Nitrate Pollution

– in the House of Commons at 10:22 pm on 1st November 1989.

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Photo of Mr Colin Moynihan Mr Colin Moynihan , Lewisham East 10:22 pm, 1st November 1989

I beg to move, That this House takes note of European Community Document No. 4136/89 and the Supplementary Explanatory Memorandum submitted by the Department of the Environment on 19th October 1989 relating to control of nitrate pollution; and supports the Government's intention to ensure that Community action to control nitrate pollution takes sufficient account of the range of circumstances in each Member State.

Photo of Mr Martin Brandon-Bravo Mr Martin Brandon-Bravo , Nottingham South

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am sitting immediately behind the Minister, but I cannot hear a word that he is saying.

Photo of Miss Betty Boothroyd Miss Betty Boothroyd Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

I accept that point of order. Would hon. Members who are leaving the Chamber do so a little less noisily so that those who are interested in hearing what the Minister has to say about this important motion can do so?

Photo of Mr Colin Moynihan Mr Colin Moynihan , Lewisham East

The Scrutiny Committee, in its 14th report of this Session, recommended that the House should consider the proposals for a Council directive concerning the protection of fresh, coastal and marine waters against pollution caused by nitrate from diffused sources. The debate has been arranged as the result of that recommendation and I should like to emphasise the value that the Government place on hearing the opinion of the House on such proposals. I assure the House that the Government will carefully consider the points made by right hon. and hon. Members this evening.

Before describing the Commission's proposals and saying something about the Government's response to them, the House might find it helpful if I say a few words about the current stage of negotiations.

Right hon. and hon. Members will be pleased to hear that this debate is well timed. The first substantive consideration of the Commission's proposal by Environment Ministers will be at the Council in November, so my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will want to know the views of the House in advance of that discussion. However, we do not expect a final agreement on the detailed terms of the directive at this Council, rather that Ministers will give guidance for the coming negotiations.

The Commission's proposals for this directive were published in January. My hon. Friend the Minister for Health issued an explanatory memorandum on 22 February describing the proposal and, more recently, on 19 October, I issued an updating memorandum on proposed changes to the text, to which I shall refer later.

Lead responsibility for this proposal rests with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment in consultation with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. In view of the potential implications of the proposal for agriculture—[Interruption.]

Photo of Miss Betty Boothroyd Miss Betty Boothroyd Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. I should appreciate it if the House would come to order. The Minister is attempting to move this motion and he deserves to be heard.

Photo of Mr Colin Moynihan Mr Colin Moynihan , Lewisham East

I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will reply to this debate. This is the first proposal from the Commission to introduce controls on diffuse sources of pollution, which arise from multiple localised small sources of pollution. That is a welcome extension of existing environmental control measures, but means that we are breaking new ground in these negotiations. The directive may come to be seen as a precedent.

In their original form, the proposals would require member states to designate as vulnerable zones areas of land which drain into the following waters: first, surface fresh waters which are intended for use for drinking water and could contain more than 50 mg of nitrate per litre if protective action is not taken; secondly, groundwaters intended to be used for drinking water which contain more than 50 mg of nitrate per litre, or could contain more than this level if protective action is not taken; and thirdly, water which may become eutrophic with nitrate as the limiting factor, if preventive action is not taken.

The latest Commission proposals have modified the details of these requirements, particularly as they relate to surface waters.

Photo of Mr Teddy Taylor Mr Teddy Taylor , Southend East

Would my hon. Friend answer a simple question? As he rightly said, this is a precedent, an order relating to the environment which has been produced since the publication of the Single European Act. Has he, or his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, or anyone in the Department of the Environment, asked the Commission how it can present this order when article 130R subsection 2 of the Single European Act makes it clear that any actions in the Community relating to the environment will include the principle that the polluter should pay? Since this measure makes it clear that the general taxpayer and not the polluter will pay, will the Minister explain why he is willing to consider an order which is in direct contravention of the Single European Act?

Photo of Mr Colin Moynihan Mr Colin Moynihan , Lewisham East

I know that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will be covering the important "polluter pays" principle. The 1986 nitrate co-ordination group report concluded that there were problems in applying the principle fairly to nitrate and individual producer levels. We agree with that, for several reasons.

Photo of Mr Colin Moynihan Mr Colin Moynihan , Lewisham East

I appreciate the technical point that is being raised and I wish to assist my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor) by responding to it. First, current concentrations reflect agricultural activity and policy over decades, including the ploughing up of grassland. Secondly, different farmers following the same agricultural practice can produce significantly different nitrate leaching rates because of local circumstances.

Photo of Mr Allan Roberts Mr Allan Roberts , Bootle

Will the Minister accept that his hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor) is quite right? These policies of declaring nitrate-free zones on a voluntary basis will not mean that the polluter pays but that the polluter is compensated. Compensation will actually be given to those who are polluting.

Photo of Mr Colin Moynihan Mr Colin Moynihan , Lewisham East

The hon. Gentleman knows that I have given two good reasons why it is impossible to apply the strict polluter pays principle in this example.

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord , Suffolk Central

Does the Minister agree that the two hon. Members who have just intervened are not correct because until recently what farmers have been doing has been regarded as best agricultural practice? Some sections of the community have now decided that it causes pollution. It will be hard on farmers if we start backdating in this way.

Photo of Mr Colin Moynihan Mr Colin Moynihan , Lewisham East

My hon. Friend makes a valid and important point.

The latest Commission proposals have modified the details of the requirements that I have outlined, particularly as they relate to surface waters. Within those vulnerable zones, member states will be required to introduce controls on the application of chemical fertilisers and livestock manure. In the case of livestock manure, the original proposals were for limits on the amount that could be applied in terms of maximum livestock numbers per hectare of land. The Government would prefer to allow member states more discretion to adjust those limits to take account of local needs. The Commission is now suggesting an alternative limit of 170 kg per hectare. We shall need to consider whether either approach is satisfactory.

Member states would also have to take further preventive measures where necessary. Those are set out in annex 3 of the proposal and could potentially be very far—reaching in their effect.

Although the Commission's proposal deals with the problem of nitrate-limited eutrophication, we do not believe that to be a significant problem in the United Kingdom, and I shall confine my remarks to the other aspects of the proposals. However, the House will be aware that other factors, such as phosphate, may also be limiting agents for eutrophication. We understand that the Commission is likely to bring forward separate proposals to control discharges of waste water, and those may involve controls on phosphate.

The Government have welcomed the Commission's initiative in proposing a directive to control nitrate pollution. However, we see the need for a number of changes to be made to the detailed proposals. In particular, we consider that it is important that the proposals are sufficiently flexible to enable member states to tailor solutions to circumstances found in their particular areas.

The development of Communitywide action to control nitrate is to be welcomed. Most member states have a nitrate problem, and need to take action to protect water. There are rising concentrations of nitrate in many groundwater sources in the United Kingdom. Therefore, independently of the progress of negotiations on this directive, we are taking action domestically to control nitrate reaching water sources. Other member states are also taking measures domestically and the new directive will help to ensure that all member states develop appropriate preventative measures.

