Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page


Drinking Water: ECC Report

3.10 p.m.

Baroness Hilton of Eggardon rose to move, That this House take note of the Report of the European Communities Committee on Drinking Water (Fourth Report, HL Paper 31).

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, some time last year the Environment Sub-Committee of the Select Committee on the European Communities began an examination of the new draft directive on drinking water. Initially, the sub-committee was under the able chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Lewis of Newnham, who I am delighted to say has rearranged his commitments and is with us today. I am very much aware that his knowledge of chemistry far exceeds my own and I am therefore delighted that he is here to give us his expert knowledge of parts of the draft directive.

The proposed new directive sets out to amend the 1980 directive and sets mandatory standards for drinking water. Through its various measures the original 1980 directive considerably improved the quality of drinking water throughout the Community. Good quality drinking water is essential to high standards of health protection. Since then scientific knowledge and techniques have advanced and some ambiguities in the original directive have been realised. In addition, public awareness of the importance of drinking water has been increasing and there has been an increased use of bottled water because of concerns about the water that comes out of our taps. It was therefore thought necessary to have a revised directive.

The main change in the proposed directive relates to the permitted quantity of lead in drinking water which, in line with the World Health Organisation recommendation, would reduce the permitted level of lead from 50 micrograms per litre to 10 micrograms per litre. Lead is a constituent in both water and in the atmosphere--the air which we breathe--which has serious consequences for human health. It is important for the protection of infants and young children, for pregnant women and for women past the menopause that the quantity of lead in water should be reduced. Lead has neuro-toxic effects on the brain and can lead to reduced intelligence and behavioural problems in children. My noble friend Lord Dubs will deal with that important topic at greater length.

Other changes in the proposed directive require compliance with micro-biological and chemical parameters. There were 67 in the original directive, but

4 Jun 1996 : Column 1162

they are to be simplified in the new directive and the number of parameters with which drinking water will have to comply is to be reduced to 48. That is a welcome simplification to take account of only those elements which are essential to a high level of health protection.

The level of pesticides in water also causes concern. The Commission's own Scientific Advisory Committee recommended more stringent limits than the World Health Organisation in that it felt that the precautionary principle should apply and that a limit of one-tenth of a microgram per litre should apply to each pesticide rather than individual limits for each, which would be difficult to assess and administer. The noble Countess, Lady Mar, will discuss that topic at greater length in due course.

In relation to polyaromatic hydrocarbons, some of which are known to be carcinogenic, we support the recommendation in the draft directive in relation to benzo-alpha-pyrene. In relation to the other PAHs, we recommend the retention of a group limit until further research has established their individual toxicity. I am glad to say that the noble Lord, Lord Lewis, will be dealing at greater length with boron and copper, where my knowledge of chemistry deserts me. Provisional new limits were proposed for those metals. The sub-committee was of the opinion that those limits should be based on public health risks as evidenced by the best scientific evidence. Alas, however, the Commission is still awaiting further opinion from its Scientific Advisory Committee.

As in relation to our examination of the bathing water directive, we are again concerned about the lack of information which the Commission supplies about the nature and extent of scientific evidence in bringing forward recommendations on such important matters as drinking water. Often we are not provided with the scientific evidence which underpins some of its recommendations. We feel that that is a considerable failure in the important principle of transparency.

In relation to the disinfection of water and the by-products of disinfection, the use of chlorine and ozone as disinfectants produces a number of by-products, some of which are potentially carcinogenic. We in the sub-committee were convinced that their concentration in drinking water should be the minimum consistent with effective disinfection and that water should be tested for them at the household tap, not where the water leaves the treatment works.

We also recommend that more research should be carried out by the water suppliers into membrane filtration which will provide the same level of micro-biological safety but produce fewer by-products.

The proposed directive requires that where water for human consumption has become dangerous to human health, its use should be restricted and consumers should be informed immediately and given appropriate advice. We commend the Commission for proposing that the public should have a legal right to information. We agree that in an emergency water suppliers have a first responsibility for informing the public. We are also of the opinion, however, that the Government continue to have a duty to see that the public are informed of health

4 Jun 1996 : Column 1163

risks and that the privatisation of the water companies has not absolved them of their responsibility in that respect. That is particularly relevant in relation to the level of lead in water.

Overall, we welcome the Commission's proposals and believe that they are well justified and draw proper distinctions between matters for action by member states.

We were, however, disappointed by the response that we received from the Department of the Environment. The department's response to our report was complacent and grudging in tone and saw no need to change current practices nor to alert the public generally as to the dangers of lead plumbing. We would in particular now welcome clarification from the Minister--I have given him advance warning of these questions--first, as to whether the Government accept the proposed new lower limit for lead in water as justified on public health grounds and, secondly, if the new lower limit is justified, as to whether they believe that that can be achieved for all domestic customers without replacing all lead plumbing, as they appear to believe.

The draft directive allows 15 years for compliance with the new lower lead levels. We believe that that timespan allows time for a comprehensive national strategy to be developed by the DoE, local authorities, the water companies and private householders so that the problem of lead in water and the future health and behaviour of our children can be taken care of. I commend the report to the House. I beg to move.

Moved, that this House take note of the Report of the European Communities Committee on Drinking Water (Fourth Report, HL Paper 31).--(Baroness Hilton of Eggardon.)

3.18 p.m.

Viscount Bridgeman: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton of Eggardon, for initiating the debate and for the skill and sensitivity with which she and her predecessor, the noble Lord, Lord Lewis of Newnham, have chaired Sub-Committee C. I pay tribute also to our Clerks, successively Mr. John Goddard and Mr. Tom Radice, and to our special adviser, Professor Frank Jones.

I was brought up to believe, like many of your Lordships I am sure, that it was safe to drink water out of a tap anywhere in Great Britain but, in broad terms, nowhere abroad. It is a measure of the success of the EEC (as it then was) water directive in 1980 that standards throughout the European Union are now on a par with those of the United Kingdom. Indeed, the pendulum may be said to have swung perhaps not the whole way but certainly to a point where there is now a widely held perception that it is safe only to drink bottled water in this country--a notion that I daresay is in no way discouraged by the bottled water industry.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton, said, the 1980 directive was based on research carried out in the 1970s. Since then, things have moved on. The result is a document which in many ways is a model of its kind and upon which there has been widespread consultation throughout the Community.

4 Jun 1996 : Column 1164

I shall trespass on the question of lead. The proposed reduction from 50 micrograms per litre to 10 micrograms per litre is of paramount importance. The noble Baroness, Lady Hilton, referred to the possible effect of high lead concentrations on children and on women in pregnancy and in the post menopause. It can have a half-life in bones of 27 years. That is how long it takes, I am informed, for the concentration to reduce by one half. Lead does not naturally occur in water and the water that leaves treatment plants is virtually lead-free. All of the contamination occurs during transport to the consumer in the pipes of the water undertaking, the pipes connecting the mains to the consumer and in the consumer's own system. Only a small amount of elimination of lead can be achieved by water treatment.

In reality, there is no effective substitute for the renewal of all lead piping. The sub-committee felt that insufficient urgency was being shown by the Government. At the present rate of substitution it will take 60 years to eliminate the problem. A much higher profile should be given to the dangers of lead in drinking water. There should be a statutory obligation on the supplier to notify the consumer in clear, simple language should the lead content in his water be above the statutory maximum. The regulations for the drawing of samples should also be clearer; they should avoid giving the impression--as they do now--that sampling is carried out only when the water undertaking believes it is a good thing to do. Since 1989 the consumer has had the right when renewing his own lead pipes to require the water suppliers to renew theirs at the same time. That right should be much better known and publicised.

We must be under no illusion that the cost of replacing lead piping will be horrendous. No doubt the subject will be expanded upon by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs. The figure of £8 billion for the consumer and £2 billion for the undertakings is the kind of cost we face. The problem will not go away. I urge the Government to give serious thought to implementing a solution. Grants for the replacement of lead pipes should be more generous and should be widely publicised. I hope that the Government will give thought to targeting vulnerable sections, groups and areas. It is to be hoped that some of the burden of cost can be alleviated by the development of water treatment techniques.

