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European Community (Water Pollution)

Volume 979: debated on Tuesday 19 February 1980

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9.40 pm

I beg to move,

That this House takes note of European Community documents 6995/79 and 7735/79 concerned with draft EEC Directives on water pollution by aldrin, dieldrin and endrin and by mercury, and the Department of the Environment's supplementary explanatory memorandum; and supports the Government's intention to seek satisfactory quality objectives according to the purpose for which the water is to be used.

The Government welcome this debate tonight and are grateful to the Select Committee for recommending it. The Select Committee was correct in its conclusion. These two sets of proposals from the EEC raise questions of political importance which it is right and proper for the House to consider and I look forward to hearing the views and comments of hon. Members.

I congratulate the Select Committee on these two reports. They are a model of brevity, accurately summarising the main features of these proposals and the issues to be considered. I should also like to pay tribute to the excellent work done on these subjects by sub-committee G of the House of Lords Select Committee on the European Communities. Its authoritative report on the drins proposals is well known and respected both here and in Brussels.

Apart from the Select Committee's two reports, hon. Members should also have seen the supplementary memorandum we have just tabled. This describes two important developments in Brussels since the original drafts were published last summer.

Let me first, Mr. Deputy Speaker, put these EEC proposals into context. They are not by any means the first water directives. The Community's environmental activity formally began in 1973 with the publication of the first environmental action programme. Directives on water quality were agreed to be a clear priority and the House will know that a number have now been agreed. We have debated those on groundwater, freshwater fish, drinking water and standards of measurement, to give the most recent examples.

The United Kingdom has played its responsible role as a member State in actively supporting and assisting the preparation of directives on water quality. But one thing has become very clear. Our circumstances in the United Kingdom and as a result our policies and practice are very different from those in Europe. The principal reason for the priority given to water legislation was European concern for transfrontier pollution. We can understand that concern in the United Kingdom and indeed sympathise with it, but we do not share it. It is not a United Kingdom problem.

As I have said, our circumstances are very different from those of other member States. We are an island, with abundant water supplies, and a large number of fast flowing rivers. Our water pollution control procedures are well established and are based upon United Kingdom circumstances and conditions. They are, inevitably, different from those used on the Continent of Europe. These vital differences in circumstances and as a result in policies and procedures are a constant theme in negotiations on EEC water quality directives and they recur in the latest sets of proposals that we are debating tonight.

In sketching out this important background, I do not seek to imply that we regret at all the tremendous Community effort spent in establishing a regime of water quality directives. We do not—and here I might stress the bipartisan nature of the United Kingdom position which I hope will be continued tonight. But the accommodation of the different approaches to controlling water pollution in Community legislation has not been easy, and the difficulties remain in the current negotiations.

Let me now come to the proposals on the drins and mercury. They result from a major parent directive passed in 1976, the negotiations for which were, I understand, more than usually bedevilled by the difficulties that I have mentioned. As the Select Committee has said, the important point about these present proposals is that they are the first offspring of that parent directive. I refer to EEC document 76/464, passed by the Council on 4 May 1976, dealing with
"pollution caused by certain dangerous substances discharged into the aquatic environment of the Community."
This provides a framework for measures to control water pollution caused by the discharge of harmful substances. These are grouped into a black list and a grey list on the basis of their polluting effects.

The parent directive does not in itself establish limits or standards for any of these dangerous substances. The idea always was that standards for the black list should be laid down in subsequent directives. The first two of these are before us now.

To take the drills first, these proposals are not in themselves of major significance. The drins should indeed be controlled, but they are not in wide use. In fact, the proposed directives will bear only on two member States, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. In the United Kingdom, the EEC proposals would only affect discharges of dieldrin by our mothproofing industry, which is largely based in Yorkshire. Traces of drins can be found elsewhere, but these would not be covered by the present texts.

There is room for doubt as to whether such a limited proposal justifies a Community directive. In the early negotiations in Brussels we raised this question, but the Commission has been under pressure from a number of countries to make progress with proposals under the parent directive, and the drins obviously seemed a simple place to start.