The underlying problem confronting Governments in all member states in respect of nitrate, which the directive is intended to address, can be stated simply. It is the potential conflict between ensuring the long-term ready supply of wholesome drinking water, and the plentiful supply of food. In developing policies to control nitrate, there must be recognition of both the environmental and agricultural implications of what is proposed, and a proper balance drawn between them.

The problem of controlling nitrate pollution of water sources is complex. Solutions are likely to depend on factors such as the rainfall and hydrogeology, and on the existing balance of land use in the area. However, as most nitrate found in water comes from agriculture, it is essential that agriculture contributes, where appropriate, to action to reduce high nitrate concentrations in water sources. Of course, farmers should follow good practice in respect of nitrate. But the problem goes deeper and some cases may require measures that go beyond good agricultural practice, including changes in land use.

The Commission's proposals are wholly concerned with preventative measures to control nitrate pollution. However, it is important to select solutions, or combinations of solutions, that are appropriate to local conditions. In some cases, blending before supply of water of higher nitrate content with water from another source low in nitrate, or treatment of the water to remove nitrate, could be the most effective option. Such water engineering solutions are used already——

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley , Glanford and Scunthorpe

Will the Minister clarify the issue of blending? Blending has so far been used to try to get within the limits laid down by the EC. Is the Minister saying that the blending will be used to continue to ensure that the water supply meets EC standards as well as the protection zones that will have to go with that, or is he suggesting that blending can be used as an alternative to the protection zones to reduce nitrate pollution in the longer term?

Photo of Mr Colin Moynihan Mr Colin Moynihan , Lewisham East

The hon. Gentleman will know that the objective is to reach the desired standard. My point is that we need to be flexible according to local conditions to make sure that that is achieved at the best possible price: in the best interests of the water consumer. To that extent it is not possible simply to draw a general principle, as the hon. Gentleman would seek to establish, but where, for example, in high season there are high levels of nitrates compared with low season, blending with appropriate waters can be the right mechanism. Such water engineering solutions are used already, and will ensure that water supplies contain no more than the permitted level of nitrate.

For the Commission's proposals to be acceptable, it is important that the requirements of the directive are clear. It would be quite wrong for the United Kingdom to agree to a Community directive without being fully aware of the responsibilities it places on the United Kingdom, and the steps necessary to implement the proposal. The Commission proposals could have a major effect over wide areas of the country, but the requirements in the initial draft were obscure. We are pressing in the negotiations to remove ambiguities from the text of the directive. That is particularly important in relation to the circumstances in which land use measures should be introduced. It is also important to establish our responsibilities under the transboundary pollution provisions in respect of the North sea.

The directive must also strike an appropriate balance between the environmental benefits of measures to protect sources and the economic effect of the measures on the area in question. The treaty of Rome requires all environmental proposals to take account of the economic effect of proposed measures. This approach must apply in this case, for example, on the circumstances governing the introduction of land use measures. We are concerned that that point was not addressed in the Commission's proposals, and we are suggesting ways in which it could be incorporated.

The effect of the directive will, to a large extent, depend on the areas of the country that will be designated as "vulnerable zones" under the proposals. The size of the zones will depend on the way in which any numerical limits in the criteria are interpreted.

As I have said, the initial proposal from the Commission for vulnerable zones to protect surface water was for these to be required whenever the nitrate concentration of water in a river exceeded 50 mg per litre. That is a very strict test, particularly in view of the natural variability of nitrate in river water to which I have just alluded. It would require that river water be maintained at the same quality as drinking water at all times, regardless of whether a water undertaker intends to use that river source.

The Government have said that they would prefer an average level of 50 mg per litre to be used for designation of a surface water source, rather than an absolute level. We have represented to the Commission that the effect of an absolute level would be disproportionate, provided that drinking water is maintained at the appropriate quality. I believe that the Commission accepts our arguments on that point. They have proposed an alternative and rather technical approach, which is set out in the updating memorandum. We are still studying the Commission's new proposals.

The control of nitrate is a difficult and complex problem and the Community directive makes a contribution to finding solutions. We recognise that the directive as drafted would have a very extensive effect and we shall need to be sure that it allows us to strike the appropriate balance between land use for agriculture and the use of the land for water catchments. It is also essential that the directive should provide us with sufficient flexibility to match measures to United Kingdom conditions. The Government will take note of the points raised here this evening, and we shall also make sure that the European Commission is aware of the views expressed. I commend the motion to the House.

Photo of Malcolm Bruce Malcolm Bruce , Gordon 10:37 pm, 1st November 1989

I listened with care to the Minister, who did no more than read his brief. The Government have tried persistently to belittle the problems related to nitrates and algae blooms caused by sewage discharges. The Minister gave no sign that the Government recognise that the problems need to be addressed with a little more urgency and willingness to accept the facts.

Hon. Members who represent rural constituencies are well aware of the conflict of interest between those who consume water and those who farm the land. I should be surprised if any hon. Members representing rural constituencies had not received representations from people concerned about polluted water supplies and farmers concerned about the implications of farming in a way that did not lead to nitrates getting into small and private water supplies in particular.

The problem of nitrates has to be tackled. There is a clear difference, which the Minister acknowledges, between the Commission's proposal that 50 mg should be the maximum and the Government's approach, which was first to argue for 75 mg and then to accept 50 mg as an average, which presumably means that they may allow even more than 75 mg in some cases. In a sense, the Government are seizing the Commission's initiative as an opportunity to put forward an even weaker proposal than the one that they had been prepared to negotiate. That is a genuine concern about the Government's attitude.

It is a pity that the Government are in no position to appear credible on the problem of eutrophication. The problem of polluted water, sewage effluent and sewage discharge is absolutely central to the cost of water privatisation and will have to be confronted by those who invest in the industry. It is inevitable that the Government should say that there is no problem, yet evidence from others, notably our continental neighbours, suggests that it is a serious problem and that blooms are occurring around the coast of the British Isles—which the Government will not acknowledge, but of which others are aware.

It is hardly surprising that the Government do not wish to acknowledge the problem. If they did, they would also have to accept that the cost of putting the problem right could be up to £3·5 billion. If that sum had to be absorbed, it would not make privatisation of the water industry attractive. Although the Minister has tried to present the debate as centring around a technical response to a technical initiative from the Community, it represents a much more fundamental problem that the Government have tried to duck for years. Not only have they not implemented the previous directives on nitrates; they have actually sought to delay them. It is only in the last month that the European Commissioner has finally said that he will take the Government to court. When my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber (Sir R. Johnston) met him, the Commissioner made it clear that that was the only way that the Government would respond, given their commitment to water privatisation and. their unwillingness to face the full implications of the proposals.

Unlike the hon. Member for Bootle (Mr. Roberts), I share the Government's concern about the impact of the regulations on farming and farmers. Labour Members forget that working people live and work on the land. They need their livelihood——

Photo of Malcolm Bruce Malcolm Bruce , Gordon

The hon. Gentleman shows no understanding of the fabric of the rural economy and how agriculture underpins it.

Photo of Mr Allan Roberts Mr Allan Roberts , Bootle

Is the hon. Gentleman justifying pollution and the destruction of the environment, as do some Conservative Members, on the basis that it is agricultural pollution rather than industrial pollution?

