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Drinking Water

Volume 202: debated on Friday 24 January 1992

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To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what steps are being taken to meet the requirements of the EC drinking water directive in the light of the Advocate General's opinion on the case before the European Court.

The significance of this opinion has been widely misrepresented. First, it does not have to be followed by the court, which will give its judgment at a later date.Secondly, the standards in the EC drinking water directive are not necessarily those currently met in other member states, but those which all member states should meet. All member states are having difficulty in doing that, and the Commission has so far taken legal action for failing to meet the directive's requirements against 10 other member states besides the United Kingdom.There are two respects in which this country is unique. We alone have a detailed, firmly committed and fully funded programme, costing £2 billion, for remedying almost all breaches of the directive by 1995. And we are the only member state to have a comprehensive and completely open system for monitoring drinking water quality and publishing the results at national level, in England and Wales, through the drinking water inspectorate's annual report.The drinking water inspectorate has confirmed that the standard of our drinking water is in fact already very high. Of 3.3 million tests carried out in England and Wales during 1990, 99 per cent. showed compliance with the requirements of our national regulations, which are more stringent than those of the EC directive.In this court case, the Commission made five allegations. One was about compliance with the standard for lead in certain parts of Scotland. The Advocate-General concluded that the United Kingdom is not in breach of the directive in this respect. However we accept that some supplies do exceed our more stringent national standard, and action is therefore being taken by the water undertakers to reduce the risk of that standard being breached.Three of the five allegations had nothing to do with the quality of drinking water as such, but were solely concerned with whether United Kingdom legislation had been passed to enact all the provisions of the directive. The Advocate-General considers that the court must look at the position in 1989, when the preliminary procedures finished, rather than the actual position today. Legislation in Scotland came into effect in 1990, and legislation covering water used in food production in September 1991. The remaining point in dispute was legislation in Northern Ireland. This is at an advanced stage of preparation. The absence of legislation has not, however, delayed the action being taken by the Northern Ireland water service to achieve full compliance with the standards in the directive.The remaining allegation was about nitrate levels in some parts of England. Breaches of the standard for nitrate are being eliminated as quickly as is practicable. Of the 29 supply zones originally named by the Commission, seven now comply. But in some other cases compliance cannot be achieved until 1995. If there were any evidence of a health hazard in these zones meanwhile, immediate action would be taken to make an alternative supply of water available to vulnerable groups.The Commission's case did not contain any allegations about compliance with the directive's standards for substances other than lead and nitrate.This is the first case brought against the United Kingdom on an environmental issue in the 20 years that we have been a member of the European Community. Few member states can match this record.