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12.7 pm

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West): I am grateful to the hon. Member for Faversham (Sir R. Moate) for raising this subject. It is not particularly romantic, as we know, but it is crucial. The debate also gives me an opportunity for a five-minute rant on a subject I feel strongly about--the fact that our country, and especially my borough of Newham, is litter strewn.

Litter is a big problem in Newham. I seem to represent some of the dirtiest constituents in the country. [Laughter.] What is more, I say so regularly in the local newspapers. That was the gist of my new year greetings to the good folk of Newham--that they were a pretty filthy bunch who should clean up their act.

People in my area, Forest Gate, ask me what the council is doing about the mess. I have to keep pointing out that the council officers do not creep around at midnight dumping litter on the streets. It is the people who live in the area who are responsible for the mess. The council has done its best by putting as many bins as possible around the area. Miraculously, the bins seem to move up and down the street, always managing to avoid the places where the litter is dropped.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-East (Mr. Timms); when he was leader of the council, he was keen to introduce the extra bins. His predecessor, Ron Leighton, used to go out with teams of people picking up litter, trying to set an example to the people in the area.

I do not know why people are so filthy--it is difficult to understand. Perhaps they lack a sense of community. Perhaps their homes are as filthy as the streets. I do not know--I suspect that they probably are not--but a feeling exists that, somehow, public property is second class and unimportant and one can litter the streets because it is not important and someone else will clear up the mess. It is an irresponsible attitude but, in many ways, it is based on the Government's philosophy that private property is sacrosanct and must always be highly regarded, protected and enhanced; public property is second hand and second rate and people do not have to have the same regard for it. That philosophy spreads its way through society. That is my theory, for what it is worth.

Many hon. Members have said that recycling is the key. Of course recycling will play an important role in waste disposal, but it is difficult to recycle if people simply dump their litter in the streets. I have a number of straightforward, on the street proposals. First, we need far more education in schools about litter and waste. In many cases, kids are responsible.

Mr. Piers Merchant (Beckenham): Although I do not wish to comment on whether the hon. Gentleman's constituents are dirty, I agree with the point that he has just made. Does he agree that educating people about waste minimisation and the advantages of home composting, which could deal with one third of all household waste, is an excellent way of moving forward but has not been mentioned so far?

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Mr. Banks: I agree. Education is the key. Many of my constituents might be dirty in that they drop litter, but they are also politically astute. I must say that in case it is thought that I am being unusually critical of my constituents.

All confectionery and fast-food shops, and those that sell wrapped items, should be required to have litter bins outside their premises. Shopkeepers should be required to clear the immediate vicinity of their premises. Many good shopkeepers do precisely that.

We have heard a lot about the peace dividend, which we welcome, in Northern Ireland. I should like to have a peace dividend in terms of the return of litter bins in London Underground stations and in mainline terminuses in London, which would be helpful as well.

We should require manufacturers of all products that eventually become waste, including motor vehicles and tyres, which have been mentioned, to take them back for recycling. That is done in Germany and a number of other countries. The Government should seriously consider that.

My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has just come back from Singapore. No doubt he saw that the streets were very clean. Singapore has a good way of dealing with the problem. I think that people's hands are chopped off or people are birched if they drop litter in the streets. I am not so extreme, but we should be far stricter with people who litter our streets.

One of the good things that Singapore has done is ban chewing gum. I am a great chewer of chewing gum, but I do not spit it on to the streets or on to underground train seats, which many people seem to do. A large number of poor old pigeons can be seen limping around because their claws have got caught up in a ball of stinking chewing gum. Perhaps we should make Wrigleys responsible for cleaning the streets and underground train seats.

I had so many more good ideas to put to the House but, unfortunately, time has run out and I must resume my seat so that Front-Bench Members can speak.

12.12 pm

Ms Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford): I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) not only for ending his speech there but for cheering us all up for this debate's final round. I congratulate the hon. Member for Faversham (Sir R. Moate) on securing the debate, and I especially pay tribute to my hon. Friends because they have given the House the benefit of examples of good practice by Labour authorities in this sector.

I have a special interest in waste disposal because, as a newly elected Member of Parliament, illegal fly tipping was the first community problem that was brought to me. The residential community had been terrorised by criminals who, over a period of years, dumped thousands of tonnes of rubble in their midst. Two years later, my private Member's legislation was placed on the statute book, creating a registration scheme for waste carriers and heavy penalties for tippers.

People who live near the generation or disposal of waste have long known its environmental costs, but until recently, the public at large appeared oblivious to the enormous cost, in terms of pollution, raw materials depletion and human illhealth, of our consumerist, throwaway society.

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For 10 years, the Government observed the problem of massive growth in waste of all sorts: inadequate landfills, illegal dumping, cowboy operators, poor monitoring and the development of dangerous incinerators, and that was just on land. The scope of today's debate is necessarily limited, but we should remember the massive dumping of radioactive waste, munitions and sewage sludge in our coastal waters and the wider seas, and the continuing pollution of our rivers from current industrial sources and abandoned mines.

In essence, the subject of today's debate is the Government's waste strategy, published as a White Paper just one month ago. It is long overdue. No Government can be pledged to a strategy of sustainable development, as this one say they are, and not produce a national waste strategy, yet on waste, as on so many other crucial topics, the Government have struggled to reconcile the need to regulate and to enforce with the dogma of deregulation and privatisation.

