The Environment

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:53 pm on 12th July 1991.

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Photo of Dr Alan Williams Dr Alan Williams , Carmarthen 12:53 pm, 12th July 1991

I meant that there was no commitment in the White Paper or at any stage last year or over the years by the Government. However, as we prepare for a general election the Government have found that their green cupboard is relatively bare and have plucked a proposal from our manifesto and now try to dress it up as an environmental protection agency. We welcome the Government's commitment—if they are returned to office which I doubt—to set up an environmental protection body. What role will the National Rivers Authority play in the new body? There is serious concern that the NRA will be split up and that only the part responsible for pollution control will be transferred into the environmental protection agency. The Labour party is pleased that, since its establishment, the NRA has shown itself to be a watchdog with real teeth. It is a success story for the Government and we want it to be transferred lock, stock and barrel, into the agency. Will the NRA be transferred in full or fragmented? If it is fragmented, it will be weakened, which will have an effect on what would otherwise be the strongest EPA in Europe.

I hope that when the EPA is set up—I trust that that will be done by a Labour Government—it will take responsibility for all solid waste disposal, particularly toxic waste. Solid, liquid and gaseous effluents would then be under its control. I should like it to take over the responsibilities of the Countryside Commission and some responsibility for agriculture, because that involves environmental protection. I should like it to go further and take over energy efficiency which is a critical part of environmental protection. There may even be some elements of transport policy into which the EPA should have a strong input.

We want a robust, independent and well-financed EPA. To help to finance it, we could have green taxes—riot just charges as in integrated pollution control. We want more than the charges for monitoring. We want pollution taxes, to give companies an incentive to pump out less effluent. We could also have landfill taxes. When companies or individuals are prosecuted for pollution, any fines levied could be payable to the EPA. That would give the agency an incentive to prosecute more. We want more vigorous law enforcement.

A critical part of the new agency is its independence from the Government. Here, there is a marked difference between our proposals and those of the Government. We propose a two-tier structure—an executive and a commission. The executive will be responsible for day-to-day policing, monitoring and prosecution of polluters, while the commission will be accountable to the Government. In that way, environmental protection will be at arm's length from the Government. That independence from Governments is important if the agency is to prove effective.

The danger with the Government's proposals is that the EPA will be part of the Department of the Environment and therefore subject to ministerial interference. The day after the Prime Minister made his speech, we saw the result of such interference. Our foremost nature conservationist, Sir Frederick Holliday, resigned as chairman of the Joint Nature Conservation Committee. It is clear from the press reports and his comments yesterday on "The World at One" why he resigned. He was unhappy about clause 11 of the Natural Heritage (Scotland) Bill and the fact that he was not brought into the consultations on the moves to undermine the power of the new body that the Bill sets up. We do not want such interference in the EPA when it is set up. That is why the Labour party's proposals of a commission and an executive will ensure a more effective protection body and a better guarantee of its independence.

In our debate today, all hon. Members are aware of the Government's White Paper published in September last year. After months of publicity, we looked forward to something robust and meaningful. Instead, we got 300 pages of glossy pictures, with lots of exhortation and encouragement but very little by way of firm action. That applies to the Government's record throughout the last 10 to 12 years. Their only major environmental measure was last year's green Bill.

I was a member of the Standing Committee that considered the Bill. I enjoyed its proceedings, but throughout I realised that the Bill was pretty small beer. It deals with important matters such as integrated pollution control, litter, waste collection, recycling and so on, but the financial provision for the implementation of those measures is only £30 million. That was the value placed by the Government on cleaning up the environment.

That figure must be compared with what is done in the United States. On 8 March 1991 Science carried an article on the costs of cleaning up the environment. It says: The United States spent $115 billion in current dollars on cleaning up pollution in 1990. That's about 40% of the defense budget and just over 2% of the gross national product. And if a new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report is correct, by the year 2000 the total will climb to $171 billion to $185 billion. That is about 2·7 per cent. of the United States gross domestic product. Compared with the $115 billion spent last year by the United States, our little green Bill commitment amounted to only £30 million—a factor difference of 1,000. That is a measure of the priority given by this Government to cleaning up the environment.

When the Government eventually pluck up the courage to face the electorate—let us hope later this year—they will be judged not on today's debate, or on the Prime Minister's speech last Monday, or even on last year's White Paper, but on their record over the last 12 years. Their record does not stand up to scrutiny.

The water industry has been mentioned several times. The Government regularly under-invested in water during the 1980s. Their only policy was to privatise. Privatisation has led to higher bills and much greater salaries for the chairmen of the water companies. However, the quality of our drinking water is lower now than it was in 1979. The pollution of beaches by sewage effluent is worse now than it was 10 or 12 years ago. We await the benefits of any environmental improvements that the Government have set in hand.

As for agriculture, this is a critical year for the future of the common agricultural policy. It has caused extreme destruction of the environment. Hedgerows have been dug up. Farmers have engaged in intensive agricultural methods and used more fertilisers, pesticides and chemicals, which cause pollution.

