have to dump. The Irish Sea is the most radioactive sea in the world and its fish are already contaminated. Our teeming oceans, as I said, are becoming dumps for dealing with wastes of all kinds.

As a civilised Government we have a duty to keep the public informed, to give them objective advice on the consequences of pollution. On sea and ocean dumping there is a conspiracy of silence. That conspiracy must be broken down. It is not wilfully done. It is sometimes thought that it is not wise for people to know. That is a very different jesuitical approach from the conspiracy of silence. We need more open government to protect the rights of the people.

The steady, insidious entrapping of man, plants and animals by the increase of radioactivity spreading over the earth from our power stations and the effluent from them gives us, as a result, the seas that I have talked about where the very food that God has given to mankind, namely fish, has been contaminated.

The so-called experts brush aside these warnings. They sometimes laugh and they are more pompous and arrogant than our economists with their intellectual dandyism overwhelming their common sense more often than not. The predictions of Old Moore's Almanac are often 10 times better than most of the sinister predictions of the economists about the balance of payments. A cynic once said: The Nuclear Boffins (God bless 'em all) Have calculated the fall-out to a decimal. But my nephew and niece Have five legs apiece And their intellect's infinitesimal". In other words, this kind of thing is going on and no one worries about it. There is the possibility of mutation of human beings.

How do we deal with this situation? On the major issue of pollution in general Dr. Harold G. Wolf of Cornell Medical Centre in New York believed that the health of an individual was bound up with the adaptive demands placed on him by his environment. To me this was axiomatic. One only has to look at the Eskimo, or the nomad of the desert, and straight away one can see that it is an axiom; an example of a fact of life.

One of the great problems of today is the high velocity of change which in itself is a factor of pollution. Those in my age group are finding it very difficult to keep up. Let me take a typical example: cupidity and greed, partly fostered by the insecurity that is burgeoned by this modern South Sea bubble of "Buy a newspaper and become a millionaire". That is daft from the beginning, if one knows the mathematics of the chance, but we are all becoming affected by it. It must be the lead in the atmosphere that is making people think so daft! Any sixth form boy who has done elementary mathematics could state the chances.

At the same time our chinmey stacks vomit into the sky poison and abrasive fumes, filling the skies, rivers and seas. Nevertheless, while we must not be Luddites and suppress our labour saving technology and the ease and dignity that it brings to us, we should have the courage to spend more on the prevention of the effects of our pollution. But before we do it, we always have an arithmetical balance sheet, forgetting the social consequences. Most of society, as I said years ago, is sitting in the caboose looking backwards. Thus we are in danger of losing control of our environment on sea and land. We are shocked by the accelerating rate of change, and that in itself is pollution.

A sick nostalgia about the past is useless. Pollution is now a world problem, fundamentally more dangerous than the colonial wars, or even the big wars that we have had. If we fail to cope with this phenomenon, then modern civilisation is in danger. The modern combustion engine adds carnage to its polluting effects on society. There is the stigma of our road deaths which in themselves are the mightiest of all pollutions. Despite the fact that, as I have said, our road safety record is one of the best in the world, the stigma is there nevertheless and something should be done about it as soon as possible.

The problem of pollution and radioactive waste is increasing; so much so that John Bright said many years ago: Death stands at attention, obedient, expectant, ready to shear away the peoples en masse; ready, if called on, to pulverise without hope of repair what is left of civilisation. He awaits only the word of command". That was a semi-prophecy of John Bright, years and years ago.

The Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee last week published its fifth annual report, which gives particular attention to the Sellafield nuclear processing plant. Two accidents were staged to demonstrate to the public the safety of the containers carrying nuclear waste. They were a waste of time. It ultimately transpired that the experiments were of little value, though they were supposed to demonstrate the so-called safety of moving radioactive cylinders. Discharges are increasing, particularly, as I said earlier, into the Irish Sea and, sad to say, Sellafield discharges are not any less. In fact, carelessness is proven by the fact that this week British Nuclear Fuels is being prosecuted under the Nuclear Installations Act 1965 for failure to keep proper records and failure to keep radioactive discharges into the sea as low as is reasonably possible. What are we to do about this? We do not give enough information.

Finally, my Lords, in our mining valleys in Wales and in England, too, pollution is taken for granted. The mining people from time to time have suffered its horrendous and terrifying consequences. Some noble Lords will have realised that we have polluted our mountains and quarries with the waste from our coal mines and have polluted our seas by running coal slurry and dust into our rivers. In considering the cost of this pollution—before what I have said is contradicted—let us remember the moving coal tip at Aberfan in 1966. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Edmund-Davies, was chairman of the tribunal which examined and inquired into the Aberfan disaster. It was in 1966 when the village school and its children—sons and daughters of the miners—were swallowed by the moloch of the mines, a moving coal tip. It started sliding down and it inundated and overwhelmed that tiny mountainside school. And still testifying to that slaughter are the graves on the hillside at Aberfan, the graves of children of the so-called enemy within. Here was the terror of man's unthink- ing pollution of his environment, fouling God's good earth.

Note, too, my Lords, the poisonous substances used on our farms, fields and hedgerows, and the menace of willy-nilly spraying. At last the Poisonous Substances (Agriculture) Regulations now demand control. At last we are beginning to try, and in trying—I mean this sincerely, having listened to this debate today—some tribute should be paid to the debates that we have had in the House of Lords. I still consider this Chamber a bastion of democracy.

5.16 p.m.

Lord Craigton

My Lords, it is not easy, with one simple point to raise, for me to follow the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Leek. But is it not good to see him back in such health and vigour again? I have to thank the noble Lord, Lord Ashby, for giving me an opportunity to raise the one point that I very urgently want to raise. Chapter III, paragraph 3.48 of the Tenth Report of the Royal Commission says: We foresee growing pressure … for greater use of statutory measures, to ensure effective implementation of European Community requirements". It goes on: For instance, the non-statutory Pesticides Safety Precautions Scheme (PSPS) depends for its effectiveness on the voluntary cooperation of the agrochemicals industry … [which was] welcomed by the Commission in its Seventh Report [has] run into difficulties". Chapter II, paragraph 2.63 of the Tenth Report says: pesticides are an important area where practice is out of line with the more extensive requirements of Part II of the Control of Pollution Act. The recommendations of the Seventh Report … would help remove that anomaly". So I shall first state the present position and then seek advice from the Seventh Report. The manufacturers' code of practice, raised in the Seventh Report and a cause for concern in the Tenth Report, has now run into difficulty. The basis of that code has been held to be illegal under Article 85 of the Treaty of Rome since it prevents or restricts competition within the Common Market. We now have to welcome the move that the Government are making to introduce, in its place, controls which will have the force of law.

On 22nd June, MAFF made an announcement to this effect and with it circulated a seven-page paper with some 20 paragraphs outlining details. The proposal is to introduce a Bill which enables Ministers to make regulations which will take the place of the voluntary scheme. Understandably, there are a number of doubts and queries. These centre, as is normal, on the contents of the regulations as outlined in some detail by the MAFF circular. If the Bill comes first and the regulations come later, we shall have to ensure that the Bill itself contains provision for the regulations to meet the points that are worrying us.

