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Ozone Depletion

Volume 227: debated on Wednesday 30 June 1993

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To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what plans he has to meet his EC colleagues to discuss measures to reduce the release of chlorofluoro-carbons and other gases causing depletion of the ozone layer; and if he will make a statement.

Measures to protect the ozone layer were discussed at the Council of European Environment Ministers earlier this week. I hope that we shall agree a new European regulation on ozone-depleting substances in the autumn.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer and take this opportunity to welcome him to the Dispatch Box. He has made a seamless transition from agriculture to the environment. I should like to press him on the issue. Is there not more that we can do, especially in terms of recycling substances which are destroying the ozone layer?

I thank my hon. Friend. We are doing a great deal to encourage recycling. We have made the venting of waste chlorofluorocarbons illegal; we have allocated supplementary credit approvals to local authorities for investment in recycling facilities for 1993–94; and we have given special priority to schemes to help in that direction. As these substances exist, it is important to ensure that they are used usefully, but that, in future, they are not manufactured.

May I associate the Opposition Benches with the welcome to the new Secretary of State for the Environment? He may be assured of the greatest collaboration from this side in every initiative that supports good environmental practice and sustainability. In the light of allegations about a firm in Leeds, will he make it clear that anybody who discharges into the atmosphere materials such as chlorofluoromethane is liable to be prosecuted under sections 33 and 34 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990? Can it be made clear that prosecutions will take place as the law permits, and is the Secretary of State quite clear that, under his administration in the Department, there will be no mild response if people flagrantly break the law, but that he will make sure that that Act is enforced in the way that was intended?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for the part of his question that was helpful. I do not want to refer to the case about which he spoke in the second part of his question, because that would obviously be improper. In general, I take a strong view about the need for this generation not to destroy the next generation. Therefore, the kind of activities to which the hon. Gentleman refers will be dealt with using the full rigour of the law.

Will my right hon. Friend take time to look at a report published in a national newspaper last week which casts grave doubts on the idea that locally produced, that is to say, earthbound-produced, chemicals have any effect at all on the ozone layer? The article said that the coming and going of holes in the ozone layer was a natural phenomenon. Before we begin to destroy the important refrigeration industry by banning one of its essential chemicals, we should take grave note of that report.

My hon. Friend and I have often sparred on matters not dissimilar to this one. I advise my hon. Friend not to base her arguments on a selective number of reports. It must be accepted that the dangers to the ozone layer are now pretty well attested. Even if the attestation were less, the dangers of getting this wrong for the next generation are so great that it is proper for us to take very tough measures. The fact that we are taking such measures in concert with our European partners and with other partners throughout the world enables us to ensure that our important refrigeration industry is able to compete on level terms with that industry in other countries. After all, there are alternatives for the refrigeration industry in most cases and they are now being put into place.

May I join in welcoming the right hon. Gentleman to his new job? May I also welcome what he said about taking precautions for the next generation and say how genuinely sad I am that he has made a very bad start in that job? The previous Secretary of State promised that the United Kingdom would take the lead on tighter European Community regulation on ozone depletion. Is it not the case that we made no progress at the recent meeting because of the big row about carbon energy tax? Eleven countries in Europe want to make progress; the United Kingdom says no. Therefore, Europe cannot sign the climate convention and Britain is holding back progress on such issues for the whole of Europe. That is the start that the right hon. Gentleman has made in his job.

I thank the hon. Lady for her kind remarks. In our meeting over lunch on the subject of which she speaks, we ended up moving from 11 to I against the United Kingdom, to 10 to 2 in favour, because every other member, bar two, felt that the Danish proposition did nothing to help prevent climate change. We felt that we ought to work at those things together. She will find—especially if she gives me her help—no one more concerned to protect the next generation than I am. I hope that she will not start our negotiations and discussions by making party-political points when there is no basis for them.

May I join in welcoming the Minister to his new post? He will understand, however, in the light of his unfortunate radio interview, that many of us will be looking for some sign that he is now fully in command of the subject as regards the ozone layer. Can he tell us why dry cleaning businesses in this country are not being offered any special assistance to convert machinery away from ozone-damaging processes, in accordance with the Montreal protocol, when my understanding is that assistance is available elsewhere in the European Community? When will the Minister consider assistance for dry cleaning businesses in this country?

I would not have expected an unremitting welcome from the hon. Gentleman, with whom I have fought long battles because I am in favour of sea fish conservation and he opposes it, for many narrow-minded, short-term reasons, so he has to find some comment of that sort.

Britain's dry cleaning industry is as close to my heart as it is to the hon. Gentleman's and I recognise its difficulties. I am happy to consider whether other people benefit from things from which our dry cleaning industry does not, but it is not unreasonable to ask industry to meet requirements that are necessary for the protection of the future of this nation and the rest of the world. Businesses ought to meet those requirements and, in general, are doing so. They have been given time to do so and I hope that no one will take the hon. Gentleman's comments as an excuse for not proceeding as fast as possible.