§ The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. John Selwyn Gummer)
I beg to move,That this House takes note of European Community Document No. 8805/85, a proposal for a Directive on the disposal of non-radioactive waste se at sea; recognises the importance rightly attached by Her Majesty's Government to the protection of the marine environment; considers nevertheless that sea disposal may represent the best practicable environmental option for certain wastes; notes the existence of well-established and effective international conventions in this field; and is therefore not convinced that the adoption of this Community instrument is an essential element of environmental protection.
I very much welcome this opportunity of setting out the Government's view of the important proposal which is contained in European Community document No. 8805/85. It is an important topic and it is good that the House should have an opportunity to discuss it generally, rather than, as so often, concern itself only with the radioactive issues. The Government attach great importance to the protection of the marine environment, and last year part II of the Food and Environment Protection Act 1985 increased our duties and powers to protect the sea and its living resources.
We cannot issue any licence for sea disposal of waste without having regard to the marine environment, the living resources it supports and human health. We must prevent interference with legitimate uses of the sea, of which fishing and recreation are obvious examples. Furthermore, the Act requires Ministers to consider at all times the practical availability of alternative disposal methods.
We are aided in carrying out the obvious duties which are laid upon us because in London we have the secretariats of the two key conventions on sea disposal, both of which play a major part in defending the sea. The United Kingdom is a founder member of the London dumping convention and the Oslo convention, and we have played an active role in the scientific work of both conventions. They have been successful because they have maintained a rigorously scientific approach to their work, which determines which substances may not be disposed of at sea and those which demand special care.
The conventions' scientific work, their secretariats and the experts on which they draw provide a base for our decisions under domestic legislation. That is why the UK can take great care to ensure that each application for a licence to dispose of waste at sea is critically considered against the criteria that are set by the conventions for the protection of the marine environment. This is done through the considerable resources which we devote to our effort, especially through our fisheries laboratories at Lowestoft, Burnham-on-Crouch, Aberdeen and elsewhere.
The sea may be the best practicable environmental option for certain types of waste, but we need to satisfy ourselves on each and every occasion that that is the case.
The demands of employment do not allow us to treat these matters easily or without counting the cost. Industrial societies create waste. Waste must be dumped in the sea or on the land. Restrictions on waste disposal cost money and jobs. Necessary restrictions must be paid for, and paid 246 for with a will, but we in this House must not ask others to bear unnecessary restrictions, for it is not we who pay the cost or lose the jobs. It is against the background of effective control, accepted and supported by every member of the European Community with a coastline, that we must consider the proposal before the House tonight.
We have a system which works. It has meant that all the members of the European Community — save Luxembourg, which does not have a direct interest in this issue—are able to see that the methods by which they control dumping at sea are kept clearly in line with the criteria produced by the two conventions.
Now we have a suggestion for a change. These proposals call, first, for harmonisation. Nobody will say that I am not in favour of harmonisation. I begin by believing that it is better for us to do things together in Europe and to adopt similar standards. But harmonisation is not an end in itself, and the trouble with these proposals is that they would treat totally different places as if they were the same. They would treat the Atlantic ocean in the same way as they would treat the Mediterranean sea, and that is clearly wrong.
We see how wrong it is by twisting the issue round the other way and asking what would happen if we insisted that measures suitable for the open and fast-flowing waters of the Atlantic and North sea should be the only measures applied to protect the landlocked and tideless Mediterranean. Those living along the Mediterranean coast would complain, saying, "Your situation is entirely different from ours. We have none of the natural cleaning properties that you have. We must deal with a totally different position, so we must have different ways of doing that."
In reverse, that is what the Commission suggests we do here. It suggests that we have a regimen which meets the needs of the Mediterranean and is applied to a totally different circumstance in the Atlantic and North sea.
§ Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)
Some of the adjacent riparian states — for example, France, Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands—agree with this proposal. How can the argument that the right hon. Gentleman has adduced be valid if it is not accepted by countries in the same position on either side of the North sea which have no direct interest in the Mediterranean—type origins of a directive such as this?
§ Mr. Gummer
Even so enthusiastic a supporter of the European Community as I can conceive of a situation in which Britain is right and they are wrong. This is such a situation. We have been more directly involved in the operation of the London dumping convention and in the use of the materials and information that has been put before us. We have taken, and continue to take, a lead in this area. Our record should not be condemned by others. We are saying that the present system works satisfactorily and that it need not become part of a European directive. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that other member states will go along with it, because they believe it to be perfectly reasonable. I hope that I can persuade hon. Members that their argument is wrong.