I have quoted where the Tenth Report referred with some concern to the need for action on the recommendations of the Seventh Report about the Pesticide Safety Precautions Scheme. I now refer to one aspect of this matter which in the Seventh Report occupied seven paragraphs covering four pages, Nos. 73 to 76, and about which, as I shall show, they even then called for urgent action. The vital point at issue is the type of spray used by ground vehicles and aircraft to squirt crops with diluted chemicals under pressure through a nozzle. It is this point to which Chapter III devotes those four pages. Furthermore, exactly the same subject is dealt with by a book, published this year, by the Soil Association entitled Pall of Poison, the author of which on Wednesday week, 7th November, will be speaking about it to the all-party Conservation Committee of both Houses of Parliament.

What then is this vital problem? Traditional sprays produce a range of droplet sizes, from large ones, which may be 1,000 microns or more in diameter and which tend to roll off the plant and pollute the soil, to very small drops, a few microns in diameter, which never reach the ground and probably finish up, as do dust particles of similar size, in the stratosphere or in our lungs. These tiny droplets, up to 100 microns, represent about 20 per cent. of the total volume used and, as about one billion gallons a year are sprayed, this 20 per cent. totals some 200 million gallons. That is a lot of poison to be wasted in the atmosphere. But in addition to conventional sprays, two improved techniques are available. They are CDA (Controlled Drop Application) which eliminates most of the very large and very small drops, and ULV (Ultra Low Volume) which cuts down liquid volume requirements by producing uniformly small drops. On these two improved techniques the Seventh Report, in paragraph 3.92, had this to say in 1979—since when further improvements will undoubtedly have been made: We were informed that if ULV/CDA techniques could be perfected and generally adopted, their use might lead in time to a reduction of up to 25 per cent. in the total quantity of active ingredients used for the pesticides concerned. This would be a notable environmental gain. It would also represent a gain for the farmer". They add in paragraph 3.95: The potential advantages offered … are such that we wish to see more work proceed on the development and assessment of these techniques with considerably more urgency than we have discerned among the organisations involved". I regret not only that I detect no urgency in the proposals now circulated by the Minister but they do not even mention this matter at all. I will give two examples. Only the pesticides require the approval of the nine government departments and agencies concerned. In paragraph 18, which lists the purposes for which pesticides may be used, the granting or refusal of use is specifically limited to pesticides. The proposed legislation appears to give no place—no place at all—to the consideration of the methods and devices for delivering the spray. No powers are to be taken to specify droplet sizes or to inspect delivery devices or to seize and dispose of those that do not conform. No powers are to be taken to grant or refuse approval of a delivery device or to institute efficiency testing of spraying machinery. Surely all these powers must be in the Bill or in the regulations. The use of the most economical and effective delivery devices is as important to the land and people of Britain as the control and specification of the chemicals that they have to deliver.

Even in 1979, the Seventh Report spoke in paragraphs 3.96 and 3.97 of the absence of and the need for performance data to be established for spreading machines as it had been, under the Agricultural Chemicals Approval Scheme, for pesticides. The report finishes its lengthy review on this subect by saying, in paragraph 3.97: The time may come when pesticides will not be cleared for present day conventional spraying if other techniques, such as ULV/CDA have proved equally safe, more efficient and preferable on environmental grounds". My Lords, that time will never come unless, contrary to the present proposals, the now proposed Bill and regulations give powers to make this happen.

5.25 p.m.

Lord Walston

My Lords, I am tempted to pursue—I will not call it a hare, but the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Craigton; I shall, however, forbear to do so and I hope we shall have a chance of talking about it in the not-too-distant future. I should like to deal, if I may, with the rather more general problem of pollution however it may be defined.

Pollution, of course, has been with us from time immemorial. Whether in fact the apple in the Garden of Eden was a pollutant or whether the serpent was a pollutant is a matter for theological or historical discussion, but undoubtedly there has been pollution of a more or less serious kind ever since civilisation arrived on this planet, because pollution and civilisation, I would suggest to your Lordships, do in fact go hand in hand. I am using the word "civilisation" in its more or less literal sense—when people stopped living in their widely separated huts, shacks and caves and came together to live in cities and larger groups. They would then by their very propinquity create pollution; they would disturb the environment in a way which was often dangerous to health, and certainly unpleasant for their neighbours if not for themselves.

We have only to read, coming to much more recent times, of the pollution of the City of London which was mentioned by Pepys in his diaries. I have a letter from John Ruskin, written to my father, in which he complains of the pollution of the air by the cigar smoke of the young of his generation. There are different types of pollution which have been with us all the time and which we have never to any serious extent complained about.

I would suggest there are two reasons why we have not complained unduly seriously about them. One is that it is only fairly recently that we have come to realise that we can control our environment. Formerly it was just something which happened. It came from God, from natural causes, or from powerful neighbours. But there was nothing we could do about it; we had to grin and bear it. Now we realise that we can do something about it. We live in an age of lobbies and pressure groups, of very wise, good and devoted people, or some rather cranky people; and between them they have created a very strong group of lobbies which is trying to prevent some of the harm which has hitherto been done without any complaint other than a shrug of the shoulder.

However, I would suggest that there is a more serious reason than this—although that is an important one in itself—and it is a three-fold reason. The first part is the rise of the great international, science-based corporations, with their vast expenditure on research and their development of new techniques. The second is the overwhelming power of advertising, persuading people rapidly to adopt the new technique, whatever it may be. The third is the spread of education at all levels, which makes people more interested in new techniques, more anxious to get away from the old and tried methods of their grandfathers, and to develop something new in their own enterprise.

Agriculture gives a very good example of this. It has happened very rapidly. Within my own farming memory, I look back to a time when there was no research, to speak of, in chemicals. Insecticides and pesticides were unknown; artificial fertilisers were used by a very small number of progressive farmers in very small quantities; and no self-respecting farmer, unless he happened to be a particular innovator, would adopt a new technique until he had looked at it very carefully being tried by one of his neighbours, or possibly tried it out on a very small scale for several years on his own farm.

All that has changed completely. We now have great international corporations, multinationals, which have brought enormous benefits to farming and, as a result of that, enormous benefits to the consumer in allowing food to be produced at prices which would be impossible without these new techniques. They spend vast sums of money on producing the type of insecticides and other poisons to which the noble Lord, Lord Craigton, has just referred, and having produced them, they spend even vaster sums, probably, on advertising them to make sure that the farming community knows what there is available and on doing their best to persuade farmers to buy them.

The farmers themselves are far more educated in the modern techniques of farming than their forebears were and they do not wait to see what the progressive neighbour does. They do not try something gingerly in just one field, but go all out for it all over the whole farm, and the spread of the new techniques and the new poisons—I deliberately call them that—takes place at an alarming pace. That is a change which has possibly taken place most dramatically in farming, but undoubtedly in very many other spheres, too.

This must call for a far greater awareness of the potential dangers, the lurking dangers, of the new techniques, which may not be apparent in the first two years, five years or possibly even 10 years and there is a greater need for the watchdog of some governmental agency to make sure that we are not building up for ourselves, whether it be in agriculture, whether it be in our generation of electricity, whether it be in the effluents from our drains and sewage systems or whether it be in the emissions of our internal combustion engines, something which is possibly lethal to a large number of people, and undoubtedly harmful and unpleasant to a very large number of people.