Photo of Malcolm Bruce Malcolm Bruce , Gordon

The hon. Gentleman was so anxious to intervene that he did so a little early——>

Photo of Mr Allan Roberts Mr Allan Roberts , Bootle

Answer the question.

Photo of Malcolm Bruce Malcolm Bruce , Gordon

I am not in favour of agricultural pollution, and I am in favour of the Commission's proposals. I understand that they cannot be imposed overnight. Farmers must be given a reasonable opportunity to respond, especially in current circumstances when many are facing financial difficulties. The difference between my party and the Labour party is that we are concerned about workers, whether they are in industry or in any other sector of the economy, whereas the Labour party chooses to represent only those workers who will vote Labour in certain areas.

Photo of Mr Peter Hardy Mr Peter Hardy , Wentworth

The hon. Gentleman and I have participated together in many debates and I have often heard him refer to the rural position. Unfortunately, when other members of his party address audiences in more urban areas they are as willing to castigate the rural areas as he is to castigate members of my party. There seems to be a difference between his hon. Friends who represent Scottish rural constituencies and his hon. Friend the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes), who takes a quite different approach to urban affairs.

Photo of Malcolm Bruce Malcolm Bruce , Gordon

On a point of information, my seat is not rural. It is a mix of a substantial rural area and a substantial urban area. The record will show that the hon. Member for Bootle intervened in the Minister's speech and said that he was not interested in farmers. I am, and I think that the Government are, too.

Photo of Malcolm Bruce Malcolm Bruce , Gordon

No, I will not; I think that I have given way enough. I have made my points, and I stand by them.

Photo of Mr Doug Hoyle Mr Doug Hoyle , Warrington North

Will the hon. Gentleman give way? It is only a brief intervention.

Photo of Mr Harold Walker Mr Harold Walker , Doncaster Central

Order. The hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) is not giving way.

Photo of Mr Doug Hoyle Mr Doug Hoyle , Warrington North

Will the hon. Gentleman please give way?

Photo of Mr Harold Walker Mr Harold Walker , Doncaster Central

Order. The hon. Member for Warrington, North (Mr. Hoyle) has been here a long time, and he should know better.

Photo of Malcolm Bruce Malcolm Bruce , Gordon

This is a short debate, and I do not want to prolong it more than necesary. I have made my points. I think that my case rests, and I am entirely satisfied with the record.

My conclusion—which I hope that the Minister will address—is that we should not delay for the sake of agreement about getting the facts straight. We should ensure that there is proper time to adjust, but the Minister should acknowledge that it is not good enough to go on pretending that there is no problem, particularly in regard to eutrophication. Clearly there is a problem. The Government should accept that, one way or another, the problem must be addressed and money must be invested —not least in ensuring that we do not discharge raw sewage into the seas around our coast. We must set ourselves a timetable to eliminte that process.

Photo of Anthony Steen Anthony Steen , South Hams 10:45 pm, 1st November 1989

I should like briefly to tell the House something about the south Devon coastline, which is part of my constituency. Those 88 miles of coastline have more designated areas than any other coastline in the country: it is an area of outstanding natural beauty, and is called "the heritage coastline" and "an area of great landscape value". It contains a good number of conservation areas, a national park is close by it, and it has many sites of special scientific interest. Yet at Thurlestone——

Photo of Anthony Steen Anthony Steen , South Hams

I will stop reading when I wish to stop reading, not when the hon. Gentleman wishes me to stop reading.

At Thurlestone there is a sewage outfall which is at 300 times the Common Market beach pollution level. I am afraid that, in the summer, a swimmer contacted hepatitis A as a result of contact with sewage flowing into the sea there. At Street, some way along the coastline, raw sewage flows out to sea: it goes over the cliff through a broken pipe, having been carried through agricultural land. All the sewage of Dartmouth, together with sewage from 50 other outlets, flows into the River Dart untreated.

Photo of Mr Doug Hoyle Mr Doug Hoyle , Warrington North

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for the hon. Gentleman, having been told to stop reading, to continue to do so?

Photo of Mr Harold Walker Mr Harold Walker , Doncaster Central

Order. I have not told the hon. Gentleman that he is reading, and in any case it is not unusual for hon. Members to refresh their memories with notes, sometimes copious notes.

Photo of Anthony Steen Anthony Steen , South Hams

It is clear that Opposition Members are not taking the matter seriously; they just want to make fun. My hon. Friends believe that this is an extremely serious debate, which will have serious consequences.

Photo of Mr Doug Hoyle Mr Doug Hoyle , Warrington North

It is very serious, but the hon. Gentleman should not read.

Photo of Mr Harold Walker Mr Harold Walker , Doncaster Central

Order. The hon. Member for Warrington, North knows that he must not persistently intervene from a sedentary position. This is a serious matter, and I very much hope that the House will take it seriously.

Photo of Mr Doug Hoyle Mr Doug Hoyle , Warrington North

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Of course it is a serious matter, but I am sure that the rules of the House apply—do they not, Mr. Deputy Speaker?

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord , Suffolk Central

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for Opposition Members, simply because they dined quite well, to disrupt a very important debate? I should be grateful if you would give some thought to dealing with the hon. Member for Warrington, North (Mr. Hoyle) if he continues to carry on in this way.

Photo of Mr Harold Walker Mr Harold Walker , Doncaster Central

Order. Perhaps it would be more sensible to get back to the debate.

Photo of Mr Doug Hoyle Mr Doug Hoyle , Warrington North

I am sorry, Mr. Deputy Speaker—[HON. MEMBERS: "Name him."] We cannot allow aspersions to be cast on Opposition Members who take a deep interest in debates, at whatever time they may be held. We cannot allow someone to come along and say, just because it is 10.49 pm, that certain people may or may not have dined well—and that usually applies to Conservative Members.

Photo of Anthony Steen Anthony Steen , South Hams

I have referred to the enormous amount of sewage that flows into the rivers and then into the sea along the south Devon coastline. The Government need to be more robust and active than merely taking note of a European Council directive.

On the south Devon coast there is a natural freshwater lagoon, Slapton Ley. It is a site of special scientific interest. The freshwater lagoon is separated from the sea by a few yards. It was recognised as one of the finest fish and bird sanctuaries in the country. During the last 20 years, however, the fish population has declined by 70 per cent. and the lagoon is attracting fewer and fewer birds.

A few months ago I was asked to open a bird hide for the handicapped. When I pushed the first old lady in her wheelchair into it we found that there was not a bird to be seen. The reason is simple: the rivers are polluting the lagoon. Apart form the acids pouring into the ley, South West Water is pumping sewage into it. About a year ago I started a campaign to draw the Government's attention to the fact that this site of special scientific interest in an area of great landscape value and outstanding natural beauty is being destroyed by pollution.

