HL Deb 08 March 1989 vol 504 cc1516-38

5.20 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy rose to call attention to the international traffic in toxic wastes and to the case for safe and thorough disposal arrangements to be made before the transport of such wastes is undertaken; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the Motion in my name on the Order Paper calls attention to the need for international arrangements concerning toxic wastes. I thank the noble Lords and the noble Baroness who have put down their names to speak and I look forward to hearing their contributions and listening to their views. I intend to raise one particular subject affecting the environment in different parts of the world because that subject requires urgent decisions, as I hope to explain.

First, I must make it clear that the toxic wastes referred to in the Motion are by-products of industries. The industries may manufacture goods required for ordinary life. However, some of the residues are dangerous to human or animal life and health and lethal to plant life and vegetation. They may give off dangerous gases or contaminate water, including both drinking supplies and rivers and lakes where aquatic life will be killed.

They are wastes to be discarded. They are not newly manufactured chemicals or substances to be used in further industrial processes. For that reason, the manufacturer usually wishes only to be rid of those wastes and is prepared to pay someone else to assume the responsibility for disposing of them. My Motion does not include radioactive waste—products of the nuclear industry and, in this country, of radiographic departments of hospitals and universities. That is a separate subject for debate on another occasion. Nor do I intend to refer to the offences of fly-tipping and illegal dumping by lorries which have become a menace in some parts of the country. In those cases, the waste is mostly local rubble and rubbish. I hope that that practice will soon be stamped out, but that is not part of today's debate.

The kinds of hazards to which I call attention were well illustrated by the erratic voyaging of the ship "Karin B" some months ago. A cargo of toxic waste had already been transported to Nigeria from Italy. No safe disposal had been arranged and the waste was in leaking drums and in an unstable condition. The Nigerian authorities apparently ordered it to be removed. The "Karin B", believed to be German-owned, was loaded with that dangerous consignment and then had great difficulty in finding a port that would admit her and in making a disposal arrangement for her cargo. The world press had put a spotlight on that vessel's situation. The master of the "Karin B" tried United Kingdom and Continental European ports and was understandably refused. Eventually, he succeeded in returning the waste to Italy.

Fortunately, that incident was in the news. Other such incidents have also come to light. There was an earlier attempt to dump toxic waste in Venezuela. That was discovered after it had been unloaded and it was removed by order of the Venezuelan authorities. How many more of those transactions have been carried out without public knowledge? I do not know. Where they have taken place, we can be certain that safe and thorough disposal has not been carried out and that rough burial in Africa or South America has seriously contaminated the areas where the waste had been dumped.

In addition, there must be a temptation to irresponsible operators to dump such cargoes at sea, especially if the operation is discovered, receives hostile publicity and is opposed by the intended country of destination. The results in terms of pollution of marine life, fisheries and coastlines could be as bad as on land.

It may be asked how that traffic arises. Because proper disposal arrangements can be difficult or expensive at the industrial site where the waste has been created, a great deal of money can be earned by entrepreneurs who will take it off the manufacturer's hands. In turn, there is a great deal of money for anyone who is prepared to accept the waste and provide a supposed final destination for it.

There is a wide range of current practice. No fault can be found—I emphasise that point; indeed, this is to be encouraged—where toxic waste is transported safely, under appropriate conditions, to the technology and plant available to treat and dispose of it. In many cases that is expensive, but the costs must be accepted. At the other extreme, there are opportunists with no scruples who are interested only in dumping the waste in a remote area of the third world without treatment or any thought of safety.

The incidents that have come to light show that that has been happening and that personal fortunes can be made by those in that disreputable business. I regard the activities of such people as diabolical and almost as evil as those of drug traffickers; indeed, the effects could be considered in some cases to be worse than in the peddling of drugs. Whether or not hazardous waste has been deliberately misdescribed as some harmless substance, the communities living near the dumping site are unlikely to be aware of the dangers to life and health until months or even years later. At least drug addicts know what is happening and what they are doing.

Noble Lords will understand why traffic in those wastes should urgently come under effective supervision and why I strongly urge the British Government to continue to play a leading part in attaining that objective. It may be suggested or argued that all toxic wastes should be treated and disposed of at or near the place of origin, or not produced at all. For reasons that I believe noble Lords will have gathered from what I have said already, that is not a practical solution, certainly for the foreseeable future. Essential industries would be severely reduced or hampered, for example, metal and chemical industries in Western industrialised countries which produce components and goods regarded as necessities for modern life.

Where treatment and disposal can safely be carried out near the place of origin, that will usually be the best course. Different processes are needed for different wastes. For example, incineration at very high temperatures is required for some, but the particular incinerators may not be available locally all year round in the numbers required in a particular area. For reasons of geography, geology and density of population, treatment and disposal at the place of origin may be environmentally unsound. The latest and best technology may be available in another area or another country. So we must accept that some of those wastes may have to cross frontiers for the right reasons. However, unless there is international cooperation, the way will still be open for deception and irresponsible carriage and dumping of highly dangerous substances. That is especially so when sea transport is used.

As for safe and thorough disposal at the destination, that should be definitely and satisfactorily arranged together with suitable transport and containers, before the toxic waste is moved. In most cases it will not be enough to ship the waste to some remote part of Africa and there tip it into a hole in the ground, euphemistically naming that as landfill. That is clearly what has recently been attempted.

The House will know that progress is being made by governments. The British Government have put into effect the directive on transfrontier shipment of hazardous waste which the EC has agreed and issued. Wider international agreement is necessary because the interests of the developing countries are so clearly involved, although those interests may not always be the same.

A series of meetings and conferences has been taking place under the aegis of the United Nations Environment Programme, UNEP. The next one is to be held in Basle later this month. It seems that a number of African countries are at present opposed to any toxic waste leaving Europe or North America. In the light of what I have been describing, that attitude is understandable. Any country can of course refuse to receive the waste but that country may be worried about contamination from waste disposed of in a neighbouring country. However, there have been other attitudes in the recent past.