What disturbs me when I read this admirable Tenth Report of the Royal Commission is the number of times that, in the politest and most civilised manner, it suggests that all is not well in this sphere. Let me quote from some of the summary of its recommendations. For instance, it states in paragraph 7.19: We believe that the United Kingdom should be less on the defensive and should play a more positive role in promoting environmental matters in the European Community.". Later on that page it states: We regret the winding up of the Clean Air Council and the Noise Advisory Council and the putting into abeyance of the Commission on Energy and the Environment". On the following page it states: We urge the Government and water authorities to take a longer-term view when setting future water quality targets and lower down it reads: The Department of the Environment should take a more central role in the development of a long-term research strategy for the water industry.". At the bottom of page 185 it reads: We see no advantage in the negative approach which the United Kingdom has adopted to the implementation of the European Community shellfish waters Directive.". On the following page the report states: The Government should respond positively to the initiatives of the Federal German Republic and the Commission of the European Communities concerning the North Sea … The Department of the Environment should give greater recognition to the importance of long-term monitoring as a basis for action to improve air quality.". Then on page 188 the report states: The Government should take the initiative through the European Community, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, and other international agencies, to encourage a worldwide policy to restrict the use of gases … which may deplete stratospheric ozone to essential purpose. Page 189 reads, The Commission on Energy and the Environment should be reconstituted, but with wider terms of reference in accordance with the original recommendation in the Royal Commission's Sixth Report". Finally, the report reads: Pollution control policy, and environmental policy generally, should be accorded, the priority and resources adequate for their integration in the national decision-making process, so that their potential benefits can be realised to the full and at least cost". That is a pretty long list of gentle and polite criticisms, but it adds up to a fairly serious indictment, not of this Government—this has been going on much too long; this happens to be the Government of the day—but of all governments. Over the years that these developments have been taking place we have never looked with sufficient urgency and realism at the potential dangers which arise—not just might arise—and which will continue to arise as a result of the enormous technological upsurge that is taking place, and the enormous powers of those who produce these new methods to convince the users that they should use them immediately on a huge scale and not gently, watching step by step. That to my mind is the main lesson that I learned from reading this report.

I have just two further relatively minor points. I note that there is a recommendation in Chapter II, paragraph 11, concerning straw burning. I do not want to go into that in any great detail. We have had debates on it in which I have deliberately not taken part. But a five-year period for research is highly unlikely to be sufficient to make it possible for all farmers on all types of soil to dispose of their straw in a satisfactory manner, without having recourse from time to time to burning. I think that we should keep this matter in perspective, unpleasant though it is—whether one is an urban dweller, a weekender or a normal resident in a rural area, including farmers—to be sitting out on a lovely August afternoon having your cup of tea and to be rained upon with black soot coming down. It is not very much fun and it is not much fun either for people who have done their washing to have soot coming down on their nice clean sheets. However, it does not happen on very many days in the year. In fact, my guess is that this year it has hardly happened, despite no prohibition. There are other ways by which it can be controlled. That matter ought to be kept in perspective. This is one point upon which I specifically disagree with the recommendations contained in the report.

My other point relates to noise. This is mentioned in particular in both Chapter II, paragraph 2.5, and Chapter VI, paragraph 6.16. I believe that one of the greatest pollutants, by which I mean one of the greatest annoyances to the population as a whole, which does not cause damage to health though in certain cases it can cause psychological damage and increased stress—which in itself has serious implications—is noise. I very much hope that in their Eleventh Report the Royal Commission will show that they have taken the plunge and studied with the care they have devoted to all these other matters this enormously important problem of noise. The report is admirable. It is full of learned knowledge and sound common sense and balance. I join other speakers in expressing gratitude to those who have been responsible for it.

5.41 p.m.

Lord Ironside

My Lords, both the reports which we are debating today show that the EEC Commission is into acid rain. Like the common cold, it will not go away very easily. It is considered both here and in another place, whose environment committee's report is a useful complement to our discussion.

First, my noble friend Lord Ridley has asked me to apologise on his behalf to the House for having to leave before he was able to speak. This was because he has another commitment elsewhere. Perhaps I may also congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Nathan, on his able chairmanship of Sub-Committee G, of which I am a member.

Your committee's approach to the acid rain issues is conditioned by the commission's rather contentious and far-reaching proposals for air pollution directives. Amendments to the various texts are now being negotiated, but I think the cause of concern that we all have is that any money which we are forced to spend, for it is our money, should be spent cost-effectively. The principle of preventing air pollution and controlling the man-made precursors of acid rain makes very good sense, provided that the relationships between cause and effect or between cost and effect, as the CBI has so succinctly put it, are understood. The alarms raised by Sir Walter Marshall over dealing with power station emissions are well founded, because the size of the investment and the long lead times mean that a great deal of money—nearly £1,500 million—could be put at risk and thereby wasted, unless he thinks there is some certainty that he can deliver.

At the moment, with the degree of uncertainties, one is tempted to say: if in doubt, do nothing. But it is a bad posture to adopt when we are members of the European Community, which is a signatory to the Convention on Long-Range Trans-boundary Air Pollution. All the indications since 1972 are that because of the magnitude of the problem preventive programmes must now be started in case, as the noble Lord, Lord Ashby, said, unwittingly we set off any time bombs that we have no way of stopping later on. That is how I read the position.

Most of the attention in the committee's report focuses on the proposal for the large plant directive because it concerns power stations, even though some 450 industrial plants altogether in the United Kingdom would be affected by it. Although I like the idea of developing a cost-effective pollution policy based on the best practicable environmental option and the best environmental timetable, I am not convinced that the commission have succeeded in their proposals in getting the balance right between prevention and cure. This directly affects our investment in abatement technology as against investment in improved combustion, whether it is internal or external.

The other point I want to make is about monitoring. If you wish to use public money to secure long-term benefits designed to improve the quality of life, you must carry public opinion along with you. The benefits being difficult to quantify in this case, public opinion can be very critical of the money which is spent. We already know of the troposphere, the stratosphere, the atmosphere and the biosphere, and all their pauses, and by definition the Royal Commission calls pollution the man-made alien substances and energy brought into all these spheres. So we now have a new concept of the pollutosphere, and we must face it. It is ready-made for a pollution inspectorate, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Ashby. We can already claim success in dealing with smoke from coal and sulphur dioxide from fuel combustion, with more to come, but the other precursors—NOx, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, ozone and elements which I have not heard about before but which are mentioned in the report of the Royal Commission—aldehydes and peroxyacyl nitrates which are carcinogenic—are the unseen and uncertain villains of the piece which are so difficult to monitor, as the noble Lord, Lord Nathan, said.

To justify specific abatement measures while such great uncertainties exist between cause and effect, it does not in the least surprise me to see that the commission are proposing monitoring arrangements. Surely this must therefore mean that they are well aware of all the uncertainties, despite the flaws in the arguments they have advanced in the large plant directive, suggesting that there are linear connections. The point which needs to be made here is that the proposed monitoring arrangements will be very costly to set up. The commission are not the first people to be baffled by all the uncertainties of the atmosphere. We know that the Meteorological Office had to abandon the long range forecast because of the lack of understanding of atmosphere behaviour; so what assurances do we now have that the most expensive monitoring arrangements being proposed by the commission for central assessment by the Joint Research Centre at ISPRA are going to sort out what goes on in the atmosphere? The large plant directive is in line with the "polluter pays" principle, but the operator will pay twice over, as far as I can see, because he will be stung for the monitoring as well. The industrial plant directive, however, seems to be much more flexible in respect of monitoring requirements, but the member states will still have to pay and use comparative methods.