On 25 August 1989 a Totnes newspaper reported that I launched a campaign to clean up Slapton Ley. I explained what I thought ought to be done—that there ought to be a pilot scheme designed to safeguard this environmentally sensitive area. So far, however, I have singularly failed to persuade the Government that they should take any interest in the matter. I pointed out: Toxic materials washed off surrounding farmland and treated sewage effluent have upset the ley's natural balance and have resulted in a serious decline in fish and bird populations". I explained: The reserve, a site of special scientific interest, is being clogged by an unnatural growth of algae which blocks out sunlight and starves the water of oxygen. There is a clause in the Water Privatisation Act for wildlife havens like Slapton to be designated nitrate sensitive areas. I received the Minister's response yesterday. I hope that I shall not embarrass him, but it shows our Government's commitment to green issues and to doing something about preserving one of the most important sites of special scientific interest. He said: I was very sorry to hear that this nature reserve, and SSSI, appears to be deteriorating in quality and wildlife interest. Our Regional staff are of course aware of the problem and have had meetings with various people. He continued: It is one of our oldest and best known SSSIS and I am sure everyone will wish that it can be quickly restored. He then went on to say that, broadly, the problem had been identified as both nitrate and phosphate run-off from agricultural land but that there was no evidence that local farmers had not been observing good agricultural practice.

The evidence is overwhelming that the damage to fish and bird life has been caused by sewage, pumped into the ley by South West Water, and the use of nitrates and phosphates by farmers. They are perfectly prepared to stop using them if the Government will compensate them for not doing so. The Minister said: I am afraid that MAFF cannot simply designate the Slapton area as a Nitrate Sensitive Area in our pilot scheme. The National Rivers Authority is responsible for selecting the 'candidate' areas, and they have recently notified us of areas which we are now looking at in depth before any Scheme is introduced. I am copying this correspondence to Michael Howard at the DoE, which is the Department with responsibility for sewage treatment". How can the Minister duck an issue affecting one of the most treasured areas of this country? Why was he not more positive in his response to me? There is national concern that a site of special scientific interest is being killed off by lack of Government action. I hope that the Minister will realise that the directive has given us an opportunity to draw attention to the Government's failure to practise what they preach.

I should like to mention another problem that has arisen in south Devon and many other parts of the country —the taking of more and more water from the water system, particularly reservoirs, because of the unrestrained growth of house building. Water authorities are not telling the planning authorities that they cannot supply increasing quantities of water. They are pumping more water from the reservoirs and reducing the amount of water flowing down the old river course. Nitrates are flowing off farm land—I do not blame farmers for that—and poisoning the reduced levels of water.

I shall give as an example what is happening at the Avon dam in the Dartmoor national park, which is an area of outstanding natural beauty. When the Avon reservoir was built, 0·95cu m per second of water was diverted from the mains water supply down the old river course. That figure reduced to 0·68 in 1978 and from that to 0·026. In August 1989, South West Water applied to the Government to reduce the figure from 0·026 to 0·012. Experts said that if that had happened it would have taken three to five years to restore the river to health.

By reducing the amount of water flowing down the old river courses, we are allowing nitrates to have a powerful effect on aquatic life. We are reducing the amount of water to such an extent that nitrates are not being diluted. The reason for that is that the water authorities are not telling the planning authorities, "We cannot allow any more building until we have a greater water supply."

Photo of Mr David Nicholson Mr David Nicholson , Taunton

My hon. Friend is aware of my knowledge of his constituency. Does he agree that over the years the provision of reservoirs in the area has been grossly inadequate?

Photo of Anthony Steen Anthony Steen , South Hams

My hon. Friend's interest in my constituency is well known, and I am grateful for his intervention.

Instead of the water authorities refusing to allow more houses to be built until more water is available, they have allowed water to be used to such an extent that the rivers have become depleted and the poisons are not being sufficiently diluted.

Although the Minister will say that it is not his Department's responsibility but that of the Department of the Environment—they are both passing the buck—as a Government we should be committed to purifying rivers, to reducing pollution and to ensuring that more house building is not allowed until the supply of water is adequate. We cannot continue destroying aquatic life in our rivers because we want more houses built.

It is regrettable that we are debating a matter in which Britain should be taking the lead only because the EC decided to produce a directive. However, because it has done so, we are obliged to ensure that we make fast progress in ensuring that our river life is not destroyed, that we stop building until we have enough water, and that we do not destroy our sites of special scientific interest.

Photo of Mr Nicholas Baker Mr Nicholas Baker , North Dorset

My hon. Friend is right, and what he is saying strikes a chord in all of us, especially those who represent rural areas. I think that my hon. Friend will find that his call is being responded to by our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, to judge from a speech that he made in Blackpool at a certain occasion not long ago. My hon. Friend is making the right noises, and I think that there is reason for optimism.

Photo of Anthony Steen Anthony Steen , South Hams

Because of the intervention of the hon. Member for Warrington, North (Mr. Hoyle), which took five minutes out of a speech that I had to make in 10 rather than 15, I think that it would be right for me to sit down and allow others to speak.

11 pm

Photo of Mr Allan Roberts Mr Allan Roberts , Bootle

I am surprised that the hon. Member for Dorset, North (Mr. Baker) should say that Conservative Members are expecting a positive response from the Secretary of State for the Environment on this issue and the pollution of our rivers and seas.

The Government are committed to a policy of sewage sludge-dumping at sea. They are committed to a policy of using long outfalls to dispose of raw sewage further out to sea—so it lands on different beaches. I hope, but doubt, that hon. Members who are now complaining about sewage damaging our rivers and seas voted for Labour's amendment to the Water Bill which would not have exempted private water companies from prosecution for such pollution.

I understand that the present Secretary of State for the Environment has not altered the policy of his predecessor. Private water companies are still to be exempted from prosecution for breaching discharge consent levels on sewage discharges into rivers and seas. The 12-year moratorium that applies at the moment, which we voted against, but which Conservative Members did not vote against, could be extended by the Secretary of State. It is agreed that water companies can produce proposals for expenditure and the possibility of dealing with the problem. There is no time scale. There is no expenditure —only proposals for expenditure./

The Government are clever at saying one thing and doing another. They claim to be concerned about the environment and nitrate and nitrate pollution, yet they adopt policies that will ensure that action is not taken. The Times of Monday 14 August—when the House was in recess—reported: £3 million grant cut puts water nitrate and crop studies at risk. A cut of £3 million by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food". The Ministry is the culprit. It is preventing wiser voices in the Department of the Environment from taking real action on nitrate and nitrite pollution because of the National Farmers Union and the agriculture lobby. Whatever we say, the agriculture lobby is pernicious in this respect.

Such pollution derives directly from the common agricultural policy, the commitment of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food—one could call it the MAFFIAintervention, and our membership of the EEC.

The Times said: A cut of £3 million by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food for horticultural research has jeopardised studies into nitrate levels in crops, the water supplies and the future of a bank of plant genes. The decision to withdraw Government support amounts to a 20 per cent. reduction in spending over the next two years for the Institute of Horticultural Research.

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord , Suffolk Central

The hon. Gentleman is being rather rude about British farmers, but he obviously enjoys that. Would he like to explain how individual farmers are to blame for the common agricultural policy?

Photo of Mr Allan Roberts Mr Allan Roberts , Bootle

I did not say that individual farmers are to blame for the common agricultural policey. I said that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, intervention and our membership of the Common Market, as long as the CAP is in operation, are responsible for nitrate and nitrite pollution and the overuse of fertilisers. We pay the richer farmers through the subsidy system for producing more food than we need.