Freedom of access to environment information is a prime concern of the sub-committee on which I have the privilege to sit. It so happens that water supply in the United Kingdom provides an interesting comparison since in England and Wales water undertakings have been privatised while in Scotland they remain in the public sector. Under the Environment Information Regulations 1992 the public may have right of access to most environment information held by public authorities. However, information can be withheld on grounds of personal confidentiality or, more significantly, on grounds of commercial or industrial sensitivity. In the course of hearing evidence the sub-committee came across cases, admittedly isolated, where the commercial sensitivity card had been enthusiastically played by one or two water companies

4 Jun 1996 : Column 1165

in England and Wales. This contrasts with the position in Scotland where, for structural reasons, the issue of commercial interest is, by virtue of ownership, less likely to arise in the public sector undertakings there.

A consistent strain running through the deliberations and findings of the sub-committee is that where public health is involved there should be a presumption in favour of disclosure. I express no political view for or against privatisation. However, I urge the Government to take steps to ensure that, in matters of public health, commercial considerations are not permitted to stand in the way of full disclosure and access by the public to all information which should properly be in the public domain in the interests of the health of the nation.

3.25 p.m.

Baroness Robson of Kiddington: My Lords, I also congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton, on introducing the report so clearly and comprehensively, and the sub-committee on an excellent report. I was not then a member of the sub-committee but I have since become one. In my short speech I intend to deal with only one of the major points in the report.

I agree with the noble Baroness that the 1980 directive has been responsible for great improvements in the quality of drinking water across the Community. Since then advances have been made which have had an enormous impact from the point of view of public health. First, I agree with the Commission that the most important change in the proposed directive is the reduction in the maximum permitted level of lead in drinking water from 50 micrograms to 10 micrograms. Secondly, under the 1980 directive there was no uniformity between Community countries as to where testing for lead should take place. I am assured that in some countries it took place at the point of supply, which in most cases would bear no resemblance to what finally came out of the tap in the average house. In contrast, the testing in this country--here I congratulate the Government on past performance--took place at the point of supply and such testing had to be based on an unflushed sample at the tap. Water that has been standing in lead pipes is likely to have much higher concentrations of lead than water newly run from the mains supply.

The British regulations were stricter than those required by the 1980 directive. Therefore, I am concerned that the new directive simply requires the sample to be taken from a flushed pipe. Both the Government in their response to the directive and the sub-committee have accepted this. Do they believe that in the interim period--the 15 years during which we will still be drinking water with a certain amount of lead in it until it has been eliminated--the flushing of water before drinking is likely to become regular practice in households which have lead piping and lead supply pipes? Should we not continue with our old system irrespective of the new directive? Surely, we could do that under the principle of subsidiarity. I agree with former speakers that the only long-term answer is the ultimate elimination of lead from drinking water by the removal of lead pipes.

4 Jun 1996 : Column 1166

The urgency is also much greater in some parts of the United Kingdom than in others. In those parts which have soft water the plumbosolvency is much greater than in those areas where the water is hard. Therefore, places like Scotland and Wales, which are well-known for their soft water, must be at greater risk than parts of the country with hard water. It is worrying to learn that in Scotland of 2.1 million homes as many as 589,000 still have lead piping.

The Government have introduced certain grants for the replacement of lead pipes. In particular, they are available to people on income support and lower incomes. That is to be welcomed. But I believe that they must extend the grant system to cover many more families. One may not need to be on income support to find it very difficult to meet the cost of replacing one's lead pipes if income is limited.

I also welcome the Government's insistence that where a household replaces its lead pipes the water companies now have a statutory duty to replace the supply pipes so that the system will be clean.

It is worrying that, despite those government grants, the replacement of lead pipes has been so slow. The slow response of consumers must be attributed to the lack of an effective publicity campaign to bring home to people the danger to human health, especially to young children. The committee calls for such a campaign to include the use of television.

In their response to the report, the Government state that they have publicised the issue in the form of a leaflet from the Drinking Water Inspectorate. How has the leaflet been distributed? If it has been available only on request it will not have had much effect. One has not been delivered to my household. If one wants a publicity campaign to alert everyone, the leaflet needs to be freely available and distributed among the population.

The new directive gives us the opportunity dramatically to improve across the Community the quality of drinking water as related to human health. We welcome it. We sincerely hope that the Government will do all that they can to have it implemented before the 15 years are up.

3.31 p.m.

Lord Lewis of Newnham: My Lords, first, I compliment the committee on this important report and thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton, for her chairmanship. I must declare my involvement as minimal. It is only fair to pay a tribute to the noble Baroness for her expertise in this area.

I welcome the directive. As has been said, it gives us an opportunity to update the present position on water quality and to recognise the most recent assessments of water quality which emphasise the WHO's latest thinking. I commend the point made about the removal of 19 parameters. I am a great believer in trying to reduce the complexity of these directives. This was an admirable opportunity and it is commendable that it is an opportunity that has been taken without in any way affecting the safeguards relating to water safety.

4 Jun 1996 : Column 1167

One of the main problems in any discussion of water quality is the large variability of the source: 30 per cent. of the water used in this country comes from groundwater sites, and in certain areas such as the south east it is as high as 70 per cent. It is an aspect which is often difficult to monitor. It is fair on this occasion to compliment the water companies on their effectiveness in achieving that objective. It is a difficult one because groundwater can be quickly and easily contaminated.

One of the main problems that has been discussed in the report has already been touched on: contamination by lead. That is a major problem with children and, as has been reported, relates primarily to absorption into the bone structure, which is I believe eight times more effective weight for weight for children than it is for adults. There is a potential hazard. The contamination may be eroded from the bone over a long time. I am pleased to hear that that is a point that will be discussed subsequently.

One of the ambiguities in the initial 1980 report related to sampling. The point was that the water sampling was defined as being:


    "at the point it is made available to the user".
That may be interpreted as when it left the treatment works. That was commonly the procedure used in Europe, and so I have sympathy with the point made by the noble Viscount about the dangers involved in drinking some European water as opposed to UK water. In addition, there is sampling at the tap, which I believe is the process laid down by this Government, and I hope that is what we shall continue to do.

The other warning relates to timing. The timing has been questioned. As a young boy I was taught to run the tap before drinking the water from it. That reflects the fact that I came from a part of the country where soft water was prevalent. These old ideas often contain a great deal of scientific truth. The present system of using a flushed sample increases the problem of obtaining a consistent figure for the lead content.

The other important point which is barely touched upon in the report is the frequency of sampling. I should like to see a report on how frequently samples are taken and whether any judgment is made as to where and how the sampling should be done. It would be delightful to see comparable figures from the Continent.

I turn now to one aspect which worries me more than any other--the chemistry of the problem. With a concentration of 50 micrograms per litre it is possible to deal with the problem by the use of orthophosphate or by varying the acidity of the water. We have been told that by the time we get down to 10 micrograms per litre that approach is no longer appropriate. There seems to be only one alternative, which is completely to remove lead from the system.

The position is even more complicated. We are told in the WRC report which was commissioned by the DoE that levels can be affected to the extent that even brass fittings are sufficient to give us that 10 micrograms of lead per litre. One does not associate brass fittings with lead. This involves a major reassessment of the whole area. It is a nightmare when one considers it in terms of the domestic water supply--and worse: if one thinks of

4 Jun 1996 : Column 1168

a hotel or similar establishment that must also conform with the directive. I believe that the costings are optimistic. The figures of £2 billion and £8 billion seem to be a relatively minimal assessment.

The proposed timing for this operation is 25 micrograms after five years and 10 micrograms after 15 years. If this is indeed a problem--it is a cumulative problem--why are we waiting 15 years to solve it? If, as I believe to be the case, it will be governed, understandably, by monetary considerations, other alternatives should be available if there is in the 10 micrograms the danger that we have been assured there is.

That brings me to the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton, about the availability of scientific data so that we can assess it. With so many EC regulations we often find that the scientific evidence is not given to us. It is hidden away in a cupboard, so that we do not have the information available.