The most awkward monitoring system seems to be that which is proposed for NOx. "First catch your pollutant", say the commission, "but we can't be certain that we've asked you to catch the right one". In setting up the monitoring network for the forestry protection regulation, 50 per cent. of the cost of monitoring will be provided. This to me immediately suggests a case for doing this for the other pollutants, especially if uncertainties exist. There is much to be said, therefore, for adopting the bubble regime in selected areas, with all its give and take, until the specific purposes of data collection can be determined and directed towards the causes.

The Meteorological Office do not appear to have been drawn into the monitoring scene, despite their great experience of monitoring, but if data collection on the West Coast of Scotland, for example, is undertaken it will not mean anything unless the Meteorological Office can say what the atmospheric transport system across the Atlantic has done to the data. They have already found that the acidity of rain samples taken only a few feet apart at one of their sites differ by 40 per cent. Monitoring for monitoring's sake is expensive, and unless it is cause-related it will not prove to be effective. However, it is clear that local authorities will have to be invested with powers similar to those of the industrial air pollution inspectorate so that they can collaborate more closely and effectively with the enforcement agency in implementing the directives in whatever form they are adopted, as this will probably include monitoring.

The United Kingdom's record in combating air pollution has been good, and the Government have also given assurances that they are to review air pollution control as a matter of priority. Even though air pollution monitoring policy in the United Kingdom is in a state of flux at the moment, I do not believe that we want to get drawn into creating a fancy monitoring network at the expense of industry, which is striving to improve process engineering to meet worldwide competition as well to achieve energy conservation and clean technology targets. Improved monitoring will not reduce pollution, but improved combustion will.

The noble Lord, Lord Nathan, made mention of the Act of 1825 applied in Derby, which required steam engines to consume their own smoke. I believe one can see that, in Derby, they are trying to do the same now. Indeed, the largest and most versatile burner test rig in the Western World—rated at around 80 megawatts—has been built in Derby by the Northern Engineering Industries International Combustion Company and will fire coal, oil, and coal/water mixtures; so Derby can boast quite a lot in this particular field now.

On the road, the prevention and cure dichotomy with vehicle exhaust emissions has been brought to a head in Germany. But is it right to force motor manufacturers to fit expensive catalytic converters to their vehicles to achieve the NO, emission targets at too early a date, when it is known that they are into lean-burn engines and feel that this technology is a more cost-effective route to meeting the targets? What is environmentally good can be industrially disastrous unless proper account is taken of the technical position and the lead times so that industry can respond and adjust its product range. Equally, in the large combustion plant field, is it right, therefore, to set such strict deadlines for FGD retro-fitting in the face of improved combustion developments which are likely to lessen NOx emissions and deal with sulphur absorption at lower cost than FGD without the energy penalty?

We are told that 12 baseload stations, which are the largest emitters, require retro-fitting as being the only way of getting the 60 per cent. reduction requirement by 1995 at the enormous cost of between £1,400 and £1,500 million, because no new fossil-fired stations other than Drax will be commissioned before 1995. Added energy consumption to run these FGD plants would mean the loss of something like 663 megawatts of capacity—which itself is the equivalent of a small power station.

We must not forget that an FGD system for a power station is a large plant of power station proportions. It has its own management and control structure and a good response time to load change—and a 2,000 megawatt generating station will keep two limestone lorries on the move 24 hours a day to handle nearly 4,000 tonnes of limestone per year. Other noble Lords have mentioned similar figures to those, which represent a very large quantity of limestone on the move.

For SO2 abatement, FGD technology has been around in the States and the Federal German Republic for many years. In Japan, Mitsubishi started it in the 1960s and can now claim that more than 50 of their environmentally-friendly wet limestone gypsum product systems are in service around the world. They have scaled their plant up to the size suited for United Kingdom power station use, whereas there are fewer of the Wellman-Lord wet limestone systems in service, which are rated by the Central Electricity Generating Board as their alternative choice.

The elemental sulphur and sulphuric acid product of this process is marketable. Perhaps it is slightly less environmentally friendly but the plant has not yet been scaled up to suit our large stations. The CEGB are searching for proven technology, and they would be treading new ground with any dry systems such as Lodge-Cottrell, mentioned in our report. But perhaps the more serious problem is that they would face more complicated waste disposal problems and be dependent on United States company supply instead of British supply, which they can rely on for the wet systems such as Mitsubishi.

Limestone is a good absorber for these suphur dioxide emitters and if we look at the erosion of the magnesian limestone of this palace building, we can see just how good it is. The directive in its present form means fitting 20,000 megawatts of plant in 10 years. Compare this with the achievement of the United States where, with all its resources, only 15,000 megawatts of plant has been fitted so far—in fact, over the past 10 years—which makes the commission's proposed programme look wildly optimistic and wholly unrealistic.

In my view, the best practical environmental option for the United Kingdom is clearly one which must be technically acceptable and based on British supply—with a home market policy designed to strengthen plant export opportunities. The best environmental timetable is one that does not give prior rights to abatement technology nor stifle improved combustion technology. With the uncertainties which exist in expert minds, the flexibility of the bubble system is, I believe, vital to the requirements of British industry in advancing combustion technology and getting new burners and boilers into service. Individual plant constraints will inhibit the innovation process. Pressurised fluid bed combustion and combined cycles are part of this process, and I hope that the commission, as well as the Government, will play its part in supporting these advanced developments so as to bring them to the market as quickly as possible.

I expected throughout this inquiry that the issues would be narrowed down but found that the scientific uncertainties grew with the evidence that we heard. But I support the committee in their view that it would be foolish to take no action at all to combat air pollution until the uncertainties are resolved—and I believe it would be wrong for the United Kingdom to stand aside from the EEC initiative. The main issue, as I said before, is to get the balance right between prevention and cure, between cost and effect, and—eventually—between cause and effect, so that we invest wisely.

5.58 p.m.

Lord Sandford

My Lords, I believe that we all owe a vote of thanks to my noble friend the Chief Whip for giving us this piece of prime time in which to debate these two important reports. I should like to begin by adding my congratulations to their authors—Sir Richard Southwood and the noble Lord, Lord Nathan—and to the noble Lords, Lord Ashby and Lord Nathan, for taking the opportunity to put down their Motions.

I participate in this debate as the rather aged parent of the Control of Pollution Act and the Protection of the Environment Act, which are two different marques of the same Bill, which I dealt with in this House from two Front Benches in succession. I speak also as a rather idle member of Sub-Committee G but chiefly as president of the Association of District Councils, whose members employ some 3,300 of the environmental health officers. I mention them—and I think I am the first noble Lord to do so—because I think that your Lordships will agree with me that they are the highly trained, experienced, professional, front-line infantry in the battle against pollution. I mention them particularly, not only because they have a very significant role in all this—a role which the Royal Commission thinks should be enlarged—but because, like the noble Lord, Lord Shinwell, they have just become 100 years old. No doubt the Queen sent the noble Lord a telegram, and in the case of the environmental health officers she sent them their Royal Charter this summer. If I may speak on behalf of other noble Lords, I should like to congratulate them on that.

