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Bottled Water

Volume 699: debated on Wednesday 5 March 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether they have any plans to discourage the consumption in the United Kingdom of bottled mineral water.

My Lords, the Government consider the decision to drink bottled water to be a matter for consumer choice. However, this may be influenced by a number of factors, including cost and the impact on the environment. The Government and their agencies have a role in informing such consumer choice.

My Lords, given the efforts that successive Governments and the EU have made to ensure safe, healthy water from our taps, and given, too, the environmental costs involved in the transportation and packaging of bottled water, would the Government none the less look at possible ways of discouraging the consumption of bottled water, either through green taxes, labelling or just simply heightened public awareness of the issues? In particular, will the Government add their voice to prevent restaurants denying customers the option of tap water when they request it?

My Lords, I certainly agree with my noble friend on the latter point, and the Government will give support to it by talking up the use of tap water and its effect on the environment. But, ultimately, it is a matter for consumer choice.

My Lords, is not one of the more delightful results of our EU membership that we have been forced to spend some £64 billion on pointless European water purification directives when there was nothing wrong with our water? Is it not logical for Brussels to issue a regulation now banning bottled water?

My Lords, that goes to the point that I have just made: it is up to consumers. Tap water is available in most areas, it is completely safe to drink, and it is fully inspected; but, ultimately, it is a matter for consumer choice.

My Lords, while it is clearly a matter of consumer choice, should not that choice involve including the cost of carbon in what is purchased? In fact, the cost of carbon should be included in carbonated water.

My Lords, some of the carbon in carbonated water may be natural; some of it is not, of course. I have found that I cannot get Malvern sparkling or Badoit out of the tap. Eighty per cent of the water is still water. Bottled water can have 300 times the amount of carbon footprint than tap water. That point has to be put across because that is a part of the environmental cost. That is what the Government and their agencies will deploy as part of informing consumer choice.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the reason a great many people drink bottled water instead of tap water is not that they think tap water is dangerous but that it tastes perfectly disgusting?

Then they have a choice, my Lords. I am not sure whether the noble Lady is referring to tap water in the United Kingdom being disgusting; if so, I hope she has made a complaint to the relevant authorities. It is properly inspected by the Drinking Water Inspectorate and the local authority environmental health officers.

My Lords, to carry on from what the noble Lady, Lady Saltoun, said, is the Minister aware that last week in the south-west of England I drew water from a tap and it was opaque in colour? It may well have been perfectly fit to drink, but I did not try it.

My Lords, that matter should be reported to the Drinking Water Inspectorate, which monitors tap water. The Food Standards Agency is responsible for bottled water. The Government are setting an example: by the summer of this year, most government departments will not be using bottled water in any shape or form in meetings.

My Lords, is it not regrettable that bottled water costs much more than milk? Perhaps, in their promotion, the Government might consider telling members of the public the value of drinking milk. Our ordinary tap water in this country is of a very high standard, but there seems to be a lack of knowledge about the value of drinking good milk, particularly British milk.

My Lords, I am tempted to say that there is skimmed, semi-skimmed and full fat milk, and people have different views on it. Yes, milk is a healthy food—but it is a food, and this Question is about bottled water.

My Lords, I cannot be the UN in these circumstances. Noble Lords have to work it out for themselves. Your Lordships have time for two questions, if one noble Lord will give way to the other now.

Thank you, my Lords. Will the Minister do more to inform people how they are being ripped off when they drink bottled water? Will he confirm that the cost of tap water, which is very pure these days, is about 80p per tonne, which breaks down to 0.4p per gallon and 0.08p per litre? Why would they go out and pay 80p for bottled water in those circumstances?

My Lords, it is free choice. In the past five years there has been a 43 per cent increase in the consumption of bottled water. People have a choice, and the Government should not be in the position of removing it from them—but it should be an informed choice, both on the cost economically and the cost to the environment.

My Lords, will the Minister agree that in many parts of upland Britain new enterprises have started by bottling water that is of very high quality? I endorse what he said about choice. It is very important that those people who want to drink bottled water should be able to do so and not be denied it.

My Lords, yes, and indeed many such companies, including the one that supplies part of Parliament, export a majority of their bottled water to the United States and the Middle East.