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Water Supplies (Nitrate Content)

Volume 80: debated on Wednesday 12 June 1985

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asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he has now come to a decision on the applications from water authorities for exemption from the regulations limiting the nitrate content of public water supplies.

The Council of European Communities' Ministers has laid down, with effect from the 15 July, a maximum concentration of 50 mg of nitrate per litre of water. Under article 9 the directive allows for derogations to be made and I have received 49 applications for derogation. I will announce my decision shortly.

Will the Minister accept my sincere congratulations on having so far resisted the enormous pressure on him and the Secretary of State to approve derogation,s which would be an environmental disaster and a potentially serious health hazard? Does he agree that it would be unthinkable for the Government to agree even to a temporary derogation, against the clear views of the World Health Organisation, without steps being taken to reduce the appalling use of nitrate fertilisers on farm land, which merely pollutes public water supplies?

My hon. Friend will know that the advice of the World Health Organisation does not accord with that which we have received in the report of the joint committee on medical aspects of water quality, which was published in April last year. Nevertheless, as my hon. Friend knows as well as any hon. Member, this is an extremely serious matter. I would want to give it more careful consideration. I shall meet our principal medical advisers before I come to a decision.

Why should we allow farmers to continue to use large quantities of nitrogen fertilisers which pollute our water supplies, endanger health and threaten wildlife, merely to produce large quantities of unwanted food, which must be stored at great expense to the taxpayer? We would not allow manufacturing industry to get away with that, would we? Would it not be more sensible for the hon. Gentleman to put pressure on the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to stop farmers from using excessive quantities of nitrogen?

The House will know that, under the Control of Pollution Act 1974, a water authority can prosecute in appropriate cases when there has been pollution of a water supply. I remind the hon. Gentleman that, following discussions between my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and me, a code of good agricultural practice, which deals with nitrates among other things, was issued in January. I hope that farmers will follow that advice. In conjunction with my right hon. Friend, I shall continue to monitor the situation.

My hon. Friend has told the House how important this matter is. Can he therefore explain why the Government are cutting the subsidy for research at the Freshwater Biological Association, which is in my constituency, when such an important part of its research is concerned with the effects of nitrates on water supply?

Although there might be/ some reductions in my noble Friend's constituency, there is an increase in other research, notably at the universities.