The Royal Charter recognises the very significant role they have to play—a role which I was glad to see the Royal Commission specially mention and identify.

It is the role that arises from the fact that these are the professionals who are closest to the people, closest to their representatives and most capable of reflecting their chief concern.

I was particularly glad that the noble Lord, Lord Walston, mentioned noise because that is the concern which most of the public raise most of the time with most vehemence. Of course it is necessary for us to talk in stratospheric, scientific terms about various long-term issues with which it is important for us to grapple, but it is also important to realise that what concerns most of the public most of the time is the horrible noise going on around them. I hope that that will be the topic which the Royal Commission tackles next.

The noble Lord, Lord Ashby, rightly started off with extracts from what the Royal Commission had to say about the record. It was good that not only he but my noble friend Lord Nugent had something to say about the very positive role which the regional water authorities had been playing and which has led to so many of our rivers being cleaned up so well. I heard a sad story recently about salmon in the Thames. A Pakistani angler, living near Wallingford and who presumably does not read the English press all that closely, did not realise that there was a substantial reward for those people who manage to get salmon out of the Thames. Instead of taking the salmon away to claim his reward he took it home and ate it for supper. The rivers, therefore, are cleaner.

Undoubtedly the air in our great cities is cleaner and the local authorities can take some credit for that with their enforcement of the clean air Acts of the late 1950s. It is sad and I think significant that the Royal Commission finds it necessary to say at paragraph 2 that the one area in which the progress has been negative is agriculture. The four cases mentioned are the serious damage which nitrates are threatening to do to the ground waters; the serious damage which they and fertilisers, insecticides and pesticides are doing not only to the rivers but in the air, which my noble friend Lord Craigton mentioned; and most dramatic of all, of course, the effects of straw burning. I cannot share with the noble Lord, Lord Walston, his hope that there will be an extension of the five-year period. I think farmers are jolly lucky to have the five years they look like being granted.

I have to agree with the Royal Commission that on a number of matters which it has identified—the one I have just mentioned is among them—a certain dilatoriness has grown up in Whitehall and it is sad to say that the chief weakness resides in my old department, the Department of the Environment. There is now a singular lack of leadership where previously there was a fairly strong and powerful driving force. The slow, partial, halting, hesitant progress in introducing Part II of the Control of Pollution Act is the worst example of that. It is absolutely essential, and the Royal Commission rightly makes the point very strongly, that a coherent and dynamic lead is introduced in Whitehall. This all arises from the drive to achieve staff economies and economies of all kinds in the Civil Service. I welcome that, but it can be taken too far and it has been taken to the point where this lack of leadership and coordination in Whitehall is putting United Kingdom industry at a competitive disadvantage. Surely that is the last thing which Government policies should be doing now.

I welcome the emphasis from the Royal Commission in what it says about the benefits of an open, preventive, anticipatory approach to pollution control and a forcing pace; a pace which, if it is set out deliberately, will force damaging industries—agriculture is the one mentioned, but there are others—to take the steps to introduce the technology necessary to meet legislation which is to be introduced at certain set periods. It is absurd that in 1984 the environmental health officers are still having to rely on the 1936 legislation, under which they have to prove that a statutory nuisance has been caused before they can take enforcement action in a whole number of fields. Surely we should have moved on from that by now.

My concern is not only with the fact that it has taken 10 years to introduce Part II of the Control of Pollution Act but with the fact that nobody knew when various parts of it were to be introduced. There was no programme, and that made it impossible for the industries concerned to phase their capital investments, and so on, to meet legislation. Pollution control certainly imposes costs on industry, as the CBI has long been saying, if it is introduced on the wrong lines, late and in a panic. That is what is happening now in response to public anxiety about acid deposition. However, if pollution control is brought in on the right lines, after proper research and deliberate legislation, steadily, coherently and in good time, it not only saves industries money but puts them in a strong competitive position with their international competitors. That is why it is so important not to be cheeseparing as regards the staffs allocated to this work in Whitehall.

I should like to end on the various things that the Royal Commission has to say—all very welcome to me—on the fuller role of the Royal Institution of Environmental Health Officers. It has already taken the very sensible step of inviting the president of the institute on to the Royal Commission itself. I am sure that he has proved to be useful there. The Royal Commission rightly recommends that there should now be an environmental health officers' unit within the Department of the Environment. That will do a great deal to help the department to regain the ground it has lost. It identifies a multiple and growing role for the environmental health officers in local authorities, and that is welcome, too. Firstly, it recommends that they should act as agents and also as partners with the IAPI. That cannot but be right. There are a whole lot of processes which were once under the clean air and alkali inspectorate which now certainly ought to be under the environmental health officers in local government.

The commission recommends that the environmental health officers and their authorities should be the designators and monitors of our bathing beaches. How much I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Nugent, that our present position on that makes us ludicrous in the eyes of the EC. It also recommends, and I agree, that the environmental health officers should be the controllers and the monitors of emissions from vehicles. It is quite right that they, too, should be the enforcers of higher standards in that respect—something very perceptible to the public—as they are on any other standards.

I very much welcome the debate and particularly the reports around which it has taken place.

6.10 p.m.

Baroness Robson of Kiddington

My Lords, I was tremendously impressed listening to the debate in which so many people with outstanding scientific knowledge took part. When the noble Lord, Lord Ashby, opened the debate—and we are very grateful to him and to the noble Lord, Lord Nathan, for giving us the opportunity to debate these two important reports—he said that 10 years ago the Control of Pollution Act was greeted as a charter for the future. He was obviously disappointed in what had happened over those 10 years. He said that what have spurred action at the moment largely have been public opinion and the European Community involvement. I am not a scientist. I represent public opinion, or at least that is what I like to think.

When the noble Lord, Lord Nathan, made his speech he referred to the problem that managers who are looking after the public good have when they come up against a demand by the public and incomplete scientific proof that a particular pollutant is dangerous or should be controlled. He referred to Chapter VI, paragraph 6.30 in the Royal Commission report. I think that this is one of the problems in the present context: there may not be sufficient scientific proof available; however, public opinion, not only in this country but in all countries in Europe, demands that something should be done. That is so over the question of acid rain, which has been referred to this afternoon by a large number of speakers.

It is obvious that we must welcome the CEGB's commitment that if its present research project (which is largely being funded by the Government) comes up with evidence which justifies certain actions, those actions will be taken. However, I think that the general public and many people with great scientific knowledge would say that, on the basis of evidence that already exists about emissions of SO2 and hydrocarbons, the case is clear that we should take action now. Other European governments, like those of West Germany, Sweden, Norway, Holland and France agree that action should be taken.

It is equally obvious, even to a member of the public, that power stations and their emissions are not the only culprits; but they are one of the culprits, and a substantial one. As we have been told this afternoon, it is possible with modern technology to reduce those emissions. We have also been told about the enormous cost in which that would involve the country. But we have responsibilities not only to ourselves but to the other countries in Europe.

We have managed to reduce emissions in this country by 37 per cent. since 1970, but we are still one of the largest emitters of SO2 in Europe. I think that ourselves and Germany are the greatest offenders. One could say that, because we have managed to protect ourselves to a certain point, we feel satisfied. But we live in the European Community and we have responsibilities to other countries in Europe. We also have responsibilities to future generations.