Noble Lords may have seen the television programme two weeks ago on 22nd February on a scheme for waste to be shipped and buried in Benin—the African country formerly known as Dahomey. A change of mind seems to have taken place and that plan will not now go ahead. There have been two or three similar schemes, apparently at first acceptable to the African governments concerned. They have been reported, but now also seem to be suspended or dropped. It is not difficult to see why they have been considered. The amount to be earned in foreign exchange would immensely assist the economies of those countries and help to reduce their international debts.

This is the background to the negotiations now proceeding. I wish the Government well in trying to reach an early convention. Whatever may be agreed now with developing countries alerted to the present dangers, once a demonstrably safe and reliable system is working some of these countries may be prepared to provide a final resting place for some of these wastes with complete confidence. At the same time they would then be earning much-needed income from that service. When their own industrialisation proceeds, as most of them hope, they will also themselves meet problems of waste and will no doubt wish to have the means of dealing with it.

I recognise that much needs to be done in reaching an international agreement. Some of the matters to be settled are, for example, the rights of countries whose land or territorial sea is to be entered in transit only, powers in territorial seas and on the high seas, rights of inspection, where, and by whom, and the whole system of monitoring, enforcement and penalties for false descriptions in manifests. Those are just a few of the matters that have to be part of an agreed scheme.

Non-governmental organisations too have been helping to identify requirements for an international convention. One of them—the Advisory Committee on Pollution of the Sea, ACOPS—has been drawing attention to the abuses being uncovered and suspected. I have been involved, as some of your Lordships know, having been in the chair of ACOPS for two periods in the last 10 years. A conference arranged by ACOPS is to be held in London in October with the object of promoting understanding on the subject and giving support to the efforts of the governments who are striving to reach agreement on an effective international system. I suggest that the British Government should be given encouragement and support in pursuing this policy. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

5.35 p.m.

Baroness White

My Lords, this has been a week which has been conspicuously dedicated to the environment, both at a Royal and, one can only call it, a quasi-Royal level.

A noble Lord

My Lords, pseudo-Royal.

Baroness White

My Lords, I prefer the term "quasi" to "pseudo", but one can take one's choice. The Prince of Wales, the Duke of Edinburgh and the Prime Minister, very much in person, have all participated. It is therefore fitting that the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, should draw our attention to one of the many baffling global environmental problems that confront us: the international trade in toxic waste.

We are fortunate to have available as from midday today the report on toxic waste presented by the Environment Committee of another place, chaired by that most experienced parliamentarian, Sir Hugh Rossi. It is perhaps less fortunate that this debate should come in the middle of the review by our own Select Committee on Science and Technology of its various recommendations for handling toxic waste, made initially by that committee under the noble Lord, Lord Gregson, in 1981, and considered subsequently in several successive reports.

Under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Gregson, we heard our first review witness yesterday and expect to interrogate the Secretary of State for the Environment in person next week. The noble Lord, Lord Gregson, has asked me to present his personal apologies to the House and in particular to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, for his inability to be here this afternoon. He is much concerned about the international problems as well as the conditions for handling imported waste in the United Kingdom. We are, however, one of the member states of the European Community which act in compliance with the directive on transfrontier shipments which should have been implemented by all the member states as from 1st January 1987.

As the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, mentioned, we have had direct experience of some of the problems. Everyone has heard of the rogue ship, the "Karin B", which was driven from our shores. However, that is not the only uninvited guest which has tried to visit us. Furthermore, it can be argued that if such cargoes are quite legitimately driven away, will they not then possibly be landed elsewhere in countries that do not have the technology or the facilities to handle them; or, alternatively, will they not be dumped at sea or on other people's beaches? Examples have occurred quite recently of dumping a toxic cargo in the sea area between Madagascar and Mozambique. We have also learnt of the washing up on the shore of the Black Sea of barrels of other very dangerous material suspected to he of Italian origin.

As the Minister knows, and as the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, has mentioned, an international conference under the auspices of UNEP is to be held in Basle in the next few weeks to try to sort out the conditions of trade appropriate to the handling of special or hazardous waste. The OECD is also concerned. In other words, this is not just a European or a transatlantic matter but, like other global issues, it is world-wide. It closely affects the relationships between the industrialised and less developed countries in ways that have also arisen at the ozone layer conference and other gatherings recently held.

Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran

My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt the noble Baroness on this matter. She referred to the question of dumping at sea. I ought to apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, that I missed the first two minutes of his presentation. Perhaps I may ask the noble Baroness, in view of her great experience on these matters: what is the difficulty in dumping some toxic waste at sea, say, at a distance of at least 500 miles to 1,000 miles from any land territory?

Baroness White

My Lords, I was not referring to dumping of that kind, which might have been done with the open knowledge of everyone concerned and deliberately in an appropriate, chosen spot. I was referring to toxic material which was quite clearly being dumped without any such considerations, but in a situation where no such proper consideration or planning had taken place. It was dumped in that spot simply to get rid of it as inconspicuously as possible, regardless of its effects on any neighbouring fishery, other marine activity or possible landing places on shore. That is quite a different matter. On dumping at sea, there are arguments one way or another just as there are about incineration at sea, but it was not that kind of activity that was in my mind. It is this covert, fly-by-night dumping which concerns us most particularly.

It is partly for these reasons that we must have not merely agreement in principle but practical arrangements for handling this type of waste. It is for such reasons, as described by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, that some countries wish to forbid all exports of hazardous waste, which, as he has described, is not really a practical suggestion. Nevertheless, one can sympathise with them. I believe that the United Kingdom is perfectly entitled to claim credit for the way in which we have tried to handle these issues. I believe we are also properly in favour of a regulated system.

The European Commission has been preaching the gospel, perhaps beyond the reach of certain countries, that we should pursue what it calls clean technologies. That, like most gospels, is difficult to attain and is sometimes preached to rather inattentive ears. I hope that the Minister, who may be able to go to Basle in person, will give us some indication of what he thinks may be achieved there. Meanwhile, we need to clarify our own attitude towards taking in waste from other countries. I cannot believe that we want to become the dustbin or the garbage dump of Europe.