I do not know whether the hon. Member for Suffolk, Central (Mr. Lord) was at the Conservative party conference. The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry was not, but the Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food was. The people who attend Conservative party conferences must not be very bright, because the right hon. Gentleman had a visual aid—"This is a butter mountain. This is a smaller butter mountain." He boasted about having reduced the butter mountain. The butter had been given to the Russians.

Photo of Mr Andrew Stewart Mr Andrew Stewart , Sherwood

It is Conservative party policy to reduce mountains of surplus food.

Photo of Mr Allan Roberts Mr Allan Roberts , Bootle

It is Conservative policy to have visual aids showing butter mountains. There are butter mountains, beef mountains, wine lakes and so on. If we get harmonisation, they might mix the mustard with the wine —I do not know. As long as the common agricultural policy continues and farmers are subsidised, they will be reluctant to stop using nitrate fertilisers, and the pollution will continue. Something must be done.

We are being prosecuted under the provisions of an EEC drinking water directive on nitrates—80/778—because of the high nitrate levels in drinking water in East Anglia, Tower Hamlets and other places. Nitrite pollution is linked with the blue baby syndrome. It may also, although the research is not conclusive, cause stomach cancer. If we accept the Government's commitment to a declaration signed by North sea countries and adopt a precautionary approach, we should take action to ensure that nitrite and nitrate pollution does not occur in our drinking water. Cancelling research into the problem does not help.

This directive aims to reduce pollution of fresh, coastal and marine water caused by nitrates from diffuse sources —agriculture, fertilisers, animal manure and slurry. The Government could adopt a policy of giving farmers assistance, even grants, to provide facilities for the storage of slurry. The designation of vulnerable zones is welcome. The Government's desire to designate those zones was welcomed even by Labour spokespeople in the other place. However, all the designations will be voluntary. Lord Crickhowell spoke in favour of the voluntary approach and criticised the EEC directive on the lines that the Government were doing something—meaning that no decisive or precise action will be taken.

When will the National Rivers Authority be seen to be independent of the Government? When will it have a chairperson who is not a Tory placeperson and former Cabinet Minister?

Photo of Malcolm Bruce Malcolm Bruce , Gordon

I accept the hon. Gentleman's point. Nevertheless, even the NRA has designated 24 lakes and rivers which suffer from the problem of eutrophication of algae, yet the Government continue to say that there is no problem.

Photo of Mr Allan Roberts Mr Allan Roberts , Bootle

I agree. During the summer, lakes and reservoirs were closed because of the production of algae. Nitrates are a problem not only because they get into our drinking water through the use of fertilisers but because they get into natural fresh water lakes, estuaries and coastal waters, which become eutrophic. In simple terms, that means algae grows, becomes poisonous, and damages the environment. If no action is taken where high nitrate concentrations are identified, the algae continues to grow and to kill plant and animal life. That is a serious problem. It is in our drinking water, lakes and reservoirs. It also gets into our rivers and ground water and flows into the sea and around our coastal areas. It over-fertilises the photo-plankton and the seaweed around our coasts which flowers more than it should. That takes the oxygen out of the sea which means that fish and other life forms cannot survive. It is a major problem that needs to be addressed by the Government.

Could pesticides and nitrates get into our food and cause problems in the products we buy in our supermarkets?

Photo of Anthony Steen Anthony Steen , South Hams

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that some farmers have to use fertilisers to make a living and that if they use fewer fertilisers and acids, they should receive compensation? The hon. Gentleman mentioned the algae but a unique condition was caused this summer by the drought. It is not right to conclude, as he has, that the problem occurs every year.

Photo of Mr Allan Roberts Mr Allan Roberts , Bootle

It does happen every year but not on such a large scale and it is not given as much media attention. However, I agree that it is made worse when the weather is hot.

I am in favour of the declaration of zones within which nitrates and nitrites are not to be used. Action should be taken in vulnerable areas in which nitrates and nitrites may find their way into ground water and fresh water sources and into drinking water. However, I do not believe that the Government's solution, under which farmers would voluntarily declare and operate zones, will work. I saw a farmer interviewed on television and he said that if the farmer next door is not forced to stop using nitrates and nitrites, he would not stop, even if his area was declared a vulnerable zone.

The problem can be solved only by a mandatory approach. I do not object to help being given to farmers to deal with the problem. However, the long-term solution to the over-use of nitrate and nitrite fertilisers is to stop using them and to ensure that they are not necessary. To do that, there would need to be some changes to the common agricultural policy.

I am not against facilities to farmers as long as they are used wisely and the benefit is felt by the consumer and the farm worker. However, that is not what happens to many of the subsidies now. It is Labour party policy——

Photo of Mr Keith Mans Mr Keith Mans , Wyre

The hon. Gentleman has made an interesting point. Am I right in saying that he has committed the Labour party to the huge increases in food prices that would result from the abolition of nitrate fertilisers?

Photo of Mr Allan Roberts Mr Allan Roberts , Bootle

Conservative Members are always trying to make mischief and misrepresent what people say.

Before I gave way I was about to say that the Labour party will assist the poorer hill farmer in a way that does not happen under the CAP. We will assist those who grow and develop programmes for producing crops organically. That will help the consumer considerably. We will not adopt the policies that the Government now seem to be embracing having commissioned the Pearce report. The report says that we should tax the polluter and polluting activity. That includes farmers. Therefore, if farmers use polluting fertilisers and pesticides they will be taxed. That will mean not that the polluter pays but that one pays to pollute. What is likely to happen is that farmers will continue to use nitrate fertilisers and will pass on the cost of the tax to the consumer.

Photo of Mr Peter Hardy Mr Peter Hardy , Wentworth

I ask my hon. Friend not to allow himself to be diverted by hon. Members who are trying to ensure that we start talking about the plight of the farmer. The hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart), as a farmer himself, would find that attractive. They are trying to ensure that my hon. Friend moves away from his scathing indictment of Government environmental policy, which should be at the heart of this debate.

Photo of Mr Allan Roberts Mr Allan Roberts , Bootle

I could not agree more with my hon. Friend, but we must remember that one of the Government's answers to agricultural pollution through the use of nitrates and nitrites is to tax the farmer. The Pearce report recommended that and, generally, the Government have embraced the Pearce report. The Government's policy may be to tax the polluter, but in practice it will be a policy not that the polluter pays, but that one can pay to pollute and can pass on the cost to the consumer.

We are not surprised that the Government's policy means that the consumer will pay. The Government claim that they want to clean up our water environment, but they have made it clear that if there are any improvements in our water environment, the consumer will pay for them. The polluter will not pay and the private water companies discharging the sewage will not pay. All the cost will be borne by the water consumer. The Government's policy seems to be that the consumer pays.

Photo of Mr Roger Knapman Mr Roger Knapman , Stroud

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Photo of Mr Allan Roberts Mr Allan Roberts , Bootle

I will give way, for the last time.

Photo of Mr Roger Knapman Mr Roger Knapman , Stroud

The hon. Gentleman has said that we produce too much food. In fact, we grow 85 per cent. of the temperate foodstuffs that we need. If nitrogen application is to be reduced in the way that the hon. Gentleman has described, what proportion of food will be home grown?