First, it is wrong to try to harmonise two different seas. That is why we have two conventions. Secondly, if we tried to do that, it would be disadvantageous to EC countries as against others, because it would mean that we were setting an unnecessary limit on ourselves while 247 others would not do so. We would have the disadvantage that non-EC countries did not meet the requirements, for they saw no reason to do it, and the disadvantage of an uncompetitive position. Therefore, it is not true that we must harmonise to enhance competitiveness, which is often the argument put forward. It does not apply here.
However, it might be said that it would be a good idea in any case for the Community to play a greater role than it does now. I believe that the Community should take urgent action in many areas; I want it to become more involved in matters in which it could do extremely well. But it is peculiar that it should decide that this is the area, where there is already adequate and effective international co-operation, in which it should operate. It is the area where the EC is least needed.
§ Sir Trevor Skeet (Bedfordshire, North)
I understand my hon. Friend's argument. Annex I substances cannot be laid at sea because they are prohibited on or under the seabed. Technology is beginning to move on, and it may be that later a drilling string will allow some of that material to be laid down a drill string. If we harmonised throughout Europe, does my right hon. Friend foresee the possibility that this will be precluded; but if it is on the basis that it be laid on the seabed only or prohibited from there, I do not want to see the other one excluded. What is my right hon. Friend's interpretation?
§ Mr. Gummer
My hon. Friend may be right. If we accepted the directive in its present form, several possible technical changes may be denied to us. I wonder whether my hon. Friend has noticed the other great difficulty before us. The directive contains nothing which would enable a distinction to be made between the waste dumped containing a minimal amount of a prohibited substance and the waste dumped being largely composed of a prohibited substance. That would be an intolerable method of operation. It means that if there are the merest trace elements, which would have been perfectly safe to lay under the previous conventions and under the most stringent conditions imposed by the scientists, it would be impossible to do so under this proposal because the operation is not as flexible as it was before.
That position has occurred because—I put this as delicately as I can — some people have been in the business of control for a long time, and have learnt through long experience the difficulties and advantages of some methods of operation. The EC is a newcomer, and its proposals for dealing with the matter have not learnt the lessons that have been learnt over a long time by those who have worked under the London dumping convention and the Oslo convention.
§ Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)
Is the Minister satisfied that the present conventions and legislation have the power to maintain the cleanliness of the seas round Scotland, especially its islands and west coast; which is an especially fine area for the development of fish farming? Is he satisfied that the present conventions and legislation will maintain that pollution-free area for fish farms and other activities?
§ Mr. Gummer
The hon. Gentleman knows that I am particularly interested in that subject and take the issue seriously. I believe that we have got both the powers and the information to ensure that pollution does not endanger fish farming in that area. If we did not have the powers, 248 or if further changes in the law were necessary, we have all the information and all the scientific advice from our present arrangements and we would not benefit from the proposals before us. That is the point. If I thought that the proposals would help us, I would follow my natural reaction and say that this would be better done on a European level, but I do not believe that to be so.
I do not believe that the proposals are based upon the rigorously argued scientific basis which we have come to expect from the two conventions. To give a second example, it says in the proposal that there should be a 50 per cent. reduction in the sea disposal of certain kinds of waste. That is to take for granted the view that sea disposal is intrinsically less desirable than land disposal. If I were very polite, I would say that that was at least an arguable proposition. In any event, it is certainly not a proposition on which to base an entire regime.
Article 10 would impose a freeze and then a 50 per cent. reduction over five years in the quantities of certain kinds of waste for sea disposal. The definition is so all embracing that significant quantities of sewage sludge, liquid industrial waste and dredged spoil which are being perfectly safely disposed of at the moment under the criteria agreed internationally would have to be spread about on the land,. We have to get rid of it somewhere. If we do not put it in the sea we have to put it on the land.
All that is in the face of serious scientific evidence that less than 5 per cent. of the metals in the North sea arise from sea disposal, while the atmosphere and rivers between them contribute up to 90 per cent. So the Commission's proposal is ill based scientifically and very costly and it would be unlikely to achieve any appreciable improvement in the marine environment. It does not have any of the advantages which one would look for either to protect the marine environment for fish farming round Scotland or to make a further quantum step in the improvement of the sea around our shores.