According to the Select Committee report, if we were to equip two power stations with flue gas desulphurization—and that is a recommendation which I sincerely hope the Government will accept—we would achieve a 30 per cent. reduction in emissions of SO2 by the year 2000. I believe that we must do that at the same time as concentrating on further development of pressurized fluid bed combustors as another matter of urgency. A large sum of money must be put aside for that research.

We have been told by the Select Committee that there is not really a sign of acid rain being a great problem in the British Isles. The Royal Commission does not quite agree with that statement. According to the Royal Commission, parts of Scotland and the North of England are beginning to see damage. It is not so much damage to trees as to lakes and watercourses. One cannot help wondering whether the damage in Scotland is not more obvious than in England because the land and its structure there is very similar to that of Scandinavia—soil on top of granite rock. That means that the water does not have a chance to be neutralised, as it has in England where there is a limestone base.

The other factors that perhaps make it dangerous for a country like Scotland, and certainly has an impact in the Scandinavian countries, are the higher amount of rainfall and the fact that a lot of the rain falls as snow, which rests on top of trees and slowly melts. Therefore a much greater amount of acidity penetrates. Those are factors which I believe we must consider. I should be deeply upset if the Government were not prepared at least to implement the recommendations of the Select Committee on the cleaning of emissions from power stations.

My noble friend Lord Ashby mentioned the question of unnecessary secrecy. Speaking as a member of the public, I have very strong feelings about that. The information available to the public relating to new pesticides, chemicals and radioactive waste is shrouded in too much secrecy. The noble Lord, Lord Flowers, talked glowingly about the cleaner emissions from nuclear power stations, but he did not say very much about the problem of nuclear waste. The secrecy gives rise to fear and suspicion in the minds of the public. Once that fear and suspicion are there, they are almost impossible to eradicate. Information that may subsequently be disclosed as a result of public pressure is often viewed with the same suspicion and mistrust as the original information.

Ministers and controlling authorities with power to withhold information should do so only on the grounds of national security. Perhaps the best way would be to implement the Royal Commission's recommendation No. 7.30, to include independent members on the Nuclear Industry Radioactive Waste Executive, who would represent public concern and environmental expertise. Among those independent members I should like to see a representative from either Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth.

In 1970, at the time of the Stockholm Conference, Britain was a leader in matters of environmental control. Today, whatever we in this country may say and whatever we may feel we are not looked on as leaders in this field in Europe. I think that this is a tragedy. I sincerely hope that the Government will take seriously the last paragraph of the report of the Royal Commission: Control of environmental pollution is not an optional extra; it is a fundamental component of national economic and social policy, and has many international implications. Pollution control policy, and environmental policy generally, should be accorded the priority and resources adequate for their integration in the national decisionmaking process so that their potential benefits can be realised to the full and at least cost".

6.22 p.m.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, this must be one of the most important debates that we have had in this Session, touching as it does every aspect of human activity.

The noble Lord, Lord Ashby, mentioned at the beginning of his speech the work of the two bodies and the amount of effort put into it by members of both committees and their staff. When you add to that the time and effort of all those who gave evidence, the sum of human endeavour involved in these two reports is very high.

It is unthinkable that their conclusions and recommendations should not be followed up, even if not all can be acted upon as quickly as we should wish. There has been a high level of agreement this afternoon. That is surprising when one considers the different experiences of those who have spoken. I should particularly like to support the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, and others in their support for the environmental officers of district councils and in particular the work that they do in relation to noise. Noise is one of the worst environmental pollutants which we have to suffer at the moment. There are very few of us in this House who have not been affected by it and who do not react to it.

The single note of disagreement which I have had is with the noble Lord, Lord Walston, on the question of straw burning. In fact there has been a good deal of complaint about this in my area of the country. I am sorry to say that even with the NFU's new rules or code of conduct there has been a lot of pollution again this year. At times we were sadly reminded of the worst of last year. So I feel that there is still a long way to go in that field—if your Lordships will forgive the pun!

I want to concentrate particularly on air pollution. The five Commission documents considered in the Select Committee's report are welcomed, in that they are pressing action upon member states. As has been said, the United Kingdom, regrettably, needs to be pressed. We are not a good neighbour in pollution terms.

A year which has seen publication of the two reports that we are discussing, and also the report on acid rain of the Select Committee in another place must surely see some movement by Her Majesty's Government to redeem our reputation. But whether or not the Commission requires it, it has been stressed by both the noble Lord, Lord Ashby, and the noble Lord, Lord Nathan, that action is necessary now to safeguard our own future. The arrival of the final proof will be too late.

New technology is much more likely to develop with the impetus of legislation, as we have proved so many times in other fields. Air pollution has been a subject of concern in this country since the Industrial Revolution. The effects of acid deposition have been known to us since the 1860s and our high stack policy was developed in good faith to prevent local damage and in the belief that gases would disperse in the atmosphere without harm. But within a decade damage to fish life and forests in Scandinavia became evident and was linked with distant industrial emissions, mostly of SO2.

As damage has increased and become more widespread, research has indicated that pollutants other than SO2 are involved in the problem. These include NOx and 03 (that is, ozone, one of the worst emissions from moving vehicles). These emissions are increasing, whereas emissions of SO2 have been stabilised.

Acid rain has caught the public's imagination. There is something particularly unpleasant in what was always looked upon as "the gentle rain from heaven" and which was entirely beneficial suddenly becoming an enemy which destroys life on earth. However, we must not allow the fact that the media have caught on to the term "acid rain"—and it has caught the public's imagination—to divert us from the need to examine properly its causes. It is evident that we are still uncertain of its exact causes. What is true is that whatever emissions are allowed to go up are reacting together in a poisonous cocktail and inevitably coming down again, to our detriment.

It therefore follows that we must take action to control all harmful emissions, whilst continuing research into their final effects. The noble Lord, Lord Ironside, mentioned the bubble solution. However, I think that unless this is very carefully controlled it might not be the answer. There will have to be, somewhere, some control. I do not think that we can allow smaller plants to horse-trade among themselves about which will be the polluter. Government control is needed from the centre. The cost of the research must also be borne by central funds rather than by local authorities.

The large plant directive is important; but within the United Kingdom the large plant defined would apply solely to the CEGB power stations. There is a danger that these easily identified offenders, who are subject to Government control, may become symbolic targets and divert public attention and pressure from sources of other pollutants. The question has been discussed of the possibility of introducing FGD into two of the power stations before the 1990s. However, as has been pointed out, I think by the noble Lord, Lord Flowers, FGD itself produces a pollution which has to be dealt with.

There is also the environmental objection to the large-scale removal of limestone pavements, which has been fought against in many areas of the country in the past. That, too, is destructive. It does seem that we should not lightly undertake this particular "improvement"—and that word is in quotation marks.

The cumulative effect of other smaller units could be more deadly than the already diminishing emissions of SO2 from the CEGB plants. The committee makes this point, as the noble Lord, Lord Nugent, explained. The committee's recommendations on this are sensible and should be acted upon, but with the exception that we should look at the alternative method of scrubbing FBC rather than FGD.

Vehicle pollution is increasing. The reduction of lead in petrol will be welcomed, but emissions of other toxic gases must be controlled, notably NOx. We need the stick of legislation and the carrot of financial reward. Lean-burn engines and stop-start motoring are available in other countries, and even here in imported cars. Why not have a reduced road fund licence for such improvements as an incentive to motorists to buy them and to our manufacturers to make them?

