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11.23 am

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield): I congratulate the hon. Member for Faversham (Sir R. Moate) on introducing this debate. It proves that the best way to proceed is to make a speech in the House on a matter that starts with a constituency interest, as that leads one to do a great deal of homework. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on grasping all the essential principles of the balance between waste recycling, incineration and burial. Those of us who have long been interested in this subject believe that a balance is important. We shall always bury and incinerate waste. Intelligent and highly sophisticated incineration that produces energy is much better than the incineration that we have seen over a long period in this country, which simply burns waste and produces toxic emissions.

Those of us who have passionately supported recycling for a long time want the Government to back it in terms of both tax policy and a direct lead from the Department of the Environment to make recycling both possible and probable. That needs firm Government action. Although I congratulate the Government on some aspects of their White Paper, I believe that they have dilly-dallied for too long compared with our European neighbours, who have followed best practice. We need to move fast not only to encourage recycling but to ensure that it is the first option to be considered.

I suggested tongue in cheek that the hon. Member for Faversham should come to see Leeds and West Yorkshire. If all local authorities in Britain were as good as the best, we would be a long way down the line. We must strike the right balance, and recycling must always be the first option. The hon. Gentleman was spot on when referring to energy costs. Once waste is transported long distances, all the benefits of energy conservation are wiped out. It is self-defeating to transport glass, aluminium or other materials for recycling over long distances.

I shall keep my intervention brief. The hon. Member for Faversham is welcome to join the parliamentary group for sustainable waste management to carry on this debate. It is about time that we had a serious debate of the White Paper in the House. As usual when the House debates an important subject that has such a great effect on the lives of our constituents, there is a deplorable lack of press interest. I hope that we shall have a continuing robust debate on this subject.

11.26 am

Dame Peggy Fenner (Medway): I appreciate the opportunity to contribute to a debate initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham (Sir R. Moate)

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because we are subject to the same waste disposal plan. I agree with the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) that the best debates start with a vested interest in a matter concerning one's constituency. Within a few miles of each other in my constituency are two of the four incinerators, so it will not surprise hon. Members to know that my constituents are concerned. They have not gone in for spectacular lobbying but have set up an organisation in the village of Halling to think of alternatives. They did not simply say, "We do not want the incinerator in our back yard." They have called their organisation "Waste-Not-21-- A waste disposal plan for the 21st century".

Although I rise to speak against incineration because we have insufficient assurances about it, I am well aware of the problems of waste disposal in a sophisticated packaging and waste producing country. The United Kingdom shares that problem with all its European colleagues and internationally with enormous countries that produce a great deal of waste, such as the United States.

My constituents all attended that conference on a Sunday afternoon, which is not a great afternoon for inviting people. However, they are working people and they were all available, as I was. My constituents had the benefit of the knowledge of Professor Paul Connett--a professor in chemistry from St. Lawrence university, New York--about the dangers of producing dioxin. He pointed out the dangers of an amount of dioxin the size of a pinhead. He was not trying to frighten my constituents to death, but chemists worry about the carcinogenic properties and genetic effects of dioxin. The people who are considering incinerators today will not be around to defend their actions if we discover problems in later years. Chemists also worry about the effects of dioxin on breathing. The action group wanted to bring the breath of life to Halling, not destroy it.

The meeting also had the benefit of hearing Professor John West, who is responsible for a company called Environmental Reclamation International. As my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham mentioned, that company is currently providing recycling facilities near Reading, in Berkshire. I was interested to hear from the hon. Member for Huddersfield that he has very good recycling facilities in his county. More information about recycling would be helpful to my constituents.

Professor West has instigated recycling approaches in Europe, and the hon. Member for Huddersfield referred to advances in Europe. However, not all the initiatives in Europe have been advances. I recall that Germany got into such a mess with waste disposal that it put an extra levy for waste disposal on every package and every bit of waste. It then paid money to export waste from Germany. That is not the right way to go--to export one's waste elsewhere.