§ Mr. Simon Hughes
I have followed the Minister's argument. Can he tell us what the Government's response is to the proposals of the Royal Commission on environmental pollution which in its tenth report recommended:The Government should respond positively to the initiatives of the Federal German Government and the Commission of the European Communities concerning the North sea.Obviously I cannot go through all the recommendations, but in general terms they said that we are not doing enough, that the future health of the North sea cannot be assured if present processes increase and that the existing regime is not sufficient to protect the environment.
§ Mr. Gummer
The hon. Gentleman rightly says that we cannot go through each of the detailed recommendations. He might note that in some cases what we are doing or have agreed to do is better than is offered in the proposals under discussion. That is a problem we share. It is not that we could not argue about whether we are doing all the things that the Royal Commission has proposed, for there are obvious differences between us on that, but we are much more able to do something under the regimen that we have than under the proposals that the Commission has put before us. We could continue to argue as to whether we are doing enough. That is the right kind of tension. But what is proposed does not advance the hon. Gentleman's case. If we were to do what is proposed under the instrument, we would buy the 50 per cent. reduction 249 at the price of increased environmental pollution on land. The Commission's proposal does not seem even to begin to weigh the land and sea disposal options against one another, either generally or on the basis of specific scientific criteria, environmental impact, cost, or amenity.
Many right hon. and hon. Members will want to raise points of concern, but I emphasise again that the Government stand firm in their determination to protect the marine environment. If we had thought that this proposal would be helpful and that it was a further step towards the adoption of a common view by all sides of the House, we should have approached it in an entirely different way. However, the Government believe that it is not helpful. This country has strengthened its domestic legislation on sea disposal. We continue to meet our international obligations and we devote considerable resources to evaluating the effects of sea disposal according to scientific criteria. If we thought that we could improve upon that record by supporting the proposals, we should do so. However, we believe the opposite to be the case, that there is no obvious net environmental gain and that there are obvious gross costs—not least in jobs. We do not believe, therefore, that this is a proper basis for Community action.
§ Dr. David Clark (South Shields)
It may surprise the Minister of State to hear that I have a certain sympathy for some of his points, but I do not share his complacency. He appears to adopt the attitude that all is well and that this country has an excellent record. That is not so. It is hard to find anybody, either on the Opposition Benches or in Europe, who shares the Minister's attitude. He is also complacent about the seas around these shores. My hon Friend the Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) has already referred to the fact that there is concern in the Western Isles of Scotland. The 1984 Bremen conference said:The survival clock of the North sea points to five minutes to midnight. In coastal areas entire eco-systems are already at the brink of extinction or reduced in extent. Birds and mammals are in danger of reduction in numbers and health.I do not believe that that accords with the Minister's description.
The hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) pointed out that in its tenth report the Royal Commission, which is an independent adviser to this Parliament, provided a very long roll-call of deficiencies in our protection of the marine environment. Therefore, I do not share the Minister's complacency, but I share some of his worries about European Community document No. 8805/85. Its objective is worthy and it deserves to be successful but it requires very close scrutiny by Parliament. The Commission has, I suggest, produced a premature document that contains gaps. I want to draw attention to some of them.
The Government need to adopt a very much stronger policy on marine environment. I represent a constituency that borders the North sea. It has a large fishing industry, beautiful beaches and a large seafaring population. I am therefore very conscious of the dangers of sea pollution, especially of North sea pollution. Our European neighbours refer to us as the "bad neighbour" of Europe. 250 That worries me because, as well as being offensive it is true. I do not think that the Minister has helped us to resolve that problem.
One has only to look at the facts. We debated this at great length when discussing part II of the Food and Environment Protection Act 1985, which replaced the Dumping at Sea Act 1974. It is true that the United Kingdom dumps 99 per cent. of sewage sludge in Europe in the sea. It is true that 70 per cent. of industrial waste dumped in the North sea is produced by the United Kingdom. It is true that we are the second largest dumper of liquid waste and sludge. It is not a very enviable record.
As the Minister said, there are already conventions the aim of which is to protect the North sea. I took a count and found that there are 13 conventions, 11 EEC directives and 17 national laws. Those add up, as I hope I have shown, not to a strength but to a weakness. It could be argued that to combine all those conventions, directives and laws into one would be a step forward. I see the logic in that. Just as air pollution recognises no national boundaries, so it is with the maritime regime. The real question is whether the logic is correct. I see an immediate plus in that if we did have a directive it would mean that rules would be laid down which, as a long stop, would be enforceable in the European Court. That power does not exist at present. I find it difficult to agree with the prime justification made by the European Commission for the new directive. As I understand it, the rationale is twofold; first, to harmonise the marine pollution controls in each of the relevant seas, and secondly, to ensure that there is no unfair barrier to trade and industry.