This is the first opportunity I have had of reading the evidence given by the noble Earl, Lord. Caithness, to the Environment Committee in another place. I was heartened to see that in his view there should be no transboundary transfer of non-special waste for direct landfill. It should go only for treatment or incineration. In other words, we should not be taking in ordinary domestic waste for which other countries ought surely to be able to make their own arrangements. I hope that we are all agreed upon that. We must have some method of identifying and tracking any such waste if people attempt to bring it to our shores. I find it hard to believe that we should accept waste from the United States or Canada, other than in the most exceptional circumstances. Such countries have high technology facilities of their own and they have wide open spaces which we do not possess. Furthermore, although I fully recognise that it is a counsel of perfection, possibly dangerous material should be treated as close to base as possible. I am puzzled by the attitude of some countries nearer home, particularly West Germany, which is not lacking in scientific expertise but which seems bent on exporting as much of its own toxic waste as it can.

There are arguments for some such transfrontier traffic, but it is disquieting, as the House of Commons report indicates in paragraph 250, that, Imports of waste into the United Kingdom have increased considerably; imports of special waste were in 1987/88 15 times the level in 1984/85. This increase has caused considerable public concern". That is hardly surprising. I hope the Minister will be able to give us a clear analysis of the situation which accounts for such a startling increase.

Nevertheless, there are situations in which it is perfectly proper for establishments in the United Kingdom or anywhere else to make use of particular scientific or technological expertise for handling wastes with especially difficult characteristics. I have today received some information from one of the best known handlers of high level waste, Rechem of Pontypool in South Wales. It operates one of only three incinerators in the United Kingdom capable of accepting certain substances and of using the most sophisticated electronic analytical equipment to deal with them. I confess that Rechem is not popular in its own locality, but I have always been of the opinion that on balance its activities are justified and that it performs a necessary service.

As recently as last September, however, Rechem was importing cargoes by plane and by ship from Canada of steel drums containing PCBs, polychlorinated biphenyls, for treatment. I cannot help thinking that this hazardous oceanic journey is surely unnecessary and, to my mind, is undesirable. I believe the trade started when the United States indicated that it did not want to import these substances, but I cannot believe that the Canadians could not cope or that alternatively Rechem could not establish an appropriate plant in Canada, thus avoiding this hazardous handling.

Whatever the merits or demerits may be of such trade, the European Commission has recently proposed a new directive on PCBs on which the Minister may perhaps wish to comment. This is a very wide subject and I am sure we all wish to hear the Minister, who has been very active on these issues. I encourage him particularly to attend the appropriate conferences at Basle and elsewhere, not least because of certain other comments which are made in the House of Commons report, in which the Government are chided for being aloof from some of our European partners. The House of Commons Environment Committee comments that it has received a list of influential conferences which lacked or had insufficient United Kingdom representation. The need to restore the United Kingdom's reputation in order to forestall inappropriate legislation, particularly from Brussels. is well understood by the industry.

I am sure that in the circumstances we all hope that the Minister will make it part of his onerous duties to attend even more of these conferences. We should all be grateful if he would enlighten us as to where he thinks we now stand in this difficult but interesting situation.

Viscount Caldecote

My Lords, before the noble Baroness sits down, I should like to ask a question. She referred to the possibility of there being no objection to waste being imported into this country for treatment. Is there not a danger of the waste being imported allegedly for that purpose but really in order to get round any regulations prohibiting imported waste, thereby adding to the waste already in this country? That issue was referred to at the meeting of the Science and Technology Committee to which the noble Baroness referred.

Baroness White

My Lords, undoubtedly that is a hazard and I hope that the Minister will describe the mechanisms or provisions that he believes we must make in order to avoid such a difficulty.

If one is dealing with people who are criminal—because they are criminal if they try to conceal their purpose—one must take robust measures. I hope that we may be in a position to do so.

5.50 p.m.

Lord Whaddon

My Lords, I too should like to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy. He has shown a superb sense of timing in arranging the debate on the day of publication of a thunderous report from a Select Committee of another place.

My sympathy goes out to the Minister for having to defend the Government's position in the light of such a thunderous report. I can remember no other report which has voiced such forthright condemnation. Never in any of our inquiries into environmental problems have we experienced such consistent and universal criticism of existing legislation, and of central and local government, than during the course of that inquiry. However, the Minister is well able to take care of himself and no doubt he will satisfy the House.

We cannot ignore the rising tide of sincere concern as regards the swamping of our countryside with toxic wastes. I do not take an entirely apocalyptic view. We have the technology for dealing with such ghastly wastes but we need to provide the framework, show the resolution and spend the money necessary to ensure that they are properly dealt with.

The situation changes year by year. Each new pharmaceutical product—and dozens emerge every year—produces a new series of wastes, too many of which are toxic. New methods are required to deal with them. As our standard of living rises so do the demands. Therefore, the volume and toxicity of waste products rise each year. The problem will not disappear, but will grow year by year and require our increasing attention.

The problem of dealing with wastes throws a searchlight on the conflict between the immediate profit for the individual and the long-term cost to the public. Nowhere do we see that more clearly demonstrated than when looking at an individual company, where the cheapest way of dealing with waste is to throw it away where no one will notice it. The cost to crops. our children's health and the environment is incalculable. Her Majesty's Government must face up squarely to their responsibility for setting a firm framework of controls under which legitimate enterprises may operate alongside the legitimate public interest.

The EC directive has recently been published and I have no doubt that the Minister will refer to it in his reply. It can and should be a milestone in the tackling of toxic wastes. It will be so if it is properly implemented. The flood of imports into the UK, referred to by the noble Baroness, is particularly worrying. We cannot help asking why that has happened. It is clear that it is not entirely a case of the Germans wanting to get rid of it, but if prices are cheaper in this country firms will send their wastes to the UK. If it is all too easy for dumpers to get round controls in the UK but more difficult to do so in Germany, we shall collect more than our share. The rapid increase in the tonnages imported makes one suspect that that is the situation. Every country should deal with its own wastes but that is a policy of perfection.