The MacSharry proposals for the reform of the common agricultural policy mean that when the deep cuts come the big farmers will suffer. They enjoy 80 per cent. of the benefits of the CAP. What do the Government say about the proposals? They are hostile to them, simply because they will hit the big farmers. I agree with MacSharry that small farmers should be protected for both social and environmental reasons. Their style of farming is much more environmentally friendly. However, the Government are very much in the pockets of the big farmers—the agri-business lobby.

The Labour party wants the small farmers to survive and much more emphasis to be placed on environmental protection. Instead of the CAP supporting increased agricultural production, leading to massive surpluses of food, it should concentrate on environmental protection —the green premium, as we describe it.

The Government's record on transport is clear. They have projected an increase of 142 per cent. in traffic over the next 35 years. That increase is ludicrous. The Government are clearly the big car party. They invest £500 million a year in British Rail and public transport, compared with £3 billion a year in France and Italy and £4,000 million in Germany. The Government's emphasis is completely wrong.

The Government's record on energy is wide open to attack. I was a member of the Standing Committee which considered the Electricity Bill two years ago. We were completely hostile to its main proposal to privatise electricity. At every stage during the Bill's passage, we tried to move amendments to introduce energy efficiency. Our main proposal was for least-cost planning.

Least-cost planning is followed in the United States. The regulators of American power utilities must demonstrate to the regulator when they propose to build a new power station that the power station is necessary and that the money could not be better invested in home insulation. Instead of building a new power station for £1,000 million, it would be better to invest that money in home insulation and district heating schemes. About seven times as much energy would be saved pro rata as would be generated with the same amount of money. The Government turned down all our amendments about least-cost planning.

Great savings can be made with energy efficiency. The Minister had great difficulty earlier with my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) and the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) in accepting that major savings are possible through energy efficiency. An article appeared in the New Scientist a couple of years ago which referred to the record in the United States from 1973—the onset of the oil crisis—to 1986. It stated: In the United States … the annual demand for energy is still below that of 1973 even though the country's gross domestic product … is up by 40 per cent. Over that 13-year period there was a 40 per cent. growth in GDP and a cut in energy demand. The article continued: Japan has gone one better. The country used 6 per cent. less energy in 1986 than it did in 1973 even though its GDP grew by 46 per cent. over the 15 years. It used 6 per cent. less energy while its GDP grew by 46 per cent. That is a 50 per cent. increase in energy efficiency over the period. Those are not the findings of an abstract scientist or the results of a feasibility study; that is the record achieved by advanced countries comparable to ours. Compared to them, we are at the bottom of the league.

That article in the New Scientist also stated: The International Energy Agency estimates that if energy conservation measures that are now economically viable were fully implemented by the year 2000, energy efficiency would be more than 30 per cent. higher than current levels. This Government have cut the Energy Efficiency Office's budget. There has been much exhortation, but the Government have not got their hands dirty in terms of doing anything.

There is quite a lot of opencast coal mining in my constituency. That is wildly and widely unpopular. Under this Government, opencast coal production has increased from 12·9 million tonnes in 1979 to 18·9 million tonnes in 1989. That is a 50 per cent. increase in production. Nothing can he more environmentally destructive than opencast mining. There is a presumption in favour of such development in the mineral planning guidance notes. Labour will reverse that when we are in government.

Coal as a source of energy is much discredited, because it is dirty and sooty. However, clean coal combustion is now possible. The Government are aware of that, but they do not believe in investing in it. In the 1970s, in Grimethorpe, Yorkshire, fluidised bed combustion was developed. It was possible to remove all sulphur in that way, but scientists working at Grimethorpe are now going overseas because that British technology is being developed overseas.

Last Monday, at The Sunday. Times exhibition at Olympia, I talked to someone involved in research into the topping cycle. He explained the background in some detail and spoke of his personal frustration in not getting sufficient support from the Department of Energy. That technology will be the main method of electricity production in the next century. The biggest resource is coal —not nuclear power, oil or gas. In the next century, electricity will be made from clean coal combustion, despite the carbon dioxide. Unfortunately, we are in that no-win situation. It will be clean coal combustion.

Acid rain is no longer one of the environmental glamour issues, but it is a serious problem. In my constituency, thin soils cannot buffer acidity in the rainfall. In Wales, the Lake District, Scotland, and Scandinavia there are serious problems of acid rain poisoning our rivers, leaching aluminium into our rivers and drinking waters, with its relationship to Alzheimer's disease and so on.

Belatedly, in 1987, the Government recognised that acid rain was a problem. They undertook to agree to the European Community's directive to introduce cuts in sulphur dioxide emissions, but, when faced with the privatisation of the electricity industry, what did they do? They reneged on those commitments and cut by a third the number of power stations to be installed with flue gas desulphurisation equipment. The awful fact is that when the Government leave office, not one of our power stations will have FGD equipment. We must compare that with Germany, Holland, Austria and Sweden, where virtually all power stations have FGD equipment. When the election comes, the "dirty man of Europe" tag will fit the Government.