The costs of pollution control are measurable, and so are quoted as reasons for inaction. The costs of a polluted environment are less easy to define, though some are visible in reduced crops, damaged buildings, dead trees and lifeless lakes. But who can cost the effect on human health and quality of life, as my noble friend Lord Davies of Leek so eloquently said? We have a right to breathe clean air in a healthy environment, and a right to demand that our legislators provide it. My noble friend Lady Birk said that the finance must be forthcoming. Local authorities cannot do it; they are too restricted. I hope that we shall hear from the Minister tonight that the Government back the findings of these reports and that they are prepared to invest in following them up within a reasonable time.

6.30 p.m.

Lord Skelmcrsdale

My Lords, the House will be most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Ashby, and to the noble Lord, Lord Nathan, for having been able to arrange through the usual channels for the subject of pollution to be debated in your Lordships' House this evening. I say "this evening" because it is most timely, as several noble Lords have remarked, that such a debate should occur before the Government dot the i's and cross the t's on their own official response. We had originally hoped, as some of your Lordships are undoubtedly aware, to publish this by the end of the parliamentary Session. Time has, unfortunately, narrowly defeated us, but many of the points raised tonight will be included, and this evening's debate will be far from wasted. Your Lordships will understand from this that my role tonight is listening to, and learning, the House's view on this matter, and that I cannot make a major Government announcement.

However, although I must not pre-empt the conclusions of the response, the Government's position on a number of the Royal Commission's recommendations has already been made clear. I shall have a few words to say about these shortly. It is certainly no secret that we regard the Tenth Report as an important milestone, in the spirit of the Commission's first report. It is important to keep overall policy under review, particularly in an area such as environmental protection where media interest is so often focused on specific scare stories. I congratulate the Royal Commission on producing such an informed and balanced report both on general issues, such as confidentiality and our stance in Europe, as well as on their more specific recommendations on the important subjects of water quality around our coasts and air pollution.

I note in particular their working definition of pollution, in paragraph 1.9, which has been widely accepted internationally. If I can paraphrase this, it is that the input of contaminants into an environment is defined as pollution only where it actually causes harm. This is a definition that has worked well in solving the acute problems of the past when the causes and effects of pollution could be readily identified. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Leek, that now that most of the more acute problems have been dealt with, we are often faced with the more difficult task of assessing the long-term effects of low levels of discharges, sometimes operating over long distances and over wide areas. The noble Baroness, Lady Robson, would no doubt agree with me that public opinion does not share this widely accepted view and that before we make a great deal of progress on the environmental-pollution front we need to get a much wider consensus in these matters.

It is extremely hard to assess exactly what is causing the problem and how it can be solved. Because of this uncertainty, cost benefit considerations inevitably come into play. Here I note the views on monitoring of my noble friend Lord Ironside. It is hard to justify spending vast sums of public money when there is no certainty of solving the problem. This is what lies at the heart of the problem of acid rain, on which I shall have more to say later, and of several other issues discussed in the Tenth Report, on which I shall speak first.

The Government have sometimes been accused in the past of leaving Royal Commission reports on the shelf to gather dust. Not only will we be publishing our formal response very quickly this time, second in speed, I might say, only to one other, which I think was the report of lead in petrol, but in our action since the report was published in February we have already shown that our thinking is in broad accord with the Royal Commission's proposals in their Tenth Report.

Let me offer some examples. On the question of the confidentiality of environmental matters, first raised, I think, by the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment has already said in another place that in this area, above all, there must be a presumption in favour of openness. We are working out proposals to turn this principle into practice.

I do not think that we should be expected to be rushed on this. It is overturning a policy, as the House well knows, that has been in existence for quite a number of years—under more than one Government I might add. I was interested to hear the comments of the noble Lords, Lord Ashby and Lord Flowers, on the Government's implementation of the BPEO concept. I note their criticisms. I believe that this is, in fact, another area where the Government's thinking is in broad accord with the Royal Commission. We fully accept that BPEO can, as the Tenth Report showed, be applied both at the local level—how a particular factory should dispose of its wastes—and at the national level—whether the United Kingdom should dispose of sewage sludge at sea or bury it on land.

I choose this example advisedly because our position at the North Sea conference this week will depend on our view that sea disposal can often represent the best practicable environmental option for this particular problem. But, as I said in our debate on the Royal Commission's Fifth Report in March last year, the BPEO principle has been implicit in our approach to pollution control generally for many years.

The allied, and perhaps improved, format of this is, as has been mentioned, the best environmental timetable——

Lord Nugent of Guildford

My Lords, before my noble friend leaves the point about the disposal of sewage sludge at sea, will he deal with the point that I mentioned about the desirability of accepting the Royal Commission's recommendation of joining in an international, independent survey of the North Sea which, as I said, the Thames Water Authority would warmly welcome because it is confident that its standards will stand up to such a survey?

Lord Skelmersdale

Yes, my Lords, I was well aware of the point that my noble friend made. But, as I said at the beginning of my speech, it is not for me this evening to put out the Government's view on any particular aspect of the report. For my own part, I can see no reason why we should not agree with the Thames Water Authority on this point.

I was going on to talk about best environmental timetable, which is a concept welcomed by the Government. Our policy of removing lead from petrol is, I would say, an example of BET. We have announced our intention of reducing the lead content of petrol to 0.15 grammes per litre by the end of next year, which is a 60 per cent. reduction. The second and more difficult stage in our timetable requires European Community-wide action to remove added lead altogether. Our timetable here is that it should be done by 1989. However, as the House will know, there is some argument about this with our fellow members of the EEC.

Elsewhere, we have already implemented measures along the lines of those recommended by the Royal Commission. Not only have we implemented many of the outstanding provisions of Part II of the Control of Pollution Act covering particularly the extension of control systems and the introduction of public involvement; we are pressing ahead with our major initiative to clean up the Mersey and we have made a major contribution to the International Conference on the Protection of the North Sea, which the Federal German Government are holding in Bremen later this week, and which will have before it an internationally agreed assessment of the health of the North Sea following a United Kingdom initiative very much along the lines proposed by the Royal Commission.

On the implementation of Part II of the Control of Pollution Act, I must disagree with the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, and with my noble friend Lord Sandford. I do not think that it is a case of too little, too late. What we have is a phased implementation over a period of three years which I think is a very practical solution after a very long time during which no less than four governments have grappled with the problem.

But rather than simply catalogue achievements, let me outline some of the principles on which all our environmental protection measures rely. First, as I have already mentioned, our decision must be based on a sound and scientific foundation whenever possible. This applies both nationally and internationally. Secondly, we must set realistic goals for environmental improvement, recognising that any industrial society must inevitably produce waste products. We must also look at the technical feasibility and costs of alternative disposal methods, weigh this against the need to enforce tighter standards, and set our priorities accordingly, bearing in mind all the time, that we have to justify our spending on the environment alongside all the other demands for expenditure that are made on government.

Next, it is unavoidable that if we are to continue to enjoy the benefits of an industrial society we shall have wastes to dispose of, to either land or air. We need to be sure that we are disposing of these wastes in the way that does least harm to the environment. This is the "best practicable environmental option" principle advocated by the Royal Commission in this and other reports.