When the hon. Gentleman raised this question in Brussels, what was the reply from the Community? Some of us with experience of the Community are strongly with him and think that this sort of blanket approach in directives is sometimes daft.

The hon. Gentleman, as usual, speaks common sense. With regard to this directive, I think that we behaved sensibly in that here was a minor matter and there was no way in which we could stop its progress. It seemed fair that we should accept it as being one of the first proposals. If the hon. Gentleman will wait until I have finished my speech, I am sure that he will understand how we shall tackle these other things in the future, which are much more major.

Mercury was less simple in prospect because it is a widely-used substance which also occurs naturally. In the interests again of making an early impact on the problem of dangerous substances, the EEC Commission chose to concentrate upon the chlor-alkali electrolysis industry. It claimed this industry was a "principal source" of pollution caused by mercury discharges into water. As the Select Committee's ninth report has noted, the CBI rejects this charge. It argues that mercury discharges from this industry have not caused harmful pollution within the terms of the definition specified in the parent directive.

The United Kingdom Government have some sympathy for the industry's point of view. Companies such as ICI have spent considerable sums of money in recent years to reduce the amounts of mercury discharged to the waters concerned, which have in any case been carefully monitored by the relevant water authorities. The fact is, however, that in Community terms the chlor-alkali industry is the largest single discharger of mercury and was, therefore, the likeliest target for the legislators to pick off first.

Here is an immediate example of the difference in approach that I have mentioned. Controlling discharges of dangerous substances on the industry-by-industry basis proposed by the EEC Commission is not the United Kingdom approach. Our concern is with the quality of the water which may be affected by a number of different discharges and, in the case of mercury, by some natural levels. So we have proposed, as our supplementary memorandum makes clear, that for the United Kingdom system the eventual directives should apply generally and not just to the mothproofing industry, for the drins, or the chlor-alkali industry, for mercury. The House will agree that not only does this accord better with existing United Kingdom practice but it also makes for more comprehensive and effective environmental legislation. Instead of at least two mercury directives dealing with different industries and sources of discharge, the United Kingdom approach requires only one.

Before the Minister leaves that subject may I ask him a question, as he may wish to answer it from the Box? What will the Government do about the methyl-mercury problem in this country? Do they accept that it is a major issue?

The hon. Gentleman is correct. By leave of the House, and with permission, I hope to reply to him.

This brings me to a major issue in the negotiations on these proposals. It concerns what the Select Committee rightly calls "the parallel approach" embodied in the parent directive. A vital compromise was reached in that 1976 directive for which I would pay tribute to the efforts of the Ministers then concerned and especially the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Howell) whom I see opposite. This was that member States could control water pollution by black list substances either by environment quality objectives—the United Kingdom system—or by limit values—the European system. In other words, we agreed to achieve the same ends by our different means. This was—and in the Government's view, remains—an appropriate and respectable solution to the problems posed for Community legislators by the differences in circumstance and practice between the United Kingdom and other member States.

This compromise enshrined in the "parallel approach" remains vital to United Kingdom interests. As the evidence considered by the Select Committee makes clear, our industry and water authorities strongly support the Government's preference for the EQO system. It is an effective policy for controlling water pollution. It is a policy soundly based in both scientific and economic terms. It is well established in this country. And the proof of its effectiveness lies in the generally high quality of our rivers, which set a standard to which many European countries would like to aspire.

It is therefore of crucial importance, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to ensure that the parallel approach embodied in these offspring directives is a genuine one. As these drafts on drins and mercury are the first to be published, we must take particular care. Further directives covering other black list substances will follow and the precedents established in these first two directives will inevitably affect subsequent proposals.

So we must take a very hard look at these EEC proposals. What do we find? The Select Committee states in its ninth report that the evidence it received claims
"a basic misunderstanding by the Commission of the implications of the parallel approach".

For both the drins and mercury proposals the Select Committee also refers to claims of "unrealistic quality objectives" and "a lack of correspondence" between the standards set for the two different methods of control.

