Examination of Witness (Questions 1-19)|
WEDNESDAY 15 OCTOBER 2003
1. Minister, thank you very much for joining
us. You know that we have been holding under scrutiny the proposed
revision of the Bathing Water Directive. We had the benefit of
Michael Meacher's evidence a year or so ago when he was the Minister
responsible. Thank you very much for agreeing to bring us up to
date. We hope that as a result of this evidence session we will
be able to clear this document from scrutiny but we would value
enormously first of all hearing from you just how far we have
got with the negotiations in Council and to what extent the concerns
expressed in your Department's Explanatory Memorandum of 25 November
have been addressed, including those arising from the partial
Regulatory Impact Assessment.
(Mr Morley) Certainly, Chairman. I am
very happy to do that for you. Where we are at the present time
is that the Directive has been through the European Parliament's
Environment Committee and in the process of the deliberations
one of the issues which were of concern to us was the issue of
the peaks when you get run-off in relation to rain and how that
can be stored for readings. The need to have some flexibility
in the way that you approach this was addressed by the Environment
Committee in the way that we wanted, so that was quite encouraging.
It goes to the Plenary Session this month in the European Parliament.
It may well be that there will be some disagreements in the Plenary
Session which will put the European Parliament at odds with the
Council and we will have to see what comes out of that. I think
it is for that reason that it was hoped to be on the agenda of
the October Environment Council, but that is not going to be the
case now. The Italian Presidency would like to have it on the
agenda for the December Environment Council but that very much
depends on how much disagreement there is in relation to he views
of the European Parliament and the views of the Council. One of
the areas of disagreement is the issue of recreational waters,
for example, which is currently not included within the Directive.
Some people would want the standards applying to recreational
waters. That might be one which is a difficult one.
2. Can you give us some indication as to where
you are coming from on the recreational water issue?
A. We believe that the Directive should apply
to bathing waters only. It would be very difficult to administer
in relation to recreational waters and we believe that there may
be other ways of ensuring standards in relation to recreational
waters without all the problems of the Directive.
Lord Lewis of Newnham
3. If you look at the definition that is given
in Article 3 it states that bathing water refers to waters in
which bathing is not prohibited and is "traditionally practised
by a large number of bathers". What does it mean by "a
large number"? When we looked at this in 1994 we found that
there were no internal waters whatsoever in this country which
were classified as bathing waters, whereas in Luxembourg I think
they had 48. I am talking about data for 1994 so that is probably
quite out of date.
A. Luxembourg is a bit short on coastline, that
is for sure. We do have a number of internal bathing waters which
are classified, not a very large number but they are ones which
are popular with swimmers and, quite understandably so, we want
to apply the standards in the Directive. You do touch upon an
issue which, to be frank, has not been fully resolved about the
definition of "bathing waters" which is very vague in
the Directive in terms of "a large number of bathers".
It is not helpful, shall we say. We have approached this on the
basis of bathing waters which are generally popular within our
own country. We have also consulted with bodies like the British
Canoe Union and Surfers Against Sewage, particularly in areas
which they regard as popular as well. We have tried to take a
pragmatic approach in terms of our own designation, and of course
we do want all our coastline to be high standard, so we are aiming
to try to get to the best standards that we can irrespective of
this particular Directive in relation to water quality. We have
made very good progress in this, Chairman. In terms of the current
Directive, we are round about 98 per cent compliant which is pretty
good. We have come a long way since the Directive was originally
introduced. Of course, this new Directive does bring in new standards
that we are having to meet but we want it to be in a reasonable
way. Our main concern, which we believe is shared by other countries,
is that it can be disproportionate if you have to meet the standard
at all times when you may have quite limited periods of heavy
rainfall that can alter the readings, particularly because of
animal manure, for example, mainly diffuse pollution from agriculture.
That might last only for a short time and we think that we can
deal with that by notices to give people information because we
do not want to hide this. However, to guarantee that you can meet
the standard all the time in all weather conditions could cost
very large sums of money without a great gain. That is the issue
of concern for us.
4. One of my problems there simply is that the
testing procedures you have very often are not instantaneous,
so if you have had heavy rain you could not say immediately that
the water would be polluted. You would have to take the sample
away and do the tests. Those tests could take, if I understand
it correctly, certainly of the order of hours, if not days.
A. It is true that there is a time involved
in relation to the tests which are applied. However, we know from
experience that when you get certain weather conditions, because
of sampling taken at that time you know what your samples are
going to be and you know that when you may have a high number
of coliforms because of the particular weather conditions. It
will be sampled then but, because of the knowledge and experience
that the Environment Agency and local authorities who do this
have, you can predict quite reasonably that there may be a problem.