Even now, 15 years on, we have only a White Paper. Laudable though its proposals are, they apply only to England and Wales and no statutory force is promised for the strategy before 1997 "at the earliest". I can therefore say with some confidence that the responsibility for implementing a national waste strategy for the United Kingdom will fall to a Labour Government.

Labour has long accepted that the creation of a national sustainable strategy for waste is an integral part of an overall strategy for sustainable development. The Government seem to accept that in their White Paper, yet they have no energy policy and no strategy for sustainable transport. I have no doubt that, if, as is deemed will happen, the Environment Agency is given the resources and, more important, the political space in which to propose a national waste strategy to Government, it will create a sea change in waste management.

Labour has long accepted the notion of the waste hierarchy and was among the people criticising earlier Government proposals that failed to put waste reduction at the top of that hierarchy. Even now, its inclusion, which we welcome, is inadequately dealt with in the White Paper. Ministers claim lack of accurate data, yet only one year ago they proposed stabilising household waste generation at 1995 levels, with progressive reductions as soon as possible. Why has that proposal been abandoned?

There cannot be any individual household, business or institution in the land that could not reduce its waste production with a little thought and effort. The Government's promise to introduce a strategy by the end of 1998 is frankly pathetic. Although that may be a realistic target for the collection of national data, much more positive action on reduction should be sought in the meantime.

Controversy also surrounds other parts of the hierarchy. Re-use follows reduction, with which we wholeheartedly agree, but again the Government say little. Industry, however, can offer some good examples and other nations have done much to use market mechanisms such as deposit refund schemes to encourage re-use.

In our view, and that of most environmentalists, the next stage in the hierarchy should be recycling and composting. The Government have chosen, however, to include both under the heading "recovery" and to give energy from waste equal status to them. That brings me to the heart of today's debate.

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Is there any potential conflict between recycling and incineration? I think that we would all agree that the hon. Member for Faversham argued a persuasive case in favour of recycling. Nationally, because recycling, composting and incineration account for such a small percentage of actual waste treatment, the scope to develop all three is vast, but at local level, conflicts can occur.

The South East London Combined Heat and Power plant in my constituency, which has been mentioned and which, I hasten to add, is a state-of-the-art incinerator that is carefully and properly monitored, faces such a potential conflict. Its financial viability obviously depends on securing waste contracts of sufficient magnitude to run the plant efficiently. If its existing local authority contractors were to seek dramatically to increase the percentage of waste they recycled, which the Government propose they should do, clearly, they might want to plan for smaller future contracts with the incinerator company. I raise this only by way of illustration because I am aware of the need properly to evaluate recycling processes which themselves consume energy and can have environmental consequences and because I am also aware of the value of energy recovery through the burning of waste. It is our belief that environmental considerations should be paramount in the decision-making process.

It is clear that, to reduce pollution and transport costs, much recycling and recovery need to occur close to the point of waste generation. That means close co-operation between business, industry and local authorities. As the Government appear to have accepted that, will the Minister tell us what will be the regional basis for decision making of that kind?

Let me return to the waste hierarchy. After reduction, re-use, recycling and recovery comes disposal. As we have heard in the debate, that is a point of great controversy. There is not just the issue of incinerators; no one wants to live next to a landfill. I remind the hon. Member for Medway (Dame P. Fenner) of the factory farm site at Borstal, an appalling landfill which has caused great distress to her constituents.

Because hundreds of millions of tonnes of controlled waste are generated per annum, we know that there will be a need for incineration and landfill to continue in the short and medium term. Our guiding principle should be to minimise the dangers to the environment and to health from such facilities. That means proceeding apace with the closure of all incinerators that do not meet the highest modern standards, ensuring public access to data for all waste disposal facilities and minimising the need for new facilities by a comprehensive strategy with targets for the entire waste hierarchy. That is where the Government signally fail. Setting and achieving targets on the top two rungs of the hierarchy is essential to making progress in ultimate disposal. Instead, the Government simply appear to be relying on one blunt market mechanism--the landfill tax. Shifting a proportion of disposal from landfill to incineration may be desirable, but only if overall waste is reduced.

The Government's targets are modest in the extreme-- a mere 10 per cent. in the proportion of controlled waste going to landfill over a 10-year period. Even the mechanisms are not clear. Local authorities are expected to play a significant role, not least because 90 per cent. of

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household waste goes to landfill. The White Paper proposes a target of 40 per cent. recovery of value from municipal waste over the next 10 years and a target of 25 per cent. recycling of household waste within five years.

Will the Minister tell us how the landfill tax will impact on local authorities and will he give a clear indication of the financial implications for local authorities of the White Paper targets? Can he explain the reference to supplementary credit approvals in the context of waste collection that is subject to recovery rather than disposal? That is in the White Paper, but my reading of the recent public expenditure settlement is that such supplementary approvals to encourage recycling projects will be cut by two thirds within two years. Will the Minister confirm that? If that is so, can he explain how the Government intend the proposals to work or is that perhaps the secret of their strategy--a laudable White Paper, a load of good intentions but no political will to implement them?

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