I share the Minister's point of view. I am not sure whether the values and standards applicable in the Mediterranean are applicable to the North sea or whether what may be appropriate to the Baltic is appropriate to the Atlantic. I think that there are different problems, and it may be that they are better treated separately.
There is another point of weakness in the directive. In regard to the North sea—and this applies equally to the Mediterranean—one of the principal riparian countries, Norway, is not a member of the EEC. Therefore, it may well be—I suspect that it is—better to try to deal with pollution of the North sea through the Oslo convention, to which the Norwegians are signatories, than to try to do this through EEC directive.
Therefore, I have worries about this mania for harmonisation. I suspect that, although the intentions of the Bill may be good, the net product is that it may be premature and a setback to the marine environment protection policy.
One of the key points in the directive is to make incineration at sea illegal in 1990 or some time thereafter. I agree with the main thrust of that approach. There are great dangers in the practice of marine incineration and in monitoring. It is almost as if this were being swept under the carpet so that, because we cannot see it, we are not too worried about it. I am also concerned about the alternative. The Minister—and I think that he is wrong—said that waste can be disposed of in one of two ways, on land or at sea. I remind him that it can also be recycled. We should give more attention to that option. In other respects, the Minister is correct. If we do not treat waste at sea, we may have to treat it on land. The hazardous waste inspectorate of the Department in its first report last year stressed that there is only limited land use capacity in the United Kingdom. The directive recognises the problem, because 251 it requires member states to promote alternative land-based methods of disposal. We are entitled to ask the Government what they are doing and what they will do about that. The Government gave their response to the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology in April 1985. Their response was inadequate. They said:The Government recognises the importance of ensuring that specialist disposal facilities are available. That this must primarily be a task for industry itself and at present the Government sees no case to support these financially, nor to direct waste to them.That free market approach will no longer be appropriate if we ban incineration at sea. If the directive and the orders are to be effective, tighter controls over the incineration of waste at sea must be accompanied by Government action to ensure the availability of adequate alternative facilities.
§ Sir Trevor Skeet
We have the worry in the North sea that to drill, drilling mud is required. How would the hon. Gentleman deal with that? Would he have it all brought ashore or would he allow dumping? Does he regard that matter as one of the anomalies that must be dealt with?
§ Dr. Clark
I am sure how that point relates to incineration at sea, but it is an anomaly that should be mentioned. We are responsible for 90 per cent. of that activity in the North sea. It is a major problem which is not faced up to in the directive. That is why I am lukewarm about the directive.
Even if the proposals on incineration at sea are not implemented there is an urgent need for the Government to turn away from their free market approach to the treatment of waste on land. That is essential. I hope that the Minister will feel able to say something about that when he replies.
The second proviso to which the Minister referred related to the 10 per cent. reduction for five consecutive years from 1990. The directive states:Member States shall reduce each year the quantities of waste authorised to be dumped by 10 per cent. of the quantity authorised in 1989 in the case of waste or other materials listed in Annex II, points 1, 2, 3 and 5.Does that mean materials covered by annex II, or does it apply to other general waste?
I have spoken to many people outside the House who are knowledgeable about the problem and the impression seems to be that that point applies to all materials. Does it apply to sewage sludge, colliery waste and dredgings? It is important that the House and those people involved in the industry should have an answer to that question tonight. Is solid colliery waste—I am not talking about tailings—covered by that article? That point is of great interest to many people.
My next point relates to the enforcement and monitoring of the dumping. That is covered by article 12. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food issues the licences and monitors the position. There is evidence that illegal dumping takes place in the North sea. I shall cite a specific case, of which I know the Minister is aware because we have corresponded about it. Immediately before Christmas fishermen in my constituency lost more than £500 worth of nets when they were destroyed by "illegally dumped colliery waste" in the Minister's words. Checks on legitimate authorised vessels dumping waste have yielded no clues. As waste was indisputably on top of the nets, there are two possibilities—an authorised 252 vessel located the dumping ground incorrectly, or unauthorised vessels were dumping waste. The Minister has been studying this and other cases, so could he comment on that? Is he satisfied that the key to the control of dumping depend on monitoring and the ability of authorised vessels to know precisely where they are? Is he satisfied that authorised vessels have the necessary instruments to locate their precise positions? For example, have they depth plotters? There are suggestions that those vessels do not have sophisticated location finders.