As soon as we get the actual readings what we would like to do
is make them available for the public.
5. Perhaps the Minister could give us a little
more detail on this "recreational" as opposed to bathing
point. I spent a large part of the early part of my life sailing
and rowing on the Thames and sometimes fell in. That is bad luck;
that is clearly not a bathing water. When I was Chairman of the
National Rivers Authority we always had particular difficulty
with international canoeing events because canoeists do spend
a very large part of their time under or in the water. I can see
a case for saying that they should be defined as bathing because
they are probably ingesting more water than a normal bather would.
Do we have a distinction between water sport location, where you
would expect someone like a canoeist to be under the water quite
a lot of the time, and somewhere where you would not normally
expect to be, like falling out of your sailing boat into the Thames?
A. I understand the point you make. It is a
difficult one in the sense that at the moment the Directive only
applies to bathing water and not to recreational water. We have,
of course, consulted bodies like the British Canoe Union who understand
this and in fact they have not asked for the Directive to be extended
to recreational waters. Canoes in particular use a wide range
of water courses, canals and rivers which vary in quality, but
it means that there is a large opportunity for people to pursue
their sport or activity. Of course, if you were very rigid in
relation to the standards you might be ruling out some waters
for that, so it is a question of getting that balance right. There
are some internal waters which are very popular for water sports
and I think that that is a consideration that we must take into
account in relation to the kinds of quality standards that there
are in those areas. We can address those in terms of our own commitments
without the rigidity of the Directive applying.
Lord Renton of Mount Harry
6. You used the word "pragmatic" when
describing your approach. I wondered whether the Government considered
that tightening of the minimum water quality requirements for
this proposed "good" standard was justified by current
assessments of the health risks that are associated with public
A. That is a very good question as well because
if you wanted to be very analytical it might be hard to justify
it on our current scientific knowledge of the health risks, because
the view is that the health risk in our bathing waters is very
low. There has been some research done. Ironically, we have done
more research into this than any other country in terms of the
health risks of bathing waters and what effect they can have on
people. The World Health Organisation have taken some of our research
and they have presented this to make the argument for higher standards
in relation to bathing water. However, we have concerns that the
research was based on a very small sample; it was only four beaches.
If you really wanted to be accurate about it in terms of the strict
scientific justification it is not strong, shall we say. However,
having said that, we do want good standards and there is the precautionary
principle. We believe that as long as we have the flexibility
in relation to the short-term peaks, which is a potential problem,
then we can apply this Directive and make it work.
7. The European Parliament is looking at all
this. I have two questions: (a) what do you think is likely to
be the outcome of their consideration? And (b) some UK members
of the Environment Committee have expressed concerns. Does the
Government share those concerns?
A. We have contacted the UK members of the Environment
Committee. As far as I am aware we are in agreement in relation
to the Government position and that of our UK MEPs. In terms of
the outcome, I think it is likely that the European Parliament
will press this further than the Council would like to go. It
is probably likely that they will press it further than we would
find easy to support because of the problems and the extra costs
for small benefits and taking away the flexibility I mentioned
in relation to the short-term risks.
8. Where is that pressure coming from?
A. It is understandable, I guess, that if you
have MEPs from different countries, and of course you have various
pressure groups who are arguing for the very best standards of
quality (and we all want the very best standards of quality),
it is easy to vote for it when you are not the one who has to
9. Would it be fair to say in that respect that
this is not going to be a political decision in the way that it
normally is in the hemicycle of the European Parliament but, as
is so often the case on an issue like this, it becomes a north-south
view and you will find that the northern states will come down
with a bigger green lobby in favour of stiffening the Directive,
whereas the southern Member States might well be more liberal
in that respect?
A. Actually, it seems to be the other way round.
10. I am surprised.
A. The northern states are united in the need
to have some flexibility in how it is applied because we all face
the same problems. We all have periods of heavy rainfall. We all
have issues of diffuse pollution. Most of us have tackled the
point source pollution. We have certainly made very good progress
with this within our own country, so the kinds of issues of concern
to us in the UK are very much of concern to northern European
states. The southern European states have not been quite so vociferous
on this. I am not saying that they have not got the same problems.
11. They have a bigger problem in the Mediterranean.
A. I would have thought so, as a matter of fact.
Lord Lewis of Newnham
12. But there is a difference and that simply
is that you have got decent water that you can see through and
it is not sand being circulated all the time as, say, in the North
Sea waters. You also have got good UV light to destroy bacteria.