Photo of Mr Allan Roberts Mr Allan Roberts , Bootle

Eighty-five per cent. Europe produces beef and butter mountains and Britain contributes to some food mountains. It is not advisable for the Government to continue policies that are polluting our drinking water, rivers and seas. They also pursue policies—which the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Knapman) supports—that produce beef and butter mountains, and wine lakes. We are opposed to that. We shall continue sane and rational policies, which will help poorer farmers, such as the hill farmers, and encourage organic products for the housewife and the househusband.

Photo of Mr Andrew Stewart Mr Andrew Stewart , Sherwood

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Photo of Mr Allan Roberts Mr Allan Roberts , Bootle

No. I said that I had given way for the last time. [HON. MEMBERS: "Frit."] It is not a matter of being frit; it is a matter of time. I shall receive complaints if my hon. Friends and other hon. Members are cut out of the debate because I speak for too long.

The Government's response to the directive is acceptable, but inadequate because it does not go far enough. The Government are damning with faint praise and assenting with civil leer, as they usually do. They claim to accept the main thrust of the directive, although they deny the principle behind it, which is a requirement for more direct action by Government to deal with the nitrate and nitrite pollution problems. Nine advisory areas, on a voluntary basis, and pilot schemes are not acceptable at this stage when one considers the problems caused by this pollution.

The Government should take stronger action and intervene in the market to assist farmers who are prepared to adopt environmentally acceptable methods of farming which do not involve the use of damaging fertilisers and pesticides. They should intervene in the market through legislation to have more powers over what is happening. The Secretary of State for the Environment should tell the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food that he does not accept the views that are being pushed on him by his colleague and that concern for the environment is as important as concern for the farmers and agriculture—which is important—and the common agricultural policy.

Photo of William Hague William Hague , Richmond (Yorks) 11:20 pm, 1st November 1989

I shall contribute only briefly to the debate and shall not take up the majority of the arguments of the hon. Member for Bootle (Mr. Roberts), who spoke from the Opposition Front Bench. Many of my constituents will be interested to hear, however, about the new policy of the Labour party to phase out the use of nitrogen-based fertilisers at the earliest possible moment. The effect of that on food production and food prices would be dramatic.

I wish to emphasise the extent of the concern in my constituency and, I believe, in the country generally. The efforts of the European Commission are obviously well intentioned and all the contributions to the debate have been well intentioned, but the content of the directive and its presentation are not good advertisements for the work of the Commission. It has produced an inflexible scheme, the potential cost of which is enormous, without proper evaluation of the options.

The scheme is highly unpredictable in its consequences. The Select Committee in another place estimated that a reduction of one third in arable crop output could result from a strict interpretation of the directive's proposals. Perhaps that is an outside estimate. I have no doubt that it is possible to exaggerate, but it is a large enough number to merit considerable concern. That will or could be the result of a directive for which the Commission has published no scientific evidence. It has never been able to clarify where the limit of 50 mg per litre comes from. We all agree that there has to be a limit and that the problem must be tackled, but the Commission should be able to produce more scientific evidence than it has presented.

No doubt the Commission would say that a limit of 50 mg per litre would be on the safe side. It is a good thing to be on the safe side, and that is the side on which we all want to be because the hazards of excessive nitrate pollution accumulating in future are great, but we want to be on the safe side in the most practical, sensible and cost-effective way. It is not clear that the most cost-effective way is to endanger the productive capacity of vast tracts of agricultural land.

The United Kingdom is unusual in the European Community in the proportion of its drinking water that originates on the surface rather than under the ground. Our circumstances are different from those in many parts of the continent. Such factors must be allowed for in any agreement that is reached in the European Community.

Nor is it clear that it is sensible to introduce a limit which has to be broken only once for compulsory restrictions, as set out in the directive, to come into force, especially when it is likely to be broken occasionally in some areas because of unusual weather conditions or the onset of winter. There will be dilution subsequently in any event as the polluted water flows into large bodies of water. It has not done the Commission any good to produce such a proposal. I can presume only that it did not have the research capability and background to enable it to evaluate the consequences.

I support the Government's effort to allow greater national variation. The extent of the problem varies widely according to local rock formation and local agriculture practice. If the Government accede to a compulsory scheme—and hon. Members who have referred to the unwillingness of farmers to adopt a voluntary scheme should remember the success of the voluntary environmentally sensitive area scheme, for example—the problems of deciding on fair compensation for farmers will be immense. How will we decide how to compensate the farmer who has invested heavily in the drainage or irrigation of his land and the farmer who has not? The problems will be enormous.

I hope that Ministers will approach the forthcoming negotiations with their customary resolve. I hope also that they will take the message from the House that it would have been better if the Commission had concentrated on laying down common standards, subject to sensible interpretation for different conditions, rather than troubling itself to seek to introduce inflexible rules and compulsory restrictions, the consequences of which it has shown little evidence of recognising.

Photo of Mr Peter Hardy Mr Peter Hardy , Wentworth 11:24 pm, 1st November 1989

I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague). I well understand his caution before he embraced the criticism that is justly levelled at the Government. The hon. Gentleman has not been long in the House, but he will be aware that I have been concerned for a long time about environmental matters. He knows that in our home area—I think that it is still his home area—we have some of the foulest rivers in Europe.

In 1971 when I had been in the House a short time, I campaigned—which is the word that I think the Yorkshire Post used—for clean rivers. I was promised that the dirty, foul sewers of South Yorkshire would reach class 2 or recreational standard by the middle 1980s. We were advised in the mid-1980s that our dirty, open sewers might reach recreational standard by the early 21st century. Far from making progress we appear to be slipping back. The hon. Gentleman will understand that I am rather more impatient than his speech suggested that he was, although he recognised that if the case were proved, action would have to be rather more urgent.

I am not prepared to accept that we should refer to yet another body for scientific research so that we can determine that our rivers are dangerous, unhealthy and foul. They are. Next month I shall take the chair at a conference in Paris to discuss the North sea. Although some of our European neighbours are a little holier than thou at times, we in the United Kingdom cannot hold up our heads with any sense of pride.

It is a pity that we have to have a dry summer before we recognise the evils or errors of our ways. Because of the dry summer, untreated sewage bacteria is falling on the heads of a substantial proportion of the population in the eastern part of my county. That is the result of taking untreated sewage water into the cooling towers at power stations. I heard a Conservative party Member say that that was because of the miners, because of having to burn coal at power stations.

Some of us have been arguing that we have not been cleaning our rivers for anything like as long as we should have been. Our rivers are foul. When I raised the matter in 1971 I was concerned about the industrial rivers of South Yorkshire. In those days the Ure, the Swale and the Nidd, all the rivers in our county, some of which water the constituencies of the hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks, were clean.

Those of us interested in these matters have discovered that in recent years the rural rivers of Yorkshire are deteriorating faster than ours. For example, we discovered a couple of years ago that the number of offences committed by people in the rural areas of Yorkshire in our own water authority area had risen enormously. I was extremely critical of our water authority because the number of prosecutions was falling and had reached a pathetically low level. Then I acquitted the Yorkshire water authority because it can only operate within the law of the land. When it took out prosecutions it found that some people were making a fortune out of poisoning our water. Having been brought to justice, the commercial undertakings responsible for that poisoning were fined a mere £200 or £300. It was scarcely worth the effort of the authority. It brought the law into disrepute and encouraged criminal action.

