HL Deb 21 April 1989 vol 506 cc983-7

11.14 a.m.

Lord Hatch of Lusby asked Her Majesty's Government:

What steps they are taking to respond to the European Commission's reasoned opinion that the water supply of the United Kingdom must be cleaned up by the end of this year.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment (Lord Hesketh)

My Lords, the European Commission reasoned opinion refers to the absence of UK legislation directly applying the EC drinking water directive and the fact that some supplies do not yet comply with the nitrate standard in England and the lead standard in Scotland. The Commission should know that the Water Bill and regulations to be made under it, as soon as it is enacted, will fully meet the first point. On the other two points, discussions are being held with the Commission about the timescale of compliance programmes and the technical difficulties involved. However, I can assure noble Lords that public water supplies in the United Kingdom are already of a very high standard.

Lord Hatch of Lusby

My Lords, I have two further questions for the Minister. First, is it not the case that the British Government agreed to the convention of 1980 which provided for legislation to be introduced by 1982 and for the clean-up process to be complete by 1985? If that is the case, why have they not fulfilled their obligations under that convention?

Secondly, is the Minister aware that today about 7.5 million people in Scotland are drinking water with a lead content above the EC standard, which is particularly dangerous to the brains of children? Is the Minister further aware that 5 million people in England and Wales are drinking water in which the nitrate content is above the EC level?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Hatch, will be aware from the previous occasion when I answered a Question concerning water, for the first five years averaging was accepted as being the method which would be used; it was only then that the Commission changed the method and required individual sampling.

As regards Scotland, steps are in hand to improve the supplies which do not presently meet the directive's standards on lead. In most cases such steps will be completed by the end of the year. Of the remaining 17 supplies, all in the Strathclyde and Lothian regions, seven are expected to comply by March of 1990 and a further eight during 1991. Of the two major schemes which need remedial work, only part will need to be finished by 1992.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, is the Minister aware that there are not 7.5 million people in Scotland?

Noble Lords

Oh dear! Save him!

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, if my noble friend is not going to reply to that question, perhaps I may put another to him. While we are deeply touched by the concern of the European Commission for the purity of our water supply, can he say whether it is showing equal interest in the perfectly appalling water supplies which exist in parts of France, Spain and Italy?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, I think it is correct to say that the United Kingdom has the highest rate of connection to water supplies of any country in the European Community. I shall certainly draw my noble friend's remarks as regards compliance in other countries to the attention of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, would the noble Lord care to indicate whether it is correct, as reported in The Times yesterday, that the release of data about water quality standards complying with EC regulations has been suspended pending the privatisation of the water companies? If it is correct, this raises serious problems of non-disclosure of essential information to the public.

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, I do not have that information with me at present. However, I shall certainly write to the noble Lord.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, some of us—including, clearly, the noble Lord, Lord Mackie—thought that we heard the noble Lord, Lord Hatch of Lusby, state during his supplementary question that there are 7.5 million people in Scotland. Is my noble friend aware that the total population of Scotland is about 5.5 million?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend for pointing out a fact which I failed to understand when the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, was trying to draw it to my attention.

The Earl of Halsbury

My Lords, will the noble Lord agree that 250 years of environmental indifference since the industrial revolution cannot be rectified overnight? Will he further agree that these EC standards are counsels of perfection which we can take as targets and that we cannot abrade problems at the snap of a finger?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, the noble Earl is absolutely right in what he says. The reasoned opinion refers to a period of only two months. As most noble Lords will be aware, civil engineering cannot happen in the space of eight weeks.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, will my noble friend the Minister confirm that that Commission's opinion is but an opinion; that Her Majesty's Government are not in breach of any relevant directive; that the only enforceable procedure would be before the Court of Justice; and that there is no machinery on the basis of an opinion, reasoned or unreasoned, upon which that process could be invoked?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, I am given to understand that the United Kingdom has never been before the European Court on an environmental directive. Perhaps I may draw to your Lordships' attention the fact that we wrote to the Commission. We expected to discuss the material that we sent it. We find it extremely discourteous that it did not bother to come back to us before proceeding with a reasoned opinion, without any consideration of the technical difficulties inherent in achieving earlier compliance.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, is it not the case that such a reasoned opinion will have to be disclosed in the prospectuses for water privatisation? If the Government do not give better answers than those of the Minister this morning, will not privatisation be seriously in jeopardy?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, all potential costs will be included in the prospectuses.

Lord Monson

My Lords, important though the quality of our water supply undoubtedly is, is it not a purely domestic matter which has nothing to do with creating a level playing field in advance of 1992? Does the Minister agree that our domestic water supply is no more a legitimate concern of the Common Market than our National Health Service, the schools curriculum, restaurant hygiene or speed limits on motorways?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Monson, begins to move rather away from the reasoned opinion.

Lord St. John of Fawsley

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that instead of being so obsessed with the purity of our water supply, those countries would be better employed seeking to improve the quality of their wine supply?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, as always, my noble friend Lord St. John has placed his finger upon the core of the problem.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, is the Minister aware that Welsh water is outstanding in every way and that we do not want touched by the Commission or anyone else? More specifically, will he say what the position is under the new dispensation about adding fluoride to the water?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, I do not believe that the point about fluoridation made by the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition is part of the Question on the Order Paper; but I agree with him entirely about the quality of Welsh water. As a consumer of it I can say that I am extremely satisfied.

Lord Hatch of Lusby

My Lords, perhaps I may return to the Minister's answer to my first supplementary question. Is it the case that the British Government agreed to the convention of 1980? If so, that puts out of order many of the supplementary questions that have been asked. Why have the British Government not kept to their obligations under a convention which involved their participation and to which they agreed? If the present considered opinion is not adhered to by the British Government, may not the Government be taken to the European Court by the European Commission?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, I fear that the noble Lord, Lord Hatch, may have slightly misunderstood what I said. I tried to make it clear that for the first five-year period both parties continued with average sampling. Because of that, for five years there was no difficulty. As the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, pointed out, having changed the system, which results in a different standard, one cannot expect all the civil engineering involved thereafter to be achieved overnight.

Lord Hatch of Lusby

My Lords, will the Minister answer the second part of my question? Are we going to be taken to the European Court if that order is not complied with?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, that is a matter for the European Commission.