Perhaps I may just put the situation in perspective. The daily usage of water per person in a home is about 150 to 200 litres. Of that, about 3 to 6 litres per person is used for drinking and cooking. Of the bulk of the water that we are purifying, 50 litres is used for the garden and car washing and 83 litres for flushing toilets and in bathing. If we are concerned with 5 litres out of 200 litres per person it is ludicrous that we are purifying the whole lot. As was suggested by the WRC, if I were a parent with small children I should use a filter system to try to solve the problem in the short term.

Finally, I turn to the issue of copper and boron. Recommendations on both appeared as guidelines rather than as obligatory quantities in the initial 1980 directive. The amount of copper has been changed from 100 micrograms per litre to 2 milligrams per litre. We are given no reason for that; we are merely given a bold figure. I should like to see a reason for that change. Certainly copper is not a simple metal because it has certain toxic problems. Of course, it is often present in copper piping and so forth. May I say immediately that the solubility of copper from copper piping is not great and I do not believe there to be a major hazard, but I believe that explanations should be given in the directive.

I find most difficult to understand the boron issue. We are told that the amount was 1,000 micrograms per litre but it is now being reduced to 300 micrograms per litre. Boron is a particularly difficult element to detect. To my knowledge, there is no reason why the stipulation should be in the directive and I should like to know the reasoning. It is a major obligation because it is not an easy element to remove in this particular set of circumstances.

All that is involved in what is a good directive, but it exemplifies the problem of so many EC directives when we address the science issue: transparency is certainly not to the fore.

3.40 p.m.

Lord Dubs: My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lady Hilton not only on the way in which she introduced the debate but also the able way in which

4 Jun 1996 : Column 1169

she steered the sub-committee to its conclusions. I was privileged to be a member of the sub-committee, and I began by knowing very little indeed about the problems of our water supply. Frankly, I became quite alarmed as the evidence was gathered. More of that in due course.

In my childhood I was told that British water was always safe to drink. I do not wish to sound xenophobic, but I was told that if one goes abroad one ought to be careful and that in many countries one could not drink tap water. For a long time there was no market for bottled water in this country. Who would have thought that bottled water would have been such a significant seller in our supermarkets? Almost every household drinks bottled water at some time or another. That is a sign that public confidence has disappeared or has at least weakened. For many years we have not been sufficiently careful about what goes into our drinking water, as the evidence of the report spells out.

As the Committee gathered its evidence I became increasingly alarmed about our water. I examined the pipes in my house and told my family about the dangers. The difficulty is that none of us wants to be so alarmist as to reduce the confidence of people in this country in the water supply. On the other hand, we are doing them an ill service if we do not point out the dangers or argue that there should be changes, as the sub-committee stated. It is not always easy to strike the right balance between keeping quiet and perhaps endangering public health and between saying so much that one causes panic, which would be undesirable given that all the solutions must be fairly long term. The committee tried very hard to strike the right balance between those extremes.

During my childhood I was always told to run the tap before filling the kettle. I had no idea what that was about and it was not until I sat on the committee that I had an explanation. Of course, it was to get rid of the residual lead in the water. It is surprising that as a child I accepted that the need to run the tap was important. Argumentative as I was in my childhood--of course, I am not these days--I never questioned that, but the reason became clear only when I sat on the committee.

Some 10 or 15 years ago public concern was focused on lead in petrol. When that concern was expressed it did not take the Government long to introduce measures to reduce over a period of time the amount of lead in our petrol. We have a similar challenge regarding our drinking water. After all, there is no dispute about the health risks of lead in water. It can adversely affect the blood, the nervous system, normal growth and development, the kidneys, the reproductive system and the cardiovascular system.

The evidence is that there are no clearly discernible thresholds for those effects. There is no minimum safe level below which lead does not matter. I came across no scientific evidence to support the view that there are safe levels. Of course, it is easy enough to argue that there are safe levels because it is a handy way of approaching the problem. The committee was right to talk about the level of 10 micrograms per litre but, in fact, there is no scientific evidence that it is safe below that level but dangerous above it.

4 Jun 1996 : Column 1170

Certainly, the World Health Organisation has made it clear that lead is toxic to the central and peripheral nervous systems and can cause serious neurological damage, in particular among infants, children and pregnant women. However, the point is that the effects may well be long term and are not as dramatic as the public health consequences of other problems in our food supply. As a result, the relationship between having taken too much lead in drinking water and the eventual effects on health are not sufficiently discernible for it to be obvious without investigating it in some detail. In 1988 the United States Environmental Protection Agency stated that the aim should be a zero level of lead in drinking water.

What is the scale of the problem? In England and Wales in 1992 8.9 million properties had lead pipes within their system and 8.2 million properties were supplied by lead pipes from water companies. In Scotland, of 2.1 million households nearly 600,000 have lead pipes. Therefore, the problem is partly one of pipes in people's homes and partly one of the water companies' pipes which supply water through the mains system.

It is clear that the problem is much less serious in hard water areas. Although the Government made the suggestion in their response to the Select Committee's report, that is no reason for saying that the problem is small because many of us live in hard water areas. The problem arises only in soft water areas. I have seen no figures indicating which of the 8.9 million and 8.2 million properties which have lead pipes in their system or lead pipes supplied by water companies are in soft water and hard water areas. Perhaps the Government have such figures. However, we should not sit back and say simply that hard water makes it all right. It does not because if repair work is done to pipes the lead particles which are safeguarded through hard water can re-enter the water system.

An alternative suggestion is that we can treat the water to lower the lead content either by dosing the water with orthophosphates or by lifting the pH levels of low alkalinity waters. According to our evidence, there are problems in respect of both those approaches, attractive as they may seem at first sight. First, by adding one or other of those elements we might destabilise the existing pipe deposits and release particles of lead into the supply. In any case, there might be discolouration of the water supply. I understand that other possible effects are increased mould and algae growth. In any event, I find it an uneasy solution to say that we should eliminate one dangerous chemical in our water by adding other chemicals. At a simple level, that does not appear to be the right way forward. Indeed, I understand that 90 per cent. of the water companies believed that there would be benefits in ceasing the orthophosphate treatment.

I believe that the ideal policy objective should be the total elimination of lead from drinking water. However, I understand that there are difficulties in doing so other than in the long term. Any policy which states that it is all right to have a certain amount of lead is not acceptable in the fullness of time. I appreciate that the costs of doing anything quickly are high. We were given

4 Jun 1996 : Column 1171

figures showing that the average cost of dealing with lead pipes within a house could cost an average of £1,000 per household.

There is an added difficulty. Many of us were brought up to drink water only from the main kitchen tap which came straight from the mains. But, of course, there are other taps in houses and it may cost more to make those pipes quite safe. Therefore, we arrive at a total figure of £8.5 billion. I appreciate that that is a lot of money but we must set it against the long-term effects on public health.

Therefore, I am disappointed that the Government's response to the Select Committee's report said that it should not be necessary to remove all lead pipes for water to achieve the guideline value--the 10 micrograms per litre suggested--partly because there are many hard water areas where the water is not plumbosolvent. For the reasons that I gave earlier, I feel that that is an unsatisfactory response. It seems to me that the Government wanted to agree with the thrust of the report but did not wish to accept the tougher conclusions implicit in it.

Therefore, I believe that we need to increase the level of public awareness about the safety of pipes and about the problems of lead pipes bringing water. That needs to be done without being alarmist and I believe that that is possible. We need some publicity to achieve that. The public needs to be informed more fully about water quality.

We need from the Government a national strategy for dealing with lead in our water supply which goes beyond the rather inadequate response to the Select Committee report. Yes, grants are available at present but they are limited in terms of the people who benefit. The Government need to look at that and we need clear target dates for the removal of lead from our water supply. I commend the Select Committee's report to the House.

3.52 p.m.

Baroness Park of Monmouth: My Lords, I echo most warmly the tributes justly paid to our two chairmen and clerks. I particularly enjoyed working with the committee and serving under its chairman.

I wish to address briefly the European Commission aspects of the report on which other noble Lords have already touched. The report makes clear that the committee considers that the Commission's proposals and the revision of the 1980 directive were justified and that subsidiarity has been respected. The Commission has drawn proper distinction between matters for action by member states and those by the Community.