It is not only corrupt private businesses which are polluting our rivers; some farmers are also doing so. I recognise that many farmers do not wish to pollute the environment and that many of them have taken a great deal of trouble to avoid doing so. However, excessive use of nitrates is damaging our rivers and streams and the health of our country.

When people talk about the greenhouse effect and global warming they associate that with coal-fired power stations. I am not a scientist and I am not qualified to give an expert analysis of the facts, but I hope that the Minister will confirm that emissions from fertilisers make a significant contribution to the pollution of the atmosphere. The hon. Member for Wyre (Mr. Mans) will recall that in the Committee considering the Electricity Bill I forecast the number of low-lying constituencies that would be inundated as a result of the greenhouse effect. The political benefit to the Opposition, prior to the election, would be enormous. In a party-political sense my attitude is relatively unbiased, however, as we must accept that the emission of greenhouse gases should be limited. We must ensure that the interests of man do not supersede those of the world climate. The Government should be spurred into action.

Perhaps there is some justified criticism of the Commission for prosecuting the British Government when it may not have had adequate information. Those of us concerned with nature conservation do not, however, require any more information to make us believe that the Government are guilty of negligence, incompetence or worse.

The hon. Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) spoke about his site of special scientific interest. Last Saturday I addressed the annual meeting of the Yorkshire wildlife trust. As evidence for the thesis that I advanced I took a document entitled "Losing Ground", recently published by the Royal Society for Nature Conservation. In February a noble Lord in the other place, answering questions on behalf of the Department of the Environment, suggested that he could not find one example of damage to a SSSI. In June a ministerial colleague confirmed in a parliamentary answer that in the past 12 months 228 SSSIs had been damaged. As the Nature Conservancy Council does not have the resources that it should, one cannot be sure that that list of damaged SSSIs is complete.

That background of administrative incompetence led the Prime Minister, on 16 January, to call for our wetlands, woods, moors, marshes, fields, ponds, rivers and hedgerows to be protected. She said that we are merely trustees and that no generation has a freehold on our island. My hon. Friends will remember that I responded to that call by tabling a Bill that very day to protect hedgerows. The Government blocked that Bill despite the fact that many Conservative Members, including some who occupy the Treasury Bench, wanted that Bill to succeed. I wrote two letters to the Prime Minister in which I criticised that decision, but she suggested that other things, as well as conservation, matter. The Prime Minister takes such an attitude when she is considering legislation, but on other occasions, for example when she spoke at the Royal Society of Arts, she is prepared to be as green as the hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) and his colleagues. We should develop a bipartisan policy to such matters because we are talking about not simply the conservation of rare species, but the survival of mankind. Some of the conditions that develop from the eutrophication of water and the fact that our generation has been careless with the liberal doses of toxic material with which we have laced the environment have led us to recognise that we have gone too far.

I do not suppose that many hon. Members have had a similar experience to the one I have faced since August when I discovered that tonnes and tonnes of toxic waste was being kept one mile from my home. Immediately I found out I came to see the Minister on duty at the Department of the Environment. He was courteous, saw me immediately and gave immediate instructions that the toxic waste should be put into secure containers. It took about six weeks before the containers were obtained, and nearly two months—certainly eight or nine weeks—before the task was completed. The result is that I have hundreds of tonnes of toxic waste in my constituency, one mile from my home, in an area of Britain which is, more than most, crying out for regeneration and environmental enhancement. No one, not even the highest paid officials in public agencies or Ministers in the Treasury Department, knows what we are going to do with it.

The waste came improperly, if not unlawfully, from the United States of America. I had hoped that by now we would have made effective representations to the American Administration to get it shifted. However, we have 2,700 drums of toxic waste less than 1 km from my home, which has caused enormous anxiety. From the occasional visits which he has made to our area, the hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks will be aware of the problem. Despite all that, the drums are still there and I do not know when they will he moved. It is about time that I did.

This is a classic illustration, not merely of the historically low priority that these matters have enjoyed, but of the gross inadequacy of law and regulation which I hope will be put right in the green Bill because little measures of this sort will not suffice to meet the environmental challenge. The green Bill must do so, and I hope that when it comes before the House it will be of such character and content that it can be accepted on the bipartisan basis which I mentioned.

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord , Suffolk Central 11:37 pm, 1st November 1989

I shall bring the House back to the topic which we are supposed to be debating: nitrates and the Community directive. I respect the knowledge of the hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) and his concern about the environment, but he has given us a quick canter around the environment and that is not what we are here to talk about tonight.

I shall devote my remarks as quickly as I can—because I know time is short—to three items: first, how these matters impact on the nation's health; secondly, the role and image of the Community; and thirdly, our farmers' welfare. The Government's proposals in relation to nitrate levels and the time scale for improvements are reasonable. They have recognised the problem, and it is being tackled.

I shall turn to the question of the nation's health and what we are trying to protect the nation from. It is important on any environmental issue to get the facts right, otherwise we do ourselves and the issue no service. We are talking of the possibility of nitrates causing the blue baby syndrome and cancer. The House of Lords report said of the blue baby syndrome that it was now virtually non-existent in Western Europe". There have been 14 cases … in the United Kingdom in the past 35 years, the last of which was in 1972 … the only recorded death was in 1950 when the nitrate level was found to be 885 mg/l". That is not a good case for identifying a desperate need to do something about nitrates in relation to blue baby syndrome.

The House of Lords report said about cancer: Studies of fertiliser workers exposed to very high doses of nitrate have not shown any increased level of cancer and the overall trend in the United Kingdom has been a fall in the incidence of stomach cancer whilst nitrate levels in water have risen. Indeed, the incidence of stomach cancer is lowest in Eastern England where nitrate concentrations in water are highest … Most witnesses discounted the importance of nitrate in drinking water as a factor contributing to cancer development … The Institute of Cancer Research considered the evidence …to be 'very weak' … the Medical Research Council said that 'nitrates in water at levels of 50 —100mg per litre do not present any hazard with respect to gastric cancer'. Without wanting to disregard those matters, that puts the situation into perspective.

It is important that the Community should not act in an arbitrary way. Our eyes are upon it and my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor) has some strong feelings about it. If the Community is to maintain its credibility, it is important that it should not act in too arbitrary a way.

The Government invited the Commission to suggest any practicable ways in which work on these matters could be speeded up, but it was unable to come up with a single idea. That is how helpful it was. When it was trying to make us go faster, it could not come up with any ideas itself.

The farming community has been unfairly and harshly treated by the Opposition tonight, and I want to say a few words about farmers in general and about my Suffolk farmers in particular. We are talking not just about farmers, but about all the other industries that depend upon them in our rural communities, from the merchants and the fertiliser manufacturers, right down to the village shop and the local pub. All depend on a thriving agriculture.

It is worth reminding the hon. Member for Bootle (M:r. Roberts), and perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East that it is one thing to have too much food, but let us hope that we never see the day when we do not have enough food.

Suffolk has some of the best cereal farmers in the world, but they are feeling increasingly beleaguered. They are unfairly accused of surpluses when they were doing only what they were asked to do. They are also unfairly accused of damaging the environment when those who understand such things know that they have been good custodians of the environment. Anyone who cares to come to East Anglia will see that the countryside has never looked better.

