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Drinking Water

Volume 175: debated on Wednesday 27 June 1990

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To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment when he expects all British drinking water sources to comply with European requirements for maximum pesticide residue levels.

It is not possible to give a date for full compliance with the standard in the EC drinking water directive for pesticides, because this particular standard is not, in our view, technically achievable by any member state. The trace amounts of pesticide found in a small proportion of United Kingdom drinking water supplies are not regarded by the Government's medical advisers as posing a danger to health. The Government require water companies to carry out regular monitoring for pesticide residues and, where appropriate, to develop the technology for their removal and investigate, with the National Rivers Authority, the case for restricting the use of pesticides in the areas from which they draw water.

Is the Minister aware that reports today state that two thirds of London's drinking water is now contaminated with unacceptable levels of pesticides? What do the Government intend to do about that? Thames Water has until some time in the next century to bring its water up to EC standards. Is that timetable to be altered?

I have already asked for a report on the pesticides identified in Thames Water supplies. However, at this stage I must say that the Government's medical advisers are satisfied that the trace amounts of pesticides revealed by extensive monitoring in the United Kingdom generally do not endanger public health. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will join me in not wishing to scaremonger in any way. For a number of supplies, suitable technology for full-scale treatment to remove pesticides and other trace organic substances will probably not be available for any country anywhere for the next five years.

Is not it an impertinence for folk in Brussels, however eminent, to lay down conditions for the quality of drinking water in the United Kingdom? Ought not it to be a matter for the House and for the Government to determine the quality of our drinking water?

My hon. Friend places me in a difficult position. As he knows, we are a keen, active and positive member of the European Community and we participate actively at European Council meetings of Ministers. I am pleased to reassure my hon. Friend that the standards that we set on a national basis, which are incorporated in legislation, are higher than and superior to what the European Community directs us to do.

If, as the Minister says, the Government are such a keen and active member of the European Community and are so proud of Britain's record, why is he so active in Brussels in blocking proposals to make it easier to introduce future improvements in standards in the EC directive on drinking water quality? Is not that another sign of the Minister's negative attitude to Brussels and total complacency about drinking water quality?

I am sure that the House will forgive me if I refuse to take lectures from the hon. Lady about anything to do with drinking water when I recall what the Labour Government did when they were last in office, dramatically cutting the money available to the water authorities. I am glad to be able to tell the House that we are leading the way on water initiatives, which have been raised at the meetings of the European Council of Environment Ministers. The hon. Lady, along with her right hon. and hon. Friends on the Opposition Front Bench, seems determined to take every possible opportunity to do the country down and sell it short. That seems to be Labour's new tactic, but I can hardly believe that it would commend itself to the electorate.