The new EC directive is promising but it means nothing without enforcement. Noble Lords will remember a famous speech made a few years ago in this House when the Government were accused of selling the family silver. In dealing with the problem of wastes they are also selling the family dustbin, or are in danger of doing so. While the EC directive is promising, the Minister will appreciate that if it is not properly enforced it will become another useless piece of paper, as was the Chamberlain document.

I should like to raise five points for clarification as regards the EC directive. First, the document appears to provide adequate controls over toxic wastes. Why only toxic wastes? Can the Minister say why the directive does not deal with all wastes? I can see no reason why it should not have done so, especially because in dealing with toxicity one man's meat is another man's toxin. It is not easy to decide what is a toxic waste because there are borderlines. It is strange that the document does not cover international trade in all waste products.

Secondly, I should like to hear the Minister's comments about the variation in standards which appears to operate not only between one country and another but between one authority and another within the UK. I understand that approximately 150 authorities within the UK are responsible for wastes. Their standards vary widely, as do the standards with which they enforce their requirements. The areas which have the slackest standards and the lowest enforcements attract the greatest volume of dumping.

Thirdly, co-disposal is a topic which exercises the experts at length. Some have told me that there is nothing wrong with it; but others have told me that that is rubbish and there should be no co-disposal. I do not know the truth but I believe that in Germany the dumping of co-disposal is banned. That may be another reason why so much waste comes to this country from Germany. Perhaps the Minister can enlighten the House about the Government's view of co-disposal. Do they believe in it?

My fourth point relates to high technology. It has already been said that the treatment of highly toxic waste is a skilled business, but it is a legitimate business which we can welcome if it is properly operated. Firms in this country are skilled in the ultra high-temperature oxidation of toxins and can legitimately make money. However, representatives of those firms tell me that they have great difficulty in obtaining planning permission. It is the "not in my back yard" syndrome.

To treat toxins efficiently is a totally different matter from dumping them. I believe that it is far less objectionable to dispose of a small percentage of toxins than to have a chemical factory alongside making thousands of tonnes of those same toxins. However, the high-tech companies which we welcome and need for the best disposal of the worst toxins are having great difficulty in obtaining planning permission, and they constantly complain that they are almost always turned down by the local authority and have to go to the Minister for permission. Is it not possible to facilitate planning permission in appropriate cases? I should be grateful for the noble Earl's thoughts on that matter.

Above all, there is the question of enforcement. It is one matter to have a piece of paper issued by the EC, but that means absolutely nothing unless it is enforced. Is the noble Earl willing to assure us that Her Majesty's Government will face up to the sheer cost of beefing up the numbers and quality of the inspectorate? Without that, all our debates are utterly useless.

I remember 30 years ago listening to debates in Parliament on the problem of clean air. The Clean Air Act was a triumph and was one of the greatest blessings that legislation has granted to our present generation. It has made a dramatic difference to the health and welfare of our people. That is a wonderful example for us. In our turn we have to face the problem of this rising tide of pollution, and particularly of toxic waste. If we do our duty and face up to the necessary expenditure—because there is no cheap way, and the cheapest way is usually the dearest way in the long run—and our responsibility, then we pass on to our children a cleaner Britain and a higher quality of life.

6.2 p.m.

Lord Hatch of Lusby

My Lords, I should like to pay my tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, both for introducing this Motion and for his consistent work concerning the environment. I shall confine myself to speaking from the third world point of view already mentioned by the noble Lord and by other speakers. The text of what I have to say is aptly contained in a statement made last July by the Government of the Ivory Coast which reads: We cannot accept that the industrialised countries sell us death while at the same time they refuse to pay reasonable prices for our agricultural products". This debate gives an opportunity to the Government to tell the House what they are doing and will do on environmental issues set against all the rhetoric we have heard in the past six months. That rhetoric rings hollow in the light of action, or lack of action, in the past 10 years.

I take up an incident raised by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, regarding the "Karin B" and give that as a specific incident of what is happening in third world countries, particularly in West Africa, although it is by no means confined to the African continent or to the western coast of that continent. Between August 1987 and May 1988, almost 4,000 tonnes of toxic waste from Italy were dumped in Nigeria in an illegal arrangement between Italian businessmen and certain officials in Nigeria—not the Nigerian Government. I believe that that is an important distinction to make. The government were unaware of what was happening. There is a tiny delta port in Nigeria called Koko. It was there that a Nigerian businessman agreed to rent his back yard to an Italian businessman for approximately 100 dollars a month. The property was used for the storage of 8,000 drums of hazardous waste including a substance mentioned by my noble friend Lady White; namely, PCBs. Those were stored in barrels. Later the barrels were found to be leaking. They were randomly stacked and were discovered to have the labels of a variety of international firms.

In early June, after the dumping had been discovered, the Nigerian Government recalled their ambassador from Italy and seized an Italian freighter. Whether that action is approved of or not, it showed the attitude of the Nigerian Government as soon as they discovered that the waste was being dumped in their country.

As the scandal broke, the Italian businessman concerned fled from Nigeria but another Italian businessman and 54 others involved in the scandal were gaoled by the Nigerian Government. On 17th July the Italian Government agreed to direct the removal of the waste from Nigeria and to return it to Italy. The "Karin B" then came on to the scene and another freighter—a deep sea carrier.

Let us look at that matter from the point of view of the Nigerian people. Over 150 Nigerian workers, mostly from the Nigerian port authority, were employed in removal of the waste. The Nigerian Government tried to provide them with protective clothing, mechanical equipment and even gas masks. However, they had insufficient supplies. As a result a number of workers were sent to hospital with ailments that included severe chemical burns, nausea, blood vomiting and partial paralysis. At least one worker went into a coma. Over 2,000 tonnes of the waste were removed from Nigeria on the Italian chartered ship the "Karin B" and the remainder on the second ship, the deep sea carrier.