A. The UV light certainly makes a big difference
because coliforms will not last long in hot Mediterranean countries
where you have got the very strong UV light. They die very quickly;
that is very true.
13. Can I get on to the whole question of economic
appraisal and costs? I start with an anxiety. I happened to be
the person ultimately responsible for enforcement of the Regulations
during the great peak of previous effort under the National Rivers
Authority. We had massive investment, as you know, because we
moved from having only long sea outfalls to having even longer
ones combined with full treatment. This created massive problems
because the costs were enormous; the costs for water were politically
extremely sensitive and the economic regulator took a rather different
view from the environmental regulator. We had our battles which
eventually had to be resolved. It was a very sensitive subject.
At the moment on the cost side we frankly do not seem to know.
There is an estimate given for the water companies. I suspect
that it is probably on the low side and that there is the possibility
that it will move higher. Very substantial costs are being considered
and talked about but are not known and are highly dubious in relation
to diffuse run-off. The benefits, as you say, may all be practical
and make sense if you can be really flexible. I had more cattle
and milk producers in my constituency than almost any other constituency
in the British Isles; I also had probably rather more bathing
beaches than almost any other constituency and the idea that they
were all being polluted significantly by the cows I think is absurd.
I suppose there were moments in heavy rain but if you have got
your flexibility that is very helpful. The truth is that we do
not have a real appraisal at the moment of what is going to be
involved and what it is going to cost. All I recall from my time
in those seven years is that this was absolute dynamite stuff
politically, highly sensitive and caused great financial difficulties.
If the agricultural industry were to be landed with the substantial
costs now that really would be very serious indeed. We really
need to know. There is one other concern on which we do not know
the answer. The Environment Agency point out that it is going
to add very considerably to their costs, the new monitoring and
so on. In another context this Committee, meeting this morning,
was expressing concern about the funding for new commitments for
the Environment Agency. Once again we need to know, I think, before
we get to rubber stamp what we are letting ourselves in for. Do
we really have any idea?
A. We have an idea and you will have seen the
figures in the Regulatory Impact Assessment. It is fair to say
that they are really a very broad assessment. I would not wish
to pretend otherwise. The more work we do on this the better,
and we do have a research programme at the present time in Scotland
looking at diffuse pollution and the impact on bathing water and
that will be very helpful in terms of giving us a better idea
of what the cost implications will be. We are funding research
and developments to try and give us a more accurate prediction.
I suspect that the impact on the water and sewage companies, although
it will not be zero, because of the work that has gone in over
the years will probably be relatively limited, but again one cannot
say absolutely and I would not say either that there are no cost
implications. It is probably more of an implication in relation
to diffuse pollution. It is difficult to get some idea of the
cost implications on this. One of the issues is of course the
storage of manures, good agricultural practice, making sure that
applies, and we also have implications on the Water Framework
Directive, so what we do on controlling diffuse pollution will
also help us meet that Directive.
The Committee suspended from 4.01pm to
4.08pm for a division in the House
14. I have one final question on economic appraisal.
The response previously was that until we knew what was going
to come out of Europe there was no point in trying to do a more
detailed and final regulatory impact assessment. For all the uncertainties
it does seem to me rather important that we get as much information
as we can, so that we are not wasting money on the wrong priorities,
and that we have some idea of what the eventual outcomes might
be. Is it the intention of the Government to have as full and
adequate an assessment as it can get before we go to the final
A. Yes, it is. We are trying to improve our
assessments and our predictions. For example, we have done some
work on what it would mean if we did not get the flexibility in
relation to the monitoring. That would certainly add up to two
billion pounds in relation to the costs, so we have an idea of
what we are talking about, what we are trying to get, that kind
of flexibility, because we do not believe they will get two billion
pounds' worth of benefits for that kind of money.
Lord Lewis of Newnham
15. Minister, can I first of all say that I
was involved in the discussion of the 1976 Directive when proposals
for revision came up in 1994. As you know, the 1994 proposals
did not go through, so I am rather concerned that at least something
goes through now because no matter what we say1976
was a long time ago and practice, as you have rightly said, has
changed enormously. May I say that I also think that the reduction
of test measurements from 19 parameters down to four is very realistic.