It is often said along the coast that unauthorised dumping takes place at dumping sites at dusk and in the dark. Could the Minister set in motion an investigation about that? Will he verify whether that is the case? Perhaps he could ask the coastguards, who will have information about that.
Finally, is the Minister satisfied that there are sufficient coastguards and other officials to monitor dumping? As the Minister knows, since the closure of the Tees station, the Tyne station covered by coastguards stretches from Berwick in the north to Scarborough in the south. The Government have made serious cuts in personnel. Has that applied to coastguards? It has been applied to Customs men and, recently, at least one foreign vessel on the Tyne, which our Dutch colleagues informed us was well known for running drugs, was left unchecked simply because the Customs men were pulled off as there was no overtime pay for them. Fortunately, that has been put right, but I suspect that what applies to customs men also applies to coastguards.
Our record on the sea, especially the North sea, is certainly lamentable, and that opinion is shared by virtually all the experts who have examined it. We need to do more. This directive needs careful analysis before we endorse it. I certainly agree with its sentiments and objectives, but too many questions are unanswered. I would prefer to perfect the directive and meanwhile to work under the Oslo and London Dumping Convention to ensure that the sea is protected. I urge the Government to convert to the marine environment, just as the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has given the lead to the Department of Environment on countryside matters.
§ 11.8 pm
§ Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)
In two interventions during the Minister's speech I made it clear that the Liberal party opposes the wording of the motion. It states that the Housenotes the existence of well-established and effective international conventions … and is therefore not convinced that the adoption of this Community instrument is an essential element of environmental protection.The Minister laid his cards before us. He said that that was not the appropriate method, that we must say that our European Community colleagues who are prepared to endorse the directive are wrong, that we have sufficient mechanisms through other international conventions and that we would prefer to follow them.
There is, however, good general support— I have shown, in part, where it comes from—for the view that we are not doing a good enough job. As I recall, the House has not yet had the opportunity, which I anticipate it will have later this year, to debate the most recent report of the Royal Commission on environmental pollution. Last year we had a good debate on the 10th report and the 11th report 253 was produced at the end of 1985. That report was specifically on the subject of "Managing Waste: The Duty of Care".
I have not heard anybody question the expertise, experience or authority of the Royal Commission and paragraph 13(2) of its report says:In the waste management context we reiterate the comment in the Tenth Report that the United Kingdom should play a more positive role in the development of Europeam Community environmental policy.If one reads the rest of the conclusions and recommendations and ties them back to the conclusions and recommendations of the 10th report, with which the House is probably more familiar as it has been debated and followed up in more detail, one sees that the Royal Commission is clear that in general we should take a much more positive attitude. There are exceptions to that, and I share the view of the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) and the Minister that it is not a blanket endorsement that everything proposed is wonderful. There are comments in the Report which should act as a trigger to encourage the Minister to look more positively at the directive. Paragraph 12.28 has two sentences of that sort. The first is:In most industrialised countries higher standards of waste management are being demanded.and the second is:waste management must not remain the Cinderella of government and industry.I start from the premise that it is the general view of the experts that we are lagging behind and are not doing enough, in spite of the intention to do better than we have in the past.
The Minister will be aware that his Department receives, on a regular basis, a considerable number of inquiries on this subject through parliamentary questions from hon. Members on both sides of the House. Pre-eminent among my colleagues in asking such questions is my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock), who I note has asked several such questions. My research assistant found regular inquiries on this subject which demonstrate a regular level of interest and concern. Therefore, I understand and expect the Minister to say that he feels pressurised on this matter within his own Department and to be aware of a feeling that we could do much more.
I would hope that it is the Government's policy, whether dealing with disposal of waste at sea or on land, that we should be aiming towards a society in which there is zero waste and where we actually reprocess all our waste. For example, we could use sewage waste as fertiliser. Heavy metals can be taken out of waste. Some of the waste to which this directive addresses itself is waste which has heavy metal components. We should be working towards the sustainable society, in which there is zero waste.
The directive encourages us to use our waste more effectively. It is important to point out one or two areas where I would have hoped that the Government could have been more positive. If I had to justify my participation in the debate I could do so easily, because the Thames water authority, which is responsible for the city and which is particularly relevant to a riverside constituency such as 254 mine, dumps 5 million tonnes of sewage sludge waste each year nearer to the area of the hon. Member for South Shields.