Moreover, in this case the Commission is recognised by all interested groups to have consulted widely, notably at the Euro-conference attended by European water suppliers as well as by member states and the Commission in September 1993 and at subsequent workshops in 1994. They produced valuable insights which helped to produce the new draft directive. That process of wide and deep consultation is a model which other parts of the Commission could copy.

4 Jun 1996 : Column 1172

Less satisfactory is the fact that, not for the first time in our experience of the Commission's operations, there has been difficulty in obtaining the information forming the basis of Commission decisions. Much work undoubtedly went into the process of consultation with member states but many of the Commission's assessments and decisions, made on scientific grounds, remain obstinately opaque. It is possible to learn the decisions and recommendations of, in this case, the Commission's own scientific advisory committee on the toxicity and eco-toxicity of chemical compounds--CSTE for short--but not the scientific basis for those decisions. Incidentally, it is very difficult even for officials of member states to establish the membership of the committee. It is a very curious position. As decisions in several cases differ in important respects from those of the WHO, it is extremely unsatisfactory that where directives are based on scientific data, that data should not be available for scrutiny.

The scientific advice given by the CSTE to the Commission was addressed exclusively to the question of public health. Although cost compliance was bound to become a relevant factor in applying the directive, the committee was not required to consider costs and benefits. Therefore, it is all the more desirable that there should be transparency, as advocated strongly by the relevant EC Commissioner when it came to requiring the competent authority,


    "to plan their water management activity in an integrated fashion and to do so in a transparent manner with public consultation".
The Commission itself regards its requirement for annual reports from member states as likely to make a significant contribution to that transparency. I hope that it does.

Another aspect of the European Commission's work which concerned the committee was compliance with the directive across the EU and the vexed question of monitoring. The committee agreed strongly with the view of the Public Health Laboratory Service that external assessment of the performance of laboratories engaged in monitoring, sampling and analysis should be required by the directive. Our experience to date of securing adequate machinery to ensure comparability of measurements in assessing the state of the environment in a European context has been, to say the least, discouraging. In reporting on the European Environment Agency, we recommended a uniform protocol for the sampling, measurement and interpretation of environmental data and a training programme. We found that a pilot project for creating some sort of uniform scientific approach to testing bathing water had only recently been set up. We recommended that laboratories in the European Union should create a quality assurance programme.

The committee believes that there is the same need throughout the EU for comparable data on compliance with the drinking water directive. It believes too that there should be an externally validated quality assessment and assurance programme. I need hardly add that its reports would, unlike the proceedings of the CSTE so far, need to be available to all member states. I hope that the Government will urge the need for those measures of monitoring and comparable assessment and

4 Jun 1996 : Column 1173

also the need for transparency. Comparability, transparency and subsidiarity are all vital aspects of European Union legislation.

3.57 p.m.

Lord Elis-Thomas: My Lords, it is a great privilege for me to follow other members of the committee. I have been a member now for just over six months. As with all my experiences in this House, it has been extremely educative. I am particularly grateful for the way in which the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton, and her predecessor, the noble Lord, Lord Lewis, chaired the committee. I believe that we bring to our work an approach which, as is evidenced by this debate, is a combination of expertise and lively interest in all the public policy aspects. We have what may be a unique way of approaching the implementation of policy and analysing its implementation.

I wish to deal briefly with some of the issues concerned with research and information before turning to and supporting some of the remarks made by my noble friend Lord Dubs on the issue of lead. As we have already seen in two other major areas of public policy in recent weeks, issues of scientific research and public health cause tremendous public concern and, indeed, have direct market--big and small "M", I suppose--consequences and effects well beyond any particular scientific debate. Therefore, it is appropriate for me to underline the plea which we make in this report on the draft directive on drinking water for an adequate level of research to be undertaken.

Without a basis of adequate scientific research, both at UK and European levels, as the noble Lord, Lord Lewis, put forward so clearly, it is not possible for mere politicians or mere administrators to make public policy decisions which can be seen to be valid. That is why the committee stressed at paragraph 68 of the report and subsequently in our opinion at paragraph 70 what we see as the inadequacy of the level of funding. A figure was quoted by the Water Services Association of an investment of £¾ million each year to establish a toxicological database. It seems to us that the level of research undertaken by the water companies and by the Department of Environment and the Department of Health does not meet the real need in this whole area.

In their response to our report, the Government stated that together they and the water industry spend over £2 million each year on research on drinking water supply, quality and health issues. They emphasised that there was an avoidance of duplication of effort and that value for money was enhanced. However, as we conducted our investigation, it seemed to us that it would be appropriate for the Government to look again at the whole issue of research priorities in the area to ensure that there is adequate fundamental research to provide the underpinning required for directives for European legislation or for UK policy.

That leads me on to the issue of information. In the evidence that the committee heard, Friends of the Earth stated in its oral evidence on page 43 that it had been trying to establish a comparable basis of data as between

4 Jun 1996 : Column 1174

the various drinking water companies and had failed to do so. According to the evidence that we received, Friends of the Earth had written to the drinking water companies asking for information and requesting that such information be provided in a standard form on disk. There was a positive response from some companies, but from the company that serves the area in which I live, Dwr Cymru (Welsh Water), came the suggestion that Friends of the Earth would be charged several thousands of pounds for such information.

I have since pursued that issue with Dr. Brian Charles, the Chair of Welsh Water. He has raised what I believe to be an important point. Whereas he emphasised that the company prides itself on being an open company, committed to sharing information with customers, and ensures that it meets all its responsibilities to publish and make available detailed information, he expressed the view that, although it has always previously sought to respond to inquiries from Friends of the Earth and other organisations, it is impossible for it to guarantee an open-ended provision of information in a format required by one specific organisation, especially where that differs from the format used both for internal management purposes and for satisfying the other statutory responsibilities of the company.

It appears that there may be an issue here relating to the standardisation of the supply of data as between the water companies. We seem to be in a position where informed, environmental bodies and voluntary bodies such as Friends of the Earth are unable to undertake studies because of the lack of standardisation of systems of information among water companies. But again that may be a matter which could be looked at in relation to the level of research and public information that is available.

My final point follows on what has been said on the issue of lead. Again, I took up the issue with my own water supplier, Dwr Cymru. It seems to me that the action of Welsh Water highlights the point made in the report that there appears to be some complacency on the part of the Government in tackling the whole question of lead. My noble friend Lord Dubs outlined the pollution problems very clearly, so I shall not repeat them. However, what I shall give in evidence in support of the committee's emphasis on the importance of the issue is the level of work already achieved by Dwr Cymru (Welsh Water). The company is well on the way towards implementing the recommendations set out in our report. The position may be similar with other water companies and, if that is the case, I shall be reassured.

However, it is worth putting on record briefly the position of Dwr Cymru. Since 1991 the company has replaced 63,000 lead communication pipes which are part of its own infrastructure--and we are talking here about what is now a privatised utility, so clearly it must be a matter of concern for the company; otherwise it would not be expending capital on such investment--and is planning to achieve total elimination of lead pipework by 2010. Within the lead pipe replacement programme, the company has specifically targeted schools, nurseries and so on; and, indeed, has totally

4 Jun 1996 : Column 1175

eliminated lead communication pipes from all those establishments that it has been able to identify. That is a priority for the company.

In addition, Dwr Cymru has provided extra water treatment to reduce further the content of lead in drinking water. The improved treatment of 26 key water supplies now provides extra safeguards for 80 per cent. of all customers, including those living in areas where lead pipework is still prevalent. Moreover, the company has been offering a grant scheme to customers of financial assistance to replace the internal lead pipework. Of course, that is not the responsibility of the water utilities; it is the responsibility of customers. To date, about 15,000 customers have benefited from that grant scheme.

I can only conclude from that information that at least one of the privatised utilities with which I am familiar is taking the issue far more seriously than the Government. I should like to emphasise to the noble Lord who is to reply to the debate that we need to ensure that there are adequate safeguards and that adequate priority is given to the removal of lead from the water supply in the way that has already been pioneered by Welsh Water. For those reasons, I hope that the Government will be able to take the committee's recommendations more seriously than they have so far in their initial response.