Although the wastes were removed, contaminated soils remained on the site to be cleared. I do not know whether that has been done. However, soil removal was necessary as well as the removal of waste. It is estimated that that operation will cost the Nigerian Government at least £1 million. Of course, businessmen from the developed, industrialised world are involved in that, but so also are businessmen and people who wish to make a fast buck within the developing countries—yes, on both sides.

However, many developing countries, particularly in Africa, have shown, and shown quite clearly, where they stand on this issue. I should like to cite one example of what they are prepared to sacrifice as regards their economic situation in order to avoid a repetition of what happened in Nigeria. In May last year the Government of Guinea-Bissau, also in West Africa, postponed a deal with United States and European waste brokers that would have brought to that country 15 million tonnes of foreign industrial waste. The proposed payment to the Government of Guinea-Bissau was 40 dollars per tonne of waste. Therefore, the total potential payment was 600 million dollars. That may not seem a very large sum to those of us who live in the developed world; in fact it represents four times the gross national product of Guinea-Bissau and twice its entire foreign debt. That is an earnest of the determination of developing countries' governments, whatever sacrifice it may mean in monetary terms, to prevent their countries being contaminated and their people being poisoned. I want to draw to the attention of the House and of the noble Earl who is to reply the fact that I have a list of the waste disposal companies based in this country which are exporting, or trying to export, to the developing world—mostly, but not entirely, to West Africa. There is also one company trying to export to the Netherlands Antilles. I propose to read out the names of those companies. They are: BIS Import-Export Ltd; Dumba International; Emvratex; Hamilton Resources; Hobday Ltd; and Power, Water and Waste. Those companies are based in this country. Finally, there is Varn Products.

Several organisations within the developing world have spoken out clearly and specifically on this issue. The summit conference of the Economic Community of West African States, meeting in Lomé, Togo, last June, had this to say: Our efforts for the economic development of our states and for the progress of our people will be in vain if we do not … preserve the lives of our people and the environment". The members of that conference agreed to enact national legislation against the dumping of foreign waste. They stated in their communique: We cannot accept that at a time when industrialised nations refuse to buy our commodities at reasonable prices, these same countries are selling us death for ourselves and our children". In May last year the organisation of African Unity, the supreme body of co-operation within Africa, meeting in Addis Ababa, adopted a resolution, to refrain from entering into agreements or arrangements with any industrialised countries on the dumping of nuclear and hazardous industrial waste on African territories". The leaders and the governments of those countries are doing their best to make it clear to their own people and to the outside world that they will not allow the African continent to become the dustbin for the developed world's waste.

I pay tribute to the work done by organisations in this country such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth which are exposing these scandals and are listing the companies and the incidents that occur all over the world. These organisations are nongovernmental. They are supplying the public of this country and, indeed, other countries, with the facts. However, they cannot pass legislation. They are not responsible for government policy. That is where our Government have to take their responsibility.

Everything that has been said this afternoon points to the fact that so long as market forces and private enterprise are regarded as paramount influences in this country, then so long will such scandals, and similar scandals in other fields, be inevitable. As the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, said in his opening speech, there is money to be made. If there is money to be made, then the market forces, private enterprise, will try to find a way to make that money. The real debate is between those who consider that market forces should be paramount, that private enterprise and the making of profits should take priority over morals and ethics, and those who believe that in our dangerous world today regulation is essential to preserve the health and needs of the people.

I ask the noble Earl who is to speak for the Government these questions. What are the Government doing about this scandal? What actions are the Government taking and proposing to take? Have they any legislation in mind? Are the Government considering that the export of goods from this country, the freight that goes in ships from this country, should be examined before leaving British ports?

Finally, are the present British Government prepared, on the top of all their rhetoric about the environment (of which we have heard so much during the past six months) to take a lead in international regulation, which alone can prevent the exploitation for profit of the people of the third world and the making of profits out of the deaths, injuries and diseases of the citizens of the developing world?

6.19 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I am pleased to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, both on his good furtune and on his characteristic skill. His good fortune, of course, is in winning a place in the ballot. His skill lies both in the precision of the wording of his Motion and particularly in the timing of it.

Reference has already been made by my noble friend Lady White to the good fortune that the debate is taking place so few hours after the report of the Select Committee on the Environment in another place which, although it makes only passing reference to international issues. puts forward some valauble points which have been confirmed in the debate by a number of noble Lords.

The second reason why he has exercised skill in his timing is that this appears to be a week or month in which the Government are capable of being bounced. The Government were bounced last week when the Secretary of State for the Environment stood up at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre and solemnly said that a 100 per cent. reduction in the use of CFCs was impossible. Within 24 hours the Minister who is replying to this debate said something very much better. He agreed with the European environmental Ministers that 100 per cent. was possible. We made very substantial progress because the Government were open to persuasion for once on that issue.

Let us consider the Dutch auction that took place at the weekend as regards the Government grant to the United Nations' Environment Programme. The Secretary of State knew perfectly well that the Government grant to UNEP was £1.25 million. But somehow the briefing that reached the Prime Minster was that the figure was £1.5 million. Then, completely off the cuff it seems, the Prime Minister was able to increase that figure to £3 million. When she was told that that was not a doubling, she said: "Bring it up to £1.5 million so that we can double it".

That was a welcome change, but not exactly an example of coherent or cohesive policy-making on the part of the Government. I suppose that as long as it is on the right side we are not going to object too strongly. Finally, in terms of timing, it is very important that this debate should occur as the opening legal discussions take place in preparation for the Basle conference, to which reference has already been made. I repeat the hope of my noble friend Lady White that the Minister himself will be able to attend that conference.