As we are the major exporters of sludge and slurry into the North sea, we have the prime responsibility. The Minister will no doubt agree that we are the country most likely to be most affected by the directive. No doubt, he feels that therefore we have the pre-eminent interest in not taking anything that the European Community as a whole might accept as readily as others because if affects our interest most. I accept that.
§ Mr. Gummer
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that many countries export all kinds of things through pipelines into the North sea. We have taken the view that the kind of sludge that we put into the sea is a far better way to dispose of the waste. That means that regulations such as this fall on us in a different way from others, even though our pollution may be little, and theirs considerable.
§ Mr. Hughes
I accept that entirely. However, this is little like the debates that we have with Department of the Environment Ministers about acid rain. We have a particular responsibility and start from a particular involvement, which should give us a particular keenness to try to co-operate as much as possible, because of the importance of trying to have European standards on such important matters as environmental pollution, which is not limited to national boundaries and of moving towards harmonisation where that is possible. For example, the Government should tell the House that they are prepared to look at ways to reduce the amount of heavy metal in sludge, and thus the pollution caused by sludge, and thereby reduce the damage to the environment.
In spite of the excitement my speech is causing the hon. Member for Crawley (Mr. Soames), shown by the way that he is waving around some papers, I shall continue to make one or two points.
I fear that, unless the Minister shows that he is proposing to be more positive than he was in his first speech, in which he went against the international trend by holding out—uniquely—against the proposal for a directive, there is a potential harm to us. There is a concession that I would make from my purist position, and it is one that the Royal Commission made in its turn. It is on the subject of a proposal to phase out incineration as suggested in the directive, which may not be both easy or practicable in the short term. There is a case in the immediate future for incineration being an immediate method of getting rid of nasty waste. That does not mean to say that it should not be far more severely controlled. I hope that, if the Minister is praying in aid those who say that we cannot get rid of incineration at sea immediately, he will at best say what further controls we should impose.
Is it the Minister's view, and thus a suggestion that he could make, that if we were to agree to a directive, although not exactly in these terms, we should have quality objectives and limits on pollution at sea, rather than quantity conditions and limits? That may be a more acceptable way in which to judge, and it could be tested on the pollution of fish and marine stock, as well as on things that are washed up on the shore.
It may be thought that this is a matter of concern only to industry and those directly concerned with operations at sea, whether oil exploration, fishing or the like. That 255 is not the case. I have had much correspondence, of which I have brought only one example. It comes from a colleague in Brighton, who says that there is a major campaign—I presume, on a non-party basis, because it is proposed by the Keep Britain Tidy group—trying to deal with the pollution that gets washed up on Brighton's beaches, including lethal chemical containers and so on. There is great concern that we should be doing something to deal with pollution at sea.
I regret that the Government have said that they know better than anybody else, that they are satisfied that what they are doing is adequate, and that they can afford to be pretty, if not very, complacent. I do not find that attitude satisfactory. People who live around our shores or who know the facts about pollution would not either. The Royal Commission does not find it satisfactory and I hope that the Minister will say that the Government are prepared to be much more positive towards the directive than we have heard them he so far.
§ Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)
I share the reservations that my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) expressed. However, I welcome any attempt to reduce marine pollution around the United Kingdom. I shall concentrate on the interests of the inshore fishing industry and the fish farming industry. Both must be protected by measures that help reduce marine pollution.
Scotland has witnessed some improvement in the control of pollution. We now have salmon in the Clyde again, largely as a result of the sustained efforts of the Clyde purification board and Strathclyde regional council. Fish farming and the fishing industry are important to the Scottish economy, especially to rural maritime communities. They need clean seas, rivers and sea lochs. One of the reasons why fish farming is so successful, especially on the west coast of Scotland, the Western Isles and in Orkney, is the cleanliness of the waters. It is essential that they remain pollution free.
I recently visited a salmon farm in Orkney run by a Norwegian couple. It is a successful enterprise, aided by the Highlands and Islands Development Board, which was set up by a Labour Government, because the area is so pleasantly free of marine pollution. Salmon is important to the Scottish economy. Apart from being part of our national heritage, it is important to our tourist industry. That is why I welcome the Salmon Bill, which has just completed its passage through the other place.
The salmon requires clean rivers and regulations which control the activities of salmon fishermen, legal and illegal. We need a cluster of conventions and marine pollution control regulations which enable both industries to develop.