4.6 p.m.

Lord Dixon-Smith: My Lords, like other members of the committee, it has been a privilege for me to serve under the chairman whose name is on the report, the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton, and also under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Lewis. I welcome both the attempt to revise the directive and the directive in its new form. I am glad about the outcome. However, I wish also to introduce a note of caution. The report itself applies on occasion the precautionary principle. What I want to do in the main is to apply the precautionary principle to the precautionary principle.

We are not talking about pure water; we are talking about potable water. The caution that I wish to apply arises from just that distinction. It arose for me as an acute issue at the point where we were discussing the disinfection of water with chlorine. The noble Baroness, Lady Hilton, mentioned the problems of chlorine as an additive to water. In fact, if one was considering chlorine in isolation, one would not add it to water for a host of very good reasons, not the least of which would be the precautionary principle. However, there is no argument about the addition of chlorine to water because it is an essential part of the water purification process--or disinfection process, dare one say--without which an urban area like London could not function.

Therefore, we have a problem. We need to ensure--and this has been mentioned by a number of speakers, including the noble Lords, Lord Lewis and Lord Elis-Thomas--that adequate data are available. Not only do we need adequate data; we also need an assessment of risk and of the real dangers involved. If one considers the question of nitrates in water, it will be realised that there is a distinction between the guidelines

4 Jun 1996 : Column 1176

of the World Health Organisation, which are set at 50 micrograms per litre as an average on the run over a period of time, and the new European standard which is set as a maximum advisable concentration of 50 micrograms per litre. I should remind noble Lords that a microgram is one millionth part of a gram. Therefore we are dealing with small quantities. I shall refer later to even smaller quantities. If one has a maximum advisable concentration, as opposed to a guideline maximum, it implies that the water companies must work to a higher quality standard in order never to exceed that maximum.

The data are in the report. The report indicates that it would cost £160 million to achieve a maximum standard of 30 micrograms per litre, which would imply that now and again there would be fluctuations up and down, and the "up" never went over 50. The health problem being tackled by this massive expenditure is the "blue baby" syndrome. A small number of cases will be prevented as a result. We need to think about that. As I said, science and risk assessment are involved. I do not wish in any way to diminish the significance of the debate about lead, but the fact is that lead in plumbing is an historic material. It occurs in older houses. It has been there for a long time. Amid all the health problems we face today--and there are many--I do not recall hearing that there is a significant incidence of lead poisoning, albeit many people live in houses with lead plumbing. I may have missed something somewhere and I do not wish to diminish the problem or diminish the need to get rid of lead because, as we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Elis-Thomas, the water companies are concerned about the matter. The concern is long-standing and steps have been taken. I merely make the point that I have not heard that lead constitutes a major health problem at the present time.

I now turn to agricultural products and particularly residues which occur in water. Here, of course, we are dealing with severe standards. We are talking of a standard for these residues of 0.1 micrograms per litre; in other words, a tenth of a millionth of a gram per litre of water. There is debate about the standard. We in the committee accept that it is a sensible standard to set. However, the scientific evidence suggests otherwise. The World Health Organisation has a list of some of the materials--it is of course by no means comprehensive--which suggests that more relaxed standards could be applied. Again, that is mentioned in the report. There are 24 substances listed in the report by the scientific and technical advisory committee to the European Commission, which has been guiding the Commission. The advisory committee sets water quality objectives for those substances which are much more severe than one-tenth of a microgram per litre. For instance, DDT is set at two-thousandths of a microgram per litre. We need to be careful as regards the science and the precautionary principle because those are difficult matters.

Agricultural practice is remarkably good in this area. I pay tribute to my colleagues who are involved in agriculture because by and large they do not splash these materials around in a random way. Thank heavens the number of incidents of chemical pollution has

4 Jun 1996 : Column 1177

diminished. Compared to gardeners, farmers are remarkably responsible. However, we need help from the agricultural chemicals industry in dealing with this particular problem. Already immense difficulties are being experienced in getting new materials approved, but clearly it will help everyone if, in the course of that approval, we know what the breakdown period is for these materials which we all use in farming. We need materials that have a shorter life and we need to know about the breakdown of those products. Equally, we need to know what the cocktail effects are. There is immense scope here for increasing the information in this whole area, bearing in mind the risks involved and the need to have potable water at the end of it all. I wish to enunciate a slightly different version of the precautionary principle; namely, if we do not know, we had better move heaven and earth to find out as soon as possible.

4.15 p.m.

Lord Walpole: My Lords, I say, as one farmer following another, that there is a great deal in what has just been said. I congratulate the Minister as being the only person on today's list of speakers who did not serve on the committee. As a new member of the committee I particularly wish to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton, for her excellent chairmanship and for bringing forward this report.

I welcome the new directive, as we all do. It comes 15 years after the first one. Following on from what has just been said, I think it is absolutely essential that these reports and directives are produced in the light of new scientific knowledge as it is gleaned. Indeed these updates are absolutely essential.

I wish to touch on two topics. The Minister may well be surprised that there are any topics left to discuss. I wish to touch on the matter of lead from a personal point of view. There is no doubt that there is danger in drinking the amounts of lead that are in lead piped water supplies if people are old, young or pregnant. I am not quite clear which I am. Sometimes I think that drinking lead in the water in London, as I do, is making me prematurely senile. I hope that my noble friend Lord Lewis will tell me that I am totally wrong and that if I make coffee--putting the water through a filter with a certain amount of coffee in it--I may be spared some of the lead. Perhaps I am wrong. I think all members of the committee were concerned about themselves at one stage during the inquiry and rushed off to discover where their water came from.

When I am in London I live in a block of flats in a conservation area. The flats were built in 1900. I have discovered that the mains water and the whole of the internal distribution of water, right up to the drinking tap, flows through lead. Of course, to rectify the problem would be incredibly expensive and extremely disruptive, but I think on the whole it ought to be done. I asked in the committee--at Question 95--about lead pipes. I was told that the removal of lead pipes over a 15-year period could provide considerable employment

4 Jun 1996 : Column 1178

to people in areas where there is older housing and, possibly inevitably--as was suggested by Friends of the Earth--higher unemployment.

When I am in Norfolk--as the noble Lord, Lord Lewis, indicated--my water is drawn from aquifers several hundred feet down. This produces as good a water as one will get out of any bottle. Not long ago the matter of chlorination was raised. I found that our water was becoming undrinkable. An analysis was carried out. The water comes from a deep bore hole. As far as I know, it flows into a concrete tank and comes all the way to us in plastic piping--I remember it being laid only recently--and reaches our house and the tap from which the sample was taken. The tap is copper. The lead content was 1.5 micrograms per litre. I am not clear where the lead comes from--I suspect from a little piece of solder used when joining pipes together. The moral is this. To achieve a nil level of lead would be absolutely impossible. But we must do better than we are doing.

I hardly dare touch upon the next subject, with the noble Countess, Lady Mar, speaking later. I refer to pesticides. However, the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, touched on one point about which I can enlighten the House. It is an issue on which I have always felt strongly. Noble Lords will read in the report that chemicals getting into water courses, by which we mean streams, is not a problem provided that we have good agricultural practice--by having buffer zones, and, quite simply, by being careful. I am more concerned about chemicals of all kinds percolating down into the aquifers upon which a large percentage of water consumers in East Anglia depend.

Some 30 years ago when I began farming, I undertook a considerable amount of work with a firm--I suppose it is fair to say that it was ICI--on direct drilling. Its scientists--I am sure they were absolutely genuine--were totally convinced that most chemical sprays became deactivated before anything passed through the topsoil. In other words, all those nasty things that one sprayed on disappeared within the top nine to 12 inches of the soil. They were either killed by ultraviolet light because they remained on the top, or the microflora and fauna of the sod (if one may so put it) dealt with the nasty things as they went down.