We must remember that at an earlier conference in Dakar, at which a number of participating countries were represented by their Ministers or at least by very senior civil servants, this country was represented by the Second Secretary at the embassy in Dakar. That is no discredit to the gentleman himself and I have nothing against him. It is certainly not an adequate reflection of the importance that this country should be giving to environmental matters. The presence in person of the noble Earl, despite his onerous duties of which I am very well aware, will be a welcome move in the direction of serious consideration of these problems.

I have already congratulated the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, on the precision of his Motion. He has been talking only about the international traffic in toxic wastes. As he recognized, the regulation of international traffic also brings into play the issue of dumping at sea. If the regulations for the transport of toxic wastes are unenforceable or intolerable, then dumping at sea will take place whatever happens. Clearly, that is going to be a major issue at the Basle conference.

As I understand it, the conflict that arose at the previous conference and which led to its failure to adopt a convention—it could only produce a communique—was because of a disagreement between the mainly African countries, supported by the Netherlands and Italy, who wanted a complete ban on the international transport of toxic wastes, and the other Members of the Community, the Commission itself and the British Government, which wanted control of the international traffic of toxic wastes by the doctrine of prior informed consent.

I wish to look at those two proposals in a little detail because it seems that the position that we take on them at Basle and subsequently will be of very great importance. I have a great deal of sympathy with the argument that there should be a total ban on the international transport of toxic wastes, particularly by sea. My principal reason is that which was advanced by my noble friend Lord Hatch of Lusby; namely, that the international traffic in toxic wastes is virtually entirely an exploitation of the poorer nations of the South by the richer nations of the North. It is some elements in Europe and the United States that are seeking to dispose of toxic wastes that they are not prepared to deal with themselves, by dumping them either completely illegally or in clandestine ways in poorer nations. My noble friend's description of the situation in Koko (referred to in the House of Commons' Environment Committee report) was very vivid and a very strong warning to us all.

Almost before we get to the scientific issues may I say that I have a great deal of sympathy with the position that has been put forward by a number of African countries, and also by two European countries. It is also true that the doctrine of prior informed consent that has been supported by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, and by my noble friend Lady White, depends for its efficacy on really effective control at all stages of the process. Once you say that it is legal for toxic wastes to be found on the high seas, it is very difficult to conceive of a system of enforcement that would actually control the dumping at sea or the illegal disposal of those wastes at the end of the voyage. On the other hand, if there was a total ban, then the enforcement could take place at the port of embarkation or at the place where the toxic waste is created. That seems a very strong reason for a total ban.

The arguments for some trans-frontier traffic in toxic wastes also have a considerable degree of force. The United Nations' Environment Programme itself proposes the principle that international traffic should be allowed where it is, equally or more environmentally sound to dispose of waste far rather than close to where it is generated". When you consider the irrationality of national frontiers in relation to sites where toxic wastes can be disposed of, that makes a good deal of sense. If you think also about the very high degree of unenforceability of total bans, wherever they may be—my noble friend Lord Hatch has made reference to them—then there seem to be strong arguments on the other side as well.

I suggest to the House and to the Government that there is somewhere in between a policy that would give adequate evidence of our real concern in these matters, be enforceable and would move things forward in a way that the present conflict between two groups of people appears unlikely to achieve. Let me make it clear that the worst possible result of the Basle conference would be if no convention resulted or one emerged that was simply a mouthing of words and avoiding all the real issues.

I propose that the Government should adopt the prior informed consent principle, but that they should also make specific provision for both exporting and importing countries to impose a complete ban or stronger controls if they believe that is appropriate. That would certainly apply to many of the African and developing countries that have very good cause to mistrust the developed countries and the way in which they approach the issue of toxic wastes.

In addition, the convention should adopt the UNEP principle that I have already quoted; namely, that it should not be allowed, unless it is more environmentally sound, to dispose of the waste far from rather than close to where it is generated. Also, we should pay more than lip service to the principle that the polluter pays. In other words, the only real solution to the problem of toxic wastes is going to be prevention and not cure.

It is true that in principle the producer of the toxic waste has to take responsibility for disposing of it. However, in practice, unless we can ensure that we adopt the principle of the best available technology rather than the minimal acceptable technology, those producing toxic waste will have many financial and economic incentives to continue doing so without let or hindrance, because disposal, and even imperfect disposal with its environmental consequences which may be long lasting although not immediately felt, is cheaper than adapting the manufacturing process to contain and reduce the production of toxic wastes. If we really mean what we say by "the polluter pays", we must impose severe penalties on polluters in our own country—and if it is an international convention, in all the countries signatory to the convention—to enforce the principle and to discourage the unnecessary production of toxic waste.

These are minimum requirements for the agreement that ought to come out of the Basle convention. I hope that the Minister, who I know is personally concerned, however great may be the turmoil in his department about the environment, will be there and will feel able to take a strong stand on behalf of the British Government. I hope that we shall see a convention which will do this country credit.

6.32 p.m.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I too am grateful to my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy for raising this important subject. As so many noble Lords have already pointed out, it is extremely timely that my noble friend should raise it, particularly at the end of a very environmental week, as the noble Baroness, Lady White, said.

The Government recognise the considerable concern which exists about the international traffic in toxic waste. This issue was raised on 1st February during the important debate in the Chamber on pollution. The Science and Technology Committee of your Lordships' House is looking at the subject and I can tell noble Lords that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment has today received a copy of the report of the Select Committee on the Environment of another place on toxic waste. We shall of course send the committee a full and authoritative response to the report as soon as possible but we have noted that the report has joined the department in criticism of the way in which waste disposal authorities were carrying out their duties.

I should like to remind the noble Lord, Lord Whaddon, that many of the report's recommendations for improved control are in line with the Government's total review of waste legislation and policy which has taken place over the past three years and which is now completing its process of consultation. Legislation to implement the new policies will be introduced at the earliest opportunity in the life of this Parliament. The committee has proposed the setting up of an independent environmental protection commission. This is a far-reaching proposal. It is similar to one suggested by my noble friend Lord Cranbrook on 1st February and it is one which we shall examine carefully, in detail.