These are serious criticisms, if true. The Government think they are. Let me give the House two examples to support our conclusions. First, let us consider the imbalance in the timescale's proposals for the alternative methods. For mercury, it is proposed that the quality objectives should apply in full from 1983; but the most stringent limit values are not to be achieved until 1989. For drins, the quality objective—our system—must be achieved by January 1982. The most stringent limit values need not be met until January 1986. If this is a parallel approach it seems a strange one.

A second example concerns the most important criticism we have of these texts. The quality objectives proposed do not accord either with the EQO system used in this country or with the compromise contained in the parent directive.

The vital feature of EQO philosophy and practice in this country is that objectives and standards set for different stretches of water vary according to the use of that water. To give a simple example—a section of a river where water is abstracted for drinking will have different quality requirements to meet from one used as a coarse fishery. This principle is already embodied in EEC water directives. We expected to see it in these proposals. But in the drins text, only one quality standard is proposed which all waters in the United Kingdom, irrespective of use, apparently have to meet. For mercury, different standards are allowed for marine and freshwater but, again, there is no distinction by use. The implication is clear: we are expected to change our system and practice in this country, to meet the demands of these directives.

The objections are obvious. First, this was not the compromise agreed in 1976 and embodied in the parent directive. Secondly, the United Kingdom has long been controlling water pollution by dangerous substances like the drins and mercury and doing so, using our EQO system, effectively and economically. Thirdly, the standards proposed in these draft directives would impose additional costs on industry and water authorities—possibly quite substantial ones—which certainly have not been justified.

The Government's conclusion is that there must be changes in the present proposals. We are seeking these in the negotiations. My officials have made counterproposals at the working level for what we regard as realistic quality objectives by use, for controlling water pollution by these two substances. I welcome the opportunity provided by this debate tonight to say to all concerned that this is a fundamental principle for the United Kingdom, which must be embodied in these directives, and the ones to follow. I hope the House will support that statement and thus the motion before us tonight.

9.56 pm

I thank the Minister for his kindly reference to myself. When I was negotiating these matters in Brussels, it was a great comfort for me to be able to assure Ministers from other countries that I was speaking for the whole House. If this motion is carried tonight, as I hope it will be, the Minister has our authority, when he negotiates with our partners in the Nine, to say that he, too, negotiates for the whole House. I think that that is extremely important.

As the Minister has said, this debate is very important, first, because it deals with two list 1 substances; secondly, because it puts to the test for the first time the different, the parallel, approach, as we come to call it, of establishing emission standards which can be measured immediately upon a discharge into a water supply, as compared with our own procedures which have regard to the environmental quality objectives after the discharge has been made either into rivers or into estuaries, and because it raises the matter of the authority of Ministers within the EEC and the accountability of the Commission to Ministers who, in their turn, have to be accountable to their own sovereign Parliaments. This seems to me to be an issue of principle.

Like the Minister, I have had the benefit of advice from the National Water Council and from the Confederation of British Industry and, like him, I fully accept their advice now as I did when I had to carry out his responsibilities. On the question of drins and mercury, it is interesting to note that there is, as the Minister has said, a total lack of consistency, as far as the Commission is concerned, on the relative effects of these directives in different circumstances. We must take account of this. Certainly as far as I understand it, nowhere in the United Kingdom, in the case of either drins or mercury, is any manufacturer exceeding the safety limits, nor is there any danger from these substances as far as drinking water is concerned.

In one instance this directive imposes a more stringent standard for the effect of a substance when it enters the sea than it proposes for drinking water in this country, which seems an extraordinary situation for the Commission to find itself in. In so far as any of our manufacturers had been discharging these substances into our aquatic environment, I am glad to agree with the Minister that British industry has already taken effective steps to deal with it. I pay tribute to the ICI Mond division which has made an investment of many millions of pounds in dealing with discharges into the Mersey, in particular in the Blackpool Bay area.

It being Ten o'clock the debate stood adjourned.