I am afraid that that is patently not true. Many chemicals used from the war onwards, and certainly from some 30 years ago, are beginning to appear in aquifers in East Anglia not far below plough depth. I shall refer to nothing that the noble Countess, Lady Mar, will say. But in the report we are assured by the Ministry of Agriculture that the concentrations about which we speak are very low and there is no cocktail effect. That is possibly true now; but we had better watch it in the future.

4.22 p.m.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch: My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton of Eggardon, and her committee for the opportunity to debate their report on this proposed Drinking Water

4 Jun 1996 : Column 1179

Directive, although I trust that the noble Baroness and her colleagues will forgive me if I reach rather different conclusions from those contained in the report.

I start by quoting from the report itself, where in paragraph 8 on page 6 the problem is put just about as tactfully as it is possible to put it. It states:


    "In recent years there has been growing criticism of the multiplicity and incoherence of the Community's many directives concerning different aspects of water policy".
Part of that criticism, in the UK at least, is the doubt as to whether any of these directives were necessary in the first place and whether they have even vaguely achieved what they set out to achieve in the Community as a whole. I should say at once that I understand the theory that surely any European environmental legislation is better than nothing; that European environmental legislation has at least pushed the Community countries into doing something which otherwise they might not have done; that we take our Community responsibilities seriously; and we hope that by setting a good example the other countries will do likewise over the next century or so. I understand that theory, but I do not agree with it.

Instead I would point out that this country had a high standard of water quality before ever the first European water directive raised its very expensive head. If I am wrong about this I should be grateful if my noble friend on the Front Bench could tell me, first, the statistics which show that the health of the British people has been improved by any European water directive and, secondly, whether any such improvement (the existence of which I doubt) could not just as easily, far more cheaply, and with far greater scientific legitimacy, have been achieved by the British Government responding unilaterally to the wishes of the British people through the well-tried system of British democracy? Or are we to be told that the British people are so careless and ignorant that genuinely harmful water would not soon have become an election issue in this country and that we therefore needed correction from Brussels?

I was interested in the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, who, although he supports the directive, went so far as to admit that it is very difficult to define a clear level of lead in water where the damage envisaged by the directive actually occurs. Of course it would be nice to have a zero level of lead and other harmful things, but are such provisions really necessary? Are they essential, and at what price? How many people have died or have been made seriously ill by lead in our water, and at what level of lead? I am afraid the answer is that we simply do not know.

What is true, of course, is that if the quality of our water is not about to be an election issue, the shortage of water is becoming just such an issue--or it will this summer. But that is because we have dutifully wasted many thousands of millions of pounds on European water directives instead of spending a fraction of those vast sums on our infrastructure and supply.

Here, of course, it would be nice to be able to be precise about figures, but as with all things European, the subject is clouded by secrecy, dishonesty, incompetence and lack of compliance by our so-called partners.

4 Jun 1996 : Column 1180

Perhaps the clearest views we have been given in your Lordships' House as to the cost of these water directives came in a Written Answer to me from my noble friend Lord Ferrers on 3rd April of this year and in an Oral Answer to the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, from my noble friend Lord Lucas on 18th April at col. 785 of the Official Report. The first point to note from those answers is that we are simply not aware, and apparently are not able to discover, how much money we spent on the many European water directives of the 1970s and 1980s. These included the original drinking water directive whose revision we are discussing today. However, I imagine that we can safely say that our expenditure ran into many thousands of millions of pounds. Since 1991, according to my noble friend Lord Ferrers, we are on for around a further £22,000 million, which figure would include some £10,000 million for the proposed new drinking water directive, as estimated by your Lordships' committee.

This is the sort of figure which was confirmed by my noble friend Lord Lucas on 18th April when (and this is the question that I am trying to pursue) he also confirmed that only £1 billion has been spent on infrastructure and supply. I really must ask the Government to look again at this figure. Are we really saying that since 1991 we have spent, or are committed to spend, at least £21,000 million on what many would regard as superfluous or at least uncertain water quality and only £1,000 million on infrastructure and supply? I cannot believe it, but whatever the proportions turn out to be, I should have thought that it is pretty obvious that we have our priorities the wrong way round and the sooner we reverse them the better.

The best way to do this, of course, would be to refuse to obey any further water directives, at least until they correspond with the Treaty of Rome. As many of your Lordships may know, I am among the fast growing number of British people who are now convinced that we would be better off outside that treaty altogether. But for the purposes of this debate we do not have to go as far as that. We merely have to insist that the water directives follow the treaty, and decline to obey them until they do. Indeed, I would have hoped that such action might even resonate with present government action, or lack of it, towards European proposals in general (although of course all environmental legislation from Europe is, alas, subject to the qualified majority vote, so we would not be able legally to block it).

This directive, in common with the other water directives and, indeed, all European environmental legislation, fails to meet the treaty in two vital respects, in my submission. First, it clearly fails under Article 3b, the test of subsidiarity, and, secondly, it fails under at least two sections of Section 3 of Article 130r.

As to subsidiarity, I notice that the Government merely note our committee's endorsement of the directive's proposals as being compatible with the principle of subsidiarity and our committee's consequent support for revising the existing directive. Well, I do not know what being compatible with the principle of subsidiarity may mean, but the directive

4 Jun 1996 : Column 1181

clearly contravenes Article 3b. To prove this point, I regret that I have to quote an extract from the unfortunate Article 3b itself:


    "the Community shall take action ... only if and in so far as the objectives of the proposed action cannot be sufficiently achieved by the Member States and can therefore, by reason of the scale or effects of the proposed action, be better achieved by the Community".
What evidence is there that the member states cannot clean up their water as individual sovereign states? None, I would submit. What evidence is there that the "scale or effects" of all these water directives, after more than 25 years, is being better achieved by the Community? To answer this question we would need to be told honestly what each of the other countries has spent on each of the directives, including the Drinking Water Directive, and with what true effect. I should have thought that the likelihood of getting honest answers from the Commission and from the countries concerned to these questions is so remote that I hardly dare suggest that my noble friend on the Front Bench should ask them.

There is, of course, more that one could say about subsidiarity, but in the interest of time I shall move on to Article 130r, Section 3. An extract of it states:


    "In preparing its policy on the environment, the Community shall take account of: available scientific and technical data -- environmental conditions in the various regions of the Community -- the potential benefits and costs of action or lack of action".
Other noble Lords have cast doubt on the scientific and technical adequacy of the Commission's performance on this directive. I would just mention that the scientific basis for the Commission's environmental decisions is usually almost entirely lacking. We saw that with the Bathing Water Directive, the Habitats Directive and other directives. That may be why the Commission has set up the new Environment Agency in Copenhagen. Of course, one has to wish it well, even with some misgivings.

Be that as it may, I am not aware that the Commission has carried out any accurate analysis of the environmental conditions in the various regions of the Community. I should have thought that for any directive to do with water that was pretty important, given that the clouds drop their fatness somewhat unequally between Scotland and, shall we say, Greece.

Furthermore, may I ask my noble friend on the Front Bench whether the Government are satisfied with the quality of the Commission's cost-benefit analysis of this and other water directives? I notice that the directive itself admits:


    "The estimate of compliance cost resulting from the proposal is based on the limited information available to the Commission".
I see that on page 12 of the directive 80,000 million ecu are estimated as the entire cost of the directive, or about £60,000 million, of which the UK share is estimated as 16,000 million ecu, or rather more than £10,000 million. But we have no substantiating evidence from the Commission for those figures.

4 Jun 1996 : Column 1182

If the Government are not satisfied on all these points, may I ask whether they will decline to follow the directive until they are indeed met, in accordance with the Treaty of Rome itself?

We could thus re-direct many thousands of millions of pounds away from yet another piece of expensive and irrelevant interference from Brussels, towards repairing our water infrastructure and improving our water supply. We could no doubt in the process put those several thousand million pounds to other far more worthy causes.

4.34 p.m.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, as another relatively new member of the committee, I wish to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton, very much for her guidance and leadership and also for her introduction to the debate, as other speakers have done. Noble Lords will be aware of my interest in pesticides, and organophosphates in particular. I propose to restrict what I have to say to those paragraphs in the report which refer to the standards which the draft directive sets for pesticide residues in drinking water.

