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Nitrogen Fertilizers

Volume 115: debated on Wednesday 6 May 1987

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asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what representations he has received from water authorities concerned about the excessive use of nitrogen fertilizers.


asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what recent discussions he has had with public water authorities on the pollution of public water supplies by nitrates; and if he will make a statement.

My right hon. Friend has received no representations from water authorities specifically on the excessive use of nitrogen fertilizers. However, discussions on effective methods of limiting nitrate levels in water supplies are proceeding with those water authorities most affected.

The Minister will be aware, however, that the water authorities, including the Severn-Trent water authority, are very concerned about the level of nitrogen use, and that there is a feeling that there is an impasse between the Department of the Environment and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Obviously, it is in the interests of everyone that the issue and the dispute are resolved. Can the Minister give us a definite time scale under which positive steps will be taken?

Not quite yet. The hon. Gentleman is right: the Severn-Trent water authority is one of the authorities with which we have been in the closest touch about the matter, and it has sketched out for the Department some outlines of what water conservation zones might look like. That work has been very helpful, and I pay tribute to it. However, we have not yet reached the point at which we can set a time scale.

Will my hon. Friend recognise that there is deep concern about the excessive use of nitrates in agriculture, and that not only the Opposition parties are concerned about our environment. I know that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary is very concerned. Will he therefore speak to our right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and ask him to try to offer some form of financial inducement, perhaps, to farmers to reduce the amount of——

Order. I do not want the hon. Member for Leicestershire, North-West (Mr. Ashby) to be put off as well.

These are complicated issues, and there are two or three different ways of approaching them. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has been giving very helpful advice to farmers about how to minimise damage. On some occasions, water treatment can also be used. My hon. Friend referred to the polluter pays principle. Financial compensation could cause difficulties. However, it might be right for experimental zones to have some such regime.

I apologise to the hon. Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor), whom I should have called first.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. The mood at the moment is not conducive to being nasty to farmers, but is my hon. Friend aware of the rising tide of dissatisfaction in areas such as Southend where water consumers are having to pay substantially for the removal of pollution from their public water supplies, particularly when they know that the only effect of the use of nitrates is to produce vast mountains of cereals that cannot be given away? Once the current excitement is over, will my hon. Friend bear in mind his legal obligations under the Single European Act to make the polluter pay for his pollution?

My hon. Friend refers quite rightly to a serious problem, but solutions are not easy to find. That is why it is taking a little time to come forward with them. The detailed control that some people suggest there should be over applications of nitrogen would be exceedingly difficult to run in other than experimental areas. None the less, we shall have to consider whether we can find some solutions.

Is the Minister aware that for nitrogen fertilisers we could substitute part of what is becoming another problem—the manure mountain that is developing in Europe, along with the butter and the beef mountains? Conservative Members may laugh, but there is already a manure mountain in Holland, and one is developing in this country as a result of EEC subsidies for intensive farming. The manure mountain is causing pollution on the land and in the groundwater. If it were used instead of nitrogen fertilisers, we might be able to solve the problem.

The hon. Gentleman's chemistry is about as good as that of the famous American senator who, in relation to the acid rain problem, said that the time had come to take nitrogen out of the atmosphere. Nitrogen is still nitrogen, whether it emanates from an animal or from ICI, Billingham. A quite separate problem, that of slurry waste, is affecting water in much the same way as are fertilisers. The question is whether we can treat waste in such a way as to avoid that problem. I do not, therefore, think that the hon. Gentleman has yet solved the problem.

My hon. Friend is well aware of my longstanding problem with the River Avon, and he will have heard of the considerable disquiet that greeted the apparent decision of his Department to cope with the proposed River Avon survey. Can he say to what extent, and when, that might be funded by his Department? Will he also take on board the considerable concern that is felt by those at the Freshwater Biological Association, which is facing a 30 per cent. cut in its manpower? They are the people who can do most to solve the problem of the nitrate poisoning of our water supplies.

The latter point is for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science. He is responsible for the science budget. I was not aware that my hon. Friend had any problems on any matters whatsoever, but it is alleged that there are problems with the Avon in his area. The first proposal that was put to my Department for a survey was thought by the scientists in my Department to be not very well based, but discussions continue and if something sensible and helpful can be designed, we shall certainly consider whether to support it.

Is the Minister aware that as a consequence of nitrate levels in some areas being double the recommended EEC values, in April of this year the European Community started legal action against the United Kingdom Government? In addition, the river quality survey shows that the recent trends of improvement have been reversed. What steps are the Government taking to restore these trends? How much cash are they making available to water authorities to bring water quality within the EEC guideline of 50mg/litre? Further to his answers to other hon. Members, will he emphasise in his discussions with his colleagues at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food that he is sticking to the polluter must pay principle?

There is a certain amount of confusion here, too, I am afraid. The European Commission has not instituted legal proceedings. The hon. Gentleman may be thinking of the quite separate problem of nitrites, which has nothing to do with this issue. His question is a bit off the beam.

I forget what the hon. Gentleman's second point was, I beg his pardon.