This leads me on to my final principle, which is the need to recognise the international dimension to many of today's environmental problems and the need to play a positive role in finding solutions. We are keen to move forward whenever possible in accordance with our European Community partners, but we are equally prepared to participate in other fora, such as the United Nations Environment Programme and the North Sea Conference, to help achieve this important goal.

These principles apply in the air pollution field as elsewhere, and here I turn to the Report of your Lordships' EEC Select Committee on the Environment. This is a comprehensive report on a number of complicated interlocking proposals for Community legislation. The major theme of the proposals, as the Select Committee recognise, is that of acid deposition. Widespread damage has been attributed to this. The United Kingdom Government share this concern. The news of extensive damage to forests in the Federal Republic of Germany which emerged two years ago added even more cause for concern about the problem. It is no coincidence that the measures proposed by the European Commission date from 1982.

The problem which we now face, both in the Community and in other international fora, is what action we should take, what action will be effective, and cost-effective. One course of action which has been chosen by several countries is to commit themselves to a reduction of 30 per cent. on their total 1980 SO2 emissions by 1993. The Government have given the matter a great deal of thought and have disagreed that, for us anyway, this is the desired option. After all, we know that in this country SO2 emissions have fallen by nearly 40 per cent. since 1970, and that the incidence of acid rain has not fallen substantially. Indeed, I understood the noble Baroness, Lady Robson, to say that she felt it had in fact increased while the amounts of SO2 have been

decreasing. As the Royal Commission recognise in conclusion 7.83, there are still considerable uncertainties about the physical and chemical processes leading to acid deposition, which itself takes a number of forms, and other processes are at work in the atmosphere which give rise to other forms of pollution—the so-called cocktail effect.

Another factor to be considered is that control of industrial and vehicle source emissions might be very expensive and still might not have the desired effect. The Select Committee took evidence from the CEGB on the price of power option controls. They state that a 60 per cent. reduction in CEGB emissions alone would cost some £1.5 billion. On current reckoning this would eventually add some 5 per cent. to electricity bills.

Then there is the cost of vehicle controls. Introduction of United States-type controls would cost some £2 billion in the United Kingdom. In this context a fixed target does not appear to us to be an appropriate response. Yet we wish to be good neighbours. We recognise the need to tackle environmental damage attributed to acid deposition. We share this objective with those countries that have already committed themselves to specific reductions in the next decade. We also think it important that the measures we take should achieve results. The public needs to be assured that the Government are spending money wisely. Scientific knowledge is developing rapidly, but it is not yet clear that expenditure now of hundreds of millions of pounds on reducing sulphur dioxide emissions would meet these criteria. We believe that the appropriate course is to build on the significant emission reduction of recent years. We are therefore aiming for further substantial reductions, not only in sulphur dioxide emissions but also in NOx emissions within a reasonable timescale—perhaps by the end of the century.

This is a wise precaution to be taken until such time as research provides the real answers. I would not, in the terms of the noble Lord, Lord Ashby, call this expediency. I would put it more in terms of the final paragraph of his speech, when he was talking about the prevention of time bombs. Nor should this be seen as no action, as described by the noble Lord, Lord Nathan. In the case of sulphur dioxide, we intend to do this by maintaining the 20 per cent. reduction already achieved since 1980 through energy conservation, fuel substitution and industrial restructuring. Meanwhile, work on new abatement technologies will be pressed, and pressed hard, in the case of nitrogen oxide, by the above measures, but also by the development of lean-burn technology for motor vehicles. After all, motor vehicles account for 35 per cent. of the nitrogen oxide emissions.

We will, of course, be prepared to take further action if science indicates it is needed. In this way we believe that a balance will be struck between the need to improve the environment and the need to avoid imposing unreasonable cost burdens on industry and the public. We share fully with those countries which have committed themselves to reductions the will to reduce emissions. But in the circumstances we consider that a policy aim is the appropriate response to the problem.

I turn now to a few of the detailed points in the Select Committee's report. The large plants directive is clearly the major proposal, and we agree with the committee that, in preparing this draft, the Commission should have given much more consideration to the problem they wished to tackle. Obviously I cannot go too far into this as the proposal is under negotiation, but noble Lords may be assured that the Government have the Select Committee's recommendations well in mind.

The committee also refer to the nitrogen dioxide air quality directive, which is also still under negotiation, as is the regulation on the protection of forests against fire and acid rain. Both these instruments are concerned with monitoring, and the Government accept that more monitoring, especially of oxides of nitrogen and ozone, is necessary. We have taken note of the committee's points on the documents, and will keep them in mind in negotiations on the proposal which the Commission tell us they will make on waste oil burning.

The committee rightly stress the need to develop new and better control technologies for sulphur emissions. The Government are encouraging both the NCB and the CEGB to press on with their already extensive development programmes in this field. I can tell the noble Lord, Lord Nathan, that this would include the pressurised, fluidised bed combusters.

Finally, I note what the committee say about the need for urgent priority to review air pollution control legislation. We, too, are anxious to get on with this, and are now preparing a consultation paper to which both the Royal Commission's Tenth Report and the Scrutiny Committee's report will provide valuable background.

This has been a most useful debate and has covered a very wide field, straying from the application of pesticides to new methods of burning coal to generate electricity. As the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, remarked, it has been an enormous amount to chew on in one afternoon. I note especially, and will pass on, your Lordships' views on the transfer of the Industrial Air Pollution Inspectorate to the Department of the Environment from the Health and Safety Inspectorate, not forgetting the points made by my noble friend Lord Cranbrook, which are new to me.

My noble friend Lord Craigton referred to the much-heralded pesticide Bill. I must say that his X-ray eyes have rather zeroed in on a proposed piece of legislation which I, for one, have not seen, but I am assured that different spraying techniques are appropriate for different conditions. However, I should not pre-empt the Queen's Speech nor the publication of the Bill, except to say that we believe the Bill will provide all the necessary powers for Ministers to ensure that efficient and safe techniques are available to users, while preventing the use of those which are not. Of course, we shall welcome the comments of my noble friend and those of your Lordships when the Bill eventually comes before your Lordships.

I can assure the House that none of this very broadly based debate is lost on the Government, and that your Lordships can expect the Government's response to the Royal Commission in weeks rather than months.

Lord Ashby

My Lords, the custom of putting the first speaker's name again at the end of a debate has one merit, which is that it allows him to thank the noble Lords who have taken part in the debate and who have turned it into a very remarkable afternoon and evening. On behalf of my noble friend Lord Nathan and myself, I should like to thank the Government Chief Whip for having arranged the debate at this time, and noble Lords who have taken part in it. My Lords, I beg leave to withdraw my Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.

6.51 p.m.

Lord Nathan, having given notice of his intention to move the following Motion—

That this House takes note of the Report of the European Communities Committee on Air Pollution (22nd Report, 1983–84, H.L. 265).

The noble Lord said: My Lords, it is now my privilege on this occasion to follow the noble Lord, Lord Ashby, and, like him, I take this opportunity to thank those who have taken part in this debate, with condemnation or criticism of the report with which I was particularly concerned. If it is correct that I withdraw the Motion in my name, then I do so.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, before the Motion is put, I am afraid that I was a little slow on the uptake the first time round. This Motion is to take note of the report, so this Motion should be agreed to.

Lord Nathan

My Lords, I therefore beg to move the Motion formally.

On Question, Motion agreed to