I recently read a report from the World Resources Institute which details the effects on the immune system of exposure to pesticides used principally in agriculture. This made me realise just how fortunate we are in the developed countries. I read with horror reports of farmers using pesticides, some of which have long been banned in this country, from containers with inadequate labels and in quantities far greater than would be recommended here. Tins and plastic cans are a valuable resource in the third world. They are often rinsed out in irrigation channels which provide drinking and bathing water for the community and, in some cases, are also used to breed fish which are later eaten by the farmers and their families. The cans are used to contain substances, like vegetable oil, which are eaten and drunk.

There are now indications that the immune systems of people exposed repeatedly to low levels of pesticides, especially organochlorines and organophosphates, are becoming severely compromised. This applies particularly to the young and the old and to those adults suffering from malnutrition. There are instances of infectious diseases which were thought to be almost eradicated reappearing and vaccines which used to be effective no longer work because they require a healthy immune system to be effective. With that knowledge, it is essential that we remain vigilant and that we do not allow unnecessary toxic contaminants to appear in our drinking water.

I found it interesting that only the British Agrochemicals Association gave evidence to the effect that the limits for pesticide residues in water should be relaxed, to the extent that there should be individual health-based standards for each pesticide. This would mean that for some pesticides the limit would be greater than the current one part per 10 billion. Personally, I should be unhappy about that as we do not know enough about the long-term effects on human health of the vast majority of chemicals used in agriculture,

4 Jun 1996 : Column 1183

horticulture and forestry. We know very little about their breakdown products or their synergistic effects. In this country, we rely entirely upon toxicity data produced by the manufacturers and there are frequently huge gaps in the data. I echo the plea of the noble Lords, Lord Elis-Thomas and Lord Dixon-Smith, for more research.

I live in the Severn Trent Water catchment area and I am impressed by the care the company takes to ensure that its customers' water is supplied to the highest standards. It works closely with the agrochemicals industry, with farmers and other users of pesticides and herbicides. Using the Soil Survey of Great Britain and MAFF figures of pesticide use, Severn Trent assesses the tonnages of chemicals used in its area and calculates the risks of those products leaching into watercourses. It has a "Spray Safe" campaign under which farmers are advised on the best times and methods of spraying and are also given good housekeeping advice--to avoid spillages, how to deal with them if they occur, and not to rinse out containers in watercourses, for example. Severn Trent has had an excellent response from local authorities to its advice about the use of herbicides on roadsides and pavements where chemicals run off rapidly into drains and thence into watercourses.

At a cost of about £800,000 a year, Severn Trent monitors for 95 different pesticides and herbicides which it knows are used regularly. Its main problems are with the cereal herbicides such as Mecoprop and Isoproturon. Both raw and drinking water are regularly monitored, with increased frequency at times when higher levels might be expected, for example, after heavy rainfall. Removal of pesticides has required a huge investment by water companies in treatment plants.

I understand that as little as 5 per cent. of many of the pesticides and herbicides currently used actually reach their targets. The rest goes on to the soil or into the atmosphere. In either case, it could eventually contaminate water supplies. The agrochemical industry is developing new products which have improved surficants (which make pesticides stick to leaves), lower toxicity and require lower application rates. Some of the modern products still present a serious leaching problem and there is a need for farmers, foresters and horticulturalists to develop a better understanding of integrated crop management and other sustainable farming practices.

Some interesting work has been done with rice farmers in Sri Lanka and cotton farmers in Dominica. In both those countries there is heavy use of toxic chemicals on crops. There is considerable pesticide resistance and the natural tendency is to use more toxic products in an attempt to kill the insects. On the experimental plots, pesticide use has been stopped altogether. Though the yield of both crops is slightly lower than previously, because inputs are reduced growth margins are increased and the farmers are beginning to be able to pay off the loans that they had taken out in previous years to buy pesticides.

While Severn Trent is a good example of how a water company should operate, not all the companies in the United Kingdom operate to quite the same high

4 Jun 1996 : Column 1184

standards. For example, the group with whom I work closely in the South-West--OP Information Network--is currently looking at OP residues in the River Dart, where there is a wool processing plant. Wool processors have recently publicised a request to farmers to use fewer OP products on their sheep because the residues in the fleeces are causing them major problems with their effluent discharges after processing. They will have to install expensive purification equipment to meet water quality standards. I must confess that I am pleased that such requirements are a priority with drinking water suppliers.

If we look to Europe for comparisons, we compare favourably with most of the northern countries where water quality is regularly monitored and the results made available to the general public. On the other hand, we are much better than our southern European counterparts, who do not seem to be so concerned about quality and from whom information is difficult to obtain. We should rightly be proud of the high standards that the UK water industry has achieved, often higher than those required by the directive. However, I ask Her Majesty's Government to ensure that those are not compromised for financial or bureaucratic reasons.

4.42 p.m.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, I hope that the House will forgive me for speaking in the gap. I could not be sure of being here this afternoon and was unable to put my name on the list of speakers. I too thank my noble friend Lady Hilton for introducing the debate and for the manner in which she did so. My only qualification for speaking is that I was a founder member of the Thames Valley Water Board and indeed chairman of its Land and Works Committee for a number of years. In common with many other water suppliers up and down the country in the 1960s, long before we joined the Common Market, we were supplying good, wholesome, sweet and potable water to our water consumers. Furthermore, I was able to boast that we supplied it at sixpence per ton, which is rather less than is paid by present consumers.

I want to talk about only one item in the report; namely, lead. I shall concentrate on the report about lead in water. I do so because I must warn the House not to be taken for a ride on this issue. I am old enough to have a long memory and I remember the campaign against lead in petrol. I remember it very well indeed. I recall the national campaign against lead in petrol. It seemed that children's intelligence was impaired in urban areas with high traffic density. Now we are beginning to realise that such was not the case and probably teaching methods and a failure to recognise children's abilities rather than lead in petrol were causing the problem.

The Government and Parliament were hooked on that propaganda campaign, which is what it was, and the oil companies spent huge sums of money in extra refining costs to obtain the octane rating that was obtained by adding lead. What was the result? The result was that extra energy was used, with additional depletion of fossil fuel reserves. It threw out into the atmosphere additional CO 2 emissions and perhaps sulphur dioxide

4 Jun 1996 : Column 1185

as well. What is more, which was very dangerous, there was an increase in the benzine content of petrol, which apparently is much more harmful to health than lead and is, so I understand, a carcinogen. So we must be careful of what we do.

At the same time, the latest reports that I have heard say that there has been no improvement in children's intelligence where the surveys were undertaken, although since the first report was made the use of lead in petrol has declined by over 50 per cent. One would have imagined that there would have been some increase in children's intelligence after a reduction of that order, but apparently that has not been the case.

So we must be very careful before we impose a further £10 billion in costs on our water consumers. They are the ones who will pay--not the water companies, which will pass on the costs to their consumers. We should make no mistake about that. In the end, it is the householders who will pay. We should not impose those costs unless we are very confident that there will be large and tangible health benefits and no side effects.

4.46 p.m.

Lord Lucas: My Lords, this has been a most entertaining debate and, apart from a small contribution by my noble friend Lord Pearson of Rannoch, one of the least rancorous to which I have had the pleasure of replying. I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton, and to the other members of the committee, many of whom have spoken today, for the report, which will be read with great care in Brussels and form an important buttress for the Government's negotiating position on the Commission's proposals.

Drinking water quality in the United Kingdom is very high: 99.3 per cent. of the 3.5 million tests conducted in England and Wales in 1994 complied with the relevant standard. There have been clear and significant improvements in quality since privatisation in 1989.

The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, wondered why we drank so much bottled water these days. I believe that it is a reflection of the fact that it tastes better; and, now that we are all so much better off under this Conservative Government, we can afford to pay a little extra for the taste.

Water from taps was and is safe to drink. I am happy to drink it. The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, clearly has benefited greatly from his presence on the committee. I am glad to say that he has asked me a number of questions about the water supply industry since the report has been in preparation. I am delighted that over the past two weeks it has rained so hard that it has discouraged him from asking any more. As the noble Countess, Lady Mar, said, we compare extremely well with Europe. We do not have any reason to be distracted from what we were told in our childhood; namely, that it is safe to drink water in this country. By and large, we should welcome the fact that it is now a great deal safer to drink the water on the Continent than it once was.

