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Barometers: EU Regulations

Volume 692: debated on Thursday 14 June 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether they have now revised their view of the likely impact of the European Union regulations concerning mercury on the makers and restorers of barometers.

My Lords, the Government’s view has not changed. The EU regulation will cover only new barometers; existing domestic devices, especially antiques, will still be able to be used and traded. A two-year derogation in regard to new ones will allow the industry time to make the changes. There will continue to be a market for skilled craftsmen and women for the maintenance, repair and restoration of these instruments, as well as for the manufacture of devices for scientific and industrial markets.

My Lords, how can it make sense to destroy an entire industry making mercury barometers, which we have had in this country since the time of Queen Anne, on the grounds that mercury is a toxic substance, when the industry uses a total of 70 pounds of mercury every year and the same institution, the European Union, has voted to ban the use of incandescent light bulbs and to substitute low-energy bulbs, which are already using 4 tonnes of mercury a year and, by the time we have substitution, it will be hundreds of tonnes? That is an outrage. Surely the Government should intervene on behalf of an ancient industry with specialist craftsmen making not just barometers but mercury thermometers and clocks.

My Lords, we did intervene; that is why the derogation is there. The derogation for two years was not there until we requested it. There is no effect on the marketing, importation and trading in antique barometers. The proof of the pudding is simple. There was full consultation on the issue. We did the normal consultation at Defra, which includes hundreds of organisations. None of the barometer manufacturers responded to the consultation. None of them has been in touch with my department, even in recent weeks. There are adequate substitutes for mercury and, as everyone knows, there is a worldwide attempt to remove mercury in all aspects at both EU and United Nations level.

As for lights, the typical mercury barometer contains between 100 and 600 grams of mercury. That is about 200 to 1,000 times more than a thermometer and 25,000 to 150,000 times more than an energy-saving light bulb. One is not comparing like with like here.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the reason that barometer makers have not been in touch may be that they thought that the exemption would cover them if they were a very small business? The Minister will no doubt agree that they can only restore barometers, they cannot make them. They have the skill to make barometers, but they cannot use it. The Minister has got this one wrong; will he admit it?

My Lords, the more accurate barometers, which most if not all manufacturers make, are not mercury barometers. I looked at a catalogue from one of them this morning. Out of seven barometers in the photographs, only two were mercury. The aneroid barometers are more accurate. In fact, they are so accurate that when the Guardian published an article last week headlined,

“Why British barometers are out in the cold”,

it illustrated it with a photograph of an aneroid barometer, not a mercury barometer.

I do not think that this has been got wrong at all. Mercury is a highly toxic substance. The fire service responded to the consultation by saying that it agreed with taking out mercury barometers because of the risk of vaporisation of mercury. The average barometer is a health risk. The smallest mercury barometer would contaminate 4.5 million litres of water, enough to fill 40,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools. That is how toxic and dangerous it is.

My Lords, but does the Minister not accept that this will close down an industry—a small one, it is true—without any compensation? He says that the skills will be maintained, but if people cannot be involved in making barometers, I cannot see how those skills will be maintained. Perhaps the Minister will tell me how. Secondly, will he address the issue about light bulbs raised by my noble friend? At the end of their life, they will probably end up in landfill, which will be more contaminating than the situation that we face at the moment.

My Lords, it is fair to be concerned about the latter point. There must be procedures for the new light bulbs. Effectively, fluorescent light bulbs, the normal strips, can be recycled now. The energy-saving light bulbs that we are now being encouraged to purchase are also fluorescent. There will have to be procedures for disposing of them in due course in a proper way. As I said, the amount of mercury is infinitesimal compared to the amount of mercury in a barometer; there is between 25,000 and 150,000 times more in a barometer than in an energy-saving light bulb.

As I said, we received no response from the industry to the consultation, although Defra had kept in touch with those three firms for the five years prior to the regulation to warn them when it was coming through. A point was made about the derogation. The maintenance and repair of antique barometers is not affected. There is no time limit on that whatever. Aneroid barometers can be made with antique surrounds, and they are more accurate than mercury.

My Lords, I declare an interest: my great-great-grandfather, Louis Bellatti, and my great-great-uncle, Carlos Bellatti, made barometers here in the first three decades of the 19th century. They brought their expertise as immigrants from Italy. Is this not another case of a Commission proposal which brings the European Union into disrepute? I speak as a supporter of our membership. Does the Minister realise that there is widespread concern in Europe, not least here, in Italy and in France, about this proposal? Can he say how many deaths and how many cases of serious harm from the use and presence of mercury barometers have been caused in this country in each of the past five years? I pay tribute to the Minister’s interest in this subject outside the Chamber.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord. To the best of my knowledge, there is unanimity among the 27 member states on this. The Parliament has decided on the issue. There is no dispute, as I understand it—I checked this morning—and if we were out on our own, we would be one against 26.

On the noble Lord’s latter point, I do not want to start a hare running, but for years and years lead in paint was thought to be appropriate. It is still allowed for the restoration of old paintings but not domestically. For years and years, motor cars had asbestos brakes—not any more. It was always thought that, as it was on the margin, it was not causing a problem to anyone, but asbestos was subsequently discovered to be dangerous and toxic. It is the same with mercury.