Toxic waste is moved across frontiers for a variety of reasons. It may be moved because there are no suitable disposal facilities in the country of production but there are in the country of destination, or, on the other hand, because disposal facilities in the country of destination are closer to hand than those in the county of production. More worryingly, however, is that in some cases toxic waste has been moved across frontiers to evade more stringent national controls and requirements and to exploit another country's more rudimentary controls. We believe that the country of production of toxic waste should not cease to have responsibility for it when the truck carrying it passes through the Customs post or the ship with it in its hold leaves port. It is not acceptable either for a country of destination to know nothing about the toxic waste consignment or for the place of disposal not to be identified and vetted for its suitability.

We believe that there is a need for a strict system of international control and we support the three main instruments of international action: the European Community directives; an agreement which is currently being prepared by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development; and perhaps most importantly, and a matter to which some noble Lords including my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy have referred, the global convention which is being promoted by the United Nations Environment Programme. The Government attach great importance to the emerging UNEP convention because the international trade in toxic waste is a world-wide phenomenon. Work on the convention is well advanced and I hope to be able to sign on behalf of the United Kingdom in Basle later this month. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, that an agreement is necessary, and we are all working to that end.

The international community has established four broad principles to govern the international trade in toxic waste. First, the parties to the movement must enter into a binding contract. Secondly, movements have to be pre-notified to the competent authorities of the countries involved. Thirdly, the movement of the toxic waste cannot begin until the competent authority of the country of destination has given its consent. Fourthly, the actual movement is to be accompanied by appropriate documentation. The European Community's directives embody these principles. They have been implemented in this country by the Transfrontier Shipment of Hazardous Waste Regulations 1988. As the noble Baroness, Lady White, said, all countries should have implemented them, but my understanding is that Portugal, Spain and France have not. I hope that they will soon.

The directives lay down what waste the regulations apply to. They are, with some exceptions, those wastes which we designate in this country as special wastes. Noble Lords will know that this country imports some toxic wastes for disposal. The quantities involved are small by comparison with the levels produced here and by comparison with the amounts that cross European frontiers.

Under the Transfrontier Shipment of Hazardous Waste Regulations the producer or holder of the waste in the exporting country has to prenotify his intention to ship toxic waste to the disposal authority for the area in this country where the disposer operates his facility. The producer or holder has to provide details of the source and composition of the toxic waste that he intends to dispatch. He should also give details in the contract he has entered into with the disposer of the route he is proposing to take and of the arrangements he is making for insurance. The disposal authority may ban the shipment if it considers that its transport or disposal would breach EC and international laws on health and environmental protection. The disposer would commit an offence if he accepted a shipment which the disposal authority had not approved. Documents accompany the consignment to provide a record of its movements and are sent to the disposal authority after the consignment has been accepted by the disposer.

A very small amount of toxic waste is exported from this country. This goes to EC countries and to other countries which have specialist facilities for disposal or recycling. As far as the Government are aware, no exports of toxic waste have been sent to developing countries. The Transfrontier Shipment of Hazardous Waste Regulations provide special safeguards in respect of exports to countries not members of the European Community. The general rules on contracts and pre-notification apply and in addition the country of destination must give its consent, and the Secretary of State has the power to prohibit the export if he considers that the disposal operation in question in the importing country poses a risk to health or the environment. In view of what the noble Lord, Lord Hatch of Lusby, said, I hope that he will send me details of the information he has and that he will be prepared outside the House to make the same remarks with full details as to which wastes he is referring to and from which countries these wastes might be exported.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the Minister may not be aware that the Select Committee on the Environment of another place says that some cases have involved exports from the United Kingdom. Therefore it is not only my noble friend Lord Hatch of Lusby who has to give information but the Select Committee on the Environment of another place.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, perhaps the noble Lord's afternoon has been more free than mine. I have not quite reached that stage of the report. However, as I said earlier, I shall read it in detail and we shall be responding.

The Government believe that the international trade in toxic waste, indeed all waste, should be under strict controls. It is for that very reason that I have already proposed to the European Commission and other EC member states that the policy of the European Community should be that international trade is restricted to waste which goes to specialist treatment plants or incinerators, that shipments of waste to go for direct landfill should be generally ruled out and that all movements of waste, not just toxic waste, should be subject to pre-notification procedures. That would help stop the unacceptable practice of dumping wastes on developing countries and at the same time leave open the opportunity for responsible, well-equipped firms to deal with foreign wastes which might otherwise be disposed of with harm to human health and the environment.

I am pleased to tell the House that the Commissioner and some member states have welcomed the proposals and that they are to be discussed in detail in a working party. It would of course be disappointing if they were not viewed constructively, and it is for that reason that I am grateful for the support which the noble Baroness, Lady White, has expressed for the proposals.

Perhaps I may now take up in a little more detail the point which the noble Baroness raised about imports of specialist waste into this country. It is true that over the years there has been an increase in the waste coming to this country, but, in comparison to Europe it is very small. The latest figure which I have for 1987–88 is that about 80,000 tonnes was imported into the United Kingdom. I am afraid that I do not have comparable figures for that year in respect of Europe. However, in 1983 the OECD estimated that some 2.2 million tonnes of hazardous waste crossed Western European frontiers each year and there is no reason to believe that the figure has not increased since then. Further, I understand that in recent years France has imported as much as 700,000 tonnes of hazardous waste per annum and that Germany has exported as much as 1.5 million tonnes per annum. Therefore, compared to our 80,000 tonnes that shows what a very small percentage the United Kingdom is taking.

The noble Lord, Lord Whaddon, asked some particular questions. I think that the important one was about co-disposal. Since 1974 the department has conducted research into the co-disposal of difficult waste with domestic refuse. It is not a technique which should be conducted at small or poorly resourced sites, but properly managed at a suitable site it can be a very effective disposal route for some industrial wastes. The results of our research have informed the department's advice and guidance on this matter and a review of that research will be published in May of this year. Aspects which will be covered in that review include the rates at which landfill material can be successfully degraded and immobilised as well as information on the mechanisms of degradation and questions of leachate monitoring.