4 Jun 1996 : Column 1186

The European Commission's proposals must be seen in the context of our already excellent standards. A test of their acceptability is whether they provide a satisfactory framework within which our quality can be maintained and whether the proposals take proper account of changes in scientific thinking since the 1980 directive.

There is a great deal in the structure of the Commission's proposals that we can welcome, particularly the more workable and flexible framework for dealing with breaches and any necessary remedial work. We also welcome the recognition that it is necessary to ensure a continuing supply of water during the course of a programme of remedial action.

We are pleased that the proposal follows British practice, both in requiring that monitoring to establish quality should be undertaken at the tap and in respect of the reporting requirements. The noble Baroness, Lady Robson, was particularly concerned that monitoring should be undertaken at the tap. That is important. That is where the consumer obtains the water. As she pointed out, it is equally important that the samples should be taken as the tap is turned on and not after it has flushed, which is probably erroneously suggested in paragraph 87 of the committee's report. The Commission is producing further proposals on that and we look forward to whatever it produces. However, we will stick by our position that it is what the consumer is likely to drink that must be tested.

A less satisfactory approach has been adopted to the setting of proposed standards. The Government consider that standards should be set in the light of up-to-date scientific and medical knowledge. We also consider that additional costs which have to be incurred as a result of the directive should be proportional to the benefits. It is clearly important that scientific evidence on which the Commission's proposals are based should be made available. That point was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton, the noble Lord, Lord Lewis of Newnham, and my noble friend Lady Park of Monmouth. It is clearly indefensible that that evidence should not be made available. It becomes impossible to criticise or improve upon the Commission's recommendations if that continues to be the case.

The Commission's proposal does not consistently meet the criteria for being based on scientific evidence. If standards are not set at the appropriate level, priorities are distorted by pre-empting resources. Those resources may better be used either for other aspects of drinking water improvement or on other matters offering greater environmental or health protection benefits.

My noble friend Lord Pearson of Rannoch entertained us for a long time on the question of subsidiarity and legality. I do not propose to follow him down that road except to say that we could have and would have done what the Commission proposed, but perhaps slightly differently. The directive is very much a road down which we wish to go because the quality of water is such a fundamental aspect of the health of people in this country and the prime aspect of health on which we must concentrate to provide a good basis for the health of the nation. However, we share my noble friend's

4 Jun 1996 : Column 1187

concerns about the Commission's cost-benefit analysis of water proposals. That is a point that we regularly press with the Commission. We endorse my noble friend's--albeit limited--welcome for the European Environment Agency which should go a long way towards improving databases, on which several noble Lords have pressed us today.

Turning briefly to the question of pesticides--visited briefly by my noble friend Lord Dixon-Smith, the noble Lord, Lord Walpole, and the noble Countess, Lady Mar--the Commission proposes retaining the current arbitrary standards for pesticides of 0.1 micrograms per litre. We would prefer a standard based on a proper toxicological assessment of the risk to health from a specific pesticide. At the moment 98.8 per cent. of all samples taken in the UK already meet the 0.1 micrograms per litre standard. When looking at whether or not we should treat water to obtain that standard, we must bear in mind, as was drawn to our attention by several noble Lords today, that there are always consequences to the actions we take. The removing of pesticides can result in the water containing bromate, which is a genotoxic carcinogen. It makes no sense to produce such a substance in pursuit of an arbitrary standard for a pesticide which is stricter than the levels which have been assessed as safe.

We share with the noble Countess her ambition that we should take an extremely precautionary approach to the presence of pesticides in water. They are bioactive chemicals which have unknown effects after long-term low level exposure. We should put a lot of effort into making sure that those chemicals do not enter the water course and the water supplies in the first place and that that is not a risk which we run, whatever that risk may be.

In relation to the costs of implementing the Commission's proposals as a whole, it would be expensive for the United Kingdom and the Community. We estimate the capital cost in this country to be of the order of £2.5 billion, with the main compliance costs falling on the water industry principally from the proposed new standard for lead, with that expenditure being spread over 15 years from the adoption of the directive.

The Commission's proposal for lead is for a standard of 25 micrograms per litre to be achieved within five years of the directive being adopted. A more stringent standard of 10 micrograms per litre would have to be achieved within a further 10 years. We view those standards as obtainable. We are not unduly worried about the problem of brass fittings, certainly not in the vast majority of situations. We regard them as reasonable. The WHO may express the limit as the,


    "tolerable weekly intake for infants".
As the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, said, the science on lead is inexact. But we are aware that it is a poison and it is something that we wish to eliminate from our systems. However, it is a poison with which we have lived for a long time and in the case of the noble Lord without any noticeable impairment of his intellectual facilities.

We are looking to improve a reasonable situation into an excellent situation and making that improvement at potentially a great cost--a lot of money which may well

4 Jun 1996 : Column 1188

be spent on other things. One can easily think of things within the health area on which it may be spent. We are looking at spending it on something where the health benefits are at best uncertain. In those circumstances it is important that we maintain a sense of proportion; that we do not rush about saying that we have to spend £10 billion tomorrow; that we look at the most reasonable way in which action can be taken and do it over the most reasonable timescale.

It is unclear how the Commission's standards should be interpreted and whether they are intended as limit values or whether a degree of averaging is acceptable. The form of the standards makes a significant difference to the measures which would have to be taken and their cost. The figure of 10 micrograms per litre comes from the World Health Organisation guideline value for lead which can be interpreted as a weekly average intake of lead. We see no grounds for adopting a more stringent standard than that, as would be the case if the number were interpreted as a limit value. We understand that the European Commission is undertaking research on the way in which the lead standard could be expressed and the associated monitoring protocol. We will need to study its further proposals when they are published.

Action by water suppliers in the UK has already substantially reduced lead levels in our drinking water. Over 80 per cent. of samples already comply with the 10 microgram per litre standard. Where elevated levels of lead have been found, water suppliers install treatment to reduce the ability of the water to dissolve lead. Most of those programmes have been completed and the United Kingdom may already comply with the proposed interim standard, at least if it is interpreted as an average. The UK has a good record of reducing exposure to lead and the measures that we have already taken have ensured that lead levels are now lower than ever before.

We think that consistently achieving the more stringent long-term standards in water supply systems will require lead pipes to be replaced in many, but not all, cases. Water suppliers already have in hand programmes to replace their lead pipes. We see no reason why those programmes cannot be completed within the 15 years proposed by the Commission. As the noble Lord, Lord Elis-Thomas, said, Dwr Cymru has already shown the way in that.

Turning to the question of lead domestic plumbing, the Commission's proposal provides that member states would,


    "have fulfilled their obligations if it can be established that non-compliance ... is due to the domestic distribution system".
We welcome that provision which recognises that responsibility for domestic plumbing is first and foremost for the householder. However, it must be recognised that lead domestic pipes pose a problem which will have to be tackled. We agree with the thrust of a number of the committee's recommendations in that area, but it is particularly important for there to be a proper understanding of the issues and of what householders themselves can and should do. In that connection I commend the House's attention to the Housing Grants, Construction and Regeneration Bill which will, if enacted, amend the present grant regime

4 Jun 1996 : Column 1189

in that area. The new system will enable local authorities to adopt a more strategic approach to private sector housing renewal and assist targeting of grant aid on those with genuine need. Home owners in priority groups such as those receiving an income-related benefit and elderly or disabled people will be eligible to apply for discretionary grant which will be available for lead pipe replacement. I hope that that is good news for my noble friend Lord Bridgeman.

The central issue on lead domestic plumbing is how best to ensure that people are able to establish whether they have lead pipes and to take informed decisions on whether those pipes need to be replaced. I can give some comfort to the noble Lord, Lord Walpole, in that if the lead pipes are in London, the water is so hard that it is unlikely that any noticeable amount of lead will come out of the pipes unless for some reason he is pouring acid into the water tank to enable it to be dissolved.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page