The proposal presents formidable problems for local and central Government. In Scotland, the regional authorities have a major responsibility in terms of sewage disposal. For example, Strathclyde regional council has an important role to play. Two vessels are in constant operation taking sewage sludge out into the Firth of Clyde. How will that council be affected by the proposal? The region has major plans, which are at an advanced stage, to develop a large sewage disposal plant close to my constituency. How will it be affected by the proposal? The plant is to be built in the constituency of the hon. Member for Renfrew, West and Inverclyde (Mrs. McCurley), but 256 it will involve my constituents as well. A sewage outlet pipe will extend into the Firth of Clyde. If Strathclyde has to make major changes in the next decade or so, will it receive EEC finance to change its methods of sewage sludge disposal? That is an important question for my regional council to consider.
My next question concerns prohibition on the disposal of oil-based drilling mounts and oil from drill cuttings. As the Government rightly say in the explanatory memorandum, prohibition would present formidable problems for oil exploration activities in the North sea and for those activities that are taking place off the west coast of Scotland. How will they be affected by this rather odd draft Community instrument? That industry is important to the economy not only of Scotland but of the United Kingdom as a whole. It is essential that oil exploration activities are not too severely constrained. I know that this matter is not within the province of the Minister of State, but I seek some reassurance.
No mention is made of the debris scattered on the seabed by the more reckless and disreputable offshore operators and offshore vessels. That debris does a great deal of damage to the fishermen's nets. The present legislation does not deal effectively with that menace.
I welcome the concern of the EEC and of other north Atlantic nations about marine pollution, which must be reduced. However, I have serious reservations about this draft instrument.
§ Mr. Gummer
I should like to answer some of the points raised in this interesting debate. I am pleased that the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) and I are of one mind on the main thrust of our discussion on this proposal. It is always possible to say — the hon. Gentleman is right to press me on this—that we should do more.
I find it difficult to accept the charge of complacency, because the hon. Member for South Shields referred to criticisms of the Government which antedated the changes we made in the legislation we passed last year. The hon. Gentleman suggested that we were not aware of the improvements that we want to make. We have made the legislative changes that will help very much in that direction. The hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) referred to the return of salmon to the Clyde. There are examples of improvements around the British coast. That is not to say that we do not need to do much more. Equally, it cannot be said that we should have attracted the opprobrium of the Bremen conference. However, the conference delegates did not attack us—they complained about particular trouble spots in the eastern North sea off the German coast where problems were caused by discharges from continental Europe, not from the United Kindom.
When the conference delegates were talking about the problems of the North sea, far from attacking the United Kingdom Government they were attacking the Governments of continental Europe — the very Governments that the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow suggested could lead the way. That is not the case. He was right to say that much more could be done, and we are considering many possibilities. For example, on the problem of sludge from drilling, we now use nontoxic materials that have improved the position. That is 257 part of the operation that we are seeking to carry out. We are not saying that it is always wrong to use those substances, but that they should be made safe to use.
The problem is ours because we do a great deal of the drilling in the area and therefore we are responsible for the use of those substances. The hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) was right to suggest that that laid a special reponsibility on us.
The hon. Gentleman claimed that the attitude of a number of our friends in Europe was different from ours. The discussions have not yet taken place. Our soundings lead us to believe that a number of them do not support the proposal. I accept that some do, but I believe them to be wrong. The hon. Gentleman is wrong to suggest that there are many enthusiasts for the proposal.
The hon. Member for South Shields spoke of the United Kingdom's record on dumping. Although we dump sewage sludge, we go to considerable trouble to make it as safe as possible. We have spent much time, and there has been considerable experimentation trying to improve that. His point about the possible building in his neighbour's constituency is a case in point. It is an attempt to find a better way to deal with sludge. If that sludge shows trace elements of any of the metals mentioned in the annexe, it will come under this directive. The problems that I have outlined would then arise.
The question that the hon. Gentleman asked has not yet been discussed to any great extent. I cannot, therefore, give him a direct answer. It is a question to which I believe we should not address ourselves because the basis of the argument is faulty. It is wrong to apply the same regulations to quantities of sludge irrespective of the amount of those elements within it.
I am not ignoring the fact that we should try to remove those elements as far as possible, but to take about them as though there was a pure load of one dangerous substance is an odd way to approach the issue.
We account for less than 10 per cent. of the sea disposal of liquid industrial waste. The suggestion that Britain is the dirty neighbour is unjustified, although I am not saying that we cannot do better. If we put the facts before the House, we are accused of being complacent; if we do not, we appear to be not supporting those who, over the past few years, have made major improvements. Many of them are concerned with the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and I am concerned that their work should be recognised.
