HL Deb 27 July 1999 vol 604 cc1394-7

3.10 p.m.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish asked Her Majesty's Government:

What progress there has been in implementing the European Union's urban waste water treatment directive in Scotland.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Scottish Office (Lord Sewel)

My Lords, as a member state, the United Kingdom has obligations to implement this directive. In Scotland, the Scottish Office, the water authorities and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency co-operated to end the dumping of sewage sludge at sea and to provide tertiary treatment for discharges into sensitive areas by the end of 1998. Considerable progress has been made towards installing secondary treatment at appropriate locations.

From 1st July 1999 implementation of the urban waste water treatment directive in Scotland is a matter for Scottish Ministers.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, first perhaps I may express the hope that this is not the Minister's last appearance at the Dispatch Box. Is he aware of the considerable problems caused by the directive to the fish processing industry, particularly in Aberdeen? Is he further aware of the report currently being worked on to find a solution which would enable the industry to meet its obligations without incurring the huge costs currently proposed by the North of Scotland Water Authority?

If the Scottish Executive comes forward and asks the Government to speak to Brussels and suggests that perhaps they should stay their hand to allow the Cordah project to come to fruition, can I, together with the fish processors, have an assurance that Her Majesty's Government, who are responsible for these matters in Europe, will intercede or intervene with the European Commission, if necessary?

Lord Sewel

My Lords, I am aware of the difficulties faced by the fish processing industry in implementing this directive, particularly in the north east of Scotland. It is non-negotiable in that there is a strict requirement to put secondary treatment in place by the end of the year 2000. It may be remembered that the directive was adopted in 1991 and transposed into British law in 1994. The industry has had a considerable period of time in which to prepare for the implementation. However, I accept that it is now looking keenly at what to do. I am aware of the Cordah report, which I believe is due at the end of August. I am also aware that Aberdeen City Council and Aberdeenshire County Council have proposed a waste treatment solution which could significantly reduce the costs falling upon the industry.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I am sure that the Minister is aware that the fish processing industry is a vital industry in the north east of Scotland. It also serves the fishing industry largely based at ports in that area. It is now confronted with a massive increase in charges for disposal of effluent. Wilt the Government take action as suggested by my noble friend vis-à-vis the European Union, if necessary to obtain more time to consider more alternatives, especially on a day when consumers in England and Wales are learning from their regulator that prices south of the Border will be reduced?

Lord Sewel

My Lords, perhaps I may again point out the dates I gave previously. The urban waste water treatment directive was adopted in 1991 and became transposed into British law in 1994. Since 1989 the various water authorities have been in dialogue with the industry to warn them of the problem they face. I regret that it is only relatively recently that the industry has responded positively. It would be difficult to argue for delay. It is clear that at present the Commission is taking a long, hard look at Italy and Belgium as two member states who have not proceeded to implement the directive timeously. Clearly, there is the problem of infraction proceedings being taken against the United Kingdom Government. As the noble Lord knows, such proceedings could result in fines measuring hundreds of thousands of pounds per week or even per day. The Scottish Executive will be aware that if that should happen, the responsibility for paying the fine would fall upon the Scottish Executive.

Viscount Waverley

My Lords, was the order for cleaning up the Wheal Jane mine in Cornwall made in accordance with this directive? If not, why not?

Lord Sewel

My Lords, although I know quite a lot about the problems facing the fish processing industry in the north east of Scotland, I know nothing about the Wheal Jane issue.

Lord Hughes of Woodside

My Lords, is it not the case that it is not only the fish merchants in the north east of Scotland who are bearing these heavy charges? I understand that the fish merchants of Grimsby and Hull are equally outraged at the high levies being introduced. Does the Minister not find it strange that some "Johnny-come-lately" should now be complaining bitterly about excess charges which they must have known about during the negotiation of this treatment for water charges?

Lord Sewel

My Lords, my noble friend is right. This does not just affect the north east of Scotland; it affects Grimsby and other fish processing centres throughout the United Kingdom. I accept that this is a very real issue. The increases in charges will be very real. I shall not use the words which I was invited to use by my noble friend. However, this is a settled policy of successive United Kingdom Governments dating back to 1991. It does no good to try to pretend that if we put our heads in the sand it will somehow go away; it will not.

Lord Elton

My Lords, in an earlier Answer, the Minister led us to understand that the Commission is invigilating the way that this directive is enforced by other governments. Is there any more precise and transparent means by which industries loaded with heavy costs by European legislation can satisfy themselves that the equivalent costs are being borne by their competitors in other European countries?

Lord Sewel

My Lords, during my period as a Minister in an area responsible for implementing European directives, I have learnt that just about every country I go to complains that their government requires them to implement it down to the last detail, and that every other government is somehow "dodging". We have to take such accusations with a pinch of salt. However, I am aware that the Commission gives a high priority to ensuring that this directive is implemented. I have already mentioned two member states where the Commission is looking closely at what is being done.

Baroness Ludford

My Lords, I do not wish to minimise the difficulties of implementing this directive. However, does the Minister agree that it is a good thing in general that the European Union is legislating to safeguard the environment and the quality of drinking water, and that that is a measure that the citizens and consumers of Europe welcome?

Lord Sewel

My Lords, indeed it is a very good thing that we legislate to protect the environment, both at European and member state level. It is also a good thing that we do all we can to protect jobs and industries.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, is it not also necessary that all United Kingdom governments, of whatever political complexion, should examine proposed European legislation far more thoroughly than they have done in the past or, as far as I can see, are likely to do in the future?

Lord Sewel

My Lords, I would not accuse the previous administration of not examining the proposal in detail. It was subject to a great deal of negotiation and scrutiny as it evolved and developed. We reached a stage at which there was agreement in this country and throughout the European Union on an appropriate way forward to protect the environment, which is our priority.

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