My hon. Friend the Member for Faversham referred to the recycling initiative that Professor West initiated. When Professor West came to that Sunday afternoon meeting and spoke to my constituents about the recycling initiative, it sounded to me to be a very good alternative. It produced no toxic hazard, and the residue was only 10 per cent. Even with incineration, some residue is produced which has to go into landfill.

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My constituents have, for some years, been well aware of the hazards of transporting substances from one area to another. My constituency has the most desirable mineral deposits in north Kent and consequently, for years, we have had lorries carting valuable chalk for cement over our roads, mainly over the infamous A228. The waste for the proposed incinerators would also have to travel over that road. My constituents are worried about shifting the waste by road to the two incinerators. Ironically, it would not even be their waste. The process is centralised, and waste would come from other constituencies and other district council areas.

Kent county council held a public inquiry last autumn. Mr. Hargraves, on behalf of the Halling action group, went to give evidence. Professor Connett also flew in from New York to give evidence on behalf of my constituents about the chemical hazards of incineration. We are awaiting the inspector's report, and my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham asked the Minister to let him know about other reviews with evidence about incineration. I understand that the chief medical officer is carrying out an investigation into the dangers of dioxin. My constituents are awaiting the result of that investigation because it must affect the public inquiry held by Kent into incineration.

We are committed to considering all methods of dealing with waste, and as the 21st century approaches we shall have more and more waste. However, we must be sure that the policy we choose is not one that we shall regret or change our mind about in a few years. We have the time now to study the options before we embark upon a course of action. I have carefully considered the quite tough targets for reduction in the production of waste set by the Department of the Environment. As the chairman of the all-party group on the retail industry, I also know that that industry has quite a burden to reduce waste considerably. That is the first thing we have to do.

I expect that housewives--and there are not many of us in the Chamber--will be buying their washing powder and liquid in biodegradable refills, so that there are not so many plastic bottles to get rid of. When plastic is burnt in incinerators, it becomes lethal. If plastic is not burnt and instead is dealt with in other ways, it does not produce such disastrous pollution.

My hon. Friend the Member for Faversham referred to how much energy could be produced by incinerators. That is a powerful argument. If one could get rid of waste by recycling it into energy, that would be good, provided that the chemical reactions were acceptable. The figure quoted was 18 MW of electricity. However, we have not been told how much energy would be used to produce that 18 MW. Surely we need to know that, if the arguments about the possibilities of creating energy are to be believed.

Even if we can find a safe way in which to incinerate which produces enough energy to make it worth while and valuable, it still produces exceedingly toxic ash, which has to go into landfill. The United States has reduced the landfill requirement by 50 per cent. by recycling alone. The proposed incinerators would reduce the landfill requirement by 60 per cent., but by what we regard as a rather doubtful method.

I wrote to Kent county council because I was extremely worried about the proposals for two incinerators in close proximity along the river at Halling and at Kingsnorth.

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The council assured me that no planning application would be considered until the inspector had made his report after the inquiry, at which time the issue of whether there should be any incinerators would be decided. The report on the safety of incineration was not yet available so I was quite reassured that no action would be taken until it was available, and the chief medical officer had reported on the dangers of dioxin.

I was concerned to learn this week from the Kent director of transportation and highways that he has advised his staff that they should start to prepare contracts. It seems that the director is accepting the principle of the incinerators before the matter has been decided and before the valuable reports are in the hands of my constituents. When they have received the reports, they will know that, if incineration is the option decided on, every effort has been made to ensure the safety of the system.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will tell me that there will be no decisions about contracts or even any move towards contracts until the two reports are in place and we know for sure what is happening. I also hope that my hon. Friend will ask his Department to look at Professor West's interesting initiatives on recycling.

We have had much waste disposal in north Kent over many years. As soon as mineral holes have been dug, they have been filled with waste, with the consequence of heavy traffic for my constituency. My constituents are incensed. They are prepared to make arrangements for their own waste, but they do not see why north Kent should be the repository for waste from around the county. Not least among their arguments is that to cart waste from other areas into the Medway towns adds to the cost of waste disposal. It also places a heavy burden on an already over-burdened transport system.

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