The Commission rejected the concept of incineration at sea without any scientific advice. We believe that that option should be kept open and compared with other options. We must proceed with the best practical option while considering always whether there is not a better way in which to proceed. There are no grounds for saying, "This is the state of the art and we shall be unable to move forward." The Royal Commission on environmental pollution concluded in its eleventh report that marine incineration was a possibility under strict conditions and an acceptable option for the disposal of some wastes.
If the option is rejected completely, we shall have to dispose of the waste in another way, and there are circumstances in which incineration would be preferable. Until we reach the Nirvana to which the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey pointed, when no waste is produced, we must keep all the options open. The hon. 258 Gentleman's vision is a long way from realisation on any view of technology. I emphasise that we investigate all illegal dumping and I shall consider carefully all the issues raised by the hon. Member for South Shields that were directed to it. I know that the hon. Gentleman would not expect me to say more than that which I have set out in the letters I have written to him. We are continuing to undertake research in the areas to which he referred.
The hon. Member for South Shields asked to what the 50 per cent. reduction referred to specifically. It must refer to sewage sludge, dredged spoil and some industrial wastes, because they contain minute quantities of the substances that are the cause of concern.
§ Dr. David Clark
Does sewage sludge include colliery waste? Is any scientific investigation taking place into the effect of inert colliery waste on the marine environment? Many biologists have told me that colliery waste has no effect on that environment and the local fishermen in my constituency tell me that it causes no problems for them. I should like to know whether there is any scientific research taking place into the interaction between colliery waste and the marine environment.
§ Mr. Gummer
Monitoring is taking place. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that it has been undertaken for 30 years or more. There are some problems of comparison and we are constantly seeking new means of dealing with the problem. Nothing has been found that would be remotely feasible or better environmentally. I have examined all the evidence carefully and I cannot counteract the evidence which the hon. Gentleman has brought to my attention. I am examining the matter closely, not least because of his interest and in recognition of his constituency interest.
I would say to the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow that, if there is more sludge to be dumped, the proposal that is before us will become more difficult to accept. If there are any trace elements, the terms of the proposal will be triggered.
There was a real distinction to be drawn between the way in which the arguments of the spokesmen for the Labour and Liberal parties were advanced. The hon. Member for South Shields, who spoke for the official Opposition, said that we as a nation should do more, and that I should do more, to ensure that the environment is protected from the disposal of waste. He then examined the proposal carefully in addressing the House and suggested that it could not reasonably be supported although he had respect for its aims. The hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey, who spoke for the Liberal party, ignored the fundamental problems that would arise in his constituency if the proposal were implemented and argued that we should accept it. He suggested that marginally he would go along with it and that the Government should do likewise.
That is the sort of illogicality that we hear from the alliance Bench. It is suggested that we must support the proposal because it is concerned with conservation, irrespective of whether it is good, bad or indifferent conservation. At least the hon. Member for South Shields examined the proposal, applied it to the problem and asked whether it would work.
The hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey will support anything that comes out of the European 259 Commission on conservation just to show that he is on the side of conservation. He must accept that, from the conservation point of view, this proposal would not help.
We have good arrangements already. While we may be able to do better, the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey must accept that the existing two conventions enable us to do all that he would like us to do. He may say that we are not doing enough, but this proposal would make no difference. All the possibilities already exist, and what is proposed would only make matters worse because it would restrict us.
The people of Bermondsey would have their sewage turned into sludge and put on the land. Does the hon. Gentleman believe that that would help them to enjoy the Kentish countryside on those days when he allows them to go into the country? This suggests that he favours anything of a conservation nature simply because it might gain an extra vote for the Liberal party. The hon. Gentleman's argument is in sharp contrast to that put by the official Opposition and by Conservative Members. We see yet again why the hon. Member for South Shields, rather than the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey, represents the official Opposition.
§ Question put and agreed to.
That this House takes note of European Community Document No. 8805/85, a proposal for a Directive on the disposal of non-radioactive waste at sea; recognises the importance rightly attached by Her Majesty's Government to the protection of the marine environment; considers nevertheless that sea disposal may represent the best practicable environmental option for certain wastes; notes the existence of well-established and effective international conventions in this field; and is therefore not convinced that the adoption of this Community instrument is an essential element of environmental protection.