The noble Lord also questioned the delay which some firms were experiencing in getting their planning applications through when they wanted new sites for disposal. He asked me to intervene. I am sorry but I shall not intervene in the local planning process; it is up to the local authorities. However, what he did say encouraged me and led me to believe that he was in support of the consultation paper that we have issued on the future of waste disposal authorities. That matter is still subject to consultation and if the noble Lord has any views in this respect we look forward to receiving them. But the consultation paper supports, basically outside the metropolitan areas, the shire county councils as the waste disposal authority. We believe that it should be done at local level.

The noble Lord, Lord Hatch of Lusby, said that the real debate was between market forces, profit and regulation. I think that he is entirely mistaken and misunderstands the situation. The two aspects are totally complementary. Full state control in some of the countries which he idolises has not meant better regulation; indeed, it has led to much worse regulation. We all want strict regulation with the market being allowed to operate under that basis.

I am glad to note that the sentiment of the House is not that the entire international trade in toxic waste is wrong but only aspects of it. Major industrial countries should aim to dispose of all the toxic waste they produce. The smallest countries cannnot be expected to be self-sufficient, or nearly self-sufficient, in the necessary disposal facilities. There are therefore genuine reasons for making some transfrontier shipments. A policy of no imports and no exports of toxic waste would be environmentally regressive because it would lead to waste being disposed of unsatisfactorily. It would not happen here, but it would happen somewhere else. A polluted environment in any part of the world diminishes all of us.

The other feeling of the House is that when transfrontier shipments of toxic waste take place the disposal facilities to which they are directed must have the capacity to deal with the waste in a sound environmental manner. Therefore, the dispatch of toxic waste across frontiers must be subject to the consent of the relevant authorities before it takes place. I believe that that is self-evident. The European Community has a strong control system set up and running and the prospect is that through the forthcoming UNEP convention controls it can be adopted world wide. The Government believe that those are important steps which will do much to provide the necessary controls on international traffic in toxic waste. As I said earlier, we have made proposals to extend the controls to the international traffic in other wastes. We are all grateful to my noble friend for raising this most important matter.

Lord Hatch of Lusby

My Lords, before the Minister sits down, and as we have plenty of time, perhaps I may ask him a question which will expand and, I hope, make more firm what I understand to be a firm commitment on behalf of the Government which will be most valuable. However, first may I assure him that all the facts which I have used in my speech have been published. Moreover, as the Official Secrets Bill has not yet been enacted, I am not liable for prosecution for repeating matters which have already been published.

The question is this. I pointed out that when African governments discover what their businessmen and corrupt officials have been doing they intervene. Do I understand the Minister to say that the present Government will intervene in the export of any toxic waste from this country and any toxic waste passing through the ports of this country unless they are satisfied that the country to which it is being sent approves its receipt? If he can confirm that, it will be of immense importance and will give a great lead to the international community.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, if the noble Lord carefully reads the debate in tomorrow's Official Report I think he will see that I have said that the Secretary of State has powers. We do not necessarily think that he has quite enough powers because that is the lacuna in the existing legislation upon which we are acting. It is for that reason that we want to strengthen those powers. But certainly within the European framework we can intervene and will not hesitate to do so if there is to be a disposal of waste from this country to another which does not have the necessary facilities and which has not gone through the correct procedure.

Lord Hatch of Lusby

My Lords, in that case, are the Government preparing legislation now?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, the noble Lord should know the answer to that question. Indeed. I said that we are doing so. Moreover, I have told him that before in this House during the pollution debate, if he cares to remember.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I should like to thank all noble Lords, and especially the noble Baroness, for their speeches in this debate. They have contributed to what I think is an informative debate on a subject which has clearly been of concern to them.

On the question of the timing of the debate which was raised by the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Whaddon, it was purely by chance and not within my control, because my Motion has been down since the beginning of this Session. However, I hope that the discussion which we have had today has been helpful to the Select Committee on Science and Technology, which is at present in the course of its inquiry into this subject. I certainly would not wish to pe-empt in any way its findings or recommendations.

The noble Baroness, Lady White, and the noble Lord. Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran, were discussing the question of disposal at sea. I must clarify what I meant. I referred to the temptation to dump cargoes when a vessel carrying toxic wastes was running into trouble; that is to say, when publicity was focusing on it in the country where it was intended to dispose of the waste and where that country was opposing it. I should perhaps have used the word "jettison" because I was indicating that there was a tendency to do that.

Of course besides that there could be attempts at deliberate and surreptitious dumping at sea as an alternative to deliberate dumping on land. I understand the interest of the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran, because of his expertise on technological subjects. I must also confirm what the noble Baroness said, that authorised dumping and incineration at sea are normal and there are international agreements covering them.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hatch of Lusby, for having narrated in some detail the saga of the Karin B" and one or two other episodes affecting Africa. However, like my noble friend Lord Caithness, I think that he oversimplified the situation by presenting a stark choice of either no free market or of dangerous practices. The convention that we are seeking would be able to make sure that there was still a free market but also that the dangerous practices could be wiped out.

The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, after having discussed it, did not, I am glad to say, come out in favour of a total ban on any international trade in toxic wastes. I am glad that he referred to the principle which has been proposed by the United Nations Environment Programme, UNEP. The Basle Conference in a few days' time will represent the next stage on the way to reach a convention and I hope, like others who have spoken, that an agreed draft will be concluded at that conference.

I am especially grateful to my noble friend Lord Caithness for a very comprehensive reply to the debate after what must have been for him a busy and tiring seven days recently at conferences both in London and in Brussels. He gave us an up-to-date account of the latest developments in this field. I wish him well in all the coming discussions and negotiations on this subject. In this I am sure I speak for others who have been following this subject and who are here this evening. I beg leave to withdraw my Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.