HC S [Control of Pollution Bill]
|Document type:||public statement|
|Document kind:||House of Commons Speech|
|Venue:||House of Commons|
|Source:||Hansard HC [875/105-14]|
|Themes:||Environment, Industry, Autobiography (marriage and children), Science and technology, Local government, Local government finance, Agriculture|
Mrs. Margaret Thatcher (Finchley)
I start by declaring an interest. Either I or my family have been associated with the petro-chemical or agro-chemical industry for some time. The interests are mainly through my husband. I am not sure whether marriage is an interest which 106one ought to declare, but I am being on the safe side in doing so.
We give a general welcome to the Bill. The right hon. Gentleman claimed some degree of parentage for the previous Bill and we claim a good degree of parentage for this Bill. There is no point in arguing about this. Most lusty offspring require two parents and perhaps this is as well. It is good to have the advice and support of both sides.
It is inevitable that after two Bills—the first in their Lordships' House as the Protection of the Environment Bill, and the second this Bill—there is a lot of recycling of speeches. Therefore, we must do our best to avoid repeating points, but I am afraid that that is not wholly possible when dealing with this subject.
This is a very detailed Bill. Not having been directly politically involved with the subject as long as the right hon. Gentleman, I have found it a somewhat exhausting and exacting business in preparing for the debate. I cannot think of any Bill which I have seen introduced in the House which has been preceded by more investigation, research, discussion and consultation than this Bill. It goes back to the Royal Commission to which the right hon. Gentleman referred. The right hon. Gentleman was extremely fortunate in having Lord Ashby as the first chairman and is now equally fortunate in having Sir Brian Flowers as the present chairman.
The right hon. Gentleman appointed the Royal Commission as a watchdog for the public, and one could wish that all Royal Commissions tackled their problems in the way that this one did. It adopted an approach to the problem of first finding the facts and then recommending constructive and practical solutions. That is a good recipe for any Royal Commission when looking into any difficult and detailed problem.
The right hon. Gentleman also referred to some of the other reports which have contributed greatly to solutions in the Bill—the Key and Summer Reports and the Scott Report on Neighbourhood Noise—but that is not the limit of the material. There is a wealth of common law rights, of statutory rights and an enormous library of circulars, as central Governments have tried to introduce the best practices to local authorities, and there have been 107endless articles in the Press which have helped draw the public's attention to the things which need to be done. We have a great deal of good will on the part of the public and industry and public authorities. This is an excellent basis on which to go ahead.
The problem has been that many of the responsibilities have been fragmented. I gather that there are 101 pollution monitoring schemes, controlled by nine different Ministries. One of the objectives of the Bill is to have a comprehensive measure to deal with these matters, but when we start looking at the Bill as a matter of principle we realise that many of the points we wish to make will be Committee points. I shall not go through those points at present because a large number of hon. Members wish to speak, but I wish to raise some general points.
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that one of the reasons we need to have a Bill arises from technological advance. Looking back we can see how many products which we now use, and which contribute greatly to the standard of living of the nation, have been produced only in the past 30 or 40 years. The first nylon factory was set up in 1941. The many thermoplastic materials originated mainly in the post-war period. These, in particular, have given rise to a number of problems of disposal. But examples of all the plastics are to be found in the kitchen of any housewife, and they have contributed greatly to our standard of living.
On the agro-chemical side, we have had far greater yields through the fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides which are the products of the scientists.
These substances have given rise to a number of problems, of course. Perhaps we did not realise that the great advances in pesticides would cause secondary effects in getting rid of them. The same applies to herbicides. Still less did we realise that some of the fertilisers could cause great agricultural problems. Nitrate put on the soil may leak into inland lakes and waters, stimulating the plant life, which uses up all the oxygen and thus kills off the fish. These secondary effects were unforeseen.
We cannot do without these technological innovations and new chemicals, but the same scientific ability which led to 108the introduction of those products is there to solve the problems which arise when we try to dispose of them. Much of the research has been directed to this end, so we need not despair.
My second point concerns the extent of the research which has already been undertaken. In my last work, I was responsible for the research councils and was particularly interested, therefore, in the report from those councils on pollution research relating to the year 1971–72. The right hon. Gentleman might not fully realise, although [ Geoffrey Rippon] his predecessor would, that his Department managed to take away some of my research council budget for their own research purposes.
Mr. Eldon Griffiths
My hon. Friend remembers very well. For his Department to get money out of mine was such a traumatic experience for me that it is seared on my soul. But even before that happened a great deal of pollution research was being done by the four research councils.
It is interesting to note from the report that in every one of the four sections into which this Bill is divided research projects were going on even in 1971–72, from the then limited budget they applied to pollution research of £1.2 million. They tackled the matter sensibly, as they always do, by studying the chemical and physical properties of the pollutant substances and their biological effects, by studying recognised pollutant areas, and by solving specified problems.
