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Part of Orders of the Day — Food and Environment Protection Bill [Lords] – in the House of Commons at 6:57 pm on 26th June 1985.

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Photo of Mrs Peggy Fenner Mrs Peggy Fenner , Medway 6:57 pm, 26th June 1985

Now that we are coming to the end of our debates on this Bill I should like, before I go into the specific points raised, to express my appreciation and that of my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the way in which hon. Members have responded to these proposals.

There have been many questions and amendments, some probing the Government's intentions, others seeking to modify or extend one provision or another. But the most striking feature throughout our debates has been the desire shown on all sides of the House to make this a better Bill and to ensure that it deals adequately with the problems which might arise.

I am glad to say that there has been considerable interest in the the subject matter of the three parts of the Bill and equally widespread support for the principles they contain, which shows that the Government were right to bring forward this legislation now. The result is, indeed, a much clearer Bill than the one we started with three months ago.

Part I has been generally welcomed by hon. Members on both sides of the House, but there have been a number of areas of concern which I think we have gone a long way to resolve during its passage. However, we must remember to keep these concerns in perspective. The powers provided by part I would be used only in exceptional circumstances to ensure the safety of food following an escape or release of harmful substances. To give some idea of the exceptional circumstances, we can envisage only one or two occasions in the past 30 years when they might have been activated.

In part II there are now two major additions to the area controlled by the Dumping at Sea Act 1974 — marine incineration and deposits under the seabed. The Bill substantially broadens the range of factors which Ministers must take into account when licensing deposits and places a specific duty on them to consider the availability of other methods of disposal. It provides for recovery of the cost of monitoring and enforcement work and for consultation with those who will be paying the new fees. It also reenacts a provision on procedures for the enforcement of the international dumping conventions, whose original omission led, entirely innocently, to some misunderstanding, which has now been removed.

There is one very important general point which arose at our previous sitting on which I must set the record straight. This is the assertion that the United Kingdom is the greatest contributor to pollution of the North sea. The facts are quite otherwise, and I would recommend the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) to take a closer look at the Royal Commission on environmental pollution's 10th report, which he quoted the other day. This report examined the whole range of pollution issues and included a substantial section on the North sea. It naturally reviewed United Kingdom policy and practice on dumping at sea and I must emphasise that it did not recommend any change in our controls.

What the report did was to review the scientific evidence. It showed that the main sources of contaminants were the atmosphere and rivers, of which the Elbe, the Rhine and the Meuse were the major contributors. It showed that disposal of sewage sludge and dumping of other wastes accounted for only a tiny percentage — about 3 per cent. — of the heavy metals. The report noted that the effects of contaminants were most pronounced in estuaries and coastal waters. It quoted the Thames as the most notable example of recent improvement and the Wadden sea as an area of particular concern.

The Royal Commission concluded that there was no substantial threat to the North sea, although more research was needed, and recommended that the United Kingdom should respond positively to international initiatives. That is exactly what we have done. It is quite clear from the Royal Commission report that the United Kingdom is not the major polluter of the North sea; indeed this country has a good record which, on the state of rivers in particular, contrasts favourably with that of some of our neighbours.

Part III of the Bill has occupied a good deal of our time. We are fortunate in having had the pesticides safety precautions scheme as a stepping stone to part III. That non-statutory scheme has evolved over the years into an effective screening system for the safety of pesticides coming on to the United Kingdom market. But I have no doubt that it was right to seek to replace it with a statute. It was not simply that the restrictive agreement necessary to prevent unlicensed imports was attracting the attention of Brussels — much more fundamentally, with the current priority that is given to health and environmental questions in public debate, the absence of statutory powers left the scheme without the necessary muscle to impose the controls required.

In our debates we have been able to explain in some detail the good work already done under the PSPS, the working party on pesticide residues, BASIS, the wildlife incident investigation scheme, and so forth, and we have given assurances that that will continue and develop. We have also been able to explain our ideas on how the Bill should be implemented. Finally, but certainly not least, we have been able to hear the views of the House.

But it has also been equally important for us to hear the views of hon. Members on the future detailed controls to be laid down in regulations. We have taken very careful note of all these views and will take account of them in our consultation paper on the implementation of part III. We shall send a copy of the paper to all right hon. and hon. Members who have spoken in the debates and to any others who request it, as well as to all interested organisations, and we shall allow ample time for comment before we prepare the regulations.

Finally, I should like to emphasise the extent of my Department's commitment to conservation of the countryside and other environmental matters, as witnessed by our concrete achievements. Through ADAS, for example, we advise farmers on how they can build conservation into their farming practices. Under our capital grant schemes, we give particular emphasis to environmentally sympathetic farming operations by paying premium rates. In co-operation with the Countryside Commission, we are operating an experimental scheme designed to help safeguard the unique landscape of the grazing marshes in the broads. And, following the successful efforts of my right hon. Friend to persuade his colleagues in Brussels to include a suitable provision in the agricultural structures regulation, we are now preparing a special scheme to promote environmentally sympathetic farming practices in designated sensitive areas. I commend the improvements to environmental protection in this Bill, to take a worthy place in that list of achievements.