Before that some of the measures we were taking were quite extreme
and unnecessary. One of the things we did concentrate on, however,
was the sampling situation. If you look at the Commission's annex
5, which lays down the sampling procedure, I would agree with
the present suggestion of a uniformity in handling of the samples
because, as you were saying earlier, UV light and things like
that can make such a difference. The method of analysis is now
going to become uniform, if I understand it correctly, which I
think is a very essential point, particularly on the biological
side of the analysis. I think also one has to accept the fact
that at the end of the day the analysis is no more than a snapshot
view of that particular situation. One of the things that worries
me slightly is the method of taking the sample. This is one of
the points that we did discuss in our 1994 report and it seems
to have been completely been excluded from the particular discussion
here. It became very clear that different results occur if you
take a sample at, say, the surface and then a foot down. In the
earlier report the suggestion was that you waded out to waist
depth and took a sample 12 inches below the surface. In fact,
the adviser we had, Professor David Kay from Leeds, had done work
to show that for the gradient on going down into the water there
was a large variation in the amounts of material particularly
of biological sensitivity that was obtained. The depth factor
is very important. It does beg the other question that if at different
depths there are very significant differences in the amount of
biological materials, how do we go about deciding what is the
correct value and on what basis do we make a decision as to when
something is or is not dangerous and exceeds the limits?
A. I think the most important thing is that
there is a protocol in relation to the testing criteria which
applies to all countries. Like you, I think that is a great step
forward because we all need to be doing the same kind of sampling
in the same sort of way. There is an ISO standard for testing.
I do not think all the details have been resolved in relation
to the criteria for the test apart from when it is resolved it
will apply to all. If there is an ISO standard that would seem
to me to be a very good basis on the standardised approach and
that might be one which the Commission might like to think about.
16. I am a chemist by trade and the one thing
I did discover very early on is that if you do not correctly sample
the material it does not matter how sophisticated your subsequent
analysis is, it is meaningless, and so the critical point in all
this is that initial sample; it is important that you get that
right. This is not even addressed in this particular proposal.
A. It has not been addressed yet but it is the
intention, I understand, for the Commission to give that guidance.
I agree with the points you make; you are absolutely right.
17. Perhaps I can move on to other areas of
concern which are still on the agenda, as you have already indicated.
You will recollect that we asked the Environment Agency for a
memorandum and they listed in the summary certain aspects which
they welcomed and remaining areas of concern. These were the current
proposals for laboratory protocols, quality standards associated
with these protocols, the statistical basis for assessing compliance,
and they were worried about the lack of consideration of sustainable
development. I do not know if there is anything further you would
wish to add on any of those aspects or indeed any other areas
of concern you would like to flag up.
A. No. I have seen the Environment Agency's
submission and I think that they make very reasonable points.
I am not sure about the one about sustainable development in relation
to the increase in energy consumption by the water industry because
they are focusing on the sewage companies and, given the investment
that has gone in, and as I was saying earlier on, I think there
is probably likely to be more emphasis on diffuse pollution. Generally
speaking, I think their areas of concern are definitely reasonable
and these are the kinds of things that we want to see addressed
in the detail of the Directive when it is finally agreed.
Lord Lewis of Newnham
18. When we talk about diffuse pollution we
have got two problems. One is the nitrate contamination of land
and one is the possibility of some form of biological pollution
associated with sewage or slurry from animal waste. What methods
are you using or are people contemplating using to restrict this?
It seems to me that that would be extremely sensitive to things
like the topology and the geology of the area and things of this
A. You are absolutely right. Let us take the
issue of nitrates. There are nitrates, there are phosphates, and
there is an element of pesticides as well, and there is faecal
matter, bacteriological matter, as well. We are addressing the
nitrates by the nitrate vulnerable zones. Within the nitrate vulnerable
zones there are regulations that farmers must follow. They are
based on codes of good agricultural practice. There are standards
in relation to slurry storage in particular, which also deals
with some of the problems of faecal contamination and issues of
farm drainage and the designs and how it is applied. In some cases
within the nitrate vulnerable zones there is a possibility of
grants for some of this design as well. There is guidance being
given to farmers in relation to dealing with these particular
issues. We also have a research programme looking at ways of minimising
some of the diffusion problems in relation to stocking densities,
grazing on slopes, issues like that, although it is quite hard
to make a big difference because you really have to de-stock to
a very large extent to make a big impact and it is probably unrealistic
at that level of de-stocking. It is probably a combination of
good practice, good water management and drainage and good storage
in relation to slurry.
19. Is there a very quick distinction you can
make between recreational and bathing waters, particularly in
view of what Lord Crickhowell says about canoeists probably drinking
far more water than bathers?
A. The bathing water definition, as we discussed
earlier on, is simply an area of water used by a large number