I am interested to see the extent to which they were already on to problems some of which were unknown to some of us. In regard to the disposal of waste, they were already studying the design of drainage channels and pipes for waste disposal on farms, and they were tackling problems connected with the degradation of sunken oil. They were doing research on the behaviour and persistence of herbicides and insecticides, and on heavy metal pollution of streams and marine waters by mine and mill effluents.
In regard to noise, they had a project on the levels of jet noise, with which the Bill does not deal, for reasons which we understand, and the long-term effects of building noise on hospital staffs. In 109regard to atmospheric pollution, they were doing analyses of engine exhaust pollution, with a view to developing low pollution engines. As for sulphur dioxide and fluorine compounds, they were doing studies on their influence on plant growth and crops. These are just examples from many research projects which were already under way. So we are fortunate in coming to this subject with a large amount of research behind us and the knowledge that many of the solutions are already in preparation.
I notice that under Clause 73, dealing with atmospheric pollution, local authorities are given powers not just to contribute to research—which is common—but to undertake it. I wonder whether local authorities are the right bodies to undertake research themselves when other excellent bodies already exist. This tiny point may not have struck other hon. Members, and the provision may have been in the original Bill, but I learned one great lesson from the behaviour of the Labour Party when it was in opposition before. It was never inhibited by what it had said in government. That is a formula which I occasionally propose to adopt.
My third main general point is that there are expensive new duties on local authorities and the regional water bodies which will lead to the employment of far more staff and will be far more expensive than the Financial Memorandum suggests. It is not the plans under the Bill which will have an effect—they will have a partial effect—but how far they are implemented. They will require a large number of technical staff—this point came up in the other place—and also, as [ Anthony Crosland] the Secretary of State realised, a great deal of extra expenditure. One of the complaints of the local authorities frequently is, "You are always putting new duties on us and then complaining when our expenditure rises considerably."
The noble Lord, Lord Gransworthy, estimated on Third Reading on 21st May that the extra staff of local authorities would cost between £2 million and £3 million per annum—I would have thought that that was an underestimate—and that the extra cost to improving the waste collection services would be £6 million per annum at present costs. We all know that those will not stay as they are. Just a little pointer is the two Bills that I have with me. One is the Control of 110Pollution Bill just after it had been amended in Committee in another place. The other is the Bill as it came to us, five days later. The first cost 75p and the second 86p. An increase of 15 per cent. in five days is a little much, even for this Government!
Lord Garnsworthy went on:
"Overall public expenditure must be contained within the approved allocations ... there can be at this point in time no question of putting large new injections of funds into this area."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 21st May 1974; Vol 351, c. 1394.&csb:
He went on to talk about the best use of resources and some redeployment of staffs.
I would not quarrel with his words in that respect, since he was preaching the language of priorities. Many people would perhaps prefer to put central and local money into the achievement of clean air, clean water, freedom from nuisance, and public amenity than into some other kinds of public projects. I agree with the Secretary of State and with the Second Report of the Royal Commission that if the public are to make these judgments they must have the maximum information. Some people, knowing the state into which air or water will get if we do not make this expenditure, would give that higher priority than some other things on central or local government agendas.
It is vital that more attention should be given to a good and pure water supply, which for years we took for granted. Because of trade effluents and other chemicals going into the water we are in danger of losing the purity. At the moment we are concentrating on oil supplies, but water is one of our most valuable commodities and we must take all necessary steps to ensure that it is in good and clear supply.
The fourth general point is that there is a great gap between legislation and its enforcement, on the one hand, and legislation and the habits of people, on the other. There is only a limited amount that we in Parliament can do to improve the environment. We can make all the plans and, in due course, provide the money to implement those plans, but in spite of the effort and enthusiasm of successive Governments for improving the environment, and particularly in spite of the many anti-litter campaigns, 111matters do not always seem to be improving. A walk down the King's Road on a Saturday afternoon will show that the anti-litter campaign is not having a great deal of effect.
Many of the products that we have today are, for convenience and hygiene, wrapped in various kinds of packaging which all too often is thrown down. We are all aware of this. Improvement will not just happen. Some take the view that the propaganda will eventually sink in and that we shall eventually see an improvement. I note the new provisions in the Bill about litter, but this is a classic case in which the public can do more to improve the environment than can Parliament.
I have also noticed, as an ordinary constituency Member, increasing complaints about noise, not only that coming from industry and construction sites but that coming from the house next door. We have not been able to take adequate steps to deal with it. It is rather sad that there are some people who seem to follow courses of action at home which are designed to irritate their next-door neighbours, or who are careless of the consequences for their neighbours. Here, too, legislation is only a matter of last resort. The general standard is determined by people's willingness or otherwise to take consideration for others into account in their own actions.
I shall not go through the four parts of the Bill in detail, for obvious reasons. I want to make one or two points about each part, and we can then deal with them in detail in Committee.