Until recently the use of nitrates was regarded as good agricultural practice. Suddenly it is not, but it is unfair to start talking of pollution and to expect farmers to change their ways immediately.

My farmers are extremely fearful of Europe, 1992 and unfairness. One and a half pages of the directive relate to the United Kingdom and how we should tackle our nitrate problem, compared with only four lines to describe the problem in Spain and two lines for Portugal. That shows how we are giving chapter and verse while others are not. That is an important point. Farming is a long-term business and farmers must be given time to adjust, with adequate compensation during that period.

Our farmers have served us well. We take them for granted at our peril. They deserve our fullest concern and support, and I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to assure us that he will provide just that.

Photo of David Maclean David Maclean Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food) 11:42 pm, 1st November 1989

This has been an interesting if wide-ranging debate, which often did not stick too closely to the exact terms of the directive.

The hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) may have misunderstood the Government's position. Let there be no mistake that the Government are committed to the 50 mg level in drinking water as it comes out of our tap. However, we want some flexibility on the water in the river, not at the point of abstraction or when it comes out of the tap. An averaging system would be perfectly acceptable there, and that is what we have been urging on the Commission.

Let me give a simple example in relation to blending. The Commission's original proposals were so inflexible that if river A had 20 mg and river B had 60 mg and they merged into river C which then averaged 40 mg, that, at the point of abstraction would be acceptable under the directive, but we would be forced to take a panoply of measures in order to deal with river B at source which was technically over the 50 mg limit even though no one was drinking it. We see no point in that response. That is why we have been negotiating with the Commission and making good progress.

It is true that some coastal regions in the North sea appear to be at risk of eutrophication. The algae blooms along the coasts of Denmark and Germany are an example. The ministerial declaration of the second North sea conference in November 1987 required states to take effective national steps to reduce nutrient inputs into areas where they are likely directly or indirectly to cause pollution. We would not consider possible eutrophication due to nitrate in parts of the North sea not adjacent to the United Kingdom as legitimate grounds for designating vulnerable zones in the United Kingdom.

The hon. Member for Gordon also said that we need time to adjust. I agree entirely. One of the reasons we are going ahead with our candidate nitrate-sensitive areas is so that we can have a voluntary system up and running and so that we can assess the measure and its effectiveness before the EC directive becomes fully functional in four years' time.

Turning to the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen), I must tell him that I and my hon. Friend are not trying to duck the issues. Much of what my hon. Friend the Member for South Hams said is important but not within the terms of the directive. I shall try to give him a fair response.

The Government are engaged in a £1 billion programme to deal with the problem of sewage going directly into the sea. Part of the reason for privatising the water companies was to generate capital investment from private sources to build more reservoirs—I understand that two are planned in my hon. Friend's part of the world —to deal with the problems of too great extraction.

My hon. Friend quoted from the letter I sent him about Slapton Ley. I am not ducking the issue, but the directive deals with nitrate in drinking water. It does not deal with pollution of a water supply causing damage to wildlife and to conservation. That is why my Department, with specific responsibilities for that, could not give him a more helpful reply. I am happy to discuss that problem with him, but if there is any pollution in his river from any farmers, I shall not defend farmers who cause pollution. The National Rivers Authority will have teeth and it will prosecute.

My hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) is absolutely right to urge flexibility and some national variation. That is exactly what the Government have been urging, supported by our colleagues in other European countries who want some flexibility. The French in particular are aware of the possible dangers to their food supply and of the unnecessary disruption to good agricultural practice in the countryside if rigid limits are imposed when they are not strictly necessary.

I respect the long experience in the House of the hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy). He has been here much longer than I have and has a long commitment to the environment. I was fascinated by all he had to say about the general problems of pollution in the environment. However, the Government are committed to cleaning up our rivers. We are entirely committed to the 50 mg nitrate limit in drinking water, which is the reason behind the directive. Let me repeat that I would not defend any farmers who are causing pollution from whatever source. My Department has a grant scheme for slurry containment systems to make sure that pollution is eliminated or reduced to the absolute minimum. Even then, if farmers cause pollution in spite of the generous grants available from my Department, that is a matter for the prosecuting authorities.

I am not a scientist. Perhaps it is a good thing that we are not all scientists. I do not know the exact effects of fertilisers on global warming. However, in the past few years my Department has been instrumental in urging farmers not to overdo the use of fertilisers. We ask farmers to optimise fertiliser not to maximise it—to use no more than the right amount at the right time of year.

Photo of David Maclean David Maclean Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)

I am coming on to the hon. Gentleman's speech. He need not worry about that.

We have been successful in reducing nitrate leaching by 60 per cent. by reducing the amount of autumn fertiliser applied when there is no uptake of it.

Photo of David Maclean David Maclean Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)

No. I have only three minutes left, and I want to save at least two minutes to reply to the hon. Gentleman.

Photo of David Maclean David Maclean Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)

The hon. Gentleman spoke for about 20 minutes. I have only 7 minutes and I am going to utilise them. My hon. Friend——

Photo of David Maclean David Maclean Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)

The hon. Gentleman is trying to stop me from speaking in this debate. If he does, it will be on the record——

Photo of Mr Allan Roberts Mr Allan Roberts , Bootle

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The hon. Members who lengthened my contribution, who caused me to speak for as long as I did, were Conservative Members who intervened——

Photo of Mr Harold Walker Mr Harold Walker , Doncaster Central

Order. What is the hon. Gentleman's point of order?

Photo of Mr Allan Roberts Mr Allan Roberts , Bootle

The Minister accused me of lengthening the debate——

Photo of Mr Harold Walker Mr Harold Walker , Doncaster Central

Order. That is not a point of order for me.

Photo of David Maclean David Maclean Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Central (Mr. Lord) on making some valid and sensible points. It is right to stress the importance of the food supply in this country. Many countries do not have an adequate food supply—thank God that we do, and we should not forget that.

I shall now deal with the points raised by the hon. Member for Bootle (Mr. Roberts). We have had a good, sensible and wide-ranging debate. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will regret some of his remarks. He did not address himself to the debate, but instead made a ragbag of bitter accusations against farmers and the agricultural lobby, which he described as pernicious, and my Department, which he called the MAFFIA. I do not care if he calls me the MAFFIA, but he should remember that in my Department there are hundreds of good, honest civil servants—scientists and doctors—and it is disgraceful to refer to them as the MAFFIA.

We are not cutting research on nitrate pollution. If the hon. Gentleman cares to visit the experimental research station that I visited at Gleadethorpe, he would realise the success of our nitrate research. The hon. Gentleman brought in the blue baby syndrome; he just cast it into the debate without any facts. He also threw stomach cancer into the debate. There is no evidence of stomach cancer related to nitrate use.

Photo of David Maclean David Maclean Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)

No, I shall not give way. I have only 30 seconds remaining—— It being one and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings on the motion, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER put the Question, pursuant to Standing Order No. 14 ( Exempted business.)

Resolved,That this House takes note of European Community Document No. 4136/89 and the Supplementary Explanatory Memorandum submitted by the Department of the Environment on 19th October 1989 relating to control of nitrate pollution; and supports the Government's intention to ensure that Community action to control nitrate pollution takes sufficient account of the range of circumstances in each Member State.