HL Deb 09 January 1996 vol 568 cc8-11

3.8 p.m.

Baroness Nicol asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will carry out a programme of continued monitoring of the ecological impact of acid rain in the United Kingdom.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the Department of the Environment is in the process of formulating its research programme for 1996–97. No final decision has yet been taken on the composition of this programme.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer although I found it a little disappointing. Does he at least agree, on behalf of his department, that there is little value in continuing the monitoring of the quantity of acid deposition unless the end effect, which is the ecological effect, is also monitored'? Is the Minister aware—I am sure he is—of the amount of money which has been spent by industry and by government on the monitoring of acid deposition? Surely this money will be wasted unless we know what is the final effect of what is happening?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, it is true that my department has spent about £3 million on the monitoring of acid rain since the programme began in 1988. We are having to evaluate our priorities. There are two ways of approaching the problem. One is by sampling water from lakes after pollution from chimney emissions has returned to the ground. The other approach is to evaluate what the air and rain contain. Both are important areas for research. We are trying to decide how much we allocate to each.

Baroness David

My Lords, are the Government aware that the RSPB is very concerned that hundreds of SSSIs in the UK are at risk from acid deposition, and that some of the sites are of international importance? How can the Government be satisfied, without relying on scientific monitoring, that the targets for those sites are being met and that the UK is meeting the obligations agreed at the UN Economic Commission for Europe?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I did not say that we would not continue the monitoring of acid rain. One must remember that acid waters monitoring is only part of the overall acid rain research programme. There is no doubt that there has been acid rain and that it has an effect on the ecology of the country. That is why we want to see not only what effect it has on the ecology but what we can do to stop the pollution in the first place. It is those two matters which are being considered.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, can the noble Earl indicate whether the emission of acid rain from power stations in the UK continues to decline and whether we are likely to meet the objectives agreed within the European Community in that respect?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, acid rain caused by emissions from generating stations comes from power stations using fossil fuels; in other words, those fuelled by coal or oil. Those generating stations which have transferred to gas do not have that problem. A great deal is being done in that respect, and many power stations are changing to gas.

We have achieved before the target date the 30 per cent. reduction in sulphur emissions which were agreed in the United Nations Convention on Long Range Transboundary Air Pollution. The United Kingdom was one of the first to sign the United Nations Oslo protocol on sulphur emissions in 1994 which committed the United Kingdom to a cut of 80 per cent. in sulphur emissions by the year 2010. We are on target to meet the requirements of the European Community's large combustion plant directive.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, was not one of the problems the fact that we export acid rain? Can the noble Earl tell us whether the situation in Scandinavia is improving due to our efforts?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, it is generally agreed that all factories and power stations emit pollutants. It is therefore the job of Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Pollution to determine the levels at which those factories or power stations should emit their pollutants. Those levels are being reduced, as I indicated to the noble Lord, Lord Ezra. Pollutants go from one country to another, and come also to our own country. There is not much point in our eliminating or reducing our levels of pollution if our neighbours do not do the same. That is why this is having to be done collectively among all member states.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I should declare an interest in this Question as the sponsor of work on acid rain on Rannoch Moor, as my noble friend the Minister is aware. That work will lose much of its point if it is no longer part of a national and international network. That being so, does my noble friend agree that the power utilities are committed to spend some £6,000 million over the next 10 years on reducing their emissions? Surely it makes sense to have an irrefutable continuous scientific monitoring programme to discover whether the initiative has been worth while.

Secondly, can my noble friend say whether the Government have consulted the JNCCs and country agencies, such as Scottish Natural Heritage, to determine what they think the effects of any cutting of the continuous monitoring programme might be?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I know of the work with which my noble friend has been involved. A great deal has been done there, and I congratulate my noble friend on the part that he has played. We have carried out the monitoring for some eight years. However, every government has to consider at every stage whether it is right to spend money on a particular form of research or whether there is something which has a higher priority. We are considering that at the moment. It is true that there is almost always an argument for research on one particular item to be increased in order to prevent the need for greater expenditure later. One has to keep these aspects in balance. We are trying to ensure that we are in the best position to know the effect of acid rain and acid pollution.

Baroness Hilton of Eggardon

My Lords, to follow the previous question, perhaps I may ask whether the NRA was consulted, and is it satisfied with the proposed changes in monitoring? Does the Minister see any connection between the decline in amphibia in our countryside and the effects of acid rain? Is that not one of the reasons why proper monitoring, should continue and its effects on our wildlife should be ascertained?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, those are perfectly valid arguments and arguments which my right honourable friend is considering. I cannot tell the noble Baroness whether the National Rivers Authority has been invited to comment. I shall find out and let her know. The noble Baroness referred to specific cuts. I have said that it has not yet been decided whether there should be any cuts, what they should be or in what direction they should be made.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, while the noble Earl's department is deciding whether to go ahead with the programme, will it consult with the Welsh Office as well as the NRA? There is a large re-survey being undertaken in Wales at the moment which uses data from the monitoring system, and it would he a great mistake if that re-survey were put out of date or out of commission completely as a result of a decision taken in London.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, that seems a wholly reasonable request, oddly enough, coming from the noble Lord, Lord Williams. I shall see that it is fulfilled.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his answer to my supplementary question, although perhaps he did not quite meet my point. The programme to which he and the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, referred has cost of the order of £3 million for the eight years' research which has been carried out. That is peanuts in terms of the total amount of money that is being spent on the problem. Yet that research is the end of the whole business. Unless we know the ecological impact rather than only the amount of deposition in water and on land, then the whole exercise is wasted. Will the Minister use his best endeavours to see that this is put into perspective when the programme is drawn up?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I understand the point that the noble Baroness makes. It is a perfectly fair one. She wants the lakes and ponds to continue to be monitored. I tried to explain that they would only be likely to be affected by pollution because of what comes down through the atmosphere. If one monitors what comes through the atmosphere and in the rain itself, that could provide a more accurate measure of pollution than what is found in water, which could also have come from other sources. However, it is a perfectly valid point, and I shall see that it is taken into account.