On the disposal of waste, we welcome the general duty to ensure adequate arrangements for the disposal of controlled waste. We particularly welcome the new clause on reclamation and recycling. We also welcome what the right hon. Gentleman said about the advisory council. There is a greater awareness on the part of the public about the need for reclamation and a wish to be prudent in the use of resources. But so often their awareness and wish to help is frustrated by the lack of separate collection of waste paper and metal. There can be nothing more irritating than to have sorted out different things into separate piles and then to see them all 112going into the same lorry to be dealt with in the same way.
Recycling is not new. The total value of materials reclaimed annually in Britain is £1,500 million, including £800 million worth of metal. But much more could be gathered from municipal refuse, which I understand amounts to 20 million tons a year, including 14 million tons from domestic waste. We understand that the problem is often that of separating the metals from other materials. It is not as though the waste comes nicely separated into specific metals. One or two metals may occur together, and often they are in association with other materials. I note that a good deal of research is now being done on how to separate these components to make them easier to reclaim.
Paper and plastics in refuse are increasing at the fastest rate. There is a real need to reclaim more paper, because of its increasing use and the long-term supply of available timber stocks. Plastics are the most obstinately persistent of wastes, but, again, there appears to be research into recycling synthetic polymers.
There is a particular point on Part I of the Bill in which [ Denis Howell] the Minister of State may be interested, because it arose at Question Time recently. I refer to Clause 12(4)(b). Perhaps I can explain that without the Secretary of State looking at it. He will remember that that is the clause which lays upon local authorities a duty to empty cesspools, among other things. But it lays upon local authorities only a permissive power to charge. They do not have to charge for the emptying of cesspools. There are certain things for which they cannot charge, but they have a permissive power to charge for emptying cesspools. If it is only a permissive power, many of the problems that the right hon. Gentleman and I are meeting now could be solved by the local authorities refraining from charging. Alternatively, we have the solution in our hands, because by striking out their power to charge—bearing in mind that there is a sewerage rate—for the emptying of septic tanks, and by invoking the capacity, in Clause 102, to make different clauses effective from different appointed days, we could have solved this problem by the time that the House rises for the Summer Recess—I assume by the end of July. It appears that the Minister of State wishes 113to intervene. He may have the information ready.
The Minister of State, Department of the Environment (Mr. Denis Howell)
I am obliged to the right hon. Lady. She has raised quite an interesting point. As my right hon. Friend has said, we met the water authority chairmen this morning. This is one of the matters that we raised and that they certainly wished to raise in view of the concern in the country and the House. It is odd that the local authorities have these powers while water authorities do not. In looking at the question whether we should charge, as we do now, and what should be done about householders who cannot have their houses connected to the sewerable system, for which they should be charged—about which I gave an undertaking in a recent Adjournment debate—it is quite clear that we cannot look at this problem in isolation. I give the right hon. Lady the assurance that we shall do all that we can to get this done as speedily as possible. We can return to the matter in Committee, and I am sure that there is no division on either side of the House about it.
On the provisions of the Bill, we have the means to a solution. I am concerned that those means should be used. What really interested me is that these are permissive and not mandatory powers. If local authorities co-operated, one could have no charge at all at present.
Mr. Stephen Ross (Isle of Wight)
I should like to point out to the right hon. Lady that some local authorities were not under the impression that they would have this duty left to them in regard to cesspits. They were certainly under the impression that some of the regional water authorities would do the job and, therefore, have not budgeted for the job. Therefore, if the right hon. Lady is saying that local authorities will have to do it without making a charge—as most of them are trying to do—she is asking them to find the money for this service from somewhere else.
The ratepayer is already paying through the sewerage rate. Many people are not getting the service but are being charged for it and are also having to pay to have their own septic 114tanks emptied. The main political parties in the House thoroughly understand this problem.
I turn to the part of the Bill dealing with the pollution of water. I note the changes in the clauses on pollution arising from good agricultural practice. There is a fundamental dilemma here, that good husbandry may nevertheless lead to pollution. I see what has been done in the amendments to the clauses. It may be that some of my hon. Friends who are connected with the agricultural industry still feel it is not enough. As we know, the agriculture industry is going through particularly difficult times at present and may wish to pursue the question of compensation. I know of the reasons why we should treat agriculture in the same way as we treat industrial concerns. But equally, we realise that there is a difference, and hon. Members may wish to pursue the matter in Committee in regard to treating agriculture differently.
I welcome Clause 54, which deals with noise. This will enable many householders to take action against those who offend in neighbouring households without having to invoke the local authority's powers or having, as previously, to get the signature of two other people under the ordinary nuisance provisions of the law.
From what the right hon. Gentleman said, I understand that he is setting up a new study of pollution of the atmosphere, which we welcome. From the debate in the other place, I understand that we may have to have lead and sulphur in petrol for longer than we would wish; but we all know that the reason for that is the supply of crude oil.
The Bill represents the most comprehensive attempt for many years to bring pollution under proper control. It may be couched in dull phraseology, but it is likely to have a greater and more lasting effect on the quality of life in many parts of Britain than most other measures. We shall do all we can to assist its passage to the statute book.