HL Deb 11 October 1989 vol 511 cc300-3

3.16 p.m.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter asked Her Majesty's Government:

Which European countries apart from the United Kingdom are being prosecuted by the European Commission because of alleged deficiencies in their water supply.

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

My Lords, the European Commission and member states regard the formal correspondence on infraction proceedings as confidential. However, although we do not have full details, we understand that the Commission is taking legal action against practically all member states.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, can my noble friend enlighten me as to what useful result is expected from this widespread prosecution other than the provision of full employment for lawyers?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, in terms of showing its commitment to meeting the regulations within Europe, this country is the only member state with a comprehensive, committed and funded programme to bring all of its drinking water up to the directive standards.

Lord Mason of Barnsley

My Lords, if the Commission finds a member state guilty of deficiencies in water supply what can it do about it?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, if the noble Lord is referring to 20th September, the action will be against the government. A very good question is raised by the noble Lord. There is a certain amount of uncertainty as to the powers of the Commission once an action has achieved a result, one way or another.

Lord Renton

My Lords, would there be any power to enforce any finding of the Commission following any such prosecution?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, it is a slightly grey area. However, I believe the answer at the moment to the question raised by the noble Lord is, no.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, many people in this country wonder what on earth the quality of our water and of our beaches has to do with the European Economic Community. Is this not a warning to Government and to Government Ministers who go to Brussels to be very careful about what they agree to in the future? If they are not careful the European Commission, when it needs to, can embarrass not only a Tory government that wish to denationalise or privatise water, but in the future it might do exactly the same to a Labour government. Let us get back some of our sovereignty.

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, if we are going to have standards on a European-wide basis—and I believe that most people in this country, and I hope in Europe, desire that—we have to have regulations; and they have to be on a European basis, otherwise they will be meaningless.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, since the European Commission is bringing these prosecutions in order to do what it can to enforce decisions made by the Council of Ministers—all duly elected in their own countries, including Members of Her Majesty's Government opposite—what is all the fuss about?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, I think that the fuss is not with myself on this point, but with the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart.

Lord Harmar-Nicholls

My Lords, am I to understand from the answers that my noble friend has given that the reason we are being prosecuted at present, when others are also falling short and are not being prosecuted, is because we are more efficient in our book-keeping and with our general organisation? Is that what he said?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, we believe in carrying out our duties comprehensively, honestly and efficiently. I hope that that means that the full truth and the whole truth is known to the Commission.

Lord Northfield

My Lords, is it not the case, as the noble Lord has just remarked, that any prosecutions stem from several directives about water supply which this country freely signed? I myself took some part in drafting those directives in the early 1980s with the full agreement of Her Majesty's Government at that time. Is it not therefore a little late for Members in any House or for any country to complain when the Commission then sets out to enforce the regulations in the directive which we freely signed?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, I am sure that many Members of your Lordships' House would be very dissatisfied if they were not allowed to complain.

Lord Nugent of Guildford

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the Commission is in the unusual position of making regulations and starting prosecutions when it has neither a monitoring force to find out what the offences are in the member countries nor an enforcement procedure for penalising the countries if they are considered to be out of order? Is he aware that the monitoring is dependent solely on complaints from member countries? That is a very odd position for something which is said to be legal.

Lord Hesketh

Of course, my Lords. As always I am very grateful for the remarks of my noble friend Lord Nugent. He has drawn to the attention of your Lordships' House two very pertinent and correct points.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I am not allowed to respond to my noble friend Lord Stoddart, but will the Minister confirm for the benefit of my noble friend that European directives are necessary because governments, including particularly the Government of this country, have failed in their duty to keep water as clean as it should be?

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

Oh, my Lords, so we are now to be disciplined by foreigners!

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, if I may intervene in the discussions on the other side, I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, concerning directives, but I take issue with his second point and remind him of my earlier remarks that we are the only member state that is not only committed but fully funded. It is quite easy to be committed, but it is very much more difficult to be fully funded with a programme to achieve results.

Lord Monson

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the whole point of imposing common standards throughout the Community is to facilitate the free movement of goods and services among the member states? Does he not agree that our domestic water supply has no international or cross-border connotations and it is therefore entirely unsuitable for intervention by the European Commission?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, I am sure that if the noble Lord, Lord Monson, were to put down a Question on that important subject a Member of the Government would be more than happy to answer it.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, will my noble friend and Her Majesty's Government indicate to the Commission that very little useful purpose is served by the initiation of prosecutions of this kind and that goodwill and the effective working of the EC would be helped if they would drop this kind of behaviour and settle down to peaceful co-operation?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, as always the remarks of my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter are of great interest and I shall draw them to the attention of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State.

Baroness Strange

My Lords, is my noble friend the Minister aware of the old English saw: When going abroad with your son and daughter Never, never drink the water"?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, I shall also draw the remarks of my noble friend to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State.

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